Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Von Ryan's Express (1965)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Effects, Sound Effects - Walter Rossi

Frank Sinatra Trevor Howard Von Ryan's Express Oscar Academy Award
Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox
April 18, 1966 was a great night for the crews of The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago, with the two films combining to win ten Oscars, including five in the technical categories (Color Cinematography, Color Art Decoration-Set Decoration, Color Costume Design, Editing, and Sound).  The only two technical categories in which they were eligible that they did not receive nominations for were the two effects categories: Sound Effects and Special Visual Effects.  This was good news for Sound Effects designers Treg Brown of The Great Race and Walter Rossi of Von Ryan's Express, and the Special Visual Effects designers John Stears of Thunderball and J. McMillan Johnson of The Greatest Story Ever Told, because with only two nomination slots in each category, the absence of The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago gave them the openings to earn Oscar nominations in the only two technical categories in which the two films did not take home trophies or even receive nominations.  Unfortunately for Walter Rossi, who received the sole Oscar nomination for Von Ryan's Express, he lost the coin toss in his category and missed out on winning his second Academy Award as Brown took home the Oscar following the sole nomination of his career.

Von Ryan's Express was based on the novel of the same name by David Westheimer, who like his protagonist was shot down over Italy and spent time in a prison camp run by the German Wehrmacht.  Unlike his protagonist, Westheimer did not lead an escape of his fellow prisoners by stealing a train and taking his men to freedom in Switzerland.  The story is an exciting one, and the screenplay by Wendell Mayes and Joseph Landon perfectly mixes tension, action, and comedy to create a very exciting story out of a simple premise.  The only thing they failed to do was to create a compelling lead character, and despite Sinatra's unrivaled screen charisma, Colonel Ryan has no evident personality.  There are scenes early in the film that attempt to set him up as an antihero reminiscent of Paul Newman's Hud, but these aren't developed much further and the resulting character is almost entirely one-dimensional.

Though the supporting characters are equally underdeveloped, the supporting cast is wonderful, particularly Trevor Howard (who I also appreciated in Sons and Lovers) and Edward Mulhare.  Raffaella Carra is seductive in her performance of the poorly contrived Gabriella, but brings little to the role other than her beauty.

Von Ryan's Express is full of scenes of train engines, gunfire, airplanes, and gunfire from airplanes, and thus was all but a lock for a nomination in 1966.  Walter Rossi did outstanding work, and I'm curious to see The Great Race to see what topped him for an Academy Award.

With a more compelling protagonist, Von Ryan's Express could have been a truly wonderful film.  Without one, it is still an enjoyable and well plotted POW escape film, but ultimately it falls short of many of its contemporaries.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Open Heart (2013)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Documentary, Short Subjects - Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern

The Academy is prone to nominating documentaries and documentary shorts that tell amazing, inspiring stories, whether or not the story is told particularly well.  I always hope the Academy will recognize filmmakers who tell their story particularly effectively, rather than rewarding the story itself.  Of course, there are the rare occasions in which content and form excel simultaneously, creating a documentary truly deserving of award recognition.  "Open Heart" is such a film.

Director Kief Davidson tells the story of eight children in Rwanda in need of heart surgery who travel to the Salam Centre for Cardiac Surgery in Sudan.  Davidson details both the brave journey taken by these children, who must travel without their parents and face the surgery alone, as well as the doctors who are simultaneously working to keep the hospital doors open.

As a person with a touch of hypochondria and a low tolerance for pain, it's impossible for me to imagine the bravery required for these children to travel without their parents to face open heart surgery.  When I was their age I was upset if my mom was late picking me up from school, but Davidson elegantly demonstrates the fortitude shown by these children.  That fortitude is nearly matched by their doctors, who battle a lack of governmental support and bureaucratic maneuvering to continue to help these children who have no other access to the health care they need.  Davidson wisely chooses to involve himself in the action as little as possible, recognizing that he was gifted with a beautiful and compelling story and deciding not to "overtell" it.

As much as I was touched by "Open Heart," I agree with the Academy's decision to award the Oscar to  Inocente, one of the best documentary shorts I've seen in years.  Both films tell compelling stories, but the team behind "Inocente" were able to show more creativity in the storytelling due to the nature of the story being told.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Animated Feature Film of the Year: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin, and Christopher Meledandri
Nomination: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song - Pharrell Williams for "Happy"

For anyone with a radio, television internet connection, or just a pair of ears, it's been pretty much impossible to avoid the ubiquity of the Pharrell Williams song "Happy" from Despicable Me 2.  The song is exactly as described, an upbeat Curtis Mayfield throwback capable of making even the most despicable smile.  The song is the perfect match for Despicable Me 2, a charming and upbeat film that has little in the way of drama or story, instead focusing solely on making its audience smile.

