Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pigskin Parade (1936)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Stuart Erwin

I was curious to watch Pigskin Parade when I saw it on the schedule for Turner Classic Movies, mostly due to the fact that it was a football movie released in 1936, and thus it was one of the earliest movies about the sport (though it was beaten to the punch by Harold Lloyd in The Freshman and the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers). As an Oscar completist, the film is notable to me due to Stuart Erwin's nomination for supporting actor, the first year the award was given. Soon after the film begun, I realized that it was notable for something far more significant: it is the feature film debut of a very young (14 years old at the time of the release) Judy Garland.

Pigskin Parade is the rare combination of sports film and musical. While it is no Damn Yankees, it is an easy film to like, telling the story of the football program of the tiny - and fictional - Texas State University, who mistakenly receives an invitation from the then mighty Yale University football team to play each other in an exhibition game. Texas State, led by their coach (played by Jack Haley, who would appear again with Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz), is severely overmatched, and the disparity between the two teams grows even greater when their quarterback is injured. Enter Stuart Erwin, a farm boy who impresses the team with his ability to throw watermelons, and his younger sister, played by Garland.

The plot is simple, and there's little to surprise audiences in the film in terms of the story. Yet Pigskin Parade is a fun and charming film, due almost entirely to the cast. Haley and Erwin, along with Betty Grable and Patsy Kelly, form the core of the cast, and the performances are all solid, if a bit hokey. Then, of course, there is Judy Garland. I was hardly surprised that Garland stole every scene she was in, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Every line is delivered at maximum volume and with dramatics, and at times Garland's performance was all too similar to something William Shatner would have turned in. But even with a somewhat histrionic performance, it is the rare performer who can steal every scene she is in, particularly when acting with an experienced and talented cast, and perhaps only Garland had the talent to do so in her early teen years.

Garland's best moments in the film, unsurprisingly, are those in which she sings. Showing little of the sweet innocence she would show just a few years later in The Wizard of Oz, she instead sounds like the powerhouse she would become later on, belting out every note with perfect intonation. Her singing's not subtle, but Judy never was when she was at her best.

If for no reason other than the historic first feature film appearance of Judy Garland, Pigskin Parade would be worth watching. With the addition of a fun story and a good cast, it is well worth investing time in.

Remaining: 3164 films, 874 Oscars, 5442 nominations

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Gruffalo (2009)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Film, Animated - Jakob Schuh and Max Lang

I was well into my teen years when Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's children book The Gruffalo was published, and since I do not yet have any children, I was unaware of the mega-selling and much-loved book, which has sold over ten million copies. As is often the case with films that are adapted from childhood works, so much of one's appreciation for the adaptation is affected by the individual's feelings toward the source material, and those who grew up on The Gruffalo responded with great enthusiasm for Jakob Schuh and Max Lang's short film. Having no such feelings myself, I didn't have the same reaction and attachment to the film that so many have had to the film, which became a favorite of various awards voters and viewers, particularly in the UK.

"The Gruffalo" tells the story of a quick-witted mouse, who makes up a story to survive as he travels through the woods. Of course, as with any morality tale, the mouse's license with the truth is confronted, and he must use his wits to deal with the consequences. It is a very sweet film, and the wonderful cast provides voice work perfectly suited to the characters. The film's run time is a bit bloated at 27 minutes, and it's easy to find several minutes that could have been cut to improve pacing.

"The Gruffalo" is a well made animated short film, and it was well deserving of its Academy Award nomination. I feel it would have benefitted from a few nips and tucks, though perhaps if I had a strong attachment to the source material, I would have greater enjoyment of each moment. A great deal of care was put into the making of this film, and I imagine Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler are quite happy with the filmic adaptation of their story.

Remaining: 3165 films, 874 Oscars, 5443 nominations

Monday, April 2, 2012

Time Freak (2011)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Film, Live Action - Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey

After watching about 30 seconds of "Time Freak," I had a moment like the one that hit Anton Ego in Ratatouille, as I was suddenly transported back to my days in film school. The short film, though much more slickly produced than those that I saw during my undergraduate years, has many of the characteristics of a student short film, namely a cast that looks more like friends of the filmmakers than professional actors. Upon this realization, my interest in the film began to wane - most student short films aren't very good - and I checked my watch to see how much time remained, a bad sign for any film, but particularly insulting for a short.

A few moments after my rush to judgment, as the premise of "Time Freak" made itself clear, I forgot all about my premature dismissal and found myself loving the film. The short is the story of a neurotic young inventor who discovers the secrets of time travel, but instead of surveying ancient Rome or exploring the future, first decides to correct a series of recent mistakes in his life. Like the best comedic shorts, the filmmakers take a simple premise and turn it on its head. In "Time Freak," time travel is presented not in the usual mode of science fiction, but instead in an approach that Woody Allen might take.

The film exhibits impressive comedic timing, and the film moves along at a brisk pace with clever editing and excellent performances from the cast. "Time Freak," like the previous year's Oscar winner in the category "God of Love," is a perfect demonstration of the wonderful comedy that can come only from a well-crafted short film.

Remaining: 3166 films, 874 Oscars, 5444 nominations

Marines in the Making (1942)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Subject, One-Reel - Pete Smith

Pete Smith was a unique figure in the history of the cinema, one whose legacy would likely have all but vanished if not for the programmers at Turner Classic Movies, who squeeze "Pete Smith Specialties" into the schedule more often than TBS airs The Shawshank Redemption. Smith produced scores of non-fiction short films for MGM, and his films became known for Smith's occasionally wry, often corny, and always amusing narration.

Though Smith is probably best remembered for his films on sports and household mores, two subjects in which his humor worked best, he also made some exceptional military-themed films during World War II. Most of the military-themed short films made during the war years are nearly unwatchable now, as even the best of the bunch employ a Polyanna-esque tone and political simplicity that is foreign to modern day sensibilities. While Smith's war films are still very much of their time and thus the tone is still quite dated, the gently biting humor in the narration gives the films a lasting quality.

"Marines in the Making" is one of the strongest of Smith's military-themed films. The film is a brief look at the training of Marines shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the short is quite entertaining, as opposed to most short films of the time that served as little more than commercials for war bonds. In his narration Smith cracks harmless jokes about the Marines during their training, and the comparisons between the training of Marines and football players gives this short a unique spin. Some of Smith's narration is far from politically correct and offensive to modern ears, but at the time was indicative of national sentiment.

As is generally the case with Smith's films, "Marines in the Making" doesn't push the boundaries of the short film, and the content is quite straightforward and not terribly exciting on its own. Yet Smith's trademark style of narration and willingness to inject humor where others dared not combine to make "Marines in the Making" one of the more watchable and lasting of the military-themed shorts produced during World War II.

Remaining: 3167 films, 874 Oscars, 5445 nominations