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.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

One Droopy Knight (1957)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Subject, Cartoons - William Hanna and Joseph Barbera

The 21st of 24 entries in the Droopy cartoon short series, "One Droopy Knight" earned William Hanna and Joseph Barbera the second and final Oscar nominations of their careers (Fred Quimby was named as the nominee and winner of many of the films produced by Hanna-Barbera).  Of all the Droopy cartoons, I'm not sure why this one received the honor of an Oscar nomination.  Perhaps the Academy knew that Droopy was coming to an end - the final Droopy cartoon "Droopy Leprechaun" was released less than four months after the Academy Awards in which it was nominated - and wanted to honor the series.  Though "One Droopy Knight" isn't my favorite of the Droopy offerings, it's a solid effort and is a good introduction to the Droopy character.

Droopy does seem to have been largely forgotten by modern audiences, and the holders of the Droopy intellectual property have done an abysmal job promoting its legacy.  Some cheap shorts were made in 1980 and he has made cameos in a few films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but the only exposure most modern audiences have had to Droopy is Jon Stewart employing the voice in his impersonations of former Senator Joseph Lieberman.

Here's hoping Droopy's protectors get their act together and bring back this wonderful character.  They better be careful if they don't, because you don't want to know what happens when you make Droopy mad.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Gypsy Life (1945)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Subject, Cartoons - Paul Terry

For whatever reason, the public has always had a fascination with "gypsies," more correctly known as the Romani people.  The Romani have been portrayed, usually in a condescending manner, in such works as Jane Eyre, Dracula, From Russia With Love, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  The Mighty Mouse cartoon "Gypsy Life" is one of the odder portrayals of the Romani people, no small accomplishment considering the numerous works featuring Romani characters.  Yet its oddness comes less from its portrayal of the Romani than for the depiction of villainous bat-cats.

Yes, bat-cats.  The villains of this Mighty Mouse short are bat-cat hybrids, with the size, face, and claws of cats but the wings and ears of a bat.  After introducing us to a Romani village and the typical depiction of a Gypsy dancer, Mighty Mouse must come to the rescue after a bat-cat attacks the dancer.  Why the filmmakers chose to make the films about gypsies or to call the film "Gypsy Life" is a mystery to me, since the film is about the battle between Mighty Mouse and the bat-cat, making the gypsy storyline pretty much irrelevant.  The bat-cat is one of the odder villains I've seen in a cartoon, though in a world where neither a bat nor a cat is a legitimate contender against Mighty Mouse, I suppose a hybrid of the two would be a greater threat.  Perhaps there's some bat-cat hybrid in Romani myth that would make this all comprehensible, but without that knowledge I am left a bit in the dark.

There is much to like in "Gypsy Life" for Mighty Mouse fans.  The short has the usual operatic tone of Mighty Mouse shorts, and there is a fun battle between Mighty Mouse and the bat-cat.  The fight isn't staged with any great cleverness, and nothing too original transpires.  Indeed, the most exciting animation isn't in the battle between Mighty Mouse and the bat-cat, but is instead the spinning dancing of the Romani woman, beautifully and simply rendered by the animators.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

5 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Cinematography, Color - Leon Shamroy
Nomination: Best Sound - James Corcoran (20th Century-Fox SSD)
Nomination: Best Costume Design, Color - Vittorio Nino Novarese
Nomination: Best Music, Score, Substantially Original - Alex North
Nomination: Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Color - John DeCuir, Jack Martin Smith, and Dario Simoni

The Agony and the Ecstasy is many different types of film in one: part historical epic, part documentary, part biopic, even part buddy comedy.  The film tells the story of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel under the watch of Pope Julius II.  The two men battle various forces, the greatest of which is their egos, to create what would become both men's greatest legacy.  At times their relationship is depicted as one of respect and at times it is contentious, but the film is always about their relationship.

Photo Courtesty MoviePosterDB.com
This decision to focus on the relationship of the two men was a wise one.  Watching an artist consider various artistic choices of color and form would not have been terribly interesting, and focusing on Julius's Holy League battles would have been an entirely different film.  The problem with focusing on the relationship is the wildly different acting styles employed by Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison.  Heston plays Michelangelo as a tortured artist, suffering in body and soul for his art, while Harrison's Julius II is a bit of a wisecracking gentleman.  Harrison's performance gives the film some needed levity, but it also makes his performance more of a star turn than a real effort at being a thespian.  Despite this, Heston and Harrison have a strong chemistry, and both were, for the most part, well cast in their roles.

When it comes to categories such as art direction, costume design, and makeup, Academy voters are split into two camps.  Some favor imaginative leaps of fancy, preferring unique visions and renderings of wholly created worlds.  Others favor historic accuracy, designing epic sets and costuming hundreds of extras in period-appropriate garb.  The Agony and the Ecstasy was nominated for its costume design and art decoration by the latter type of Academy voter.  The costumes are beautiful and elegant recreations of the fashion of the day, and the lush colors of Vittorio Nino Novarese's costumes are beautifully picked up by the camera.  The sets are also remarkable recreations of the Vatican, and the film almost certainly would have won an Oscar if not for the unlucky fact that Doctor Zhivago was released in the same year.  Also receiving nominations for color set decoration were The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Sound of Music, and Inside Daisy Clover, making 1965 one of the great years of epic art direction.

I imagine that there are very few people who have watched The Agony and the Ecstasy more than once.  This isn't because the film is bad or unenjoyable, for it is neither.  Instead, the film is just very straightforward and a bit boring, with little other than the impressive sets to make it a truly memorable film.  Still, director Carol Reed did an admirable job of turning a potentially dry story with a great deal of historical context into a mostly enjoyable film.

Monday, December 16, 2013

History of the World in Three Minutes Flat (1980)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Film, Animated - Michael Mills

PIXAR guru John Lasseter tells a story about the early days of computer animation in which PIXAR introduced a revolutionary new technological advancement.  The crowd was amazed and several people asked questions about the technology before someone asked what software was used to "make the short funny."

Lasseter tells the story to exemplify the idea that despite all of the great advancements in animation technology over the past few decades, none of these are sufficient to make a great film, and instead merely serve as tools to assist in storytelling.  "History of the World in Three Minutes Flat" is a fine example of a film that is a well told story despite featuring rudimentary animation techniques, and the result was good enough to earn an Oscar nomination for Michael Mills.

In slightly more than three minutes, "History of the World in Three Minutes Flat" does exactly what the title says it will do, telling the story of the world from creation through modern times.  The film starts with animation as simple as a black circle on a white page, signifying Earth, and goes from there.  Everything is done intentionally simply, and thus the film has the look of a "The Far Side"-esque comic strip.  It's funny and brief, and packs into three minutes what takes far longer for most animated films.

Perhaps some of the bloated animated shorts of recent years should take a hint from Michael Mills.  Surely if he can tell the history of the entire world in three minutes, they can manage to trim their running times a bit.

Sandy Claws (1954)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Subject, Cartoons - Edward Selzer

Watch "Sandy Claws" at http://www.trilulilu.ro/video-animatie/1955-04-02-wb-sandy-claws-tweety-looney-tunes-isad

1954 must have been a weak year for short subject cartoons.  There's nothing much wrong with "Sandy Claws;" it's a perfectly capable Tweety Bird and Sylvester cartoon in which Sylvester tries various methods of catching Tweety Bird during a beach vacation.  Some of his attempts are clever and funny, some less so, and "Sandy Claws" falls just about rick smack in the middle of Warner Bros. cartoons in terms of quality.

