Month: August 2014

Break!

I foresee that I’m going to have to take a break from writing because school has been draining me (more emotionally than physically, but whatever) and I really don’t think I have the energy to watch films and write about them. Week 1 was pretty terrible (as always).

Trying to stay strong for now! 🙂

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Best Picture 1971: Final thoughts

Nicholas and Alexandra The Last Picture Show The French Connection Fiddler On The Roof A Clockwork Orange

To me, doing a ranking for this year is absolutely pointless as I consider this one of the finest years for this category, despite the fact that it is hardly discussed (The Godfather was released the next year).  I went crazy over 1975, but I really think this one is better as the films are so different, belonging to 5 different genres. More importantly, I consider them the finest representations of their own genres: musical, drama, social commentary, crime thriller, period drama. They would all have been worthy winners, even Fiddler on the Roof, which in my opinion is much better than the actual musical winners in 1964 and 1965. If I were to classify them, I can break them up into 2 different groups: amazing and great. Amazing would be the 3 5/5 films (A  Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, Nicholas and Alexandra) while great would be the remaining 2 4.5/5 films that I highly respect, but don’t love. The French Connection would be the greatest surprise for me, as I used to dislike it but now I found that there are a lot of admirable details in it. One particular aspect would be Gene Hackman’s performance; I used to think he was very good, but not Oscar-worthy. This time round, however, I am fully in awe at how he developed and became Popeye Doyle without the usual Oscary scenes. This kind of unselfish acting and dedication is something that should be taught in acting class. I’m not sure whether I’d pick him over Topol’s funny and heartbreaking work in Fiddler on the Roof, but he was terrific nonetheless. Still, Malcolm Mcdowell’s disgusting but un-nominated turn in A Clockwork Orange is my best male performance of 1971.

Still, if you held a gun and point it to my head, I would probably have picked:

The Last Picture Show

I’m biased, since I have always liked this film, but I still do very much. The performances here are the best among the 5 films, but more importantly the story is so soulful and full of life, evoking all kinds of emotions in the viewers and making them laugh, cry, annoyed, touched etc. The black and white realism and the howling of the winds at the end of the film is probably one of the most haunting endings ever. No apologies here 🙂

The next year I’m going to examine is also a great year (I predict): 1973. It has an iconic horror film, a controversial best actress winner, INGMAR BERGMAN and Newman-Redford duo. I’m excited, to say the least, but it’s probably going to take even longer than 1971 because schools’s starting next Monday 😦 Bummer. Still, I’m really glad I did 1971 because it’s such a wonder year for this category. 

The French Connection (1971)

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The French Connection

 

And finally, I conclude my exploration of the 1971 best picture series with the Academy’s choice, The French Connection, a movie that underwhelmed me the first time I watched it but managed to leave a good impression this time round. What makes The French Connection’s win so unique is that the film is unlike most other choices made previously by the academy; it is not a sweeping epic, not a musical, not a period film but a simple crime thriller. It also has the distinction of having the shortest run time as compared to the other nominees this year.

William Friedkin was a director with a very unique visual style. I’m not an expert at camera angles/colour etc, but I’m sure most people who have watched The Exorcist and this film will know what I mean; there’s something realistic about the way he captures his stories on camera, like how he follows his characters as they walk down the street, and yet it doesn’t veer into the annoying “shaky cam” shtick that I hate (trivia: the cameraman was carted around on a wheelchair because of budget problems. I actually liked the final effect). It’s like a balance of realism and cinematic experience that makes his movies stand out because of the grittiness, even supernatural-themed one like The Exorcist. In a film like this, where the dark corners and alleys of New York are often shot, it certainly helps bring out the mood and tension of the film. In case you do not know, a lot of the scenes, like the traffic jam scenes as well as the famous car chase sequence, were shot on the spot without permission from the authorities. A passer-by even had his car damaged (it’s in the movie because of its realism) because he wasn’t aware that they were shooting the scene where he was driving past.