At the outset of Despicable Me 2, we find the former supervillain Gru (Steve Carell) enjoying life as a parent, but he seems to have moments where he longs for the excitement of his former life as a villain.  This would be the obvious direction for the sequel, allowing for Gru to return to his attempts at villainy.  Instead, Gru is recruited for a spy mission, allowing him to use his dastardly powers for good.  Gru quickly locks in on the target, and despite resistance from his partner (voiced by Kristen Wiig) and superiors, he is soon proven right.  Sure enough, Gru attempts to stop the target's plot, and has little trouble doing so without any real excitement or ingenuity.  Every character is exactly as they seem, no one has hidden agendas, and no one must make any difficult decisions...for any deviation from this might cause the audience not to be happy.

But despite the lack of story, Despicable Me 2 has one thing going for it, and in a big way: minions.  Universal Pictures struck gold with the breakout stars of the first Despicable Me film, as the minions have stolen the show from the other characters and become the most memorable thing about the Despicable Me franchise.  The minions are wonderfully weird, adorable creatures, and they steal every scene they're in.  The filmmakers clearly knew what they had in the minions when making this film, and while they were used somewhat sparingly in the first film, the minions have been unleashed in the sequel, dominating nearly every scene.  And that's just fine with me.  I was still far from sick of them by the end of the film, and must admit that I'm excited about the upcoming film Minions.  Without the minions, Despicable Me 2 would have been pretty much a total flop, but they make the film watchable and even enjoyable.

Despicable Me 2 was beaten by the Disney smash Frozen in both of its categories.  Despicable Me 2 almost certainly would have fallen short of winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film in another year due to its slightness, but I can't think of a year in recent memory in which "Happy" wouldn't have taken home the trophy.  The Academy loves to reward big hit songs in this category, and "Happy" is a very good and immediately enjoyable pop song that has torched the Billboard charts.  But no song was going to beat Frozen's "Let It Go" this year, and Pharrell Williams will have to comfort himself with his seven Grammys.  With the year he's had, working on "Get Lucky," "Blurred Lines," and the songs from Despicable Me 2, I'm guessing that he is indeed quite happy.

All Is Lost (2013)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Editing - Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns

This past year, Academy voters fell in love with a film telling the story of an individual fighting for survival in the most dire of circumstances in an escape vehicle after the destruction of a ship.  Unfortunately for J.C. Chandor and team behind All Is Lost, this film was Gravity.  While the Academy rewarded Gravity with ten nominations and seven Oscars, it almost completely ignored the similarly themed All Is Lost, granting it just a single nomination for sound editing.

Many were surprised by the lack of recognition by the Academy for All Is Lost, with many expecting a nomination for Robert Redford, perhaps none more than Mr. Redford himself, who blamed the distributors for poor distribution and a lackluster Oscar campaign.  However, the true reason why All Is Lost found little recognition from the Academy is far simpler: it didn't deserve to.

All Is Lost is far from a bad movie, in fact I enjoyed it quite a bit.  The film is largely a silent film with only one character, and the film moves at the most brisk pace imaginable, with the boat's first accident coming just after the film's opening voiceover.  The successes of the film are due nearly entirely to Redford's acting and Chandor's directing.  Redford is one of the all time great movie stars, and All Is Lost is the best performance he has given in many years.  Few actors are able to convey much emotion without dialogue for even a few minutes, let alone a whole film, and fewer still are able to do so without resorting to cheap theatrics or overacting.  The few recent successes of actors alone on screen that come to mind - Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Tom Hanks in Cast Away - still allowed for the actors to interact with imaginary figures, a returned George Clooney in the former and Wilson in the latter.  There are no such moments in All Is Lost, with Redford's character focusing entirely on his survival, calmly and rationally.  Redford demonstrates the skills of an expert sailor, at least to my non-sailing eyes, and never waivers from his focus or resolve until shortly before the end of the film.  Yet while the lack of emotional theatrics is admirable, All Is Lost goes too far, and there's little for the audience to connect to on an emotional level.  While I was tense throughout Gravity as I considered Bullock's character's fate, I had no investment in the outcome of Redford's character.  Because he has no backstory, no personality outside of his calm expertise, and even no name, there is nothing other than Redford's commanding presence to make the audience care one way or the other whether he lives or dies.  For a survival movie, this is critical, and without it I found myself just wondering when the next calamitous event would come.  For an ocean survival movie, one expects storms, leaks, and sharks, and all three occur with little originality.  With nothing unique about the story and no emotional connection with the main character, viewing All Is Lost is ultimately a hollow experience.

