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