It's hard to see what exactly the Academy saw in "Sandy Claws" to give it a nomination.  It's a largely ordinary effort void of anything terribly original or out-of-the-box.  It's funny, but far form uproarious.  Many far superior Warner Bros. efforts failed to receive a nomination, so it's surprising that "Sandy Claws" was singled out by the Academy.

Friday, December 13, 2013

White Christmas (1954)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Music, Original Song - Irving Berlin for "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep"

You would have to be a true grinch to hate White Christmas.  Sure, the plot is thin with minimal conflict or character development, but the film has become a holiday classic for good reason.

I'm sure I saw White Christmas at least once or twice growing up, but I had given the film little thought prior to meeting my wife.  This was heresy to her and her family, as she had watched the film at least once and often several times each holiday season throughout her childhood.  She has tried to get me to watch it during each of the five holiday seasons I have known her, and though I have been in and out of the room during her annual viewings, I had little interest in watching a trivial holiday film with Bing Crosby constantly mugging for the camera  After watching The Court Jester for the first time earlier this year during Bill Hader's run as host of "The Essentials" on Turner Classic Movies, I had a newfound interest in the work of Danny Kaye, so I halfheartedly agreed to give White Christmas a shot this year.

White Christmas is far from The Court Jester, featuring little of the silliness and wickedly clever moments of the latter film.  With the exception of a few great Danny Kaye moments here and there through the movie, there's not a lot of hilarity in the film.  There are few memorable set pieces, and the sole conflict of the film is due to a silly misunderstanding and is resolved all too easily.  Yet despite all of this, the film is engaging due almost entirely to the stellar foursome of Crosby, Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen in the leading roles.  The four have an obvious and deep chemistry, and they bring such warmth to the characters that the lack of character development is hardly noticeable, similar to the way in which the Rat Pack charmed audiences in their film efforts despite little characterization with which to work.

It's a shame that the sole song from White Christmas that received a nomination was "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep."  Many of the film's best songs, including "Snow," "What Can You Do With a General?," and the title song were recycled from previous films or stage shows, and thus ineligible for the Oscar.  Instead, the nomination went to a generic ballad so boring that its listener will have no need to count sheep nor blessings in order to fall asleep.  The Academy Award went to the Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne standard "Three Coins in the Fountain."

Despite its shortcomings, there is much to love in White Christmas.  It has stood the test of time as one of the most beloved holiday classics for a reason, and it is a pleasure to watch.  Despite my reluctance to watch the movie, next year I'll make sure to sit down and watch it with her.  As every married man is used to saying regularly, my wife was right.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Christmas Under Fire (1941)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Documentary - British Ministry of Information

Watch Christmas Under Fire at http://veevr.com/videos/TDgnglVA

It is not terribly surprising that most of the documentaries nominated for Academy Awards during World War II focused on the war.  For the Oscar ceremony held on February 26, 1942, nominated documentaries included such films as Churchill's Island, Bomber, Norway in Revolt, Soldiers of the Sky, Warclouds in the Pacific, and a pair of films from the British Ministry of Information, A Letter From Home and Christmas Under Fire.  These films ranged from blatant and borderline ridiculous propaganda that can only been appreciated when one reminds him/herself repeatedly that "this is from a different era"to some surprising gems.  Though Christmas Under Fire has some uncomfortable moments "of its time," namely a reference to the non-western world as uncivilized, it is a moving, simple documentary short.

Featuring narration by journalist Quentin Reynolds (of The Man Who Wouldn't Talk fame), Christmas Under Fire is one long montage of clips of Britons still celebrating Christmas despite enduring the Blitz by German bombers.  By the time of Christmas, 1940, the Blitz had already been in effect for more than three-and-a-half months, and some of the images captured depicting the effects of the Blitz are unforgettable.  One in particular which comes at the end of the film, shows dozens of people camped out and celebrating Christmas in the Tube.  It is hard to imagine just how much Britons endured during the more than eight months they were under siege.

Most of the wartime documentaries are interesting as historical relics, but few are actually compelling in the present day.  Christmas Under Fire is one of the few exceptions.

Der Fuehrer's Face (1942)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Short Subject, Cartoons - Walt Disney

There is something surreal and very disturbing about watching Donald Duck, a classic piece of Americana, dressed in a Nazi uniform and shouting (or quacking) "Heil Hitler!"  But "Der Fuehrer's Face" isn't pro-Nazi propaganda.  Instead, it is pro-America propaganda: funny and effective pro-America propaganda.  

Donald dreams himself to be a Nazi factory worker, blindly and only partly-unhappily going through the mindless routine of building Nazi munitions before the mindlessness of it causes him to fall into a daze.  This sequence is wonderfully weird and surreal and shows why Walt Disney cartoons, though lacking the madcap humor of the Warner Bros. efforts of the time, were far ahead in their artistic ambitions.  

"Der Fuehrer's Face" isn't the best of the Disney shorts, and the story doesn't go in enough directions to really develop.  The initial humor of Donald trying to keep up with the conveyor belt of munitions is funny, but it goes on too long and fails to go in any unexpected directions.  Still, this is one of the better pieces of American anti-Naza propaganda, and by far one of the least treacly.  It is definitely worth a view, if for nothing else than for its weirdness.

After noticing some discrepancies in my spreadsheet that tracks the project, I am double checking every entry.  I will have an updated count of Films, Oscars, and Nominations remaining once this process is completed.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Christo's Valley Curtain (1974)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Documentary, Short Subjects - Albert Maysles and David Maysles

"Christo's Valley Curtain" represents the partnership of two teams of legends: brothers Albert and David Maysles, the legendary and groundbreaking documentary filmmakers, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the completely unique married visual artists.  This documentary short portrays Christo and Jeanne-Claude's efforts to hang a 400-meter long orange fabric across Rifle Gap, a valley in the Rocky Mountains.  The project required enormous amounts of materials, many hours of manpower, and, as is demonstrated in the documentary, stores of resourcefulness from Christo, Jeanne-Claude, and their team.

While I love the Valley Curtain project and find much of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work to be quite wonderful, I wasn't terribly impressed with the Maysles Brothers film.  Just because the story is a great one, if the story isn't told well it doesn't matter how good the tale is (see my previous review of "The Flight of the Gossamer Condor").  The Maysles Brothers cinema verite style, in which there is no narration and the filmmakers attempt to be "flys on the wall" as much as possible, can often feel disengaged, and with little discussion of what the people involved were feeling or even trying to accomplish, we're presented with what appears to be little more than a documentation of technical challenges, hardly thrilling or even interesting.

When the Valley Curtain is finally revealed toward the end of the film, it's hard not to be impressed, and I'm glad we have documentation of this project, especially considering the temporary nature of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's projects.  Still, this moment is all too brief, and despite some amazing shots of the curtain (my favorite show the golfers casually putting in front of the bright orange banner), there's just not enough story or emotion in this film.

Thanks to the generous uploading of the film by a YouTube member, you can watch "Christo's Valley Curtain" in the video files posted above.

Remaining: 3122 films, 857 Oscars, 5345 nominations

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kon-Tiki (2012)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film - Norway

There is little I appreciate more than a movie with a short running time.  With thousands of films still left to watch for my Every Oscar Ever project, coupled with my dwindling patience as I grow older, I get downright excitable any time I see a film length near 90 minutes.  Yet despite my initial glee at Kon-Tiki's lean running time, the film would have benefitted from enormously from taking greater time in telling the story of Thor Heyerdahl and his team's voyage on the Kon-Tiki.