My issue with the film the first time I watched it was because of how slow the build-up to the action scenes was; this time round, however, I realised how much detail and nuances I missed then. I was intrigued by how the cops slowly pieced the puzzle pieces together through their interrogation and snooping around. I don’t think the story is the most original or creative; two cops follow a hunch that turned out to be a drug-smuggling deal. However, the execution is what makes the film a gripping thriller. To me, the film’s greatest strength can be summed up in one word: realism. I liked how both sides of the story are pieced together before culminating to the final showdown; whenever the cops are undercover, you can never here the dialogue between the drug dealers so as to give you the sense that you are seeing things from their POV. Similarly, whenever the movie focuses on the dealers, you can see the cops lurking in the background and observing them.

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Things get more and more intense when they are aware that they are being investigated, and how both sides are brought closer and closer together: the scene in the subway where Doyle (Gene Hackman) was trailing Charnier was such a heart-thumping experience. To me, it was already clear right from the beginning that Charnier knew he was being followed, but that simple act of stepping out then stepping back in the carriage to trick Doyle was such a “WTF” climax to an already suspenseful sequence that I’m pretty sure Friedkin had his directing Oscar sealed here. The famous car chase sequence was equally thrilling because of its aforementioned realism. You don’t see our lead character jumping on top of trains like James Bond, or driving a tank through the roads and smashing everything along the way, but an ordinary car chasing a subway down the streets while dangerously swerving past other cars, and yet this makes it even more believable and exciting to watch.

I think one other aspect that makes The French Connection stand out from other routine thrillers is the amount of depth it added to the characters and stories. Gene Hackman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Doyle. What is amazing is that unlike other Oscar winning performances, he doesn’t get any monologues or “reaction shots” (like Rod Steiger in In The Heat of The Night) to actually help with his characterization, and yet you never once doubt that Doyle is a real person. He is constantly working, investigating, snooping and searching, and yet Hackman’s portrayal spoke volumes about the character to me. He utilizes the screenplay to his own benefit, narrowly avoiding the “rough street cop” portrayal that is too common nowadays. Although that’s what his character is, Hackman’s performance never feels like a cliché. You see how sharp Doyle is and how commanding his presence can be, like when he conducts his raids. In one particularly impressive but brief moment, he catches one of the guys in the pub trying to secretly drop the (presumably) drugs in his hand (“Smartass you drop something. Pick it up”). Yet at the same time, Hackman also shows how the man’s passion for his job can result in his impulsiveness and fiery temper, like how he often gets into altercations. I always felt that Hackman understood this character inside out, as though he invented a backstory for him in his head that was never explored by the movie, hence giving the character this mysterious edge. Roy Scheider also compliments him well as the more cool-headed partner. When you think about it, it’s quite a cliché and typical pairing and yet it never feels so when you watch it (it is based on a true story afterall). Another character that is well-portrayed is Alain Charnier, played by Fernando Rey. He’s not really fully explored by the movie, always remaining a mysterious figure, and yet you always get the feeling that he is someone you do not want to mess with (also thanks to Rey’s great performance). That somewhat iconic smile and wave in the subway scene was really chilling.

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As such, The French Connection is probably another pleasant surprise to me after an already great line-up of films for the 1971 best picture nominees. It’s a film that I didn’t care much for the first time I viewed it, but this time round there are a lot of details that intrigued me. 4.5/5. Great watch.

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

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Nicholas and Alexandra details the collapse and eventual execution of the Romanov family.

I LOVE this film. I’m really enjoying the 1971 best picture nominees so far because the 4 that I’ve seen are all worthy of the best picture title. Yet I can say that out of all that I’ve seen (given I’ve already watched The French Connection before), this one is the most surprising and could be my personal favourite (not saying it is my choice for the win).

