Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oscar Gets It Right: 1990s-2000s Division

We film buffs remember Oscar's outrages; we hold them close in our hearts and drag them out as evidence that the Awards are "bogus" or "full of it." Granted, I have my own list of Oscar's outrages, my own moments when I find it presumptious of a single group of people (with vested interests) to tell us which films are better than others. By the same token, however, it behooves us to remember those instances -- few though they may be -- when the Academy honored exactly the right person, exactly the right film.

1. "Schindler's List" (Best Picture, 1993)
If ever a Best Picture victory stood beyond criticism, it's this one. The importance of its subject matter would suffice to gain it attention, but not to gain it the uncontested win. Nor are the admittedly superb performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (whose lack of nomination counts as one of Oscar's outrages) quite what do the trick. It's the ensemble cast, the actors portraying people grasping for dignity in the midst of perhaps the most bitter degradation in history, that make this film special. Thanks to them, and the deftness with which the screenplay allows us to get to know them, little by little, as the film progresses, we can put faces with the names on Schindler's list, and feel how much his triumph matters on a deeply personal, as well as socio-political, level. Despite many horrific scenes, I contend that this film is not as depressing as it's reported to be; we can feel the light fighting to pierce through the darkness, because we see it in the eyes of the ensemble cast. Courage and heroism triumph. That's not depressing.

2. Peter Jackson, Best Director, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003)
The choice of ROTK for Best Picture does have a few detractors (though I am emphatically not among them), but even those who don't care for the film, and even those who disdain fantasy as a genre, should acknowledge the expert hand it took to manage this massive undertaking. The overall look of the film, the CGI effects, the settings, the performances, ALL the elements it took to make such a film work are, in the end, on the shoulders of the director, and Jackson managed to carry them all with passion and conviction. Few who have seen the "Lord of the Rings" films would deny their pictorial beauty, but for me, it's Jackson's attention to detail, particularly of the performances and characterizations, that makes the films work.

3. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Best Actor, "Capote" (2005)
Hoffman's nomination, along with the nominations of Joaquin Phoenix (playing Johnny Cash) and David Strathairn (playing Edward R. Murrow), drew a lot of criticism, because some critics argued their performances were "impersonations" rather than acting. My feeling is that these critics either didn't see the films in question or didn't pay close attention to them, because all three performances were excellent, moving far beyond "impersonation" by revealing the characters' inner lives. Of the three, Hoffman's was the best, largely because it was the most demanding, the most complex. Capote, who depends on his glib and witty mask, is cracked open and forced to confront the very things he wishes to hide, from himself as well as anybody else. Through him, the audience undergoes a harrowing emotional journey, and Hoffman hits every beat with precision. Many a good performance by an actor playing a fictional character lacks this potency. Impersonation, my foot.

4. Helen Mirren, Best Actress, "The Queen" (2006)
While we're on the subject of "impersonations," Mirren deserves a mention. Very little of the skepticism regarding Hoffman, Phoenix, and Strathairn was aimed at her, though she too portrayed a real-life figure. I suspect she was so darned good that even those carpers couldn't fail to see it. Aside from Meryl Streep, few American actresses past their prime get the chance to play such deliciously complex leading roles. The Brits don't put their older actresses out to pasture, and we get the benefit of it when we see Queen Elizabeth, like Truman Capote, forced to take a good, hard look at that which she would gladly deny, and Mirren, like Hoffman, grabs hold of us and takes us with her. Unquestionably the best performance by a leading actress in 2006.

