Wednesday, July 23, 2008

One Hotel to Rule Them All

Squint, and you'll see Joan Crawford standing on the edge of the uppermost balcony... but this girl isn't about to throw any jewelry over the railing for anybody.

We're back with Episode 5 of "Best Pictures from the Outside In," which I'm still archiving here along with my own BP-related ravings. Goatdog plays host for our discussion of 1932's Grand Hotel (my full review is here) and 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. More than any previous pairing, these two movies warmly recommend themselves to all three of us, though we still find plenty to wag about... and, me being me, I still find room to gripe.

Here's a wee note of trivia, for those of you who've been following along: 2003 is the most recent year where each of us musketeers would have voted for a different film on Oscar's ballot, with Nathaniel a Rings fan through and through, and Mike pledging himself to Lost in Translation. In fact, those films occupy the #1 and #2 positions, albeit in reversed order, on their top ten lists from that year. I had a harder time with the 2003 nominees, having assigned every contender except the middling Seabiscuit a B during their initial runs: I loved parts of all four movies and had significant reservations about others. As time passes, Return of the King, Lost in Translation (here's that full review), and Mystic River still play to me as highly flawed pictures if generally successful ones.

Quite unexpectedly, at least for me, the real Seabiscuit of the bunch turns out to be Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which I recently revisited and hugely enjoyed. Possibly due to initial marketing and holiday-season hoopla, I think I missed how, for all the movie's earnest investment in its dramatic narrative, it's even more rooted in an expansive but almost casual sense of the period, attuned to behaviors, rhythms, sounds, colors, jokes, personal styles and movements, tasks, conflicts, curiosities, and entire ways of life that precede ours by 200 years. And yet, despite the mind-boggling detail of the sets, costumes, and action set-pieces, Master and Commander ranks among the least self-conscious period pieces I've ever seen. It feels contemporary in its accessibility and emotional through-lines, while evoking the daily life and ritualized culture on board a British warship in 1805 with startling perception. Russell Boyd's cinematography, which won an Oscar, nestles the camera in almost every conceivable nook and crevice of this vessel, even though the absolute verisimilitude of the picture never once suggests the gargantuan technical apparatus that must have been required to shoot the film with such an agile range of angles and lenses. I was stunned, too, by the confidence and quiet completeness of the performances by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, both of whom I rather underestimated at the time—I experienced the movie in 2003 as a technical exercise rather than an acting piece, even though I miscalculated the degree of technical ingenuity, and for some reason I refused to see that formal ambition in this case, as in many others, need not come at the expense of vivid and sensitive acting. Crowe is more than a stalwart center, and Bettany more than a piquant comic foil and audience surrogate.

The screenplay still runs afoul of some dramatic clichés and uncomfortably expository dialogue, and perhaps an ideal version of the film would have a bit more thematic momentum, despite what I now see and admire as its core commitment to lively historical portraiture. Still, if you haven't seen Master and Commander recently, give it another whirl; I still don't adore it as much as Tim does, but I'm delighted to admit that my initial B needs a major overhaul to an A–.

As for the 1931-32 race, by the way, I recently screened all the nominees I'd been missing, so I can now definitively cast my lot with an old favorite, Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express, where the train is even more exciting when it stops than when it's running. Next choices in order would be The Champ, a robust father-son melodrama that largely transcends its sentimental trappings, especially in its moving finale; Grand Hotel, which I've now said plenty about; Five Star Final, an on-the-nose but still gripping condemnation of tabloid journalism, with Edward G. Robinson, an unnerving Boris Karloff, and a fired-up Marian Marsh; Frank Borzage's Bad Girl, which Oscar loved but which seems pretty nondescript as Borzage dramas go; The Smiling Lieutenant, an okay but overrated Lubitsch musical where Maurice Chevalier lacks all the charm he radiated in the earlier Love Parade; One Hour with You, an even less satisfying Lubitsch-Chevalier outing, with a rushed and chilly narrative, and with Jeanette MacDonald a real trade down from Lieutenant's Claudette Colbert; and the caboose, John Ford's ponderous adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith, which only springs to visual life when it's feeling spooked by dark-skinned people with lethal diseases, and where Ronald Colman can't find any of his usual charisma. I wish that Arrowsmith or at least one of the Lubitsch ventures had made room for Tod Bronwing's remarkable Freaks, or James Whale's poetic take on Frankenstein, or Dorothy Arzner's Merrily We Go to Hell, a big hit in its day, and a pert dramedy about a headstrong aristocrat (Sylvia Sidney) who comes to regret her impulsive marriage to a dashing alcoholic (a fantastic Fredric March, that year's Best Actor, but for his Jekyll & Hyde).

