Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Big House (1930)

4 Nominations, 2 Wins

Win: Best Sound, Recording - Douglas Shearer
Win: Best Writing, Achievement - Frances Marion
Nomination: Best Picture
Nomination: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Wallace Beery

The Big House has been sitting on my DVR since I recorded it on February 3rd during Turner Classic Movies's "31 Days of Oscar," and the description sounded so boring and generic that I repeatedly passed it over in favor of other recordings. It sounded like every other prison film ever made, and I could never muster up the energy to watch it. But when I only had an hour and a half to watch a movie last night (The Big House clocks in at 87 minutes), I reluctantly gave it a chance.

Starring Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, and Robert Montgomery, the film is the story of a man (Montgomery) sent to jail for vehicular manslaughter as a result of drunken driving who must acclimate to prison life. Beery plays Butch, the hardened criminal who is the alpha dog of the prison, and he gives an explosive performance. Beery had been unceremoniously dumped from Hollywood after the transition to sound, and The Big House marked his comeback; he would soon be one of Hollywood's biggest stars. He is terrifying as Butch, a hulking presence that perfectly contrasts with Montgomery's fearful meekness. He doesn't have the typical look of a leading man, but his presence puts him in a class by himself.

The screenplay gets a bit schmaltzy at times, and there is the obligatory tacked-on love story. Despite this, The Big House defined much of what would become the prison genre, and certain tropes created in the film can be seen in films that were released decades later. The film is wildly ahead of its time, and displays almost none of the limitations that early sound filmmakers had to live with. The film's climactic prison break sequence is tense and exciting, a doubtless was the reason The Big House won the first Academy Award for sound.

Though much of The Big House feels inconsequential and at times little more than a pro-Prohibition advertisement, it is an exciting film with crackling dialogue, strong set design, and an outstanding performance by Wallace Beery.

Remaining: 3158 films, 878 Oscars, 5437 nominations

Monday, March 28, 2011

Paris 36 (2008)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Song - "Loin de Paname" by Reinhardt Wagner and Frank Thomas

It was entirely coincidental that I watched 42nd Street only a few days before watching Paris 36, but it was fortuitous timing, as 42nd Street is the ancestor of Paris 36 (and hundreds of other films). Directed by the French director Christophe Barratier, the film depicts the backstage goings-on of the Chansonia, an old Parisian music hall. The film is set to the backdrop of political unrest in the years preceding World War II, but this all matters little, as the real focus is on what is happening inside the Chansonia, not outside.

Paris 36 succeeds in spite of a thin plot, mostly due to the performances. Gerard Jugnot, one of the most recognizable faces in modern French cinema, carries the film. Jugnot has the kind of face that artists live for the opportunity to paint, full of expressiveness and mischievousness. Nora Arnezeder gives what very well might be (and should be) were breakout role as the young starlet who saves the show. Arnezeder has the look and talent to be France's next international star.

The film's music is wonderful, a requirement for any successful backstage musical. The songs, including the Academy Award nominated "Loin de Paname" are sweetly evocative of 1930's Paris, and the film even includes a brief tribute to Busby Berkeley with a geometric overhead dance shot. "Loin de Paname" lost to "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart, two completely different types of songs (though my vote would have gone to "The Weary Kind").

None of the plotlines add up to much, much like 42nd Street, the but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The film is a fun little piece with great music and charismatic performances, and is a worthy contribution to the genre of the backstage musical.

Remaining: 3159 films, 880 Oscars, 5441 nominations

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lonelyhearts (1958)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Supporting Actress- Maureen Stapleton

Hollywood has a long and ignominious history of taking wonderful books and adapting them into unimpressive films. What I have found to be the most frequent cause of this is that the filmmakers will adapt a general plot of the film, but then leave out the book's themes, details, and characterization, all of which are essential to the novel's success. Sometimes this is due to studio meddling, and other times due to a lack of understanding by the filmmakers, but the result is always the same: the film is a shell of what the book was. Though filmmakers should be free to make the work a unique artistic statement and not a mere transcription of a book, it is more often than not to the film's detriment when these components are not brought to the screen along with the plot.

Lonelyhearts is an adaptation of Nathanael West's 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts and the subsequent play by Howard Teichmann, directed by the great Broadway director Vincent J. Donehue and adapted for the screen by Dore Schary. The film stars Montgomery Clift as a journalist looking for a job for a newspaper who is assigned the advice column "Miss Lonelyhearts." Only a few moments into the film, what is immediately evident is that the film is a brooding noir film, as opposed to the satirical dark comedy of the novel. This tone does not suit the film well; the filmmakers strip all of the moral complexity from the narrative and present it as a much simpler story. Simplification is necessary when adapting a novel into a two hour film, but when the plot is stripped of all of its complexities, the character's actions make little sense and the whole film comes across as trite.

Maureen Stapleton received the film's sole nomination for Best Supporting Actress for playing Fay Doyle, one of the readers of "Miss Lonelyhearts" who the columnist meets. Her role is brief, but she packs more depth into her few moments than is present anywhere else in the film. She is equal parts attractive and repulsive, and is the only member of the cast or crew who brings any nuance to the film. Her nomination was well deserved, though her role was quite brief and thus it is easy to see why she was not given the trophy.

Perhaps Lonelyhearts suffered due to the studio's unwillingness to portray the many dark themes present in the novel; if this is the case, the film should not have been made in the first place. Instead, we are presented with a watered down, unimportant little film that is noteworthy only for being an adaptation of a brilliant novel and a nice turn by Maureen Stapleton.