5. "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," Best Animated Feature, 2005
All three contenders for this award were impressive. "Howl's Moving Castle" has all the beauty and adventure we've come to expect from the master of Japanese animation, Hayao Miyazaki. "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" bravely tells a highly unorthodox love story and makes us care about all three members of the triangle: the confused Victor, the shy Victoria, and the dead but lively Emily. But in terms of what's often called in ice-skating circles "the complete package," "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" takes it. This movie has just about everything: humor, wit, imagination, romance, horror, and something all too rare in contemporary cinema -- genuine sweetness. In his review of "Were-Rabbit," Roger Ebert ventured the opinion that Wallace and Gromit are the most sympathetic characters in the history of animation, and having seen all their shorts as well as their feature, I can't disagree. They're heroes well worth rooting for, and our pop-culture landscape can always use those.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Five great supporting performances that didn't win an Oscar: Female Division

Thelma Ritter, Gladys Cooper, Edna May Oliver, Lucile Watson, Aline MacMahon, Sara Allgood, Jane Darwell, Judith Anderson, Dame May Whitty. These are just a few names more people should know, a few of the great character actresses of the Classic Film Era. With their grit and wit, their polish and pizzazz, they brightened many a film, sometimes even films for which they were far too good. This blog is dedicated to them, though they won't be the only ones mentioned here.

My first of five outstanding supporting-actress performances that failed to win an Oscar may shock you:
1. Jean Hagen, "Singin' in the Rain" (1952). What -- Hagen's sublimely hilarious, pitch-perfect portrayal of silent film queen Lina Lamont, burdened with a horrific voice and a barely working brain, a performance never forgotten once seen? This performance did NOT win an Oscar? I can hardly blame anyone for being surprised at the very idea, but it's sad but true: while Hagen was nominated for her priceless portrayal of Lina, she lost the Oscar to Gloria Grahame for "The Bad and the Beautiful," even though Grahame's character had less than a third of Lina's screen time. All the performances in "Singin' in the Rain" are top-notch; the songs are infectious, the dances unforgettable, the script sharp and witty. But like Claude Rains's Louis Renault, Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont elevates this film to classic status. Without her, it would be merely good; with her, it's a must-see for anyone with an ear for music and a yen to laugh.

2. Edna May Oliver, "David Copperfield" (1935)
Here's an example of bad timing. While this wonderful dour-faced British comedienne was nominated several times (without winning), my favorite of her performances, as Aunt Betsey Trotwood in George Cukor's adaptation of Dickens' classic novel, failed to win a nomination for a simple reason: the Academy did not start awarding Best Supporting Actor and Actress until the following year. But even though Oscar was late to the party, this performance merits a look. It's no easy feat to stand out in a cast that includes Lionel Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Basil Rathbone, Roland Young, Jessie Ralph (another great character actress), and Lewis Stone, but Oliver's sharp-tongued but golden-hearted Aunt Betsey manages it. The role itself is meaty material -- perhaps Dickens' most memorable heroine, though well past her prime -- and Oliver makes the most of it. The scene in which she tells off David's wicked stepfather, Rathbone, and his equally wicked sister, Violet Kemble-Cooper, should have been enough to secure an Oscar victory, if only there'd been a victory to secure.

3. Sara Allgood, "How Green Was My Valley" (1941)
Yes, I know, I know, it's a travesty that John Ford's film won Best Picture that year; it's common knowledge that "Citizen Kane" should have won; but that doesn't stop "Valley" from being a very good film, thanks largely to outstanding performances by Roddy MacDowall, Donald Crisp (who won the Oscar), and Sara Allgood. The film's narration describes Allgood's matriarch as the heart of the household, and in many ways Allgood's performance is the heart of the film. Her Beth Morgan can be infuriating, particularly when her deliberate, proud ignorance undermines her young son's efforts to better himself through education, and when her desire to see her daughter marry wealth has a hand in her marrying the wrong man; yet she is also strong, wise, and warm, a fighter (she threatens to tear apart the strikers who are slandering her husband "with my two hands!") and a nurturer. Allgood brings all the character's facets expertly to light, winning our admiration while not blinding us to her flaws. Though Allgood always did her best with any part she was given, she never managed to get her hands on such a meaty role again. Yet for this performance alone she deserves to be held in the memory.