The fact that the film had no character development or plot, yet still held my interest, is a testament to Chandor's direction.  I was a fan of his previous film Margin Call, which gained him an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, and was impressed by his restrained direction in All Is Lost.  Film shoots on water are notoriously difficult, and it's hard to create and maintain visual interest in one man on a raft, even if that man is Robert Redford.  Chandor holds back from anything flashy, and his direction is smart and subtle.

The film received its sole Academy Award nomination for its sound editing, and the work done by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns is well deserving of its nomination.  The rumbling of the storms and the crashing of the waves sound great, but it's the creaking of the boat that really stands out.  Sound is at its most important in a film largely without dialogue, as audiences will notice the sound far more than in a conventional film.  Boeddeker and Hymns rose to the challenge and did top-notch work on All Is Lost, and their nomination was well deserved.

I would not have been surprised if Redford had been nominated for his performance in All Is Lost, and I understand his frustration at the lack of nomination.  Still, it was a tough year in his category, and despite his unrivaled presence, with little character development in the script and no chance to show any emotions other than steady resilience, Redford was failed by the decisions of the screenwriter, not the distributors or the Academy.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Cinematography, Color - Edward Cronjager

As a result of the Every Oscar Ever project, I've had to watch many films I would love to have skipped, usually due to nominations for technical achievements (Real Steel, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, just to name a few).  While the Academy has recognized many of these clunkers in recent years, this is hardly a new phenomenon, and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is proof that the Academy has always been willing to recognize terrible films for worthy technical achievements.

Beneath the 12-Mile Reef tells a Romeo and Juliet story of the children of families of competing sponge divers off the coast of Florida (I'd like to have been a fly on the wall for that pitch).  Tony Petrakis, played by a young Robert Wagner, is the son of a Greek family who falls in love with Gwyneth Rhys (Terry Moore, the self-proclaimed wife of Howard Hughes), the daughter of a Protestant family who has long dominated the sponge business in the region.  The story is straightforward with little surprises, and though the setup is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, there is none of the drama, wit, characters, or anything else that made Shakespeare's work and its best adaptations what they were.  Instead, we have a flat premise that gives the filmmakers an excuse to set a story on the water.  Matters aren't helped by Wagner's performance, as Wagner seems to belong to the school of acting that believes that if one says every line at the upper limit of one's volume, a great performance will result.

This decision to set a story on the water was an important one, because Beneath the 12-Mile Reef served as a showcase for the underwater CinemaScope cinematography of Edward Cronjager.  None of this cinematography will look particularly impressive no, especially as a visit to any Best Buy comes with a showcase of jaw-dropping underwater cinematography on the newest generation of high-definition televisions.  Still, in its time the film's cinematography was revolutionary, and this was the first time many audiences had seen the underwater world in such vivid beauty.  But the nomination was clearly for technical achievement more than for any artistry in the cinematography, as the shots on land are generic and without any character or style.  This is surprising, given that Cronjager was one of the great cinematographers of his era.  Beneath the 12-Mile Reef was Cronjager's seventh and final Academy Award nomination, and he lensed such great films as Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Cimarron (1931).  My best guess is that the fault lies with director Robert D. Webb, who spent years as a second unit director before moving to the director's chair, and whose best remembered films are the Elvis vehicle Love Me Tender (1956) and the Robert Ryan starrer The Proud Ones (1956).  Though the technical achievement was impressive, Cronjager was rightfully beaten by Loyal Griggs for his iconic work in Shane (1953), one of the most memorable color cinematography jobs of the 1950s.

Aside from the cinematography, the one notable yet little mentioned thing about this movie is the storyline of the struggles of Greek immigrants to gain acceptance in the United States.  The film was released in 1953, just a few years after Greek immigration to the United States surged following the end of World War II and four years after the end of the Greek Civil War.  I don't know of any other films that touch on this era for Greek-Americans, and this film has some historical value for this reason.  I don't want to overstate this, as the film hardly takes a nuanced look at the issue, but it might nonetheless be interesting for anyone interested in the Greek-American experience.

Other than those few individuals and those who love underwater photography, I can't imagine many people enjoying this film much more than I did.  I guess I shouldn't have expected anything more from a film about sponges.