The Kon-Tiki voyage is one of the great adventuring achievements of the 20th century, and whether or not Heyerdahl's hypothesis of Peruvians settling in Polynesia is correct - most agree that it is not - the adventure was an extraordinary achievement, captured in the 1950 Academy Award-winning documentary.  Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg's fictionalization of the voyage has some great moments, but the depiction of the voyage feels rushed, thus losing much of the inherent drama of the voyage.

After a few early scenes of Heyerdahl - played with great charm by Pal Sverre Hagen - first developing the idea of the Kon-Tiki and recruiting his team and raising funds, the rest of the movie is spent on the raft, and the filmmakers have done an excellent job depicting the close quarters of the raft and the effect that it had on the men.  The team faces a few obstacles - the near constant interest of sharks, uncooperative waves, and the absorption of water to name a few - but they deal with these challenges so quickly and expertly that they never feel significant enough.  Perhaps Heyerdahl's greatest strength was his unbending belief in himself and the voyage, but this lack of self-questioning serves to make him an underdeveloped character.  Because he never doubts he will succeed, the audience never really doubts he will succeed, and the challenges to the Kon-Tiki seem to be mere blips in the inevitable success of the voyage.

This is always a challenge in a historically-based film.  Did we ever doubt that they would make it back to Earth in Apollo 13 or that Lincoln would successfully shepherd the 13th Amendment of the Constitution to passage by the House of Representatives in Lincoln?  Even though we know the ultimate conclusion, expert storytelling can make the audience forget, even if only momentarily, the already known outcome of a story and feel real suspense.  Kon-Tiki falls short of this, and none of the obstacles create any real suspense.

The story of the Kon-Tiki is so thrilling that it's likely impossible to tell the story and not engender interest, and Kon-Tiki does not come anywhere close to challenging this assertion.  Despite the silliness of some of the made up elements of the film and the failure to create true suspense, there are far worse ways to spend less than two hours.

Remaining: 3123 films, 857 Oscars, 5346 nominations

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Captain Kidd (1945)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Werner Janssen

At the Academy Awards held on March 7, 1946, 21 films received nominations in the category of "Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture," giving 20 composers or composing teams the chance to lose on Oscar night.  Werner Janssen had the rare opportunity to lose three times, having been nominated for Guest in the House and The Southerner in addition to his work for Captain Kidd, losing out on the trophy to Miklos Rozsa for Spellbound (interesting note: Rozsa also was nominated three times in the category, losing to himself with his scores for The Lost Weekend and A Song to Remember).

Janssen shouldn't have been too surprised not to win for Captain Kidd, as the score doesn't come anywhere close to matching his work on The Southerner, a far more worthy scoring effort.  Like the rest of Captain Kidd, Janssen's score is underwhelming.  The film plods along at an excruciatingly slow pace despite its 90 minute running time, and Randolph Scott's wooden acting only makes the time go by more slowly.  Scott found favor playing stoic roles in westerns, though after viewing Captain Kidd I'm starting to think his performances didn't exhibit stoicism as much as a complete lack of ability to portray any emotion.

Yet the worse offender is Charles Laughton, one of the greatest actors in film history.  Laughton's performance as the pirate Captain Kidd makes Dustin Hoffman's performance in Hook seem subtle and nuanced in comparison.  He can't be accused of phoning the role in, since he is guilty of putting in too much effort, but he appears not to have taken the role seriously, simply playing the role broadly and without any depth.  As Johnny Depp proved almost six decades later, a great actor can make even a ridiculous pirate character a memorable one.

I've already forgotten most of the plot of Captain Kidd, an indication of how forgettable it was as much as a reminder of my failing short-term memory, and it's one of those films that a few years from now when I come across the film on television, I won't be sure at first whether I've seen it or not.

Remaining: 3124 films, 857 Oscars, 5347 nominations

Monday, September 30, 2013

Universe (1960)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Documentary, Short Subjects - Colin Low

Released just 11 months before Yuri Gagarin became the first person in outer space and 12 months before Alan Shepard became the first American to do so, "Universe" is a roughly 30 minute documentary released by the National Film Board of Canada which uses the work of the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill, Ontario to give a look at our known universe.  The film looks at each planet in our solar system, and also looks at asteroid belts and briefly at the stars beyond.

"Universe" was, according to the National Film Board of Canada's website, an inspiration to Stanley Kubrick in his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it's easy to see why.  Not merely a dry educational documentary, the film is beautifully shot, with moody shadows reminiscent of Richard Brooks's direction and Conrad Hall's cinematography for In Cold Blood.  The outer space effects are also remarkable, leaps and bounds ahead of the cheesy effects used for outer space scenes in most films of the era.  Roman Kroitor and Colin Low produced a remarkably artful film in "Universe," and as a result the film is as lively and engaging 53 years later as it must have been at the time of its release.

Remaining: 3125 films, 857 Oscars, 5348 nominations

Friday, September 27, 2013

Little Johnny Jet (1953)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Subject, Cartoons - Fred Quimby

"Little Johnny Jet" is an animated short made by the dream team of producer Fred Quimby, director Tex Allen, and screenwriter Heck Allen that made countless great shorts for MGM.  With Daws Butler - the voice of Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, and scores of other characters - providing the voice of Father Jet, this short had all the right parts to make for a classic.  There's nothing so creative or unexpected or hysterically funny about this film that should have earned it an Oscar nomination, but it's a clever and enjoyable short nonetheless, and is an interesting historic relic of the years immediately following the widespread adoption of the jet aircraft.

The U.S. introduced its first jet bomber, the B-45 Tornado, in 1948, just five years before this film was released, and the first commercial jet service was offered by BOAC in 1952.  This was all part of the widespread adoption of new technologies that came in the decade after World War II.  Commenting on the fears that many felt upon the dismissal of outdated technologies, "Little Johnny Jet" tells the story of Father Jet (Butler), an old-fashioned bomber plane who has lost his job due to the arrival of jets.  After learning he will soon have a child, he tries to reenlist in the military, but is turned away because his technology is outmoded.  With no options left to him, Father Jet enters a race against jets to prove his worth, but just after the race begins he quickly falls into a tailspin, hurtling toward his demise, only to be saved by his son, who saves him and helps him win the race.  The government orders more planes like Little Johnny Jet, and we see Father Jet worry as Mother Jet lets him know that more planes are on the way.

The plot is a straightforward one, and the humor is uncharacteristically minimal for a Tex Avery film.  What makes this film interesting is the subtext, with Father Jet representing the older generation who were being forced to move aside for the new generation of young men returning home from the war.  This older generation is depicted in the film as not having a chance, and it can only compete when saved by the younger generation.  Even when the older generation is victorious, the only job of the old generation is to enable the new generation.  Avery and Allen were both in their early 40's at the time of this film's release, straddling the two generations, though they seem to be joining the camp of the young in "Little Johnny Jet."  60 years later, in a time of great economic uncertainty where we are once again in a cycle of generational shift, "Little Johnny Jet" is remarkably more relevant than many of the funnier but less thematic offerings released by the dream team of MGM animation.

Remaining: 3126 films, 857 Oscars, 5349 nominations

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

No (2012)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film - Chile

Prior to last year, only three films had been nominated in the same year for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Film (Z, Life is Beautiful, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), with all three winning the Oscar in the latter category.  Thus when Amour became the fourth film to receive nominations in both categories last year, there was little doubt that it would receive the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film over its fellow nominees.  Even with little chance to win the Academy Award, it was truly a monumental achievement for the film No even to be nominated.  Shot on Sony U-matic tape by a director almost entirely unknown to American audiences and centering on a political event few Academy voters were likely to remember or even know about in the first place, No was still able to secure a nomination as a result of its compelling look at a potentially stultifying subject with a sharp screenplay from Pedro Peirano and a strong leading performance by Gael Garcia Bernal.

