Thursday, July 31, 2008

What's the Story (Morning Glory)?

While we've got our 1933 momentum going from yesterday, I'm offering a more conspicuous plug for my 1932-33 Best Actress page, where you can read about Katharine Hepburn's first, divisive Oscar win, for Morning Glory; May Robson's late-late career flowering into stardom; even more about poor Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade; and why I think this field adds up to even less than the sum of its parts. The nomination for Robson—the earliest-born woman ever nominated for this award, having joined the world in 1858—was inevitable, given the shape of the role and the scale of Lady for a Day's financial success, but the other two nods are disheartening even by the Academy's standards: Hepburn was so much better in Little Women, which scored lots of other major nods, and the unusually long 17-month eligibility window encompassed an unusual number of top-drawer female performances. So many, in fact, that I've already proposed what I think is a delicious alternate field, I already hate having to leave out my two runners-up, and I have a bevy of highly lauded performances, some of them outright legendary, that I haven't even caught up with... which is where you come in, to tell me whose work out of 10 luscious possibilities I simply must see next. (Link fixed! Thanks, Nathaniel.)

As for the Best Picture lineup for 1932-33, for me the clear choice is 42nd Street, a watershed in the history not just of musicals and on-screen choreography but of coordinated movement more generally and of the tension between conventional pathos and formal exactitude. I love that the movie demonstrates such affinity for the geometric aesthetics of experimental and late-silent cinema, even as it carries sound pictures into new territory, and I love how it draws out the ominous aspect of mass coordination, in the figure of Warner Baxter's autocratic director, alongside the exuberance of artistry and the gratifications of emotion and pleasure. Complicated and dazzling. Second choice for me is Mervyn LeRoy's tough and good-looking I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, whose narrative twists and visual motifs only get more interesting as it finishes, and the easy pick for third place is George Cukor's mostly lovely screen version of Little Women. My enthusiasm dips notably for my fourth and fifth choices, which have opposite virtues: She Done Him Wrong yields a doozy of a star persona in Mae West's "Lou," and I appreciate how the film (by the same director as Morning Glory!) opens up the screen as a space for new kinds of saucy escape and identification...but the story and the visuals could really use a hand. Frank Capra's Lady for a Day moves along very comfortably and pulls some smart moments from actors like Warren William and Glenda Farrell, but there's little sense of taking risks or pushing boundaries, and as I've said a few times, the film doesn't invest what it could or should in Robson's ostensible lead.

He Done Them Wrong, aka The Private Life of Henry VIII, doesn't break much new ground, either. The whole thing is bitty and skimmy, with a final scene that makes the whole seem even more inconsequential, but Laughton plumbs quite a lot from the role, at least or especially given these circumstances, and Binnie Barnes and Elsa Lanchester do some good work. Plus, a film that offs Merle Oberon this early can't be all bad. Nearing the bottom of this list, Smilin' Through is fanciful and has an engaging fairy-tale look, though I doubt even the filmmakers themselves thought they had made something very consequential. Same for State Fair, which has the well-judged production design one expects from Henry King, but aside from a memorable Best Pickles competition, I couldn't think of any reason to commemorate its remarkable refusal to say anything or amount to much. Cavalcade, the winner, brings up the rear of the list for reasons that have been well-covered, and if I'm skipping over Frank Borzage's A Farewell to Arms, it's because I haven't seen it in entirely too long. In my dim memory, it looked good enough and moved well, and Helen Hayes was affecting enough to land this somewhere at or above She Done Him Wrong/Lady for a Day territory, but I really don't trust myself to know. Any thoughts?

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

And Busby Berkeley would sh*t, I know...

"To see 42nd Street billed below /
Drab ol' /
(bum, bum-bum, doo-di-doo...)