If you have more recommendations, from '31-'32 or '03, let them be known! And thanks for keeping up with this series of ours—we're loving all the comments.

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This Week: Goatdog's transcript and Nathaniel's entry
Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash; ep.4: Cimarron & Million Dollar Baby

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8 Comments:

Blogger tim r said...

I just love you.

1:33 AM, July 24, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

what's almost as spooky as us both naming our posts the same thing and our similar photo goofs last week is that the first illustration (beautiful) includes a shot of Grand Hotel that i REALLY wanted to use in my gif but couldn't figure out a way, too it.

you solved my block. because u r brilliant

6:17 AM, July 24, 2008  
Blogger Brian said...

Of course there's Hawks's Scarface, the Mamoulian/March Dr. Jeckyl & Mr. Hyde, and the best Jean Harlow picture (I've seen) Red Dust, all listed in Inside Oscar as also-rans for 1931-2. Others I like that may or may not have been categorized in this "year" (so hard to be sure with those early split years) include: Skyscraper Souls, starring Warren William and Maureen O'Sullivan in a scathing portrayal of a venal capitalist, Two Kinds of Women, a so-so Miriam Hopkins city-mouse-country-mouse tale directed with real nerve by Cecil B. DeMille's brother William, Safe in Hell, a skeevy, feverish tropical romance by William Wellman, and This is the Night, notable as Cary Grant's debut film role, but also a quite delightful sub-Lubitch faux-reign romp. But then, why I'm I stumping this to a guy who doesn't much like the Smiling Lieutenant or One Hour With You? (Both of which I far prefer to Grand Hotel, Freaks or Frankenstein, personally.)

I do agree that Shanghai Express is tops among all these though. (With the caveat that I haven't seen the Champ or Bad Girl yet.)

4:08 AM, July 25, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: The compliment is perpetually returned! (I'm still waiting for news from NU, but things are looking good.)

@Nathaniel: Praise for my graphics from the reigning master is always exciting!

@Brian: I haven't seen Scarface or Dr. Jekyll or Red Dust, all of which is humiliating. (Given its release date, Red Dust should have been eligible for the 1932-33 release date; I can't tell if IO has a misprint there or if the Academy, as sometimes happened, violated their own arcane protocols.) Your other recommendations are totally new titles to me, and I'll be thrilled to track them down.

More titles that should have qualified for the 1931-32 awards (based on my recent research into exact release dates): &#192 nous la liberté; Sternberg's An American Tragedy; Blonde Crazy; Monkey Business; Platinum Blonde; Private Lives; Red-Headed Woman; Tarzan, the Ape Man; Taxi!; the first Waterloo Bridge; and What Price Hollywood?.

12:40 PM, July 25, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

oh please see RED DUST. i loved it. i'm always so shocked at how sexy pre-code movies are.

12:49 PM, July 25, 2008  
Blogger Kamikaze Camel said...

I'm glad you changed your mind on Master & Commander, Nick. I unfortunately skipped it in cinemas because it looked so typically Oscar bait and I'm not a big fan of water movies for some reason, but when I saw it on DVD I was thoroughly impressed and I actually consider it Crowe's finest work.

I'm glad LOTR wasn't nominated for cinematography (rightly so) because it meant Boyd's excellent work could win and not be trumped by undeserving Return of the King.

10:23 PM, July 27, 2008  
Blogger Kamikaze Camel said...

Oh, and on a different topic, I'm seeing Up the Yangtze tomorrow and your grade has definitely made me even more excited. Are you going to write about it at some stage?

10:24 PM, July 27, 2008  
Blogger asad said...

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7:08 AM, November 13, 2008  

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