Remaining: 3160 films, 880 Oscars, 5442 nominations

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

42nd Street (1933)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Five days before 42nd Street premiered in New York, Franklin Roosevelt was first sworn in as president. The next day, Roosevelt closed all United States banks and froze all financial transactions, a bank holiday that would last for eight days. The day of the film's premiere, March 9th, 1933, Congress began its first 100 days of enacting the New Deal. This was the world that audiences were living in when 42nd Street was released. Viewed through a modern context, the film seems short on plot and character and unremarkable for all but the final 20 minutes. When viewed through the lens of early 1932, it is easy to see why 42nd Street was such a beloved film.

42nd Street is the granddaddy of backstage musicals. A Broadway company works to put on Pretty Lady, a musical. Just before the opening light, the company's female lead (Bebe Daniels) sprains our ankle, and the film's young heroine (Ruby Keeler in her breakout role) must fill in to replace her. A few subplots weave through the film, but this is the crux of the story. One of the difficulties of evaluating older films is that what has often become formulaic was once brand new, and this is the case with 42nd Street. The conventions of the backstage musical - the wide-eyed newcomer, the cynical older performers, the tyrannical director - all were brand new when 42nd Street debuted. What seems conventional now was in no way conventional then; viewing the film with this in mind, it is impossible not to appreciate 42nd Street.

The film was released only six years after the first true musical, The Jazz Singer, and it is almost unbelievable how much the filmmakers (directors Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley) were able to do so soon after the advent of the genre. Much has been made of Busby Berkeley's bird's eye choreography, and this choreography is on stunning, albeit brief, display here. Berkeley was a true cinematic pioneer, and the beautiful geometric shapes he creates out of his dancers (it's not a surprising realization that he was nearly the same age as M.C. Escher) are some of the most recognizable images in cinematic history. What is overlooked is how talented a choreographer Berkeley was in non-overhead shots. The film's final song, Forty-Second Street, is perhaps even more impressive than the overhead choreography. The camera flies around the stage, capturing various dance routines depicting life on forty-second street. In an era where the camera was still largely confined to a single spot, Bacon and Berkeley create a sense of freedom and fluidity.

Though the lack of character development in the script doesn't allow for much in the way of "serious acting," the film does feature nice performances by a number of performers, particularly Ruby Keeler, Bebe Daniels, Guy Kibbee, and a young Ginger Rogers (playing the wonderfully and innuendo-laden named Anytime Annie). No matter what else is successful, an ensemble film without a strong cast will never succeed. The cast is a successful mix of actors who were all relatively new to "talkies" and are clearly working hard to prove themselves.

The first years of sound films ran concurrently with the Great Depression, and thus the catalog of early talkies is filled with escapist films of one kind or another. 42nd Street is one of the most important and lasting of any of these films, helping to launch the careers of many young stars (Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell) and to create the sub-genre of the backstage musical. Though it is definitely dated and feels entirely conventional, it was the film that created most of these conventions, and is one of the most historically significant films of its era.

Remaining: 3161 films, 880 Oscars, 5443 nominations

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Adam Clayton Powell (1989)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Despite my deep interest in American political history, I likely never would have watched Adam Clayton Powell if not for the Every Oscar Ever project. With the development of the History Channel, A&E, PBS's American Experience, and the many other biography series on television, the bio-doc just isn't as compelling as it used to be. When watching old documentaries for the Every Oscar Ever project, I am often struck by just how much the documentary has changed; a film like Adam Clayton Powell would never be able to find feature film distribution in the modern era, since there are just too many films like it on television. Adam Clayton Powell presents the life of its subject in a linear, straightforward manner, cutting between clips and interviews with his peers, and though the film offers nothing unique that would separate it from the multitude of bio-docs available on television, the filmmaker does a credible job of presenting his subject.

Adam Clayton Powell was one of the most important public figures of mid-20th century African American life, and was the most prominent African-American political figure prior to the arrival of the civil rights movement. Elected New York's first African-American Congressman, Powell took Washington by storm, successfully challenging many of the informal segregationist policies in the Capitol. He was a living legend in his Congressional district in Harlem and amongst African-Americans nationwide, and would eventually become Chairman of the House Education & Labor Committee, where he would shepherd numerous revolutionary social programs through the committee, including Medicaid, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the original iteration of No Child Left Behind), equal pay for women, and many other initiatives.

As the film tells this part of Powell's life, not much differentiates it from your average bio-doc. The footage of a young Powell speaking is electrifying, and it's plainly obvious why he was such a compelling figure. He had the passion and power of a preacher, which he was, but also the easy nature and personal charm of a politician. Powell led a very interesting life, and the filmmakers tell it in a straightforward manner. The film gets more interesting when Powell's downfall begins. Powell struggled to adapt when his influence began to fall as a new generation of African-American leaders came to the scene, and word of his womanizing, the fallout of a legal case in New York, and his lifestyle in his adopted home of the Bahamas made him one of the country's most controversial political figures. This part of Powell's life is so colorful and unique that the film can't help but be interesting, and the filmmakers commendably present both Powell supporters and detractors, such that it's not clear whether Powell was indeed the victim of a protracted smear campaign by his enemies or the victim of his own excesses.

While I enjoyed learning more about Adam Clayton Powell, an individual I knew embarrassingly little about, the film succeeds mostly due to Powell himself and not to the work of the filmmakers. There is nothing wrong with the filmmaking, and the filmmakers successfully handle the controversies of Powell's life and present the film in a straightforward manner. Viewed through the lens of the modern day, Adam Clayton Powell and bio-docs of the past just do not stand the test of time.

