Monday, April 28, 2014

BEST PICTURE SHOWCASE: "Ordinary People" (1980)

Robert Redford is considered one of the great cinematic giants of all time, and with good reason. His resumé is amazing, and he's been a heartthrob since he first appeared on the scene, cutting his teeth in television guest starring roles on shows such as The Twilight Zone. By the end of the 1960's, he has held a constant place amongst the A-listers of Hollywood. Yet, amazing as it may seem, he's not only never won an acting Oscar, he's only been nominated ONCE in his entire career (The Sting, 1973). He does have two Oscars on his mantle, however. He was awarded an Honorary statuette in 2002, but his one competitive win was actually for directing, not for acting. He's gotten two directing nominations in his career. One was for 1994's Quiz Show (which also netted him a Best Picture nomination since he was a producer on that movie) and the other was for what was his directorial debut. It was the latter that won him an Oscar, and that's today's blog subject: Ordinary People, based on the novel of the same name by Judith Guest.

Friday, April 25, 2014

BEST PICTURE SHOWCASE: "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008)

Hollywood went Bollywood at the 81st Annual Academy Awards ceremony when the box office sleeper hit Slumdog Millionaire almost swept the event, winning all categories but one that it was nominated in. An unlikely success, the film--which was adapted from the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup--is set fully in India with an almost-entirely Indian cast of then-unknowns to U.S. audiences, and although it is an English-language film, there's a good amount of Indian dialogue with subtitles. This isn't exactly what the moviegoing public is used to. But that may be why it worked. It was different. After quietly debuting at film festivals throughout the fall of 2008, word of mouth brought the film into people's consciousness. In time, it was an unstoppable freight train when awards season rolled around. Let's check it out.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

BEST PICTURE SHOWCASE: "All the King's Men" (1949)

This is blog #27 of the 86 I'm doing in 2014 looking at all the Best Picture Oscar winners. Going in, there are a handful of films that I've not only never seen, but really know little if any about. All the King's Men was one of those. I knew zippo of the plot, the performers...nothing. For all I knew this was a 2-hour story about Humpty Dumpty. Now I've seen the film. It had nothing to do with eggs. It's a film about dirty politics, based on the book by Robert Penn Warren that is a thinly-disguised dramatization of the rise and fall of real-life 1930's Louisiana Governor Huey Long. There's also a hint of "noir" throughout the film, and as a big fan of classic film noir, that certainly scored some points. In the end, how many points did it actually score on my card? Let's dive in...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

BEST PICTURE SHOWCASE: "Annie Hall" (1977)

Woody Allen is probably the most polarizing figure in motion picture history. I'm not referring to being polarizing within Hollywood either, because just about everyone seems to love him. But in the court of public opinion, the mere mention of Woody's name can often bring about quite a vivid argument. This has always been the case. His movies have been understood and/or loved by some, not understood and/or loved or even liked by others. Then that whole Soon-Yi thing happened. I certainly have my opinions about that, but this isn't the time or the place to go into that, or about his moral being in general. Today, we're here to discuss his most successful (Oscars-wise) movie, the 1977 Best Picture winner Annie Hall.

Directed and co-written by Woody, Annie Hall was shot in both New York City and Los Angeles, mostly the former. It's considered to be the favorite Woody Allen film of most people, and several elements of the film (such as the wardrobe worn by the titular character) wound up to be quite influential into late 1970's society. Allen considered the film a turning point in his career, as working with cinematographer Gordon Willis brought about a new "maturity" and dramatic feel to his films, unlike his prior work. I've seen quite a number of Woody Allen films over the years, and I certainly have them classified into two lists of the ones I liked and the ones I didn't. Where will this one fall? Let's find out.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

BEST PICTURE SHOWCASE: "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936)

One of the biggest movie successes in the 1930s was today's blog subject, 1936's Best Picture winner The Great Ziegfeld. The pride of MGM at the time, it was acclaimed as the greatest musical biography to be made in Hollywood and still remains a measuring stick in musical filmmaking. The film is a fictionalized tribute to the real-life Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and his hugely successful Ziegfeld Follies, with highly elaborate costumes, dances and sets. Many of the performers of the theatrical Ziegfeld Follies were cast in the film as themselves, including Fanny Brice and Harriet Hoctor, and Ziegfeld's real-life widow Billie Burke (who is a character in the film as well but played by Myrna Loy) acted as a supervisor for the film. Having long been a fan of movie musicals myself, there was one musical sequence that may have topped every other musical sequence I've ever seen on the showmanship scale. We'll get to that in due time. Let's take a look at the movie and see how it plays today.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

BEST PICTURE SHOWCASE: "The Artist" (2011)

