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