Sunday, August 27, 2017

1972 - Cabaret

Oscar season is not too far away now. Some might even say it's begun already. I've somehow managed to get to the movies a number of times recently, and while there have been some films I've really loved (Baby Driver, Brigsby Bear, Ingrid Goes West, The Big Sick), probably the only real Oscar contender among them is Dunkirk. If it can keep up the momentum, it seems like a good shot for a Best Picture nomination. And if it can convert that into a win, it would be the first 70mm film to do so since Patton in 1970.

But enough of the useless Oscars trivia. Next up, we take a look at another nominee from 1972's Best Picture contest...

Bob Fosse
Jay Presson Allen
(based on the musical play by Joe Masteroff, also based on a play by John Van Druten, also based on stories by Christopher Isherwood)
Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Helmut Griem, Joel Grey, Fritz Wepper, Marisa Berenson
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
8 wins, including Best Director, Best Actress (Minnelli) and Best Supporting Actor (Grey)

Berlin, 1931. American Sally Bowles (Minnelli) works as a cabaret singer at the bohemian Kit Kat Club. She befriends Englishman Brian Roberts (York), who teaches English to the locals while he works on his doctorate. The two flirt with romance before eventually taking the plunge, but when a charming baron (Grieme) enters their lives, a complicated threesome is born. All the while, the Nazi party becomes an increasingly violent presence in the city and in the club.

Like most musical films, a TV screen seems too confining for the theatrically extravagant numbers of Cabaret. It's certainly another movie I'd like to be able to catch on the big screen one day. In any case, no matter the size of the screen, all of the songs, right from the opening number, are passionate and emotive. Not to mention toe-tapping. Literally. My toe was involuntarily bouncing to the beat often. And Cabaret is not just a treat for your ears. Your eyes can also feast on the snazzy costumes, moody cinematography and snappy editing. Most of that visual and aural entertainment is limited to the musical numbers in the cabaret club, a setting which obviously allows for such flashiness. However, the narrative story is also very moving and emotional, exploring elements of the human condition in a way that isn't touched upon often, or at least wasn't in 1972.

As I often mention, stage productions that are brought to the screen often fail to appropriately adapt the material for film, but thankfully, that's not the case with Cabaret. While there are still a few lengthy scenes full of only dialogue, the musical scenes in particular make clever use of the medium. David Bretherton's editing deftly splices the cabaret performances together with snippets of germane events taking place outside the club. Bob Fosse also made the brilliant decision to remove all the songs from the stage version that didn't actually take place on the cabaret stage. The result is a musical that retains the sense of realism that is usually lost when characters unrealistically burst into song. Here, the singing only occurs as it would in real life: on a stage in front of an audience.

While the songs symbolically comment on the surrounding scenes, the only direct connection between the cabaret performances and the narrative story is Sally Bowles, and even then, we never actually see her interact offstage with any of the other cabaret performers (apart from a brief suggestive look from the Emcee). On the one hand, this creates a mildly disjointed feeling that we're watching two starkly separate movies. On the other hand, the two movies are cleverly related in that they explore the same themes using opposite techniques - one is a chronological narrative, the other is a series of bitingly satirical musical numbers.

After such engaging passion, the ending is perhaps a little unsatisfying. Not that I'm suggesting a happy ending would have been appropriate, but despite the fact that the mismatched lovers were inevitably not meant to be, the decline of their relationship seemed somewhat sudden. Plus, all the political tension that infuses the film never develops into anything more. I was half expecting the Nazis to storm the club and shut it down in a dramatic climax, but instead, the film ends with only a whimper. Then again, that may very well be the point of it all. The vibrant Berlin culture of the early 1930s never got a proper goodbye. It was gradually diminished as Hitler took over. Perhaps this is symbolised in the final moments of the film as the Emcee sings a suspended farewell that is missing its final musical phrase. He bows and briskly exits the stage as the camera pans to see the distorted reflections of several Nazis in uniform in the audience.

Liza Minnelli is naturally bubbly and energetic in perhaps her most memorable role, earning herself a Best Actress Oscar in the process. Also winning on Oscar night was Best Supporting Actor Joel Grey (pictured) as the Emcee. At first, Grey seems a little over the top, but once you accept that he's playing the part of a vaudevillian cabaret artist, it's actually perfect. I desperately wanted to see his character actually interact with someone off the stage, but nonetheless, he's delightfully naughty and suggestive, precise and detailed in every movement. That's probably in large part due to Fosse's intricate choreography, which is sublimely provocative on many levels. Some of the shapes he makes his dancers take are so unique that I often felt like I'd never seen a person make that move before. And his direction is nothing to be sneezed at either. He won the Best Director Oscar for it, after all. A notable and fascinating feature of his style in this film is his penchant for allowing his characters to communicate without saying anything. It's clear he wasn't afraid to have his actors stare at each other silently for long periods of time. To paraphrase a well-known proverb, a face is worth a thousand words.