Remaining: 3162 films, 880 Oscars, 5445 nominations

Friday, March 18, 2011

Unstoppable (2010)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Little can be better for an actor's career than becoming a director's muse. What would the careers of Marlene Dietrich have been without Josef von Sternberg, Robert De Niro without Martin Scorsese, or Johnny Depp without Tim Burton. Denzel Washington, indisputably one of his generation's finest actors, has become the muse of director Tony Scott. Since they first worked together in Crimson Tide (1995), the two have worked together on four additional films. In fact, Washington has appeared in four of Scott's most recent five films, and perhaps would have appeared in all five if not for the unlikelihood of replacing Keira Knightley in Domino (2005). Though Crimson Tide is a great flick, the three collaborations that followed were all middling films that are unworthy of Washington's talent. I expected Unstoppable to follow in this dubious tradition, and though it is their best collaboration since Crimson Tide, it lacks anything particularly unique or noteworthy. Unstoppable is a mildly entertaining action film that does a few things right, but fails to rise above the rest of the action crop and is thus forgettable.

Unstoppable is a simple story, and the filmmakers deserve credit for not overcomplicating it. The plotting is tight, but the script faces two major shortcomings. The first is that the writers, to their credit, attempted to create emotional drama as well as physical drama by having the two men discuss the challenges they are currently facing in their lives, in order to raise the stakes when they put their lives at risk. The actors aren't given much to work with, however, as each is given a standard backstory that any young screenwriter would almost certainly use. The emotional development feels tacked on and not germane to the story. The far greater problem with the script comes from the very subject of the film: trains. Trains, by definition, must run on a predetermined route, and thus the audience knows that at any given time, only two things can happen: either the train continues to run on the track, or it derails and crashes almost immediately. Unstoppable has been compared to Speed for obvious reasons, but with Speed there were limitless possibilities as to what could happen to the bus. While the screenwriters do a credible job in creating scenarios to move the story along, there just isn't much suspense or anything to surprise the audience.

Though Washington has a penchant for doing far too many mediocre movies, unlike some of his peers in his generation who do the same (I'm looking at you Nicolas Cage and John Travolta), he never mails in the performance. While the film, like many others in his filmography, seems to be nothing more than a payday for Washington, he always seems to be doing his best to earn his payday, which can't be said for all actors. His legendary intensity is present throughout Unstoppable, and he does his best to flesh out a character that is flat and possesses an all too familiar backstory.

Chris Pine also turns in a solid performance. He holds his own against Washington's intensity, a task that has made countless actors wither away. Pine is developing into a creditable action star, and I'm hopeful for the future of his career.

The film's sole Oscar nomination came for Best Achievement in Sound Editing (Mark P. Stoeckinger). Like most films nominated throughout the years in the sound categories, the film is full of loud, explosive, crashing noises. I haven't yet learned how to judge a film for sound editing, but to my untrained ears Stoeckinger did solid work in creating what must have been a sonically difficult film to edit. The film lost to Inception (Richard King), which is no surprise since a far greater number of Academy members almost certainly saw Inception than saw Unstoppable.

The quick pacing and solid performances by the lead actors made the film watchable, though I have a hunch that within a few weeks I will have completely forgotten that I ever watched Unstoppable.

Remaining: 3163 films, 880 Oscars, 5446 nominations

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Member of the Wedding (1952)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Ah, the domestic drama. Watching one is like riding a roller coaster: though its highs and lows are thrilling, at some point you will wish you had never gotten on board, and by the end you are emotionally exhausted and a bit nauseous. The Member of the Wedding is a deceptively simple little film, and this simplicity is what makes the film so explosive. Based on the novel and subsequent play by the great Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding stars Julie Harris, Ethel Waters, and Brandon De Wilde, all reprising their roles from the Broadway production, and is directed by the great Fred Zinnemann, one of American film's finest directors.

Julie Harris is the film's protagonist, Frankie Addams, a 12 year old caught in the land between childhood and adulthood. Frankie is struggling with her identity, desperately wanting to belong to something or someone. Julie Harris initially comes across as histrionic; within the first few minutes I was uncomfortable with what I thought was an over-the-top performance, and checked the film's running time to see how much more I had to endure. Ethel Waters plays Berenice, the Addams's maid, and I was further made uncomfortable by the stereotypical role of the African-American southern maid. The performance of the young Brandon De Wilde as John Henry seemed to be its saving grace, a performance made all the more remarkable by the fact that the scenes are long and without many edits, meaning that the excellence of the performance came directly from De Wilde, not from the editors, which is often the case with performances by children.

As the film progressed, I found myself slowly being drawn in and viewed Frankie less and less as a brat and instead as an entirely convincing character. Part of this difficulty may have been due to the fact that the 12 year old Frankie was being played by the 27 year old Julie Harris, and thus I believe I was subconsciously assigning the behavior to someone in their 20's instead of on the precipice of adulthood. Though Julie Harris's age is a distraction and a detriment to the film, it was well worth the sacrifice, as Harris is an absolute powerhouse in the role. The role is one of conflict; Frankie is not only on the edge between childhood and adulthood, but is also, as a tomboy, somewhere in the ambiguous territory between male and female. It is the performance of Ethel Waters that grounds the film, as she perfectly conveys the complete lack of surprise at even the wildest assertions of Frankie, telling us that she has heard it all before and we are witnessing a scene that has played out in some variation time and time again. In the current incarnation, Frankie ties her identity to "the bride and groom," her brother and future sister-in-law, insisting they will give her the identity she lacks.