Silence is golden. At least it was at the 84th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, because for only the second time in history (the first being the very first ceremony when Wings won top honors) a silent film won Best Picture. How could a silent film actually do this in the 21st century? We'll find out as we check out The Artist, written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, who is a lover of classic cinema. He wished to make this film and studied extensively to be able to present such a movie without needing to have too many of those cards coming up on the screen giving us the dialogue actually being spoken (those are called "intertitles", by the way). Hazanavicius went so far as to present the film in the format it would have been presented back in this time period: a 1.33:1 screen ratio, music being the exclusive soundtrack (at least 99% of the'll see), even the camera techniques. For instance, there was no zoom lens technology back in the silent movie era, so this movie has not a single zoom. Movies are also normally filmed at 24 frames per second, but this film utilized 22 frames per second to give a slightly sped-up movie resembling those of yesteryear. To have sat in the theater watching "The Artist", you truly felt like you'd traveled back in time. Well, outside of the $10+ you dropped for popcorn and soda, anyway.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Oliver! It's a title AND its very own sentence! It's specifically the 1968 movie musical that took home Best Picture at the 41st Annual Academy Awards. Based on the Broadway play of the same name, it's an adaptation of the original Charles Dickens story Oliver Twist. Most of us have probably read the book at some point in our lives, but until watching the movie for this blog, I'd surprisingly never seen this film, and I had some reservations going in. Would the songs trivialize the original story? At a running time of 153 minutes, would it seem too long? Most importantly, would it stand the test of time today? Until 2002's Chicago, this was the last musical to win Best Picture, which made me wonder if perhaps this one seemed antiquated even then. For what it's worth, since the MPAA introduced the modern-day ratings system for movies in 1968 (the same year this movie was released, coincidentally), this remains to this day the only G-rated movie to win the top prize. Will my reservations be proven or disproven? Only one way to find out. Hit the music!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

BEST PICTURE SHOWCASE: "Unforgiven" (1992)

In the early days of Hollywood, two genres stood out as the most popular for studios to make, and for people to see: Musicals and westerns. Both genres went through a quiet period over the last several decades, with musicals finding a new popularity today. That hasn't really happened with westerns. It's not necessarily because studios haven't tried, it's more because the efforts in recent years just haven't been very good. There's definitely still an audience for westerns, and if something great were to come along I'm sure it would do massive business. However, when the best we're given is the likes of Cowboys vs. Aliens...well, thank goodness for the Encore Westerns channel on cable. Of all the channels in the Encore family of channels, the westerns channel frequently garners the highest ratings outside of the flagship Encore network itself.

What seems strange is that until 1990's Dances With Wolves, only one western in history had won Best Picture, and here in 2014, we've had a total of just three. The first was Cimarron way back from 1931, Dances... was second. We're going to focus today on the third one, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, which turned out to be Clint Eastwood's final western film by choice, for fear of repeating himself and/or turning the genre into caricature.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

BEST PICTURE SHOWCASE: "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956)

Mike Todd believed in all things grandiose. He himself had a very grandiose personality. Bigger, better, faster, more. Nothing was out of his reach. He was abrasive, yes. He could be a blowhard, yes. He made many enemies, yes. But Mike had visions and he did everything possible to bring those visions into fruition. In his early life, he made a fortune in the construction industry with his brother. The Great Depression killed that. Undeterred, Mike started on Broadway, and he wasn't afraid to push the envelope with tricks such as jet engine props burning off dancers' dresses. That led Mike to Hollywood, where he enjoyed success creating innovative widescreen methods Cinerama and Todd-AO, with the latter garnering raves. Oh, let's not forget, he married Elizabeth Taylor by this point too. There was one more mountain Mike wanted to conquer, and that was becoming a modern-day movie mogul. His first production was Around the World in 80 Days, based on the 19th century novel by Jules Verne. Mike, in true Mike fashion, wanted this to be the biggest, grandest motion picture of all time, so it ran 3 hours long. Many extravagant sets were constructed in many countries. Dozens of guest appearances were made by celebrities, many past their prime but still able to pop the audience when they'd show up for a quick minute. According to a Time magazine review of the film, the cast (including uncredited extras) totaled over 68,000 people and nearly 8,000 animals, "...including 4 ostriches, 6 skunks, 15 elephants, 17 fighting bulls, 512 rhesus monkeys, 800 horses, 950 burros, 2,448 American buffalo, 3,800 Rocky Mountain sheep and a sacred cow that eats flowers on cue." How about wardrobe? How about 74,000+ costumes and 36,000+ wardrobe props?

As I said, Mike Todd believed in all things grandiose. However, Around the World in 80 Days was a success, and Mike gained the respect of Hollywood by delivering on his promises regarding the film. Pack a bag, because we're about to take a journey...

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

BEST PICTURE SHOWCASE: "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946)

War. What is it good for? In the song, absolutely nothing, but in Hollywood, it's always been good for movie scripts, because there have been movies written about war, or at least having some sort of a connection to war, since the first celluloid prints rolled. In 1946, the great William Wyler directed The Best Years of Our Lives, based on a novella written by journalist MacKinlay Kantor, and adapted into screenplay form by Robert Sherwood. Mogul Samuel Goldwyn was inspired to produce a film about veterans after reading a 1944 article in Time magazine about the difficulties experienced by men returning to civilian life. This was something never before brought to the public's attention in a film, and frankly back then it was probably something most people didn't even realize was an issue. World War II ended about a year before this film's release, but there wound up no "war fatigue" as the movie connected with critics and the public in a big way, not to mention the Academy, which made this the first film relating to World War II to win Best Picture. Running nearly three hours, there's a lot of film to cover here, so let's get to it.