Then, of course, there's the music and lyrics. Kander and Ebb are simply masters of the form, both individually and together. The toe-tapping, emotive music combined with witty and moving lyrics is the perfect pairing. They wrote three songs specifically for the movie, but the one that seemed like it would be the most likely to be nominated for an Oscar, "Maybe This Time", was actually adapted from a song they'd written previously, making it ineligible. So in the end, Cabaret didn't receive a Best Original Song nod, but it did find itself nominated in 10 other categories, winning a total of 8 Oscars, the most for any film that didn't also win Best Picture.

Monday, July 31, 2017

1972 - The Godfather

You may remember several weeks ago, when I returned to this blog after such a lengthy break, that I mentioned having watched four movies within the space of as many days. The driving force behind that feat was a screening by Fathom Events, in collaboration with TCM. The film in question was a Best Picture winner that I'd always wanted to see on the big screen, so it was tough to pass up the opportunity. But of course, in order to appease my own sense of order, I felt the obsessive need to finish the previous year of review before starting a new one. Hence, I crammed in the remaining three 1943 Best Picture nominees just in time to treat myself to 1972's winner. And with this review, I'm finally caught up.

So, our first nominee from the 1972 Best Picture race is...

The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola
Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
(based on the novel by Mario Puzo)
Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
3 wins, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Brando)

Don Vito Corleone (Brando), known as the Godfather, is the head of one of New York's most notorious crime families. While the other male members of the clan are all involved in the family business, Vito's son, Michael (Pacino), keeps himself at a distance. But when the Godfather refuses to make a deal with a rival crime family, a mob war breaks out. In what begins as an attempt to protect his own father, Michael soon finds himself drawn in to the family business, after all.

Both the AFI and IMDb users list The Godfather in the number two spot of their top films of all time, and it's not difficult to understand why. It's a positively captivating film from start to finish, fittingly earning a revered place in cinematic history. From the exquisite cinematography to the powerful performances, there is drama and suspense infused into every frame. Ultimately, though, the story is essentially a heartbreaking character study of a man whose moral compass collapses under the weight of his family loyalty. When we first meet Michael Corleone, he's relaxed and open, making it clear to Kay that he has nothing to do with his father's business. But as he slowly gets pulled in to the family's shady dealings, he becomes more and more humorless and unlikable. Finally, he takes over from his father and Kay is shut out (both literally and metaphorically) in one of the most chilling final shots ever to be filmed (pictured).

A big part of any film becoming such a pop culture phenomenon is its memorable music and quotable quotes, and The Godfather is certainly no exception. While Italian composer Nino Rota's intensely evocative score was initially announced as a nominee for the Best Original Score Oscar, it was later withdrawn due to the discovery that Rota had adapted an earlier score for the film's main theme. Regardless of its origins, the theme has clearly become so closely associated with The Godfather that it scarcely matters what it was first used for. The memorable quotes, on the other hand, weren't heard anywhere before, though they've been mimicked ad nauseam ever since, a clear testament to their emotional resonance. In the screening that I attended, there was audible tittering when Brando uttered the classic, "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse," and some louder chuckles at the oft-parodied, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." Even more evidence I was watching with fellow fans was the scene in which Woltz first proudly shows off his racehorse. The audience knowingly snickered with delight at what we all knew was coming.

The performances are fantastic all around. From the comic relief of Lenny Montana's Luca Brasi to the impassioned energy of Talia Shire's Connie. In total, there were four acting nominations. Brando deservedly won Best Actor (though famously refused the award) for an exceptional portrayal of the Corleone patriarch. Powerful, yet understated, but jeez, those cotton balls in his mouth sure are weird. Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and James Caan all competed against each other in the Supporting Actor category, but perhaps they split the vote because none of them took home the prize. It would have made for an interesting evening if Pacino had won, though, because he, too, was a no-show at the ceremony, allegedly objecting to his performance being cited as a supporting role. To be fair, he had a point. His performance represented a far greater amount of screen time than Brando's. Certainly not the first or last time that sort of thing has happened, but clearly one of the most egregious cases.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Best Picture of 1943

Well, this verdict is over two years in the making. Since it's been long, it was somewhat difficult to recall the first few viewings, so I've had to rely on my original thoughts as written down in the blog itself. Not that it really matters, to be honest, since this one was pretty much a foregone conclusion from the beginning.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1943 are:
  • Casablanca
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • Heaven Can Wait
  • The Human Comedy
  • In Which We Serve
  • Madame Curie
  • The More the Merrier
  • The Ox-Bow Incident
  • The Song of Bernadette
  • Watch on the Rhine
Of the ten nominated films, exactly half of them are contemporary pieces exploring some aspect of the war with varying degrees of patriotism and propaganda. Together with the other half, though, it's quite a diverse group with several genres being represented. All in all, they don't constitute an outstanding collection of cinema, though many of them are captivating. I found particular enjoyment in The Ox-Bow Incident and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

But why waste time. There was very little chance anything would topple Casablanca in my esteem. It's a masterpiece of early filmmaking - great performances, great script, great images - that towers over its competitors and has deservedly earned its iconic status in cinematic culture. And so, to make it official, Casablanca is, without question, my favourite Best Picture nominee from 1943.
Best Picture of 1943
Academy's choice:


Matt's choice:


Your choice:

Let me know what your favourite of this year was by voting in the poll above. We move to the 1970s now for a selection of heavy dramas (and one musical drama).