The end of the second act (which I won't spoil) is a bit random, and I can't say I was completely satisfied with what comes dangerously close to a deus ex machina. The plot device is unnecessary; the development of the characters is so strong that an outside event is not necessary. It seems that the turn may have been an attempt to make this not just another incarnation of Frankie's search for identity, but it gives the ending of the film a falseness that is not evident in the rest of the film.

The Member of the Wedding is certainly not for everyone, and the unrelenting intensity does wear a bit thin at times. But the strength of McCullers's writing, matched with the pitch-perfect direction of Zinnemann and outstanding acting from the trio of stars makes The Member of the Wedding surreptitiously compelling and deeply moving.

Remaining: 3164 films, 880 Oscars, 5447 nominations

The Luckiest Guy in the World (1947)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Short films are often both the most frustrating and most rewarding part of the Every Oscar Ever project. Locating short films that are more than a few years old is beyond difficult, with prints often existing only in a few libraries, and sometimes not existing at all. I have even spoken to a few filmmakers who no longer have copies of their own short films from the past. These short films are often highly enjoyable, well-crafted films that manage to pack as much quality into one or two reels as their feature-length cousins do in a much longer running time.

One of the best venues for viewing short films of yesteryear is Turner Classic Movies. While TCM sometimes gets in a bit of a rut, playing the same few films repeatedly, it still remains a great way of viewing short films that might otherwise be challenging to track down. I had recorded Member of the Wedding during the recent 31 Days of Oscar, and attached to the recording was the short film "The Luckiest Guy in the World," the final entry in MGM's "Crime Does Not Pay" series of shorts. In this series, dating back to 1935, a character's greed leads them into a life of crime, only to receive his or her comeuppance by the end of the short. In "The Luckiest Guy in the World," Charlie (Barry Nelson, who would later play the manager of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining) is a compulsive gambler who finds a large sum of money after he accidentally kills his wife.

As is typical of the "Crime Does Not Pay" series, the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good and no one is in between, and the purpose of the film seems to be little more than to moralize about the ills of crime. The film isn't particularly entertaining or clever, though Barry Nelson turns in a solid performance. The best short films tell a story that is compact enough to be told in a shorter length of time, while lesser shorts tell a story that isn't fleshed out enough to fill a feature length running time. "The Luckiest Guy in the World" is an instance of the latter, and as a result is a forgettable short.

Remaining: 3165 films, 880 Oscars, 5448 nominations

Monday, March 14, 2011

Viva Zapata! (1952)

5 Nominations, 1 Win

Viva Zapata! has one of the finest collections of talent behind it ever assembled for a film. With a script written by Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, direction by two-time Academy Award winner (plus an additional honorary Oscar) Elia Kazan, a crew full of Academy Award nominees, and co-starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn, each of whom picked up two Academy Awards for acting, it is no wonder Viva Zapata! is such a well-crafted and intelligent film. However, at times the film feels weighed down by the subject matter.

Viva Zapata! was the first film made starring Marlon Brando after his star-making lead role in A Streetcar Named Desire, and the film reunited him with director Elia Kazan, who had previously won an Oscar for directing Gentlemen's Agreement. The film is a biopic of the life of Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary who led the revolt against President Porfirio Diaz. In the film, Zapata helps take down President Diaz, only to witness that nothing has changed with his replacement. Emiliano Zapato is one in a line of roles Brando played early in his career of angry young men fighting against a corrupt system - Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar - and though Viva Zapata! is the least inspired of these films, it is a noble effort.

By modern standards, Brando was a curious choice for the lead role; indeed, Brando could not have played this role in modern Hollywood due to improved cultural sensitivities. Wearing skin-darkening makeup and a thin mustache, Brando exhibits none of the raw masculinity that he oozed in Streetcar, instead projecting a calm, noble presence worthy of his character. Brando appears lost at times, perhaps weighed down by his first experience of playing a real person, and for the most part seems so focused on being Zapata that he forsakes the freedom his previous and later roles afforded him to push the boundaries of acting. His performance is still confident and captivating, but the vulnerability he would imbue in his most masculine characters is in short supply in Zapata!, and would have added another layer to his character. Anthony Quinn, who was considered for the lead role (and as a native of Chihuahua, Mexico, would have made a more sensitive choice), picked up his first Oscar for his portrayal of Zapata's brother, a well deserved award. I have thus far seen very few Anthony Quinn films (though I have many to look forward to in the Every Oscar Ever project), but he is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors ever. He perfectly complements Brando, and is the highlight of Zapata!

The film is masterfully directed, no surprise considering that Elia Kazan is one if the finest directors in the history of American cinema. He reportedly borrowed the film's look from the photography of photographer Agustin Casasola, a look which gives the film a stark, flat appearance that creates a feel of a documentary.

John Steinbeck's screenwriting is often overlooked due to the undisputed brilliance of his literary output, but Steinbeck's three Academy Award nominations prove that he was also an outstanding screenwriter. Some of Steinbeck's favorite themes (greed and power) are on display throughout the film, always subtle and understated, but sometimes the film explores these scenes at the expense of the characters. The actors do not have enough scenes that give them room to breathe, and with Brando, there should always be room for him to breathe. Steinbeck was a politically passionate writer, and was enthralled by Zapata, and it is obvious he is trying to pack as much into the script as possible. But as often happens with passion projects, the script loses its way at times while buried underneath the weight of the writer's self-created ambitions.