NICK: As we march through Best Pictures from the Outside In, we learn that certain maneuvers can always help if you're trying to net an Oscar. Grand visual scale. Weighty historical themes. But perhaps none is so effective as a one-word title that starts with C. You think I kid, but: Casablanca won Best Picture despite being over a year old at the time, and despite being the kind of timeless popular classic that inevitably loses. Crash won despite the Brokeback momentum and a low critical profile. Cimarron won with literally nothing on its side except the C thing. Chocolat and Cleopatra earned jaw-dropper nominations for no earthly reason. Cabaret came thiiiis close to swiping the top prize from The freaking Godfather. Shit, this trick even worked for Cher.

Certainly, this tried 'n' true shortcut to glory has to explain part of the Chicago and Cavalcade phenoms. Chicago had ace timing and good tonal judgment on its side: riding the crest of the musicals' resurgence; boisterous but still snarky (for the kids!); radiating a kind of holiday-season pedigree without being a downer like The Hours and The Pianist, or a head-scratcher like Talk to Her or Adaptation, or full of fat old naked people like About Schmidt. But you don't have to look long at Chicago, especially at its faux locations and its odd cast, to see how much Miramax was skimping on this production while hemorrhaging money into Gangs of New York, at least before Harvey realized somewhere around Christmas Eve that he'd bet on the wrong reindeer.

Still, if Chicago is, like its two snake-skinned protagonists, a slightly tattered winner, Cavalcade is a case of blatant, unremitting, left-the-house-but-forgot-to-put-pants-on Folly. I'm going to leave it to my brethren in arms to start the autopsy on this one, but bear this in mind, all of you: since 1932-33 was the "bridge year" ceremony between the old August-to-July Oscar timetable and the new, more sensible calendar-year plan, AMPAS had 18 months of movies to choose from, and they went ... with ... this. What can we even say? Or do I speak too soon? Are there Cavalcade fans in the hizzouse? I concede that it has some great hats, and the camera never once fell off the tripod.

NATHANIEL: Didn't it? It sure as hell would have been easy to disguise a falling camera amidst Cavalcade's interminable swirling montages of TIME PASSING that start to eat up the film's running time the closer it gets to the end—which, in a gimmicky narrative trick, is also New Year's Day 1933... the year the film came out.

Theoretically, I have nothing against "political as personal" narratives, the kind of intimate journey that's actually a historical drama, but you have to be so careful with them. If they aren't masterfully handled, they can read as so gimmicky and simplistic in their self absorption... Cavalcade was basically Forrest Gump for people who prefer Noel Coward and tea time to Tom Hanks and chocolate boxes.

GOATDOG, né MIKE: Well, it's clear that the reason why the camera never fell off the tripod is that Diana Wynyard was keeping such a close eye on it. Why did she keep looking at the camera, guys?

NICK: I assumed she had spotted a shiny quarter on the ground, somewhere to the right of the camera crew, and she was nervous someone would scoop it before Frank Lloyd yelled 'Cut.' (Ed.: More thoughts about the 1933 Best Actress race here.)

MIKE: It creeped me out, especially when combined with that "Norma Shearer's not sure how to deliver this line" combination: chin tucked, eyes elevated, looking just a hair past the camera and intoning in a voice that's both breathy and congested. God, that's got to be serious stuff she's saying, because she looks like she might fall over with the weight of all that seriousness (not to mention the seriousity). I swear, this is the worst nominated performance I've ever seen, or at least that I've seen in a few weeks.

(Norma Shearer and Diana Wynyard engage in a brutal Far-Off Look-Off)

NATHANIEL: The First Lady of MGM and I are laughing off that lowball insult with our eyes crossed and heads thrown back. And besides: there's nevermore to be any question about which is the worst nominated performance of all time. That "honor" goes out to Richard Dix of Cimarron. How soon we forget, Goatdog. How soon we forget.

MIKE: Ouch! Why'dya have to bring up Cimarron again, Nathaniel? I was obviously doing such a good job of forgetting it even exists.