4. Gladys Cooper, "Now, Voyager" (1942)
Evil characters are so easily memorable that actors don't have to strain very hard to make them so -- or so we might think, until we try to imagine someone other than Gladys Cooper in the role of the heartless matriarch who nearly destroys her daughter's life in this film, one of the best "women's pictures" of the 1940s. Because the daughter is played by Bette Davis in Heroic Mode, we know she'll emerge strong in the end, bruised but not broken. All the same, Cooper's performance is chilling. Her voice is ice-cold, her hands brittle and hard, her eyes merciless. Cooper was a fine actress who could show range when given the opportunity; on occasion (e.g. "The White Cliffs of Dover," "The Valley of Decision") she was given sympathetic characters to play. But no one could match her depictions of Evil Aristocratic Matriarchy, and this was her best. Watch, and tremble.

5. Ethel Barrymore, "Portrait of Jennie" (1948)
If Gladys Cooper had no peer when it came to playing cold-hearted mothers, Barrymore set the gold standard when it came to gentle, wise old women. Many romantic films, particularly in recent years, tend to push supporting players into the background (with the exception of Wisecracking Best Buddies), but in this paranormal love story about a starving artist and a muse who may or may not be of this world, Barrymore claims our attention with her soft-spoken, sophisticated portrayal of the art dealer who takes the artist under her wing and becomes his confidante. She etches this performance in subtle, careful strokes, offering an example of the effectiveness of under-playing. She also delivers the film's best line: "I'm an old maid -- and nobody knows more about love than an old maid." Sounds contradictory, but when she says it, we believe it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Invisible Demographic

I love movies and a fair amount of TV, but sometimes I get the feeling they don't love me back. I'm the type no network programs for, a member of a silent minority perpetually flying under popular culture's radar screen.

I'm a female geek.

I'm far more drawn to high-quality sci-fi shows like "Babylon 5" than to soap operas like "Desperate Housewives." I'd rather watch reruns of "The Simpsons" than reruns of "Designing Women." G4's "Ninja Warrior" competitions are far more fun for me than "American Idol" or "America's Next Top Model." In channel-surfing, I may occasionally pause to hear a witticism on Comedy Central, but I'll race by Lifetime, Oxygen, and WE. Should those networks vanish from cable tomorrow, I would scarcely notice.

Almost no one programs with me in mind. I'm not in any of the desired demographics. So many films and shows that women are supposed to love -- contemporary romantic comedies, for example -- leave me wrinkling my nose, yet I can't embrace the "girls-are-only-good-for-one-thing" ethos that pervades so many comedies and action dramas aimed at men. Lifetime, a.k.a. The Battered Woman Channel, holds no charms for me, yet G4's "love stinks" counter-Valentine's Day programming seemed designed deliberately to alienate any female viewer who might have stumbled upon it. (G4 is ostensibly a network for gamers; I guess it doesn't occur to them that girls might play video games too, and not always of the pink hearts-and-flowers variety.) Comedy Central features stand-up comediennes from time to time, and does air "The Sarah Silverman Program," but its programming is still heavily male-oriented -- again, as if they were purposely holding female viewers at arm's length. (Why would any network say "no" to more viewers?) Cartoon Network's Adult Swim airs two hilarious shows, "Robot Chicken" and "The Venture Brothers," but even as I watch these shows I sometimes catch myself thinking, "They honestly don't believe any woman is watching; more than that, they don't care."

I should be used to it by now.

A recent "Simpsons" episode showed Krusty the Klown's producers trying a desperate maneuver to attract girls to the show: they recruit the sweetly singing Princess Penelope, whose repertoire includes trilling, Snow White-style, and scattering pink confetti across the audience. Little girls are enthralled, and soon Krusty is reduced to the role of sidekick on his own show. Bart wonders aloud, "Isn't there anything good that isn't ruined by women?" A fair question. If soft, gushy insipidity is what TV and film producers think females really want to see, then G4, Comedy Central, and Adult Swim can hardly be blamed for shunning the idea of courting female viewers.

But soft, gushy insipidity is NOT what all girls want to see. It's not what girl geeks want to see. A little acknowledgement of our existence would not hurt in the slightest.