The strength in Nicholas and Alexandra lies in the technical department; a nomination for Franklin J. Schaffner’s direction would have been deserved, and I wouldn’t even mind a win. I largely prefer this to his Oscar winning effort in Patton the previous year. The story is well-told and handled; they selected the crucial elements of the true story without over-simplifying it, and as a result the film is gripping to watch. I never found myself annoyed by how repetitively incompetent Nicholas was because the film managed to capture the essence of what happened. Personally, history and politics are not my greatest interest areas, but the movie managed to blend in the right amount of politics and historical events without making it overwhelming to handle, which is a problem some period films face (Basically, if a history idiot like me understands and even enjoys it, you know it’s good). The part involving Lenin and the Bolsheviks isn’t my favourite portion but it was well used to contrast the eventual downfall of the Romanov’s reign, and I didn’t mind it at all. Still, the best parts are what happened within the family itself and how they eventually lost the power that was given to them. Some moments are so well-shot and intense that it was quite chilling, like the ending where it was debated whether the children should be executed as well (“It’s all of them” “I could have told you that”). I mean, I already had a rough idea of what happened during this tumultuous period as I did read up on this part of history before, and yet I was never bored for one second.

Other praiseworthy aspects of the film are the brilliant art direction and costume design. Seriously, those two wins are extremely deserved, and probably one of the finest I have seen in films (Barry Lyndon offers some serious competition). Of course, period films do have a advantage in this department, but I was extremely taken by how beautiful the set decorations and detailed the costume designs were, especially some of Janet Suzman’s dresses. The cinematography is breath-taking. It all feels very authentic and fitting to the mood of the film.

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The acting is very good, but in a movie like this they do get overshadowed by the strength of the film’s narrative and direction. They’re not really there to shine with scene-stealing moments, but rather to support the development of the film’s plot and tell the story, and that’s what’s exactly needed from them. Janet Suzman received a best actress nod that may have been deserved, but I would definitely not vote for her over Jane Fonda’s astounding performance in Klute (one of the finest in this category) as the role is a bit thin. Still, she had some great emotional moments like her love for her family and her guilt over her son’s haemophilia. I think Tom Baker would have deserve a nomination for his supporting performance as Rasputin though; he was pretty frightening and disgusting.

It’s all a matter of whether films like these appeal to you, and they do greatly to me. This is probably the most pleasant surprise to me and I know some may not share my enthusiasm but I think Nicholas and Alexandra is a truly terrific watch. 5/5.

Performance of the week: Walter Huston in Dodsworth (1936)

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Walter Huston received his first out of four Oscar nominations for playing Samuel Dodsworth in William Wyler’s Dodsworth. The movie also has the distinction of being Wyler’s first film for which he received his first best director nomination, as well as Samuel Goldwyn’s first best picture nominee.

I was wondering how Dodsworth was going to be like, given that it was made not too long after the production code was in place, which means that most films of this era are incredibly cheesy and “safe”. Thankfully, the film is actually very good (of course, it’s William Wyler!), but like Jezebel, it’s not one that got me terrible excited. The story is focused on a couple’s failing marriage as they go on a European trip following his retirement. They learn that they have different values and outlooks in life, such as his wife Fran’s (Ruth Chatterton) refusal to accept her age, as well as her love for the European way of life. It’s interesting this time to note how the film portrays the wife as the one who is fooling around and having affairs, instead of the husband (following by teary-eyed supportive wives invading corner of classical cinema). Overall, it is a movie that is easy to watch and handled with very minimal sentimentality and melodrama, but it does get a little bit repetitive with Fran’s various affairs. The story is ahead of its time though, given how it doesn’t throw you the usual unrealistic happy ending. The same can be said for the acting; it’s nice to see a young David Niven given an effective performance in his small part (what a great actor he was!). Ruth Chatterton is an actress who has a bad reputation because of her 2 Oscar nominated works but over here she’s really good and might even have deserved a nomination. The same can be said for Mary Astor’s supporting role. Maria Ouspenskaya’s nomination, on the other hand, is just ridiculous imo, as she only appears for 5 minutes towards the END of the film to insult Fran before disappearing again. I get that the supporting actress category has always been wonky  during this era (their idea of “supporting” = cameos), and Ouspenskaya was very respected, but I just can’t wrap my head around this recognition. And not to mention, her delivery was a bit robotic, the way she recites her lines WORD-BY-WORD (Gladys Cooper? Eh? :D).