But back to Cavalcade. I'm totally with both of you that this botches the "let's look at exactly 33 years of history through this one family" thing in every possible way. What events do we get? The Boer War, the Titanic (surely the worst scene in the film—all that unintentionally silly foreboding dialogue), and World War I, with a handful of throwaway scenes inserted where someone walks on camera, mentions some historical personage, and walks off, leaving one of the film's increasingly shitty montages in his or her wake. So here's my challenge: say something nice about Cavalcade that doesn't involve hats or tripods. I dare ya. I'll start: I liked the old biddy who hangs around in the kitchen, who's always telling dire tales of woe.

NICK: Is this the "Little Bit of Good in Everyone" game? I guess I didn't hate what Herbert Mundin and reliable scarecrow Una O'Connor were doing with their roles as the loyal housekeepers—that is, early in the film, when their emotions had some layering and their relations with the Marryots seemed interestingly ambiguous. But then, the director and the script conspire to push both actors to garish extremity after the first forty minutes or so. Does that still count? Nathaniel, got a better one?

NATHANIEL: There's a moment late in the picture that I do like. It's not giving us the old razzle dazzle—it's just a simple quiet touch. The news has arrived that there's a new war in town, World War I. The youngest son shares his patriotic enthusiasm but his mother, who's already lost one child, can't. She's silent and looks devastated yet what you hear is the cheering from the crowds outside her window. It's an effective juxtaposition, and for a moment the movie had me. But then Wynyard spoils it by going into a bad speech that essentially explains the dichomoty we've just felt in beautiful miniature.

Otherwise, hmmm. I love the posh accents? The way everyone keeps saying "marvelous." In truth, though, I found Cavalcade much easier to sit through than Cimarron because when it's bad, it's bad in an entertaining way. I love the unintentionally subversive, nearly incestuous sexuality. There's far too few characters for a film meant to represent every part of English history, so all the adult lovers began their relationships as childhood playmates. Sick! And I actually loved the Titanic scene for its demented determinist chutzpah. I saw it coming but I just couldn't believe they were going to go there... And they did!

The movie is awful but it's awful in that egomaniacal, forceful way that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the talentless ambitions of Roxie Hart. Cavalcade isn't going to quit until its final curtain call. It wants to tell you everything about British history as badly as Roxie wants to be a ce•leb•ri•ty / that means somebody everyone knows...

NICK: Indeed, Nathaniel. As Roxie and Velma sing in this version, "We move on..."

MIKE: Is this where I say Renée Zellweger is by far the best thing in Chicago, aside from the editing? And the fact that she can't really dance all that well, and has a passable singing voice, is just marvelous, since she's playing "a two-bit talent with skinny legs"? Because this is where I'm saying it. She nails that character, the way she slips between wide-eyed naïveté and street-smart sass, and as long as she avoids doing that squinting thing (maybe her eyes are crossed like Norma's, but she's smart enough to hide it), she's a joy to watch. Certainly light years ahead of a certain Oscar-winning costar who can dance and sing but forgets to make her character interesting. Renée wasn't the best Best Actress nominee in 2002 (have to go with Julianne Moore), but she's higher on my list than Nicole Kidman's nose.

NICK: The contrast in my first two viewings of Chicago still summarizes what I admire about it and what I don't. On opening day, in the huge and gaudy/splendid Clearview Ziegfeld in New York City, with a sold-out crowd squeezed in among all the red velvet walls and sitting before the huge screen, Chicago was spectacular entertainment. Energetic, sleek-looking, designed for 100% entertainment in the moment. And I agree that Renée aced the daydreaminess but also the brittleness and smallness of Roxie. A great audience surrogate, selling the conceit of Roxie's "mind's eye" with no problem—partially through her own newness to the genre but also through some really smart acting, especially in her book scenes.