No tells the story of the national plebiscite of 1988, a referendum presented to Chilean voters in which they were able to either elect General Augusto Pinochet to another term or call for an open election in the following year.  Despite his initial reluctance and disinterest, star ad man Rene Saavedra agrees to produce television commercials for the "No" campaign, and he battles reluctance from his cohorts to bring the modern tools of television commercials to the campaign.  The film details this campaign and how this television advertising effort effected the election.

Gael Garcia Bernal as Rene Saavedra in No
Gael Garcia Bernal in No.  Courtesy of Sony Classics.
The film has been criticized by some, especially from within Chile, as glorifying the creation of modern political television advertising in Chile.  Though the film does claim credit for the "No" campaign's victory on the television commercials, to me the film is as much an indictment of modern advertising as it is a celebration of the achievement.  Rene is a gun for hire, showing nearly no affinity for his cause, despite his familial relationship to those who strongly support the campaign.  Even after the final vote is held (I won't reveal what happened, though I don't believe citing a historical event counts as a spoiler alert), Rene moves on to his other work without much real excitement.  Those who passionately support the "No" campaign are so caught up in their passions that they are not able to see through the eyes of the majority of voters, and only the disinterested Rene is able to craft an effective campaign.  In No television advertising is a soulless and uncaring medium, but it is the only medium that matters.

No reminded me of one of my favorite eras of filmmaking, the bygone era of films like The Candidate and All the President's Men, smart political films that drew its excitement from the machinations of power.  No is the best example of one of these films I have seen in years, perhaps the best since Michael Clayton, and were it not for the emotional beauty of Amour, it might just have snuck away with an Oscar.

Remaining: 3127 films, 857 Oscars, 5350 nominations

Monday, September 16, 2013

Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo tango a Parigi) (1972)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Director - Bernardo Bertolucci
Nomination: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Marlon Brando

For someone whose formative decade, both as a person and as a cinephile, was the 1990s, its hard to comprehend just how shocking Last Tango in Paris was upon its debut at the New York Film Festival in October, 1972 and in its full American release in early 1973.  The film's frank and graphic depiction of the combination of sexuality and violence notoriously shocked audiences, and audiences were getting into the habit of being shocked by sexuality in film, with Last Tango in Paris coming only months after the release of Deep Throat (1972).  But unlike Deep Throat, which was a silly adult film starring a then unknown Linda Lovelace and directed by a still unknown Jerry Gerard, Last Tango in Paris was directed by the up-and-coming auteur Bernardo Bertolucci and, most significantly, starred Marlon Brando, one of the biggest stars in film history coming off of one of the greatest roles in film history, that of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather.  To see the face of Terry Malloy, Stanley Kowalski, Johnny Strabler, Fletcher Christian, and Don Corleone committing acts of previously unfilmable sexual violence must have been an experience like no other, and I have no difficulty in understanding why this film was so passionately received.

Unfortunately, this context does not exist 40 years later, and the film is forced to stand on its own merits, divorced from the time in which it was made.  While it is a bit much to say that the emperor has no clothes, he is, at most, scantily clad.

The film's two leads, Paul (Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) are largely anonymous to each other, not exchanging names or their personal histories, and it is this anonymity that drives their relationship, especially on Jeanne's end.  In contrast to her boyfriend Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a filmmaker directing a film about Jeanne that chronicles her life so closely that she is left with absolutely no anonymity, her attraction Paul burns until their anonymity is shattered.  This is a rich premise, and by avoiding the easy exposition of most films in which characters explain themselves to each other, screenwriters Bertolucci and Franco Arcalli can reveal the characters to each other, and the audience, more artfully through what goes unsaid between the two.  Where the screenplay falls short, however, is that there is very little revealed either directly or indirectly through the scenes Paul and Jeanne share, and instead the majority of the character development comes in the scenes in which the characters spend apart.  These revelations of character are far less artful, at times becoming downright clunky.

These moments are indicative of the film's greatness weakness, its heavy-handedness.  Despite its moments of subtly, Bertolucci doesn't trust his audience enough to leave anything subtle for long, instead pounding home every point.  The theme, composed by Gato Barbieri, is lush and haunting, but is used far too melodramatically, driving the scenes instead of accentuating them.  Brando, rarely content to be subtle, only accentuates this problem.  Though he is actually restrained by his own standards, he pounces on every chance to announce the themes of the film as loudly as possible.

The discussion of Maria Schneider's contribution to the film largely focuses on the scenes of sexual depravity, but she deserves to be acknowledged for an impressive contribution.  Still a teenager during the film's shooting, Schneider faced the dual challenge of holding her own against one of the greatest (and most difficult) actors in film while being directed by Bertolucci, who she never forgave for her poor treatment on the set.  Despite all of this, she is outstanding in the film, and though her performance isn't nuanced in the way of Brando's, she exudes a sense of effortlessness that can only come from great effort.

Though the film has much going for it, at its conclusion I was left thinking "Is that all there is?"  I expected to have a passionate reaction to the film, either positive or negative, and instead I was left surprised only by my indifference.  It seems that the greatness of Last Tango in Paris came from its groundbreaking nature, and now he ground has not only been broken but dug so deeply that there isn't much left for the film to stand on.

Remaining: 3128 films, 857 Oscars, 5351 nominations

Friday, September 13, 2013

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long) (2000)

4 Wins, 10 Nominations

Win: Best Foreign Language Film - Taiwan
Win: Best Cinematography - Peter Pau
Win: Best Art Direction, Set Decoration - Timmy Yip
Win: Best Music, Original Score - Tan Dun
Nomination: Best Picture - William Kong, Li-Kong Hsu, and Ang Lee
Nomination: Best Director - Ang Lee
Nomination: Best Costume Design - Timmy Yip
Nomination: Best Film Editing - Tim Squyres
Nomination: Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay - Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, and Kuo Jung Tsai
Nomination: Best Music, Original Song - Jorge Calandrelli, Tan Dun, and James Schamus for "A Love Before Time."

Oftentimes when a filmmaker that the Academy deems to be "Oscar worthy" makes a genre film, the Academy will heap praise - and nominations - on the film, even if there have been superior films in the genre ignored by the Academy due to the absence of an "Oscar worthy" filmmaker.  The wuxia film has existed for nearly a century, but until "serious filmmaker" Ang Lee introduced the genre to the west with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the genre remained largely unknown and entirely unrecognized by the Academy.  Blown away by the theatrics and technical achievement of the film, the Academy responded with ten nominations and four Oscars.  This is not to say that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an unremarkable film; in fact, it is a worthy film with quite remarkable below-the-line achievements in categories including cinematography, art direction, and costume design.  Still, it's hard not to think that if the Academy was familiar with previous efforts of the wuxia genre, the members of the Academy might have been less enamored with the creativity of the film.

According to Box Office Mojo, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had a mere $17 million budget, and its absolutely remarkable what Ang Lee and his team was able to put on screen for this amount of money.  Though I didn't love the film nearly as much as audiences did in 2000 (to the tune of $128 million in domestic gross), the film has a haunting melancholy to it that is prevalent in many of Lee's films.  Part of this comes from the direction, but it is also the result of strong performances by Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, each never better than they were in this film.