Aside from its nominations for Actor, Supporting Actor, Director, and Screenplay, the film was also nominated for its black and white art direction (Lyle R. Wheeler, Leland Fuller, Thomas Little, and Claude E. Carpenter) and its score (Alex North), losing the first to The Bad and the Beautiful and the second to High Noon, one of the most perfect scores ever composed.

I didn't enjoy Viva Zapata! nearly as much as the other Kazan-Brando collaborations, nor do I feel it is quite deserving of the semi-cult status it has gained. It is, however, a beautifully crafted film that is a credit to all involved, and definitely worth watching.

Remaining: 3166 films, 880 Oscars, 5449 nominations

Wish 143 (2009)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

After watching Na Wewe and The Confession, two depressing nominees for Best Short Film, Live Action at the 83rd Academy Awards revolving around African genocide and childhood trauma, I hesitated when I read the IMDB summary for Wish 143: Tells the story of a young man desperate to come of age before time runs out. The final push into an evening of total despair would, it seemed, come from the story of a young man dying from cancer.

Like Na Wewe, Wish 143 attempts to find light in darkness. The film is the story of a young cancer patient who, when a charity attempts to grant his dying wish, says that he wants to lose his virginity. The film sweetly, if predictably, chronicles his various attempts to lose his virginity. The filmmakers avoid the broad humor which could have easily followed the concept, and instead focus on the pain, both physical and emotional, of the young man as he fights to retain his dignity.

Though the plot of the film is rather predictable, most scenes are filled with genuine and honest emotion. The narrative takes a couple of wrong turns, but the lead performance by Samuel Holland anchors the film through its subtlety. Jodie Whittaker also turns in a strong, understated performance in her brief scene, transforming a scene we have seen many times before into an honest moment.

Wish 143 is in no way breakthrough cinema, but neither is it cloying or manipulative, which is what I expected from its plot summary. Ian Barnes has crafted a fine short film that deserved its nomination, though like the members of the Academy I would not have chosen it as my favorite short of the year. Now that I have seen all five nominees, my vote would go to God of Love, mostly because it is the film that is most different from its competitors and thus stands out the most.

Remaining: 3167 films, 881 Oscars, 5454 nominations

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Na Wewe (2010)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Of the films nominated for Best Short Film, Live Action at the 83rd Academy Awards, Na Wewe is structured the most like the one-act play that short films are often compared to. The film is a single scene, roughly nineteen minutes in length, of the Burundi Civil War of the mid-1990's. A group of Hutu rebels has stopped a van full of passengers, and the rebels attempt to determine who is a Hutu and who is not.

Na Wewe's greatest strength is its authenticity. The film, according to its website, was "written by a person who has lived in the beauty of Burundi and suffered its horrors." The story lived by the writer, Jean-Luc Pening, is truly extraordinary: Pening was driving through Burundi when he was stopped by a military patrol and shot point blank in the temple by a rebel. He would recover, though left without sight, and wrote Na Wewe fifteen years later to "highlight this often ill-known genocidal war" and to "denounce the absurdity of a conflict that made 300,000 victims." Pening, along with director Ivan Goldschmidt, have expertly recreated the horrors of the genocide while still finding the shreds of humanity that exist during the darkest moments.

The only real fault of Na Wewe is the dissipation of the tension as the plot progresses. At the start of Na Wewe, as the van is stopped by the rebels and the initial inquisitions begin, the tension is rife. But as the rebels question one passenger after another, the scene becomes repetitive and the tension wears thin. It seems paradoxical to suggest that a nineteen minute film is too long, but Na Wewe would have benefitted from reducing the number of individuals questioned by the rebels.

Na Wewe isn't as creative as some of the other nominated shorts, though it is definitely one of the strongest. The winners of the category tend to either be light and humorous or incredibly dark and depressing, and since Na Wewe is neither, it was not surprising that it didn't win the trophy.

Remaining: 3168 films, 881 Oscars, 5455 nominations (The discrepancy from the last entry is due to my discovery that I had not removed The Lost Thing (2010) from my list of remaining films.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Confession (2010)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Of the three films I have thus far seen that were nominated for Best Short Film, Live Action at this year's Oscars, the diversity in tone is truly stunning. God of Love is funny and light-hearted, The Crush has moments of humor and moments of darkness, while The Confession is possibly the darkest and most depressing short film I have ever seen. Produced in the U.K. by a team of graduates of the NFTS (National Film and Television School), it is the story of two boys who are preparing for their first confession. When the boys devise a prank so that one of the boys will have something to confess, things go tragically and almost unwatchably wrong.

I watched The Confession by downloading it on iTunes, and this allowed me the ability to pause the film whenever it was too uncomfortable so that I could take a break from the intensity. Despite the film's 26 minute running length, I had to watch the film over the course of a few days due to the discomfort I felt. The plot of this film could have easily come across as contrived and melodramatic, or alternatively could have been seen as little more than a thinly-veiled diatribe against the Catholic Church. Instead, due to the film's confident direction by Tanel Toom, absolutely beautiful cinemtaography by Davide Cinzi, and a haunting performance by Lewis Howlett, the film is relentlessly gripping.

I am still unsure as to whether the final plot turn was a wise decision or a leap into melodrama; I believe there are two equally valid answers to that question. However, as the film stands, it is impressive how much of an emotional punch has been packed into less than half an hour of film.