Two months later, in a smaller, gummier theater, with my partner, who totally cares about musical execution and coherent physical performance in a way that I don't, Chicago looked slipshod and a little desperate. It had a bag of old Fosse tricks and hand-me-down lighting designs that were just enough to get by—but, anachronistically, one could imagine Michael Kors spotting all of its last-minute hems and crooked seams, and Nina Garcia admitting that she was bored. And the major performers seemed either in over their heads (Zellweger, Gere, Reilly) or capably but joylessly hitting her marks, and only intermittently connecting with her colleagues (I'm with you, 'Dog).

I still see both Chicagos: the zesty and formidable good-time machine and the patchy first-timer production that's still looking for an overall shape and a richer, more integrated troupe. Although, either way, I always hate "Razzle Dazzle," and I always love that guns-blazing finale.

NATHANIEL: Preferring Roxie to Velma, boys? 'Whatever Happened to Class?' Oh, sorry. That's a deleted number there, lost from stage to screen. I get that Renée understands Roxie as a character, and I still admire that she snagged her first two nominations for comedic work (not easy to do), but I just... can't agree.

See, I fall into Nick's partner's school of feeling when it comes to this genre. I need the proper skills exhibited. I care not a whit about verisimilitude of character in these cases. I want the full razzle dazzle of skilled performers when it comes to musicals... even if the characters aren't supposed to have great skill. You can hear the opposite complaint about Renée in Chicago in various critiques of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. The reasoning goes that Liza is way too skilled to be playing Sally Bowles, who is a minor league performer. But I say, ALWAYS err on the side of too good when it comes to musicals. Musicals live or die by their numbers, so they need to be great even if the characters aren't. Cabaret is one of the greatest musicals of all time, but if they had cast for a performer representing Sally's supposed skill level, it couldn't have been.

I agree that "Razzle Dazzle" is a disaster of direction (and everything else), but that final number, for all its energy—I love the lights and gunfire—actually hurts me more in a "what could have been" way. Catherine Zeta-Jones moves like a real musical theater performer, and I love her every twist, hair toss, and gesture. But Renée just keeps spoiling the lines and frame. It makes me crazy... her characterization be damned.

NICK: What about "We Both Reached for the Gun," Nathaniel? I find that to be the most complete and charmingly mounted number in the movie, and Renée really sells the dummy act (helpful practice for her Cold Mountain perf, where she moved her mouth perfectly to Elly May Clampett's voice.) Anyway, if you're going to spring for Zellweger anywhere in the film, might it be here?

I totally take your points, and remember hearing them from D–––– many times in my kitchen, in my living room, while taking out the trash, et al. But for me, what a musical performer most needs to do is serve the film and the ensemble. Zellweger's uncertain, occasionally storky dancing totally works for Roxie, and she's giving her all, whatever that might be, to THIS movie. CZJ barely looks at Roxie, ever, and seems all the while like she's claiming a fiefdom over all starring roles in all future musicals, and assuaging her boredom in book scenes by imagining where she'll store her fan letters and her inevitable Oscar. Of course I admit that she's not bad, just chilly. I am surprised she has gotten no musical work since this (and not much work, period).

NATHANIEL: In an opposing way we're both coming from the same place. I see your "Renée sells it as Roxie might" and raise you a "CZJ ferociously (and yes, coldly) demands it only for herself, just as Velma would."

NICK: Point: Nathaniel.

NATHANIEL: Either way, I think they're an engaging, thorny duo, and I like the movie quite a bit for all of its half successes. But how about that Fanny Bridges in Cavalcade for a musical/comedy trio? She's a star across the pond, 'round about the same time as that killer diller double act in Chicago. Velma and Roxie would eat her alive but I love that both Velma and Fanny are hanging on desperately to old acts. Velma is coming at it practically—hey, it used to work, viz. "My sister and I had an act that couldn't flop"—but what's Fanny's excuse? She's still peddling the same exact dance moves she was rehearsing when she was an eight-year-old.