Anyone who saw last year's Life of Pi knows that Lee is a masterful visual director, and in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon he has created a visual world just as stunning as the one in Life of Pi.  Lee's visual team of Peter Pau and Timmy Yip were both deservedly rewarded for the film's visuals, and the film likely would have picked up the award for editing if not for Stephen Mirrione's work on Traffic.

Perhaps if I had seen the film upon its original release, I would have been swept up in the same euphoria that audiences at the time experienced, but 12 years later and with a working knowledge of wuxia films, I just couldn't lose myself in the film the way audiences did when it was first released.  Still, it is without a doubt an impressive technical achievement and a sincere, well made film.

Remaining: 3129 films, 857 Oscars, 5353 nominations

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Alamo (1960)

7 Nominations, 1 Win

Win: Best Sound - Gordon Sawyer and Fred Hynes
Nomination: Best Picture - John Wayne
Nomination: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Chill Wills
Nomination: Best Cinematography, Color - William H. Clothier
Nomination: Best Film Editing - Stuart Gilmore
Nomination: Best Music, Original Song - Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster for "The Green Leaves of Summer"
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Dimitri Tiomkin

Hollywood has now taken three cracks at telling the story of the Battle of the Alamo: The Last Command (1955), The Alamo (1960), and The Alamo (2004).  One would think that the story of one of the most eulogized battles in American history in which a brave group of soldiers fought bravely against a far superior military force would make for an easy film adaptation, but each telling of the story has fallen far short of the potential offered by the true event.

The 1960 version of The Alamo was John Wayne's passion project, and he labored for years at great personal expense to see the film reach the big screen.  While the scope of the film with its hundreds of extras and expansive set is certainly impressive, the film is all spectacle and little substance.  Every character is one dimensional, given to long rants, with no one showing any subtlety or nuance of character.  Wayne always played a version of his famous screen persona, but the lack of variation in his acting is never more obvious than in The Alamo.  Were it not for the coonskin hat, there would be no way of knowing that John Wayne was playing David Crockett, or for that matter anyone other than "The Duke" persona.  It would be like Charlie Chaplin putting on a coonskin hat but still acting like the Little Tramp.  The film also offers no real understanding of the political or military issues surrounding the battle, and the audience is instead left with the message that the Mexican soldiers were mere marauders (though gallant marauders) and the Texans were brave soldiers defending their homeland.  It's fine if Wayne wants to view history in this manner, but by robbing the script of any deeper look at the issue, we are presented with a simple battle film with no real weight to it.

Unfortunately, even the spectacle is underwhelming.  As flat as Wayne's performance is in The Alamo, his direction is far worse.  Scenes consist of little more than an unmoving camera in a medium shot, followed by another static medium shot, and then another.  Occasionally when Wayne is feeling especially daring, he'll introduce a pan, but that's about the extent of his sense of visual flair.  Everything is shot in full light with no use of shadows or color.  Most unforgivably, the final battle is shown in full daylight, despite the battle taking place in the dawn hours under much darkness.  I'm not a stickler for historical accuracy in film, but in a film mostly devoid of any shadows or darkness, Wayne passed on a key opportunity to make a visual impact.

Dimitri Tiomkin, the recipient of 22 Oscar nominations and four Academy Awards in his illustrious career, could often save even the most mediocre films with great scores, but his effort in The Alamo is generic.  The same can be said for Stuart Gilmore's editing, which is just fine but far short of the work done by Daniel Mandell in The Apartment.  It's a cinematic crime that both Tiomkin and Gilmore were nominated over the work of Bernard Herrmann and George Tomasini for Psycho, but the Academy had a history of undervaluing Alfred Hitchcock's films.

The Alamo has long been criticized for being little more than a mouthpiece for John Wayne's political views during the Cold War.  Though I disagree with nearly all of Wayne's politics, I have no problem with a filmmaker including his personal beliefs in his work.  However, the themes of The Alamo were included so hamhandedly that the film couldn't help but be a failure, and Wayne's limp direction left me with a deeper appreciation than ever for John Ford.

Remaining: 3130 films, 861 Oscars, 5363 nominations

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Elmer Gantry (1960)

5 Nominations, 2 Wins

Win: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Burt Lancaster
Win: Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Shirley Jones
Win: Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium - Richard Brooks
Nomination: Best Picture - Bernard Smith
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Andre Previn

At the Academy Award ceremony held in 1954, the only year in which Burt Lancaster had received a nomination (for From Here to Eternity) prior to his win for Elmer Gantry, he was nominated against Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Montgomery Clift, and the victorious William Holden, quite the Murderer's Row of stars.  Seven years later, Lancaster faced an even more esteemed group of actors in Laurence Olivier, Spencer Tracy, Jack Lemmon, and Trevor Howard.  Yet it's hard to imagine that there was any real doubt that Lancaster would take home the Oscar for his performance as the slick salesman who uses his skills and charm on the evangelical revivalist circuit.  Playing the title role, a darker version of The Music Man's Professor Harold Hill, Lancaster's undeniable charm and signature cheshire cat grin make him an entirely convincing and deeply sympathetic con man in a wonderful film well deserving of its three Academy Awards and five nominations.

Elmer Gantry is all at once a salesman with the gift of gab, a seducer of women, a man with few morales, and a gifted preacher, and Lancaster manages to portray each side of Gantry with equal ease.  This isn't a role that calls for the type of tortured introspection common in so many Oscar winning roles, but instead an effortless charm and allure that few actors can pull off with anywhere near as much grace as Lancaster.  Yet it's not just a breezy role, and it's the darkness in the charm that makes Elmer Gantry an unforgettable character.

Of course, Lancaster's performance isn't the only jewel of the film.  There are several strong supporting performances from a talented cast, but none are stronger than Shirley Jones's turn as a spurned ex-lover of Gantry who has fallen into a life of prostitution.  Aside from a few breezy roles in films like The Music Man, as well as her best known role in The Partridge Family, I was largely unaware of Jones as a serious actress, and I walked away from the film almost as impressed by her as I was by Lancaster.  Aside from being effortlessly and stunningly beautiful, Jones gives quite the bravura performance in Elmer Gantry, shunning the easy choice to play a woe-as-me victim and instead giving the role real power and rage, despite the script's weakness in developing her character.  Jones takes what could have easily been a throwaway role and turned it into the role of a lifetime, and she was justly rewarded with the Academy Award.

Despite underdeveloping Jones's character, Richard Brooks's screenplay is sharp, especially in its crisp, lively dialogue.  Brooks was faced with crafting Gantry's sermons, which had to be both convincing enough to explain the conversion of the followers but also believable coming out of the mouth of an unordained con-man.  Though he had a lot of help from Lancaster's delivery, Brooks's dialogue more than carries its weight.  The third act sags a bit, and I am unfamiliar with the source material and I can't say for sure whether this is the fault of Brooks or the original material, but even with this fault the script is still excellent.

The film's final two nominations came for its score and for Best Picture.  The score is solid if unremarkable, and Andre Previn's four Oscars came for far superior efforts (Gigi, Porgy and Bess, Irma La Douce, and My Fair Lady).  Elmer Gantry was a strong contender for Best Picture, and of the four films nominated that year that I have seen (along with The Apartment, The Alamo, and Sons and Lovers; I have not seen The Sundowners), it is tied for my second favorite with Sons and Lovers, with the Oscar winning The Apartment taking the spot as my favorite film of the year.  Elmer Gantry is a very good film, but The Apartment is a true classic, and, for me, the choice was clear which was the Best Picture of the year.