Still, the best performance here is still by Huston, who plays the cheated husband Dodsworth. Walter Huston was such a terrific, yet nowadays rarely talked about actor. He has this naturalism in his performances that is very rare for its time, even when he is playing characters like Mr Scratch in The Devil And Daniel Webster (discussed here). His performance as Dodsworth is often regarded as one of his best (either this, or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), although I don’t quite share that enthusiasm as I prefer his Mr Scratch. To me, this role is a bit one note as he basically reacts to what’s happening around him instead of driving the story forward, and yet he creates such a sympathetic portrait of the character without making him seem pathetic. Dodsworth is basically a man who gives up his factory to go on a trip with his wife and “enjoy life for once”. Naturally, the way they see things caused them to drift apart, with his wife starting to have more and more affairs with the men she meets due to insecurities about her fading youth. To me, the naturalism and subtlety of his performance is easily its greatest strength, as he doesn’t play on the sympathy of the audience, which is certainly a risky yet effective move. Every emotion is played with such honesty that it is actually quite moving. Huston’s gradual realisation about his wife’s nonsense is excellently portrayed, and their various confrontations are well-handled. To be honest, there are times where I can see Chatterton veering into melodramatic territory (though not terribly), like the way she throws herself on the bed and covers her face, and yet Huston keeps it under control by showing proper restrain without losing the energy needed. Their chemistry is excellent as well, and you do find yourself believing that they were a couple once in love. The sadness and pain as his wife chooses to leave him is one of the best parts of his performance: can anyone forget their parting train scene, where he says “did I remember to tell you today that I adore you”? Fantastic.

My issue with the performance, however, is that it is a bit limited part but I feel like Huston approached it with so much detail and nuances that it becomes a saddening and realistic portrait of a failed marriage. You find yourself feeling for the character, be it when he decides to travel around by himself following their split, or when he meets Mrs Cortwright (Mary Astor) and learns how to love all over again. Although Dodsworth isn’t a complex character, Huston still handles his developments well, making him a character you root for as he finds his new happiness with and rejects his wife’s offer to reconcile. Their fiery breakoff at the end of the film was great, and I especially loved the way he said “love has got to stop someplace short of suicide” to her face – it was a “hell yeah!” moment, if you get what I mean. More importantly, he doesn’t make the whole thing seem like a cliché, playing the role with honesty and simplicity. I understand how some might find the performance underwhelming, but I think it’s an impressive performance by a truly great actor.   He takes an ordinary role and does wonders with it.

 

Fiddler On The Roof (1971)

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Fiddler On The Roof

 

And so, I finally revisited a film that I watched more than 10 years ago on the local TV channel. Actually, there’s no point in saying that I watched it before because I barely remember anything from it, and watching it now feels as good as watching it for the first time. Strangely enough, the only part of the film I remember is the scene where the three ladies were singing about by the matchmaker. Hmm.

I realised that as I grew older, film musicals started to be not so much of my thing anymore. All the singing and dancing would have worked incredibly on the stage, but when it translates on the film medium it feels awkward and unrealistic. I mean, you can’t judge the actors by how realistic their acting is because in real life, nobody speaks in such a cartoonish manner before breaking out into a song and dance. Naturally, I try to toss aside all the cynicism and appreciate the films with an open mind…which works in some instances (The Sound Of Music, My Fair Lady) and not so much in others (Mary Poppins, The King And I URGH).

Thankfully, Fiddler on the Roof belongs to the former category. Actually, the story is one of the finest this genre has seen: I wouldn’t put it above Les Miserables, but the story is so full of depth and soul that I appreciate it more than the sugar-coating of The Sound of Music (which I actually enjoy). I love how well the themes are explored, like the loss of tradition and cultures, and the change in the political landscape in pre-revolutionary Russia. Despite covering so many themes and characters, it all gels together very well without coming off as convoluted. The story is centered on a Jewish milkman who sees the tradition of his village being slowly eroded away by politics and ideological changes. His three daughters go against the traditional method of matchmaking by marrying the men of their choices, with his third daughter even marrying outside the Jewish faith. Like all musicals, the acting is a bit stagey and everyone randomly erupts into song and dance, but at the same time, it never rings as phoney and superficial. The entire cast is truly like a group of bonded villagers, capturing the community spirit, the sentiments of the people and the heart of the story in their song and dance sequences (best exemplified by “To Life”). All these honesty in their performances makes the film such a fascinating watch, while ensuring the themes resonate with the viewer at the same time. Watching all these people sing and dance so happily makes you feel like joining in because of how they are genuinely having a good time. All these makes the ending song “Anatevka” more poignant, mainly because it was performed with such sadness and regret that you actually feel for the people as you watch them being evicted from their homes.