MIKE: And the clouds parted—I never realized that they're basically contemporaries. What a bizarre contrast. Fanny's obviously being presented as a successful act, which is so mind-boggling, because she's so terrible, singing about the blues in her high, clear voice and ruffles, kicking her legs up. She don't know from the blues, despite the fact that she's just endured most of Cavalcade's running time. Am I a bad person for hoping that one of those zeppelin bombs would solve her career problems for her?

NICK: Let's make this act five-wide, throw in the Mahoney Sisters from The Broadway Melody, and give Velma and Roxie some more options about how to use those automatics.

MIKE: Re: Renée, though, I guess I'm expressing my admiration for this awkward performance in this particular role. There's no way I would extend any goodwill at all to Richard Gere's non-dancing and horribly affected singing; I'd like to pitch him out of the film, and I think his scenes lost a lot of energy when they depend on things he doesn't possess, like charm and ability. I'm lukewarm on Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly, too.

So we covered the RZ vs. CZJ point of contention; what do you think about the editing, which seemed to provoke a lot of arguments at the time? Even after repeat viewings, I think that's one of Oscar's smartest picks in that category in a long time. Despite the "I want to see a dancer complete a movement" complaints, and the argument that the editing was designed to disguise the fact that most of the cast couldn't dance very well, I think Martin Walsh was just going for something else entirely: he created something approaching full integration of body movements, music, and plot, to an extent that most musicals don't attempt—they tend to sit back and follow the performers. I think it's an amazing achievement, and it still carries me past some of the film's rough patches.

NICK: I generally like the editing: it's so fleet and suggestive so much of the time that you notice when the camera's just plopping back and gawking, or when a performer like Reilly isn't giving Walsh any interesting movements or angles to cut on. A few of the numbers do feel over-edited to me ("Cellblock Tango," for instance) but there are at least as many moments where that fusion you describe just pops off the screen. Renée and Dominic West's early, elated romp in the bed is one. Her projection of herself onto the stage in Velma's place is another, with those urgently interwoven push-ins. I agree that the editing, more than any other single contribution to the film, often supplies a verve and a sense of continuity to the movie that is always welcome, and often very exciting, even on a small screen.

NATHANIEL: I'm one of those grouches who likes to complain when the editing on musical films covers up for lumpy dancing... but otherwise, I basically agree with the points as stated. It's over-edited surely (the Richard Gere body-double tap-dance is a major sore point) but if editing has to work double duty as coverage, the least it could do is perform its work with verve and rhythm as Martin Walsh does here.

Speaking of editing... good cutting is all about communication and combinations. Chicago has it and the movie is compulsively watchable and compelling. Good cutting can make a picture cruise by. It may surprise you to hear how these pictures clock in. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, Cavalcade does not continue for centuries. It's curtains at 110 minutes. Curiously Chicago, fleet of foot even while dancing with clumsy ones, is actually 3 minutes longer. Cavalcade's cornucopia of contiguous catastrophes and current events needed Martin Walsh as badly as Chicago did.

And in closing... I concur: Oscar is crazy with C words. It's a conspiracy.

READERS, we love you. And you love us. And we love you for lovin' us... but we simply cannot do it alone. Don't make us feel like Mr. Cellophane. Chime in with your thoughts below, especially if you found some nugget of value in Cavalcade that we missed, or you'd like to take the stand for or against Chicago, or you can explain how Camille, Carrie, Clueless, Collateral, and Crank all inexplicably missed their dates with Best Picture.

Stats: Cavalcade was nominated for four Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Art Direction. Chicago was nominated for thirteen and won six: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.

This Week: Nathaniel's tie-in entry
Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash; ep.4: Cimarron & Million Dollar Baby; ep.5: Grand Hotel & LOTR:ROTK

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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.