Remaining: 3131 films, 862 Oscars, 5370 nominations

Monday, August 12, 2013

Henry (2011)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Film, Live Action - Yan England

Amour was a heartbreaking and harrowing tale of indignities that can come with growing older, but it wasn't even the most frightening film about aging nominated for an Academy Award last year.  The short film "Henry," directed by Yan England, is a terrifying yet entirely sincere look at the horrors that come with memory loss from aging.

Gerad Poirier plays Henry, an elderly man confused by what is happening to him as his wife goes missing.  England wisely confines us to Henry's viewpoint for most of the film, putting the audience in the same sense of confusion as Henry as both protagonist and audience attempts to put the pieces together.  Though the conceit should become evident to the viewer rather quickly, as it is intended to, it is no less harrowing watching Henry as he struggles to determine what is happening around him.

Part thriller and part emotional drama, "Henry" is a well made film that is touching without becoming sentimental.

Remaining: 3132 films, 865 Oscars, 5375 nominations

Monday, August 5, 2013

Death of a Shadow / Dood van een Schaduw (2012)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Film, Live Action - Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele

The last few years have marked a career breakthrough for actor Matthias Schoenaerts, a 35 year old who has been acting for over a decade but is just now coming to worldwide attention.  His leading roles in Rust and Bone and Bullhead opened up new doors for him, and over the next year he'll appear in Alan Rickman's upcoming directorial effort A Little Chaos and the adaptation of the novel Suite Francaise.  

During the time of these career-making roles, Schoenaerts also appeared in a strange but beautiful short film made by writer/director Tom Van Avermaet, "Dood van een Schaduw," translated as "Death of a Shadow."  Just over 20 minutes in length, the film tells the story of Nathan Rijckx, a deceased World War I soldier who is tasked with capturing the shadows of 10,000 dead people for a collector, in return for returning to life.  While on one of these missions, he sees that the woman he loved before his death is now in love with another soldier, and decides to capture the shadow of this soldier and return to life shortly after his rival's death to reclaim his love.

This detailed and complicated concept would take nearly twenty minutes to describe in a feature length film, but Van Avermaet introduces it with such grace and subtlety that the exposition never feels clunky for a moment.  The film is also beautifully shot with deep, rich colors, and the expressiveness of Schoenarts's face is intensely striking.  

The film is neither comic nor emotionally wrenching, the two qualities that seem to describe every film nominated in the Best Short Film Live Action category every year.  It is instead a lovely and genuine short that I will likely remember long after I have forgotten most of the feature length efforts from the same year.

Remaining: 3133 films, 865 Oscars, 5376 nominations

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blood and Sand (1941)

2 Nominations, 1 Win

Win: Best Cinematography, Color - Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan
Nomination: Best Art Direction, Interior Decoration, Color - Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright, and Thomas Little

I reviewed the recent 20th Century Fox Classics Blu-ray release of Blood and Sand for the website DVD Verdict.  The review is available here.

Remaining: 3134 films, 865 Oscars, 5377 nominations

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Southerner (1945)

3 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Director - Jean Renoir
Nomination: Best Sound, Recording - Jack Whitney (Sound Services Inc.)
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Werner Janssen

The recent release of Renoir (2012) got me thinking about filmmaker Jean Renoir, son of the famed painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and I realized that I had seen few of the master's films, and not in many years.  I took a look at his filmography, and keeping the Every Oscar Ever project in mind, added to my Netflix queue the movie for which he received his single competitive Academy Award nomination, The Southerner.

The tale of a poor farming family struggling to survive, The Southerner is an absolutely beautiful visual film, and it's stunning that it didn't receive an Oscar nomination for Lucien Andriot's cinematography.  The Southerner is in the public domain, and like many public domain films, the commercially available prints are atrocious and guilty of cinematic misconduct.  The disc I rented from Netflix was almost unwatchable, yet even with the terrible picture quality the beauty of Andriot's camerawork and Renoir's direction were evident.

The visual accomplishments aren't the only successes of The Southerner, which also features a great screenplay (William Faulkner was a co-writer) and a strong leading performance from Zachary Scott, an actor who has been unfortunately largely forgotten due to his early demise.  Films about poor rural people are often condescending statements of pity from city-dwelling artists, but The Southerner demonstrates great empathy and understanding toward its characters.  It is both unflinching and sensitive, and is unusually frank for its time.

Try your best to find a good print of The Southerner if you plan to watch it, because the print I saw was not worthy of this beautiful film.

Remaining: 3135 films, 866 Oscars, 5379 nominations

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

3 Nominations, 1 Win

Win: Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing - Cecelia Hall and George Watters II
Nomination: Best Film Editing - Dennis Virkler and John Wright
Nomination: Best Sound - Richard Bryce Goodman, Richard Overton, Kevin F. Cleary, and Don J. Bassman

Released during the final throes of the Cold War, The Hunt for Red October is very much a film of its time.  Yet because of its avoidance of silly Soviet stereotypes and refusal to characterize the Soviets as simple baddies, The Hunt for Red October remains a fun and worthwhile political thriller even nearly 22 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Based on Tom Clancy's debut novel, The Hunt for Red October tells the story of Jack Ryan's (Alec Baldwin) efforts to aide in the defection of Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) and the safe delivery of a Russian nuclear submarine as he contends with the tense political machinations found in every Tom Clancy tale.

Reportedly, the narrative was so realistic that many military types were uncomfortable when the novel was first published, believing Clancy had illegally accessed and used classified material.  The story is indeed cleverly plotted, but there are some problems.  First, because we learn early in the film that Ramius is planning to defect and not threatening the American eastern seaboard as initially feared, there's little suspense  and no antagonist beside the vague awareness of the Russian navy.  The film would have benefited by leaving the audience in the dark for a longer time regarding Ramius's true intentions.  Also, though Jack Ryan makes a few heroic moves in order to put himself in the position to save the day, he is largely a bystander with little direct effect on the action; The Hunt for Red October is clearly Ramius's movie.  Though the final conflict is cleverly designed, it seems beside the point and not enough of a direct result of the previous action of the movie.

Despite its structural problems, John McTiernan and his fellow filmmakers clearly put great care into the movie, lifting it from a forgettable political thriller to a very well made film.  Basil Poledouris's score is top notch, Jan de Bont does wonders with his cinematography under the beyond challenging limitations of filming in such tight quarters, and the supporting cast is made up of some of the best actors around.  It's hard to recall how many times I exclaimed "HE'S in this movie too?!"

The Hunt for Red October was enormously popular, and it's not hard to see why.  It's clever and twisty without being confusing, action-packed without being violent, and the story was rooted in the real world deeply enough to create a sense that the actions of the characters had actual consequences.  It's not a perfect film and needed more work in the early stages of writing, but it's a top-notch effort and still holds up long after the end of the Cold War.

Remaining: 3136 films, 866 Oscars, 5382 nominations

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Country Strong (2010)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song - Troy Verges, Tom Douglas, and Hillary Lindsey

It's a fine line between Oscar bait and manipulative tripe.  It is hard to point to exactly what separates Crazy Heart and Country Strong, two films with a similar subject matter but vastly different in quality.  Both films tell the story of country music singers battling their addictions and dealing with newer and younger competitors.  But while Crazy Heart treats the subject with sincerity and maturity, Country Strong is more of a paint-by-numbers type movie that seems contrived almost entirely to deliver Oscar gold, instead offering little but cliches.
Gwyneth Paltrow Tim McGraw Garrett Hedlund Leighton Meester
Country Strong poster, courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays a country diva who is battling addictions and recovering from an emotional breakdown triggered by a tragedy in her life, forced by her husband to go back out on the road before she has completed her treatment.  This gives Paltrow plenty of opportunities to ham it up, eschewing any sense of subtlety for maximum hysterics at every possible moment.  It's been said that the best way to act drunk is to play someone who is trying not to appear drunk, but Paltrow does pretty much exactly the opposite.  Garrett Hedlund works hard to bring some sense of realism to his scenes with Paltrow, but she is too busy chewing the scenery to notice.