All isn't doom and gloom. Sci-fi casts an occasional nod in our direction. Granted, "Babylon 5," which featured the strongest, most engaging heroines ever to appear on a sci-fi show, is long gone, but sci-fi shows still feature interesting female characters while taking nothing away from the guys. I was never a fan of "Battlestar Galactica" (too dark and humorless), but I have to give it credit for at least trying to do something different with its ladies. Network sci-fi shows like "Fringe" and "Flash Forward" show women in positions of strength. Yet in making the women strong, these shows don't neglect the male characters. Men AND women can watch and enjoy these shows. They're after a wide demographic: geeks of both genders and all ages. These shows offer a welcome respite from the popular culture movers-and-shakers' narrow ideas of "what women want."

When all else fails, a girl geek can always turn to Chinese wu-xia films. When they're good, they're perfect for us. The geek in me can relish the splendidly choreographed fight sequences in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero," and "House of Flying Daggers," while the girl in me can weep over the tragic love stories. What could be better?

Yet for the larger picture, I can only cling to my tenuous faith in my long-held principle: the geeks shall inherit the earth -- and that includes the girl geeks. As girl geeks move into positions of power in Hollywood, the outlook should grow brighter. After all, they probably grew up frustrated with movies' and TV's narrow offerings, designed to hit one and only one niche audience. And they'll know we don't all want "Twilight," "Valentine's Day," and Princess Penelope.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Five great supporting performances that didn't win an Oscar: Male Division

Danny Peary's book "Alternate Oscars: One Critic's Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress -- From 1927 to the Present" is well worth a read, particularly for us movie buffs who spend a good bit of time shaking our heads at the Academy's choices. (Coming Soon: Least Deserving Oscar-winning Performances.) However, the book omits alternative choices for two of my favorite categories, Supporting Actor and Actress. I don't mean to take credit away from leading men and women, but the Supporting categories offer a chance for top-notch character actors to get the recognition they deserve. Often, the quality of performances in the Supporting categories is so strong that we can't help wishing for a five-way tie. It's just as well Peary doesn't cover it; that leaves room for me.

Because there simply isn't enough Oscar to go around, I want to salute five outstanding performances that failed to win, male and female. This week, it's the men's turn.

1. Claude Rains, "Casablanca."
As charismatic as Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine is, and as many sparks as he strikes with leading lady Ingrid Bergman, I assert that Rains's Captain Louis Renault is the main reason this film retains its classic status to this day. All the best lines are his: "I'm surprised at you, throwing women away like that; someday they may be scarce"; "Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects"; on being told a pistol is pointed straight at his heart, "That is my least vulnerable spot!" Then we have my personal favorite, "I am shocked -- shocked! to find that gambling is going on in here!" (Afterward, he's handed his winnings.) Rains delivers this and all his other dialogue with perfect timing and panache. Renault may be corrupt and underhanded, but we love him anyway, thanks to the wit and class Rains brings to the role. It's darn near a leading performance, since he gets nearly as much screen time as Bogart himself, and Renault's moral decision at the film's end matters as much as Rick's. Without him, or with a lesser actor in the role, the movie wouldn't even be worth watching.

2. Claude Rains, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"
Rains gave strong supporting performances in film after film, yet the Big Prize eluded him. I love almost all his performances, but next to "Casablanca" and "The Invisible Man," this is his best. Like Renault, his character here, Senator Joseph Paine, is corrupt but not-quite-evil; also like Renault, he makes a crucial moral decision in the end which, in the hands of another actor, might seem to come totally out of left field. Even more than in "Casablanca," Rains brings subtle shading to his role; note how carefully he uses his face and changes vocal inflections. Rather than hamming (which Rains could do delectably on occasion), he underplays, at least until the film's final scene. It's hard for me to imagine any other actor making this character work.

3. Thomas Mitchell, "It's a Wonderful Life"
Mitchell did manage to snag an Oscar during his long and impressive career (for "Stagecoach"), but his performance as Uncle Billy in the holiday classic failed even to be nominated. As anyone who has seen "It's a Wonderful Life" multiple times knows, next to George Bailey himself, Uncle Billy is the most complex character in the film, alternately lovable and infuriating. Uncle Billy's carelessness almost results in George's ruin, but while George is caught in his revelatory nightmare, Uncle Billy gets up off his knees and gets to work helping George's wife Mary save the day. Mitchell gives careful attention to all this character's sides: his humor ("Breakfast is served, lunch is served, dinner..."), his warmth, his anxiety, his despair (all we hear is a name, and only once in the film, but that's enough to reveal the tragedy in Billy's past), and, in the end, his courage. Just as the classic status of "Casablanca" owes nearly everything to Rains, this movie's standing as a holiday favorite owes quite a bit to Mitchell.