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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Monday, July 21, 2008

A Gotham in Trouble

Briefly: The Dark Knight upset and unnerved me more thoroughly than any movie since INLAND EMPIRE—not least because I wasn't really expecting such a brutal sideswipe into dementia and misery and the impossibility of justice, and not least because both films force you into such determined, relentless intimacy with these horrible grimacing masks of high-voltage terrorism and despair. Also, not least because, as a Chicago filmgoer, I had to walk out of this spectacle of Gotham eating itself alive and right into the city on the screen: creepy in the extreme. The Dark Knight's glories (ambition, scope, seriousness, sheen) and its lapses (protraction, editing coherence, subplot management) have been and will be well-rehearsed elsewhere. But let me go on record as saying what I haven't heard anyone else say: this movie scared the shit out of me.

And boy does Heath Ledger deserve whatever posthumous awards and nominations are coming his way, but let me again go on record as saying what I haven't heard anyone else say: he's not a supporting actor in this movie. The movie would be as hobbled without him as without Bale/Batman. He is a LEAD, and a brilliant one. Please consider him as such when you discuss him amongst yourselves.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Best Pictures from the Outside In: '31/'04

How has this happened twice? Two installments ago in this Best Pictures series, I found myself in the strange position of defending The Broadway Melody, a mediocre movie at best, even in the context of its historical moment. This time, at least relative to my sparring partners, Nathaniel and Goatdog, I turn out to be the resident stumper for another mediocrity, Wesley Ruggles' Cimarron. From time to time, that movie slides from mediocrity to genuine atrocity, most consistently when Eugene Jackson's African American servant-child appears, or when first-class granite-faced windbag Richard Dix feels an oration coming on. But as you'll read, I still find some fleeting things to admire in Cimarron. Particularly, as with The Broadway Melody, I think the conclusion is more ambivalent and more interesting than my buddies do.

Speaking of ambivalent conclusions, you need to be really confident in the thematic trajectory and the emotional resonance of your movie to end it with a shot like this one—and whatever the lapses in Million Dollar Baby's on-the-nose dialogue or its slightly under-imagined performances, the movie has confidence, resonance, and grace to spare. I'm a sucker for a movie that doesn't just map a "style" onto its "story" or its "themes" but that emanates so fully from its edits and its images that you simply can't distinguish how it's made from what it means. One struggles to say the same of its fellow nominees and of most Best Picture nominees, but Million Dollar Baby, as I first tried to articulate in this full review from 2004, is just such a movie for me... for which reason it's my favorite Best Picture winner of the '00s so far.

Speaking broadly, and generously, one could say something analogous about Cimarron: its self-conscious sweep as a Western epic is what the movie's about. (The movie's tagline in 1931 was "TERRIFIC AS ALL CREATION!", which I'm sure we'd all dispute.) But "bigness" isn't much to go on as an objective correlative, especially when it leads to stodginess, distance, schizophrenia, and stolidity, as it often does in Cimarron. Sheer scale and financial reward are the only imaginable rationales for its victory; in a woeful twist of Oscar happenstance, a much better and more smartly ironic Edna Ferber adaptation, George Stevens' Giant, would lose the Best Picture Oscar in 1956 to a film that's even worse than Cimarron, and for similar reasons of sprawl and box-office success. August 1931 through July 1932, the eligibility period for these fourth Oscars, was a pretty fecund period for American movies, and it's too bad that Oscar missed the boat so badly. In this image, you can see that Richard Dix's Yancey Cravat is blithely, arrogantly riding in to the new town he will conquer, and lead, and lecture incessantly, but look at Irene Dunne's Sabra: she can see instantly that all of the new neighbors are Skippy fans, and Front Page fans, and City Lights fans, and Honor Among Lovers fans, and Other Men's Women fans, and Dracula fans, and Public Enemy fans, and, like me, Smart Money fans, and they want nothing doing with these Cravats, who should keep that unmerited Oscar packed up in that covered wagon and find someplace else to settle.