It should come as a surprise to no one who has seen Duets or an episode of Glee that Paltrow can sing, and Hedlund is more than credible as a rebel country singer.  Though Leighton Meester isn't the best singer, her talents are appropriate for a character whose rising star is based far more on her looks than her vocal abilities.

Country Strong received only one nomination, which went to Troy Verges, Tom Douglas, and Hillary Lindsey for the unremarkable song "Coming Home," which I forgot the moment it ended.  There's nothing wrong with the song, but it doesn't even began to compare to the sophistication of Randy Newman's winning effort from Toy Story 3, "We Belong Together."

Country Strong is an absolute stinker and in hot contention with The Wolfman for the worst Oscar nominated film of the 83rd Academy Awards.

Remaining: 3137 films, 867 Oscars, 5385 nominations

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Sons and Lovers (1960)

7 Nominations, 1 Win

Win: Best Cinematography, Black and White - Freddie Francis
Nomination: Best Picture - Jerry Wald
Nomination: Best Director - Jack Cardiff
Nomination: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Trevor Howard
Nomination: Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Mary Ure
Nomination: Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Black and White - Thomas N. Morahan and Lionel Couch
Nomination: Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium - Gavin Lambert and T.E.B. Clarke

I reviewed Sons and Lovers for the website DVD Verdict.  The review is available here.

Remaining: 3138 films, 867 Oscars, 5386 nominations

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Key Largo (1948)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Claire Trevor

Key Largo is, for lack of a better term, a chamber noir.  With a hurricane bearing down on the Largo Hotel in Key Largo, Florida, the film's characters are stuck together in the hotel, where the great majority of the film's action takes place.  This is a promising enough premise, but with a cast consisting of Humphrey Bogart, Edgard G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, Lauren Bacall, and Claire Trevor under the direction of John Huston, Key Largo is an engrossing, taut little drama.

One of the strengths of Key Largo is that it allows each performer to play completely to type: Bogart as the tough talking antihero whose self preservation instincts are challenged by the desire to do the right thing, Robinson as the fierce and menacing gangster, Barrymore as the cranky and obstreperous patriarch, Bacall as the mysterious ingenue, and Trevor as the bad girl.  Instead of leading to predictability, this casting is instead a sort of noir "dream team," and it is a pleasure to watch each of these performers in the roles they are well known for interact with one another.

The film's screenplay, adapted by Richard Brooks and John Huston from a play by Maxwell Anderson, doesn't tell a terribly compelling story, though the dialogue is crisp and perfectly suited for the film's stars.  But even without a great story, Key Largo is about watching these great performers interact with one another in a closed setting, and in this the film is an absolute joy to watch.

The film's sole nomination came for Claire Trevor's performance as the alcoholic companion of Edward G. Robinson's character, and Trevor's performance earned her the Academy Award (she was nominated twice more in her career for the films Dead End (1937) and The High and the Mighty (1954)).  Playing an alcoholic is a great way to win an Oscar, but Trevor avoids many of the standard tropes of the alcoholic performance.  The scene in which she sings a song in order to earn a drink is absolutely devastating, and her reaction when the drink is then denied to her is even more painful.  When Bogart's character defies Robinson's and gives her the drink anyway, the relief is palpable, a sign of the effectiveness of Trevor's performance.

The final of four films starring Bogart and Bacall, Key Largo is less about their relationship than their other films.  Though their chemistry is as obvious as always, it seems almost beside the point.  The film dips into sentimentality by the end, and a starker ending would have been a more natural conclusion.  Still, Key Largo is a fine chamber film that proves that a noir film need not be set on shadow-filled city streets.

Remaining: 3139 films, 868 Oscars, 5393 nominations

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Facing Your Danger (1946)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Short Subject, One Reel - Gordon Hollingshead

Produced as part of the Warner Bros. Sports Parade series, "Facing Your Danger" documents the attempt by Norman Nevills and his team to navigate the perilous Colorado River through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead via rowboats. On their voyage they stop to visit Native American sites and the wreckage of previous adventurers, though the majority of the film is spent chronicling in stunning color footage the smashing of the rowboats through vicious rapids.  What the filmmakers were able to capture with 1946 film technology is amazing, and this technical feat is clearly what caused the Academy to believe the film to be worthy of an Oscar.

"Facing Your Danger" is a very simple film with little in the way of narrative or character, but as a document of a stunning accomplishment, it is an overwhelming success.  If you ever see this film on the schedule of Turner Classic Movies, make sure to do what I did and set your DVR.  I can pretty much guarantee that you'll be impressed by the bravery of Nevills and his crew and the technological achievement of Gordon Hollingshead.

Remaining: 3140 films, 869 Oscars, 5394 nominations

Monday, June 10, 2013

Show Boat (1951)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Cinematography, Color - Charles Rosher
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of Musical Picture - Adolph Deutsch and Conrad Salinger

The importance of the stage musical Show Boat cannot be overstated.  Before it premiered on Broadway in 1927, the theater world had never seen anything like Show Boat, a show in which the musical numbers advance a serious plot, rather than existing as a series of unrelated or only marginally related songs.  It is one of the most significant shows in the history of musical theater, and despite many of the themes no longer being relevant in society, the show has aged remarkably well in the 86 years since its debut.

The film adaptation of Show Boat is a dramatic departure from the musical, both due to the evolution of musical theater between 1927 and 1951 and because of racial themes.  The film tones down many of these issues, though a surprising amount is maintained.  Without these themes, there's not much substance left to the story beyond the tale of a gambler who abandons his family.  There are some great songs along the way, but with the exception of the breathtaking rendition of "Ol' Man River" by William Warfield, there are no indelible moments.  The story limps along slowly to its snooze of an ending, leaving little memorable in its wake.

Howard Keel is his usual charming self, stealing scenes with his booming baritone and not a hint of subtlety.  Kathryn Grayson is fine but unspectacular, Ava Gardner gives one of her better performances, and Joe E. Brown and Agnes Moorehead are their usual wonderful selves.

The film's two nominations came for its cinematography and its score, both highlights of the film.  The film's cinematography is pleasant if unambitious, but the "Ol' Man River" scene with its haunting fog and dim lighting deserved the nomination by itself (it lost the award to An American in Paris, clearly the superior effort).  The score is also top notch, and likely would have won the Oscar if not for, once again, An American in Paris and its superb score.  In most other years, Show Boat would have won one and possibly two Academy Awards.

Remaining: 3141 films, 870 Oscars, 5395 nominations

Sunday, June 9, 2013


While going through my Every Oscar Ever spreadsheet, I noticed that I had two separate entries for Les dimanches de Ville d'Avray (Sundays and Cybele), which was nominated for Academy Awards in two different years.  The film was nominated and won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1963, and received two nominations the following year for its score and screenplay.  I had counted the film twice, and thus should be 3,142 films remaining, not 3,143.  I still have 5,397 nominations remaining.  I also noticed that somewhere along the way, I incorrectly got off on my Oscar count, and now only have 870 Oscars left, not 871.  Thus, my current updated numbers are...