Naturally, the technical aspect of the film is flawless; the direction, the music, the breath-taking cinematography, the set, the costumes and the acting, especially Topol’s great leading performance, which would have been worthy of the win (it would have been a worthier win for a musical performance than say, the 1956 and 1964 winners). There’s so much naturalism and heartfelt emotions in his performance, despite the staginess and over the top nature of the whole character. I mean he talks to God directly and has some of the more over-the-top songs in the film (“If I Was A Rich Man), and yet it never rings false or comes off a shallow because of the simple honesty he infuses into his performance. I think playing the role many times on stage clearly helped, as he managed to identify with the soul of the character. Really great work.

I wouldn’t say it’s a film that I love immensely, but it’s one that I have very high respect for. My only issue is that it drags out for too long at times, and I think some of the song and dance sequences could have been reduced. I mean, that wedding dance was truly fun to watch, but it just felt like forever (it would have worked tremendously on the stage setting). Still, it’s far better than some films of its genre, and I have no problems giving 4.5/5.

Performance of the week: Sophia Loren in Two Women (1961)

 

 

 

 

 

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Sophia Loren received her first Oscar nomination and won her only Oscar to date for playing Cesira in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women. As such, she made history by being the first performer to win the Oscar for a foreign language performance. I mentioned in my post on fellow nominee Geraldine Page’s performance that her win is considered a surprise because of the foreign language factor, but now I kinda doubt it (Yes, I’m watching the 1961 best actress nominees). Although she wasn’t even nominated for the Golden Globe, she actually swept a majority of the other awards. What I guess is that Natalie Wood must have offered some real competition as she was a former child star showing unexpected dramatic range in Splendor In The Grass, and she was also in the best picture winner that year (West Side Story bleh). And then we also have Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, which is also considered an iconic performance nowadays. I wouldn’t be surprised if voters were actually willing to give Hepburn her second Oscar, although I’m not sure how well-received the movie was back then. I don’t know, not an expert in analysing all these Oscar politics, but 1961 and 1962 are both years that interest me greatly because I find all the performances in these years damn good, even for actors.

Two Women is such a weird translation for the film’s original title La Ciocara, which supposedly means The Woman From Ciocara. It’s a really good film that I think would have deserved a foreign language film nomination, although I don’t think it’s without its flaws. The pacing is a bit rushed in the beginning and the tonal shifts of the film can be a bit abrupt, like how Cesira and Rosetta are joyfully having a meal with the villagers not long after nearly getting shot to death, but I eventually got used to it and I even liked it. Its simplicity brought out the message about the horrors of war very clearly without needing to resort to overly dragged out melodrama. The film has this simplicity and honesty to it that is very distinctly European and easy to watch. I love the very down-to-earth feel of the village, and the tiny touches like the sounds of crickets in the background that enhances this atmosphere and mood.

Unsurprisingly, the role of Cesira was originally meant for Anna Magnani to play. Age-wise, I think it would have been a perfect fit as Loren was only 25, and there’s also no denying that Magnani was one fantastic actress. However, as I watched the film, I found myself so captivated by Loren’s work here that I just couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the role. Magnani’s emotionally explosive acting style would have been brilliant (boy, those last scenes would have been amazing), and yet I feel like the Sophia’s slightly more delicate touch to this role made it even more outstanding and memorable. She’s not an actress I am familiar with at all, unless you count watching her largely ignorable work in Nine (not her fault) as something. Still, I’m now highly interested in rediscovering some of her old movies, and I daresay that the respect for her talent is largely justified.