4. Bela Lugosi, "Son of Frankenstein"
Horror movie actors have never gotten much love from the Academy; despite his brilliant work in many an above-par picture, the great Boris Karloff never garnered so much as a nomination. Lugosi lacks Karloff's range, and his career took a noticeable nose-dive after the 1930s (ending with his collaboration with worst-director-of-all-time Ed Wood), but he deserves praise for his portrayal of broken-necked shepherd Igor in this film, the last of Universal's '30s horror classics. What makes his performance remarkable is that he plays the role perfectly straight, going for chills rather than laughs; though not known for subtlety, he brings some ghoulish shadings to this role, which could have become a caricature so easily. He didn't have much luck afterwards; he was very likely his own worst enemy; but even after the Ed Wood debacles, this fine performance still remains.

5. Peter Ustinov, "Quo Vadis"
These days, this movie is usually dismissed by the cynics as a corny, overblown sword-and-sandal epic, smothered in religiosity. For me, however, two things make it worth watching: Miklos Rosza's outstanding musical score and Ustinov's sublimely hammy portrayal of Nero. In certain scenes he's appropriately ridiculous, while in others we can feel the terror his wild unpredictability inspires. My favorite moment comes when Nero is told that his disgraced counselor Petronius (Leo Genn, also very good) has committed suicide "without my permission!" He has "the weeping vase" brought to him and seals his tears inside it. Then, after reading the parting note which levels insults at Nero's musical/poetic efforts, he shifts into rage on a dime -- one moment silly, the next moment terrifying.

Honorable Mentions:
Henry Daniell, "The Body Snatcher"; Leo Genn, "Quo Vadis"; Jack Hawkins, "The Bridge on the River Kwai"; Robert Morley, "Marie Antoinette"; Sydney Greenstreet, "The Maltese Falcon"; Walter Huston, "Yankee Doodle Dandy"; Clifton Webb, "Laura"; Claude Rains (again), "Notorious"; Robert Ryan, "Crossfire"; Charles Bickford, "Johnny Belinda"; Erich von Stroheim, "Sunset Boulevard"; Barry Fitzgerald, "The Quiet Man"

Sunday, February 14, 2010

For Valentine's Day: three great romantic films

If there is one thing contemporary cinema needs delivering from, it's bad romance. I cannot remember the last time I saw a romantic "comedy" that didn't smell highly of contrivance and feature such unlovely characters that audiences might well root for them NOT to get together, for the gene pool's sake. (Examples: "Bride Wars," "He's Just Not That Into You," "Mamma Mia.") We can't hope for much better from romantic dramas as long as the most wildly popular of that genre is the inane "Twilight" series, featuring a heroine so pathetic that even Charles Dickens' passive wallflower heroines could give her a lesson or two in gumption. Even critically acclaimed romances can disappoint. "Big Fish," "Atonement," and "Slumdog Millionaire" were all touted as highly romantic, yet for all their other merits, they all shared the same flaw: a woefully underdeveloped heroine. Despite being played by high-caliber actress Jessica Lange, the female lead in "Big Fish" remains nothing more than a shadow. The only thing we learn about Keira Knightley's character in "Atonement" is that she looks good in a green dress. And the heroine for whom the hero does everything in "Slumdog" is merely a gorgeous waxwork. It's hard to root for a romance when we can't see why the heroine is worth all the trouble.