Remaining: 3142 films, 870 Oscars, 5397 nominations

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Chasing Ice (2012)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song - J. Ralph for the song "Before My Time"

Though it missed out on a nomination in the Best Documentary Feature category after being named to the short list with 14 other documentaries, Chasing Ice received a nomination in the Best Original Song category for the song "Before My Time."  The song, performed by Scarlett Johansson on vocals and Joshua Bell on violin, was nominated over efforts performed by such well known names as Katy Perry, Rick Ross, Fiona Apple, and, of course, Matthew McConaughey.

Chasing Ice is the story of Extreme Ice Survey, an organization led by photographer James Balog that uses photography to document the melting of glaciers due to global climate change.  The team has over come some remarkable challenges to install time lapse cameras that provide an alarming visual record of the shrinking glaciers that helps take the problem out of the realm of charts and graphs and into truly terrifying photographs.

Chasing Ice largely focuses on Balog and his colleagues, but occasionally tries to zoom out a bit and take a bigger scope by looking at the larger problem of global warming, briefly looking at the so-called "scientific debate" about climate change.  These moments are done well, but the film is at its best when showing the efforts of EIS and the resulting photographs and footage they recorded.  The unforgettable highlight of the film is the sequence that shows the glacier calving at the Jakobshavn Glacier in western Greenland.  The original footage is 75 minutes in length, the longest glacier calving ever capture on film, and though Chasing Ice is only able to show a few minutes of this event, it's a brutally powerful sequence that will likely affect people's concerns about climate change more than most scientific data.

The song "Before My Time" comes at the end of the film, and it's a moody and haunting song that fits the tone of the film well.  I've listened to the song on its own, and though it doesn't work as well outside of the context of the film, Oscar nominated songs are considered based on how they work in the film, and "Before My Time" is a nice fit.  Scarlett Johansson's voice has a rough smokiness to it that adds to the song's haunting tone, and Bell's violion is unsurprisingly lovely.

I wasn't terribly impressed by the filmmaking in Chasing Ice, and I can see why the film was not ultimately nominated for Best Documentary, but the subject is perhaps the most important subject we face as a species, and the footage made by Balog and his team is essential viewing.

Remaining: 3143 films, 871 Oscars, 5397 nominations

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Funny Face (1957)

4 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Cinematography - Ray June
Nomination: Best Costume Design - Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy
Nomination: Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen - Leonard Gershe
Nomination: Best Art Direction, Set Decoration - Hal Pereira, George W. Davis, Sam Comer, and Ray Davis

Funny Face is one of those classic films that I felt like I had already seen even though I had never watched it, likely due to the ubiquity of the image of Audrey Hepburn dancing in skinny black pants (perhaps it was just watching this commercial so many times that made me feel that I had already seen the movie).  I figured it was time to finally give Funny Face a proper viewing and enjoy it as a film instead of iconography.  Unfortunately, little in the film worked for me outside of the iconography.

Funny Face tells the story of a bookish young woman who, despite her initial intellectual dismissal of the fashion industry, soon becomes a part of the world she once looked down upon.  Sound like a certain film starring Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep?  Indeed, Funny Face is The Devil Wears Prada without the devil, and this is the root problem with the film.  It's a narrative largely devoid of conflict.  The screenplay throws in a few minor roadbumps in the romance romance between the characters portrayed by Hepburn and Fred Astaire, but they don't add up to much and there's little to stand between the characters other than their own idiocy.  Hepburn's character is unlikable, Astaire's is uninteresting, and their romance is unconvincing.

Yet those who reflect fondly on Funny Face rarely mention the romance of the characters, instead reminiscing about the fashion.  Indeed, Givenchy's costume work is stunning, and though the dresses aren't as iconic as his work in Sabrina, Givenchy and Edith Head were well deserving of their Oscar nomination.  Astaire's dancing is great as always, though there are fewer opportunities for him to dance than in his best works.  Of course, it is Hepburn's dance that is best remembered, and though the scene comes off as more than a bit goofy in the context of the film, it's easy to see why it has gained such iconic status.

If you're an Audreyphile or a fashionista, Funny Face will be up your alley, but otherwise you can just watch the GAP commercial.

Remaining: 3144 films, 871 Oscars, 5398 nominations

Monday, May 6, 2013

Vivacious Lady (1938)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Cinematography - Robert De Grasse
Nomination: Best Sound, Recording - James Wilkinson (RKO Radio SSD)

George Stevens was one of the great "actors' directors" in film history, directing performers to 18 Academy Award nominations and two Oscars in his career, while picking up a pair of Best Director trophies for himself in the process.  Though he had made a couple of dozen short films prior to Vivacious Lady, he was relatively new to feature films, and only Alice Adams in 1935 had earned an Oscar nomination for a performer (though three of his other films - Swing Time, Quality Street, and A Damsel in Distress - had earned nominations in other categories).

For Vivacious Lady, Stevens teamed up with two performers undergoing periods of transition in their careers.  James Stewart had found success in his early roles, but was just beginning his partnership with Frank Capra that would result in many of his greatest films and make him a screen legend.  Ginger Rogers was in the process of ending her partnership with Fred Astaire and was moving toward a greater focus on non-musical films.

Vivacious Lady saw these three legends-in-the-making come together to make a lighthearted and largely forgettable film.  The film is the story of a young botanist (Stewart) who falls in love with a nightclub singer (Rogers) on a trip to bring home his ne'er-do-well cousin (James Ellison).  The two marry after only one day of knowing each other, and Stewart's character must figure out how to tell his father (Charles Coburn), the president of the university where he works.  Once the cat is out of the bag, everyone is predictably displeased, and hijinks predictably ensue.

Vivacious Lady is one of those romantic comedies that is neither terribly romantic nor comedic.  The film gets by on the boyish charm of a young Jimmy Stewart and the lighthearted sass of Ginger Rogers.  Both give safe but likable performances, relying on their considerable charisma more than any acting chops.  The script moves along briskly and mostly effortlessly, and the film is entertaining enough without offering anything terribly unique.

Each of the triumvirate of major talents associated this film would quickly move on to bigger and better things, and Vivacious Lady feels like an easy interlude for the trio.  It's an enjoyable enough film to watch if you can catch it on television, but it's a largely forgettable effort by some very talented filmmakers.

Remaining: 3145 films, 871 Oscars, 5402 nominations

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Romance of Transportation in Canada (1952)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Short Subject, Cartoons - Tom Daly

"Romance" and "transportation" are two words not often heard in the same sentence, let alone one with the inclusion of the word "Canada."  Yet in 1952, the National Film Board of Canada released the animated short "The Romance of Transportation in Canada," a humorous 11 minute short that shows the historical development of transportation in Canada.

The National Film Board of Canada is one of the most recognized entities in Academy Awards history, receiving 72 Oscar nominations, 11 competitive Oscars, and an honorary Oscar.  The NFB's importance in both cinematic history and in promoting Canadian culture cannot be overstated.  "The Romance of Transportation in Canada was the first film from the National Film Board of Canada to receive a nomination in the "Short Subject, Cartoons" category.

This isn't my favorite of the NFB's offerings.  Its narrative structure is more in the style of a promotional film than a story, but the film moves along briskly and there is a nice, subtle sense of humor that pervades the film.  It is also brightened by a lively score from the great Eldon Rathburn that almost singlehandedly keeps the film from dragging.

If you only have time to watch one NFB short (which are generously offered for free viewing on the NFB website), there are better options than "The Romance of Transportation in Canada," but if you have a little time it's worth checking out.

Remaining: 3146 films, 871 Oscars, 5404 nominations