 Honestly speaking, I don’t find Cesira that complicated a character: she’s a beautiful, sensuous woman with a cut-the-bullshit, straightforward personality. She is fiercely protective of her daughter, and yet at the same time she is yearning for something more when it comes to her love life. However, to say that the role is easy to play would be grossly inaccurate in my opinion. It’s a character that can be played very annoyingly, given her no-nonsense way of speaking, yet Loren instead made this woman a very charming and likeable person, so much so that even her one-liner rebuttals are quite funny, like when she asked if the cheese was made of gold. The dialogue about Mussolini’s sex life is very funny as well. I feel that Loren knew exactly how to play the humorous scenes, and she nailed them without making them feel forced or obnoxious. Of course, there’s the argument that such charm is not necessarily an indication of great acting but in this case I disagree; yes, Cesira can be described as a typical Italian woman, but it takes a very talented performer to nail the traits of such a woman very naturally. Not even the most technically proficient “method actors” can recreate such charm; it has to come from a performer who identifies herself with the role. I mean, can you imagine Marvellous Meryl Streep playing this part? Sure, she would have given her 200% in learning the language and the way of moving but it wouldn’t have come as naturally and realistically. Heck, even nowadays I feel like Penelope Cruz is trying to recreate such charm (Volver), but over here it is in its most original form. In short, this role was Loren’s to play. As you all know, I have always loved these performances of “ordinary” people (Fonda in Coming Home, Lange in Tootsie…). They aren’t necessarily the flashiest, and yet they always evoke emotions within me that remind me of what it is like to be human.

Although I’m a guy and have a completely opposite personality from this woman, I found myself identifying with a lot of her emotions thanks to Loren’s portrayal of her. Her interactions with the various characters are fantastically handled as they show the various sides of Cesira. Her warmth and fierce protection of her daughter is superbly portrayed, never becoming overly-sentimental and yet moving because of the strong bond between both actresses. I also loved the way she handled her interactions with the men; her brief “affair” with Giovanni in the beginning is more of a case of seeking for companionship, even though he’s an already married man. But her relationship with Michele, the young graduate from the village, is much more complicated than that. He’s much younger than her and you can sense the attraction between them, yet at the same time she’s aware of this huge age gap between them and the inappropriate nature of their relationship.  Not to mention her daughter’s affection for him which certainly complicates things, although I felt this part was a bit confusingly played by Eleanor Brown, the actress playing the daughter (she wasn’t very good to be honest). Wikipedia described the attraction as a “fatherly” bond but the way it was portrayed seemed to suggest it was more than that. It was something that I wasn’t clear about, but I guess part of it is because I was so focused on Loren’s performance. Of course, all this sounds a bit twisted but it never felt so in the movie, because of Loren’s natural acting instincts.

The highlights of the performance would be the disturbing gang rape scene in the church. Loren finally got to display another side of Cesira: the broken-down, devastated side. Watching your own child get raped in front of you is a downright horrible thing to happen to anyone, and Loren’s shows the pain of the character so brilliantly. It really once again brought out the fierce protection and love she has for her daughter, albeit in a different manner. The famous breakdown scene where she screams at the soldiers is easily the best acted scene among the 1961 actresses. Although you see how calculated her acting is (brilliantly timed tears, lol), it never feels that way and it is clear from here that she has completely identified herself with this role. Watching her worriedly waiting for her daughter to come home when she sneaked out at night just spoke volumes about the character to me: at the end of the day, she’s still a good, strong and independent woman with principles. If you think about it, she managed to go through this entire trauma with her daughter without depending on any men, and I think this fighting spirit was brilliantly captured by Loren. Like I said, Cesira isn’t the most complicated woman and yet Loren shows all these sides of her, making her portrayal a realistically layered one.

In short, this is a performance of pure brilliance. Loren displayed a whole range of emotions with this character and created a performance that is just outstanding despite its simplicity. A very well-deserved Oscar win that has become one of my personal favourites.