I love a good romantic film, drama or comedy, but my standards are high: 1) we must get to know and take an interest in both the lovers concerned, and 2) we must get the sense that something vital is at stake (a tricky feat to manage in a pop culture where the attitude toward romance tends to be blase' and casual). Most of the films that meet these crucial criteria tend to come from the Classic (pre-1970) Era, but as you will see, it's not unheard of for a recent film to make the grade. If you're seeking a genuinely romantic film, here are three with which you can't lose:

1. "The African Queen" (1951). Gruff, earthy Humphrey Bogart and prim, hyper-sophisticated Katharine Hepburn: a clear-cut case of Opposites Attract, right? If that were all there was to it, this story, set during World War I, of an alcoholic riverboat captain and a strait-laced missionary would never have attained Classic status. What makes this love story work is that as the captain ferries the missionary down a supposedly un-navigable river and lets her talk him into making a torpedo and aiming it at a German gun-boat is that as they share their adventure, we see how very much alike they are under the surface. The more they endure, the more they admire and respect each other (two characteristics all too often lacking in today's "romantic" films). Experience molds them into genuine soul mates; each is a better person for knowing and loving the other. Hepburn and Bogart convey crackling romantic electricity each time they touch and look at each other. The good news: after being withheld from a demanding public, this fine film is finally getting a proper DVD release this March.

2. "That Hamilton Woman" (1941). This historical drama of the star-crossed love between Lord Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton was a favorite of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and it's easy to see why. With its period setting, its "England Forever" propaganda seems far less jarring and intrusive, yet the message gets across. But it makes my list because Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, as Nelson and Emma, were very much in love in real life when they made this film, and their passion comes through in every frame. (Also, they're both gorgeous.) The screenplay, by acclaimed playwright R.C. Sheriff, takes the time and trouble to develop both characters and make us care about them; through her love, Emma matures from a shallow flibbertigibbet to a warm and intelligent woman. Helping matters further is a lush musical score by one of the finest film-score composers of the Classic Era, Miklos Rosza.

3. "WALL-E" (2008). Yes, the most moving romantic comedy-drama of the past two years features two robots as its protagonists. Don't laugh: Pixar's classic draws the viewer in from the very first shot. (I don't even like "Hello, Dolly!" yet somehow that song soaring over the dust cloud gets to me every time.) As other critics have pointed out, WALL-E is a robotic version of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, with all the humor, sweetness and poignance that implies. His love at first sight for the hot-tempered and aggressive EVE is heart-melting. But like the other two films, this one takes the time to develop the relationship, as the two learn about, and from, each other. The scene in which EVE discovers how WALL-E took care of her while she was unconscious can bring mist to the eyes. We can find more tenderness in their hand-holding than in many a live-action couple's lip-lock.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Five Reasons Why 1930s Cinema Rules

Many people my own age and younger have a prejudice against black-and-white films. Some of them simply will not watch such films, unless they're forced. When asked to explain their dislike, they tend to fall back on a stock answer: "They're old." And in the eyes of the young, nothing "old" (read: made or written a decade ago) can possibly be relevant to their own lives. I dislike this idea and do everything I can to persuade my students away from it, but that's another blog for another day; the issue today is classic black-and-white cinema.

It's easy for this classic film buff to sneer and smirk at these young people whose minds are closed fast against black-and-white films, but then I have to consider: how did I come to love these films? I have to credit my background. My parents were avid watchers of classic films, and as my sister and I were growing up, we saw a good many of them, good and bad. As we grew up, we never found anything wrong or unnatural in classic films, their black-and-white cinematography or their highly emotive stage style of acting. We were used to it. By the time we reached young adulthood, we could evaluate both classic and contemporary films on their own merits.

But when I consider how a brilliant black-and-white film like "A Tale of Two Cities" (1936) or "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (1931) must look to a teenager or adult who has never seen a film from this era before, I realize how strange that film must seem to them, and how lucky I was to have grown up with classic-film-loving parents. Nowadays I have a simple recommendation for the uninitiated: Start with the 1960s and work your way back. Choose a few high points from each decade -- '60s, '50s, and '40s, and before you know it, you will have acclimatized yourself to those aspects of black-and-white film that once seemed so strange. You'll be ready to dip into my favorite film decade: the 1930s.

