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