The filmmakers likely have a bright future ahead of them, and of the three shorts I have seen this year it most resembles a studio-produced film. I would not be at all surprised to see Tanel Toom make the jump to feature film directing, and even less surprised to see Davide Cinzi make the jump to feature film cinematography.

The Confession lost in the Best Short Film, Live Action category to God of Love, a whimsical black-and-white romantic comedy. The two films couldn't be more different, and are thus impossible to compare. But considering the fact that after watching God of Love I felt like kissing my fiancee, and after watching The Confession I felt like taking cyanide, I'm not too surprised that God of Love came out victorious.

Remaining: 3170 films, 882 Oscars, 5457 nominations

The House of Rothschild (1934)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

George Arliss, a leading star of the early sound era of Hollywood, has not achieved the same level of posthumous fame as many of his contemporaries, despite being one of the most versatile, respected actors of his era. Arliss was the go-to guy for leading roles in biopics, starring in the title roles in Alexander Hamilton, The Iron Duke, Voltaire, Disraeli, Cardinal Richelieu, and others. Arliss was the first British actor to win an Academy Award, and also the first Best Actor winner for a sound film, for his 1929 film Disraeli. The House of Rothschild stars Arliss in the dual roles of Mayer and Nathan Rothschild, the patriarch of the Rothschild family and his son, who led the English branch of the family.

The House of Rothschild, after introducing the Rothschild family through Mayer Rothschild, focuses on his son Nathan's role in financing the Duke of Wellington's campaign against Napoleon. Despite being about one of the most fascinating conflicts and series of battles in history, the film drags for long periods of time and is without much action. This is partly due to a creaky screenplay, but is also largely due to the difficulties of making the financing of a war terribly interesting. The film is very much in the fashion of the biopics of the day, but stands out in its portrayal of anti-Semitism, following Arliss's earlier portrayals of Benjamin Disraeli, who was of Jewish descent. The film was later used in the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew, but that film took The House of Rothschild completely out of context, which is a sensitive and non-prejudiced portrayal of Judaism and of the Rothschilds.

The film received a Best Picture nomination as its sole nomination. The film never stood a chance, losing to the juggernaut It Happened One Night, which one every major award that year, and rightfully so. Surprisingly, Arliss was not nominated for Best Actor. Only three actors were nominated that year: Clark Gable for It Happened One Night, Frank Morgan for The Affairs of Cellini, and William Powell for The Thin Man. Arliss suffered from the limitation of the time of only nominating three actors for the award, though he likely would have faced stiff competition with Wallace Beery in Viva Villa!, James Cagney in Here Comes the Navy, and Frederic March in The Barretts of Wimpole Street for any additional slots.

The House of Rothschild is most notable for the excellent performance by George Arliss and its outstanding portrayal of the anti-Semitism during the time of the Napoleonic Wars (and, more importantly, of the 1930's), but for long stretches just isn't very interesting or worth watching.

Remaining: 3171 films, 882 Oscars, 5458 nominations

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Iron Man 2 (2010)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

In the superhero film genre, there seems to be the constant that every hero must spend part of the second or third film of a series questioning who they have become and the purpose of their powers. This idea extends back at least to the original run of Spider-Man comics, with the famed "Spidey No More" issue. While the idea makes sense from a structural perspective, it almost invariably leads to a boring, predictable sequence in which all the hero has built crumbles and his opponent builds his own power in the hero's place. In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark succumbs to one of the longest, most inexplicable, and most pointless of these periods yet scene in the past decade's resurgence of the superhero genre. The filmmakers briefly create a substance abuse problem, reminiscent of the great issues of the Iron Man comic series in which Tony Stark deals with alcohol abuse, without giving Stark much in the way of a
reason for his descent besides a vague sense of displeasure with his father. Unfortunately, this decision weighs down the whole film. The first Iron Man film succeeded due to the charisma of Robert Downey, Jr., the fun toys of Stark Industries, and the banter between Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts. When Downey is allowed to shine, his charisma is in full force, but since he spends so much of the film mired in self pity, the film loses its greatest asset.

In general, Iron Man 2 suffers from too much going on. We have Pepper Potts taking over Stark Industries, Don Cheadle's James Rhodes turning into War Machine, Mickey Rourke doing what he does as the big bad Whiplash, Samuel L. Jackson popping in and out as Nick Fury, Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson appearing with little justification, and Scarlett Johansson laying low until the final scenes when she can turn into Black Widow. Lost in all of this is Tony Stark himself. The keepers of the Marvel Universe are focusing so much on laying the necessary groundwork for the upcoming Avengers films that Iron Man 2 seems to be little more than a prequel, instead of a sequel to a very fun and highly successful film.

What Iron Man 2 had most in common with the original Iron Man is a lack of an inspired action climax. The film's first set action set piece at the Monaco Grand Prix is impressive and exciting, but the finale is dull and boring, much like the original film's finale. Perhaps it is because the audience cannot see the faces of the characters during the big fight, or perhaps it is because two men fighting in perceivably invincible suits does not make for great drama, but the staging of the scene is also at fault. Jon Favreau doesn't create any sense of motion or drama in the final battle scene, causing the film to fizzle out until the post-credits denouement.