Five things I love about the films of the 1930s:
1. The best comedies earned their happy endings.
These days, it's fashionable for cinema's auteurs to tack tragic, or at least despairing, endings onto movies meant to make us laugh, as if somehow it's "smarter" (closer to what they perceive as the truth) to leave their characters in misery. Happy endings are so cliche, so yesterday, right? If that's the case, I'll gladly take a trip back to yesterday and enjoy a movie in which an upbeat ending could be fresh and funny: Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert toppling the Walls of Jericho in "It Happened One Night" (1934); Carole Lombard assuring William Powell that "it" (their marriage ceremony) will all be over in a minute in "My Man Godfrey" (1937); and star-crossed American Melvyn Douglas and Soviet Greta Garbo meet in the middle, Constantinople, at the end of "Ninotchka."

2. Heroes knew how to buckle their swash.
Costume action pictures are not entirely a thing of the past, but these days the hero of such a film, unless he's played by Johnny Depp, is likely to be deadly dull; the "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy, for example, may have boasted Depp's delicious performance as the anti-hero Jack Sparrow, but we also had to put up with Orlando Bloom's beautiful-but-bland hero Will Turner, a type far more typical (see, or rather don't see, Kevin Costner in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" as another example). The balance of the personality, charisma, and wit in the films is channeled toward the Bad Guy. Well, when Errol Flynn was handling the sword, this was not the case. Costner's Robin Hood is so easily overshadowed by Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham that it's almost painful to watch. But Errol Flynn's Robin Hood (from one of 1938's best films) holds his own against baddie Basil Rathbone, matching him quip for quip and cutting a vital, charismatic figure. This is the kind of hero I want to root for.

3. "They had VOICES then."
For me, the most powerful and charismatic aspect of a good actor is his voice. If I don't like the voice, I don't like the actor (example: marble-mouthed Nicolas Cage). The trouble I find with contemporary cinema is that while character actors' voices might be immediately recognizable (e.g. Morgan Freeman, J.K. Simmons), leading actors' voices blend together, with little distinctive ring. If you watched their movies with your eyes closed, you wouldn't know whom was speaking. Yet 1930s cinema bursts with distinctive voices, actors who couldn't sound like anyone else if they tried: Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Colman, James Stewart, William Powell, Gary Cooper, Ray Milland... just to name a few. Those are just the leading men. Bring in the character actors, and the list of distinctive voices gets much longer: Boris Karloff, Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Donald Crisp, Edward Everett Horton, Thomas Mitchell, Raymond Massey, Edward Arnold, Edmund Gwenn, Lionel Barrymore... again, just to name a few.

4. Musical films starred musical stars.
Just as I grew up with black-and-white films, I grew up with Broadway and Hollywood musicals, and came to adore the genre. Recent attempts have been made to revive it, but their success has been spotty; we're still battling the problem that killed the genre in the first place: the casting of non-singing, non-dancing stars in musical roles. (In the painfully bad "Paint Your Wagon," for example, none of the leads could sing, and so some of the Broadway score's best songs had to be jettisoned.) Travel back to the 1930s, and you find the musical genre just getting started, and studios beginning to cultivate stars whose primary purpose was to star in musicals. Two stand out amongst the rest: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose films "Top Hat" and "Swing Time" manage to ring with class, style, and sheer joy despite their admittedly silly plots. Busby Berkeley, with his success "42nd Street," may have rescued the genre from the glut of bad films that nearly killed it, but Fred and Ginger set the bar high for musical stars, and the bar remained high through the next decade.

5. The year 1939.
Here's a list of movies released in 1939 nominated for Best Picture: "Dark Victory," "Gone With the Wind," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "Love Affair," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Ninotchka," "Of Mice and Men," "Stagecoach," "The Wizard of Oz," and "Wuthering Heights." That doesn't even include such stirring non-nominees as "The Lady Vanishes," "Only Angels Have Wings," "Young Mr. Lincoln," and "Gunga Din." Once you've worked your way back from the 1960s and accustomed yourself to the classic film style, I recommend you treat yourself to an All-1939 Film Festival. Start with these I've named, then spread out. With this sort of variety, you're bound to embrace more than one of them.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pixar cracks Best Picture

Academy Award nominations were announced this Tuesday morning, and if you're a movie buff like me, then, pardon the Arthur Miller quote, "attention must be paid," whether or not one agrees with the Academy's choices or has been impressed by the quality of the year's films.