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1972 are:
  • Cabaret
  • Deliverance
  • The Emigrants
  • The Godfather
  • Sounder
You might have deduced from my post a few weeks ago that I've already watched the first movie of this year of review, so I'll be able to opine on that shortly and finally explain why I went on a four-movie binge in the first place. Stay tuned...

Monday, July 3, 2017

1943 - The Human Comedy

Finally, after over two years, we reach the end of the current year of review. I sincerely hope I'm able to avoid that sort of lengthy timeframe in the future. Life as a parent may put up a fight, though.

The final entry in 1943's competition for the Best Picture is...

The Human Comedy
Clarence Brown
Howard Estabrook
(from a story by William Saroyan)
Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, James Craig, Marsha Hunt, Fay Bainter, Ray Collins, Van Johnson, Donna Reed, Jackie Jenkins
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
1 win, for Best Original Story

The effects of the distant war are felt in small-town California as teenager Homer (Rooney) takes on the role of provider for his family due to the recent death of his father (Collins) and the deployment of his older brother (Johnson). Homer begins working for the local telegraph office, alongside senior telegrapher Willie (Morgan). Meanwhile, the office manager (Craig) frets over the impending introduction to his future in-laws, Homer's sister (Reed) and a friend enjoy a night out with soldiers on leave, and Homer's brother faces Army training.

The Human Comedy wears its heart well and truly on its sleeve. It's overly sincere and plenty preachy with scene after scene of characters waxing philosophical about life, love and, most of all, war. A product of its era, I guess.

That said, the picture's multiple storylines each capture the attention of its audience. We end up caring for all the characters in this town, which is attributable to the ensemble cast. However, it's Mickey Rooney (pictured, with Frank Morgan) that is the standout, proving he wasn't a box office draw for nothing. He displays an affable boyish exuberance, paving the way for the Michael J. Foxes of the world.

Relevant to this blog, it's always fun to come across a Best Picture nominee that makes reference to an earlier Best Picture nominee. In The Human Comedy, one scene sees several characters exit a cinema after having seen the previous year's Best Picture winner, Mrs. Miniver.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

1943 - The Song of Bernadette

Well, despite having three more viewings in the can, I'm apparently still taking my time to blog about them. So let's get straight to it.

Here are my thoughts on another 1943 Best Picture nominee...

The Song of Bernadette
Henry King
George Seaton
(based on the novel by Franz Werfel)
Jennifer Jones, William Eythe, Charles Bickford, Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, Gladys Cooper, Anne Revere, Roman Bohnen
Academy Awards:
12 nominations
4 wins, including Best Actress (Jones)

In a rural French village in the mid-19th century, a timid teenager named Bernadette (Jones) tags along with her sister and a friend to collect firewood for their families. When Bernadette is separated from the other two, she waits at a cave where she sees a clear vision of a saintly woman. The apparition asks Bernadette to return to the same spot every day for the next couple of weeks, and as Bernadette complies, she attracts the attention of the nation. Despite not being visible to anyone else, many believe Bernadette is communicating with the Virgin Mary and flock to the site in hopes of being healed by the miraculous spring water now flowing from the ground. Many others, including her own parents (Bohnen and Revere) doubt her story. Even the Catholic Church takes their time to come around, subjecting Bernadette to many years of investigation before proclaiming the visions as an official miracle.

The Song of Bernadette initially unravels a lot like a mystery. Did Bernadette really see the Virgin Mary? Or is it a hoax? Or is she just delusional? The well-structured script creates some tight conflict around this mystery with barely anyone believing her at first. Slowly, though, more and more people become believers and her detractors are portrayed in such a way that they are clearly the antagonists. And since the film's verisimilitude makes plenty of room for the miraculous, it's fairly obvious which conclusion the audience is supposed to reach: yes, the visions are real. In fact, anyone with a modicum of familiarity with religious-themed films, especially of the classic era, could probably have guessed that from the outset.

The anti-intellectual trope is a common cinematic theme that has always rubbed me the wrong way. Scientists are often painted as stubborn and closed-minded. Which is ironic, really. In reality, science is self-correcting, always incorporating new evidence as it comes to light, whereas religion is rigid and inflexible. I suppose, though, that Hollywood is only reflecting the culture. I guess I just don't quite understand how society decided that simply believing should be considered a virtue, but thinking critically about extraordinary claims is arrogant and dismissive? Surely, dispassionately weighing all the evidence before jumping to conclusions will produce more reasonable outcomes than blind acceptance of dogma. Okay, this is getting way too philosophical. Back to the movie...

Since the characters are essentially divided between believers and doubters, the cast often slips into heavy caricatures, either the kind-hearted supporter or the obstinate foe. Nonetheless, the film garnered four acting nominations, but only Jennifer Jones took home an Oscar for what amounts to a relatively simple portrayal of a softly-spoken and innocent girl. To my mind, though, Vincent Price (pictured) as the Imperial Prosecutor and Lee J. Cobb as the local doctor gave the most captivating and natural performances despite the lack of recognition from the Academy.