Iron Man 2 received a single Academy Award nomination for Best Achievement in Visual Effects (Janek Sirrs, Ben Snow, Ged Wright, and Daniel Sudick). The film boasts outstanding visual effects, exactly what one would expect from the films of the Marvel Universe. The film was beaten by the effects of Inception, and though Iron Man 2 might have won in another year, the massive creativity behind the concept and execution of Inception allowed the visual effects team far more leeway to create truly awe-inspiring effects than did the team behind Iron Man 2.

Remaining: 3172 films, 882 Oscars, 5459 nominations

The Strip (1951)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

The best films of film noir tend to star cynical, brooding leads, like Humphrey Bogart or William Holden. The makers of The Strip took a very different approach, putting Mickey Rooney in the lead role. Along with films like My Outlaw Brother and Quicksand, Rooney was working to break out of the typecasting of the Andy Hardy childhood roles he was best known for. Unfortunately, Mickey's permanent youthful appearance and gee-whiz persona do not lend themselves to the genre, and it's difficult to take seriously the idea of Rooney in the jazz nightclub scene, let alone associating with mobsters.

Though the film is only 85 minutes long, it is incredibly slow paced due to various musical and dance interludes, none of which advance the story to any degree. On one hand, some of these scenes are the highlight of the movie, particularly the jazz scenes featuring Louis Armstrong, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Jack Teagarden. Without these scenes, however, the film would have little reason to exist, since it is largely devoid of any atmosphere, twists and turns, or shady characters, all necessary and classic tropes of the film noir genre.

The film received its sole Oscar nomination for Best Music, Original Song, for the simple and lovely "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, and Oscar Hammerstein II. The song is performed throughout the film, including a performance by Satchmo himself. The song lost to "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" from Here Comes the Groom.

There's not much worth celebrating about The Strip aside from the performance of a few jazz legends and shots of the Sunset Strip circa 1950 that are interesting from a historical perspective. Rooney just isn't enough of a heavy for film noir, and the film never elevates above a thin plot distracting from a musical performance showcase.

Remaining: 3173 films, 882 Oscars, 5460 nominations

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Morocco (1930)

4 Nominations, 0 Wins

Films like Morocco are the best part of the Every Oscar Ever project. Though as a Gary Cooper fan I likely would have stumbled upon the film eventually, I am glad not to have missed this film. The film is best known as the film that shot Marlene Dietrich to stardom. Dietrich earned her sole Oscar nomination for the film, and shocked audiences by appearing in a tuxedo and kissing a woman. My previous experience with Dietrich was limited to Witness for the Prosecution, and though she was wonderful in that film, after seeing Morocco I now truly understand her appeal. What's all the more impressive is that at the time of filming, she did not yet speak English and thus learned the part phonetically. Much has been written about the partnership between director Josef von Sternberg and Dietrich, but after watching Morocco its easy to understand the assertion of many that there are few pairings between director and actress that compare to von Sternberg and Dietrich.

While it is nearly impossible to imagine anyone standing up to Dietrich's presence in Morocco, Gary Cooper does an admirable job. Though he does not demonstrate his famed cadence and his acting skills were not yet what they would later become, he does display the classic Cooper charisma and charm, and he and Dietrich have very solid chemistry. Sadly, Adolphe Menjou isn't given the chance to pose much of a challenge to Cooper, but he does turn in a solid performance.

Aside from Dietrich's nomination for Best Actress, the film was also nominated for Best Director for von Sternberg, Art Direction for Hans Dreier, and Cinematography for Lee Garmes. All four of the nominations were strongly deserved, and any of them could have easily won. In particular, von Sternberg's loss to Norman Taurog for the sweet but slight Skippy is laughable, though Wesley Ruggles's direction of Cimarron was a worthy competitor. The film is visually gorgeous, succeeding in the impossible task of matching Dietrich's beauty.

The film, though light on plot, succeeds almost entirely due to the chemistry between Dietrich and Cooper. Most consider the highlight of the film to be the extended scene that introduces Dietrich to Cooper during Dietrich's nightclub performance, but for my money the ending is the film's finest moment. Without spoiling the ending, it provides a satisfying yet elusive resolution to the film's conflict in a beautifully filmed final shot. Josef von Sternberg was one of the most gifted directors of Hollywood's early sound years, and Morocco is an absolute gem that I was thrilled to come across.

Remaining: 3174 films, 882 Oscars, 5461 nominations

Friday, March 4, 2011

Four Daughters (1938)

5 Nominations, 0 Wins

Watching Four Daughters today, it is hard to imagine what it was about the film that so excited the public that it led to three sequels and a remake. The film is the story of the Lemp family, a father (Claude Rains) and his four daughters who are talented musicians who run a boarding house. Various tenants and neighbors of the house have interest in each of the daughters, and a romantic triangle is created between Felix Deitz (Jeffrey Lynn) and Mickey Borden (John Garfield), both of whom seek the affections of Ann (Priscilla Lane).

Coming into this film, Warner Bros. was very high on Jeffrey Lynn as "the next big thing," and while he does demonstrate some charm, he mostly blends in with the blandness of the rest of the Lemps, played by the singing Lane sisters and Gale Page, none of whom display any great charisma or verve. What excited audiences in 1938, and is still the highlight of the film, is the screen debut of John Garfield. Though his performance seems mild by today's standards, Garfield's performance was one of explosive rebelliousness, the predecessor to Marlon Brando's role in The Wild One or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. His character was so appealing to audiences that Warner Bros. used some extremely creative ways to have his character appear in the following year's sequel Four Wives (ways that can't be revealed without being a spoiler). Garfield gives a subtly exciting performance, and it's clear why he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Aside from the Best Supporting Actor nomination, the film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz), Best Writing Screenplay (Lenore J. Coffee and Julius J. Epstein), and Best Sound Recording (Nathan Levinson). The film did not win any Oscars due to a particularly strong year that included You Can't Take It With You, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Boys Town, The Citadel, Pygmalion, Jezebel, Grand Illusion, and numerous other exceptional films.