This year, the Academy chose to increase the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. Such a large number of nominees is not unprecedented; that number was typical throughout most of the 1930s and on into the early 1940s. More nominations meant more recognition for different types of films, and this should be regarded as a good thing, an acknowledgement of brilliance in a variety of genres, not just limited-release art house fare. The year 1938, for example, saw the following Best Picture nominees: "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (swashbuckler), "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (musical), "Boys Town" (family film), "The Citadel" (adaptation of a highly regarded novel), "Four Daughters" ("woman's picture" -- they weren't called "chick flicks" back then), "Grand Illusion" (foreign-language war film and, along with "Robin Hood," my personal favorite among the nominees), "Jezebel" ("woman's picture" starring Warner Brothers' unstoppable force, Bette Davis), "Pygmalion" (British, art house fare), "Test Pilot" (contemporary adventure), and "You Can't Take It With You" (comedy, and that year's winner). So many different types of films competing for the Big Prize adds spice to the contest; one can never be sure what the Academy will favor. Will it go for the big box-office blockbuster, or will it go for the prestige picture? Or will it stumble, by chance, onto a film that's both?

With ten nominees, what will actually win is even less of a foregone conclusion than usual, and with a blockbuster like "Avatar" among this year's nominees, the Oscarcast is likely to see its largest viewership in recent years (perhaps even since 2003, when blockbuster "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" was a major contender). But for me, the most pleasant surprise among this year's Best Picture nominations is the inclusion of Pixar Studios' latest treasure, "Up."

Like all Pixar films (though to varying degrees), "Up" boasts a screenplay that mixes drama and humor in just the right doses, and interesting characters worth caring about and rooting for. When we shed tears, we don't feel ashamed of ourselves or angry at the movie for manipulating us; rather, we know by instinct that those tears were honestly earned. For the second time in a row, Pixar offers the year's sweetest love story, even though (for most of the film) it's between a cantankerous widower and the wife he has lost. Furthermore, "Up" manages the trick of being smart and sharp without being cynical, and any film that can manage this trick certainly deserves consideration.

This isn't the first time Pixar has come forth with a film deserving of a Best Picture nomination. Single-handedly, that studio is doing all it can to change the notion that American animated features should be geared primarily towards children. "WALL-E," last year's deserving film, painted its love story in subtle, surprisingly mature strokes; in the end, the fact that the central characters were two robots proved incidental. "WALL-E" also boasted a virtually dialogue-free opening half, demanding that its audience pay close attention; not for nothing did some critics liken WALL-E to a robot Charlie Chaplin. 2004's nominee, "The Incredibles," offered a middle-aged protagonist going through the sorts of things middle-aged men often go through, with the brilliantly added burden of superpowers he is not allowed to use; "The Incredibles" is so intriguingly layered in its character development that I've used it several times to my college English students film analysis.

This kind of intricate and empathetic storytelling is the hallmark of the most memorable Best Picture nominees. The trouble is that, for years, the Academy has refused to acknowledge the existence of such things in an animated film, as if the medium of animation itself somehow juvenilizes every story it touches. When the Academy was at last prepared to acknowledge the worth of animated films, it stuck them in a category of its own, Best Animated Feature, rather than allowing them to compete on equal terms with live-action fare. Even though "The Incredibles" and "WALL-E" were among the very best, if not the best, films of their respective years, they had to content themselves with a Best Animated Feature victory. "Up" is at last getting the respect they should have gotten.

Even though "Up" is my favorite among the nominated films I've seen so far (my choice for the year's best film, the sci-fi drama "Moon," failed to be nominated at all), it hasn't a hope of winning. As long as the Best Animated Feature category exists, the Academy is likely to expect superb animated films to be satisfied with a victory there. Yet the nomination itself is a small step in the right direction, perhaps -- dare I be optimistic -- a sign of things to come. Before the decade is over, a Pixar film may actually win Best Picture. I can only hope it's as good as "Up."