Though the film's overt reliance on melodrama and the blandness of the cast have not aged well, Garfield's performance remains fresh, and it is easy to see why the audiences of 1938 were so electrified by his performance.

Remaining: 3175 films, 882 Oscars, 5465 nominations

Kind Lady (1951)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

If Michael Haneke had directed films within the studio system of the 1950's, Kind Lady is the type of film he might have made. Directed by the great John Sturges, the film stars Ethel Barrymore as Mary Herries, an art collector who is tricked by Henry Elcott (Maurice Evans) and his family and friends to allow them to live in her home as part of a scheme to sell her possessions. As Herries comes to understand the situation she is in, she struggles to escape, but Elcott and his co-conspirators have so firmly taken control of her life that she is unable to do so.

Filmmakers have long had a fascination with the individual trapped in his/her (and it's usually a her) own home, from the classics Gaslight and Wait Until Dark to the more recent Panic Room, The Strangers, and the aforementioned Haneke's Funny Games films, and Kind Lady is a part of that tradition. What Kind Lady lacks that the most successful of these films achieve is a sense of true suspense. Ethel Barrymore is such a strong figure that, despite her age, she never comes across as vulnerable. Her co-stars, with the exception of Angela Lansbury, seem not up to the task of matching Barrymore. Additionally, though the loss of her possessions is perhaps the most important thing to Mary Harries, the stakes are not high enough to the audience to provide enough suspense to sustain the film. Instead, the majority of the film left me flat, calmly waiting for someone to catch onto the scheme and restore order.

Kind Lady received its nomination for its black and white costume design, losing to A Place in the Sun, one of Edith Head's eight Oscars. The costume designers, Walter Plunkett and Gile Steele, faced the challenge of dressing characters who value above all the physical beauty of objects, and they succeeded wonderfully. Both the costume design and production design show a fine eye for detail, and though neither is particularly unique or creative, the attention to detail perfectly complements the film's characters.

Remaining: 3176 films, 882 Oscars, 5470 nominations

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Last Summer (1969)

1 Nomination, 0 wins

For the Oscar completist, Christmas comes in February with TCM's "31 Days of Oscar." Every year I fill my DVR chock full of Oscar nominated movies that are not available on Netflix, leaving my poor fiancee to search through dozens of films she's never heard of to find the one wedding show she's looking for. Over the coming months I will be watching and reviewing (and more importantly to my fiancee, clearing the DVR) the movies I recorded.

Playing early in the month was a film I had not heard of, Last Summer, directed by Frank Perry. The film stars Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison, Richard Thomas, and Catherine Burns as four teenagers spending their summer on Long Island. The film, a spiritual predecessor to Y tu Mama Tambien, displays the confused and nascent sexuality of the young characters. Last Summer was a shocking film in its time, and despite the fact that the sexuality has been far surpassed in more recent films, the emotional trauma experienced by the characters is still incredibly raw and uncomfortable to watch.

Last Summer's sole nomination was given to actress Catherine Burns for her supporting role as a younger and far more innocent girl who is both appalled by and attracted to the behavior of the other teenagers. She gives a haunting performance, not only in her scene-stealing monologue in which she describes "the worst thing" in her life, but also in her uncomfortable flirtations and interactions with Richard Thomas. This performance was well-deserving of its nomination, though it lost to Goldie Hawn's breakout role in Cactus Flower.

The film is weighed down by overwrought symbolism and unnecessary scenes. Some of the power of the film's final scenes have supposedly been lost due to the film's editing in order to receive an R rating (it was originally rated X), but the premise of the final scenes still seem to be a sharp right turn from the narrative trajectory. Last Summer is darkly haunting, often boring, yet still powerful, featuring an excellent performance well deserving of its Oscar nomination.

Remaining: 3177 films, 882 Oscars, 5471 nominations

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Inaugural Post

Many years ago when I first started my Netflix account, I found myself overwhelmed by the thousands of choices. I'd always meant to see Brazil, but if I was going to watch a Gilliam film maybe I should start with The Fisher King. I'd heard Charles Laughton was the greatest actor of his time, but which of his scores of movies should I put at the top of my queue? Are any of the Police Academy movies worth watching? Lost in a sea of choices and swimming in the free time afforded by college, I decided to try to see every film ever nominated for an Oscar in every single category. While this goal was perhaps more than a bit insane, and while something more attainable probably would have been a better idea, I made a spreadsheet of every nominated film I had not yet seen along with the number of wins and nominations it had received. Since that time, I have dutifully removed every nominated film upon viewing it.

This task is sisyphean for a number of reasons: many of the earliest films are considered "lost," as no remaining prints of the film exist; many of the short films are virtually impossible to find; and many of the nominated films have never been released to consumers. While I don't expect to ever finish this task, it's an adventure that has exposed me to countless films I would have otherwise never seen. Since the Academy often misses nominating some truly great films, I still see lots of movies that aren't part of this project, and I sometimes go several weeks or even months without crossing a film off my list. I'm hoping that this blog will encourage me to keep the project progressing, expose myself to excellent movies I would have otherwise missed, and give me the enjoyment of writing about the movies I've seen.