This Week: Nathaniel's transcript and Goatdog's amazing poster
Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Hold Your Horses, Pull Your Punches, and Watch Your Money (and Your Back)

Goatdog is traveling: he flew out to Paris but will apparently be driving back. I'm off in Oklahoma (my actual birth state!) looking for Yancey Cravat, who hitched up a wagon one day and no one, not even his wife Sabra, has heard from him since. Nathaniel has been busily consoling her. To be more efficient, he invited Sabra into the same weekly group-therapy sessions he's already been holding for four years now with Kate, Catalina, Imelda, and the Bening.

Which is all to say: we're busy, but Best Pictures from the Outside In will be back next week, with Cimarron and Million Dollar Baby.

For those of you who need a little Oscar-flavored morsel to snack on between now and then, here's a ridiculous tidbit: I just saw my 500th writing nomination yesterday, in the auspicious form of Smart Money, on Goatdog's recommendation. The movie starts slowly with Edgar G. Robinson (in the same banner year as Little Caesar and Five Star Final) starring as a small-town barber with a gambling addiction. He, of course, thinks of this as a gambling talent, and so do his co-workers and buddies at the shop, including best friend James Cagney (in the same banner year as The Public Enemy and Blonde Crazy). For a while, Robinson seemed to be giving too much of the character upfront: gregarious but self-deluding, and heading straight for a rude awakening when he heads into The City looking for a good game. But part of what earns Smart Money its Original Story nomination is that the film keeps taking unpredictable tacks, spending more time than we expect with this character and less than we expect with that one, shifting its center of gravity repeatedly as Robinson is conned, then cleverly avenges himself, and then becomes a leading kingpin of the city and a thorn in the side of law enforcement... and even at that point, we've still got half the movie to go.

The sea of nearly indistinguishable blondes swirling around the Robinson character are a purposefully baffling mixture of lovers, spies, decoys, and unwitting bystanders: Hitchcock must have loved this. As the narrative builds, even if Alfred E. Green's direction is never conspicuously first-rate (and the screenplay itself isn't as strong or as interesting as the story), Robinson's character as well as his performance deepen considerably, his alliance with Cagney becomes more than a retroactive casting coup, and Margaret Livingston—so indelible as The Woman of the City in Sunrise—contributes a splendid supporting performance as a different kind of female enigma: almost certainly the lever of Robinson's downfall or his redemption, but a significant ethical litmus test either way, and an engaging, layered character in her own right. The actual ending resembles at least a couple of the dozen alternatives you've been imagining over the course of the film, but let's just say the tone of the final sequence, as acted and edited, doesn't quite rhyme with its narrative import. Which means that Smart Money does what it does best—it keeps you guessing—right through to the finish. B+

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Let Me Be Frank

No, seriously—just for one day, let me be Frank Rich. Or at least let him hear my loud huzzah about this. He liked the movie more than I did, but our hearts and our angers are in the same places.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

All Racist on the Western Coast

Welcome to the third episode of Season One of Best Pictures from the Outside In. If you're just joining us—don't worry, you'll still count later on as a "vintage" fan from the infancy of this series!—Goatdog and Nathaniel and I are surveying Oscar's top prizewinners from inception forward and from this year backwards, leading to all kinds of bonkers juxtapositions... though episodes One and Two have convinced us, and hopefully you, that these arbitrary pairings can lead to fresh, lively takes on the movies. This week, we bunk up with All Quiet on the Western Front, a prestige adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel about young German soldiers working hard to stay alive in World War I, which was the Academy's favorite movie released between August 1, 1929, and July 31, 1930. We also run into Crash, Oscar's anointee from 2005, tracking 20+ characters through the mean, bile-spewing streets of modern LA. If these two films were mashed into one, you might call it...

Nick: So, this week the inevitable finally unfolds, twice over. On the one hand, for the first time in this series, Oscar ignites a major uproar with its choice of the top prizewinner. Even more typically of AMPAS, and at both ends of our historical double-helix, Best Picture goes to a movie that huffs and puffs along with a Worthy Message. Without dodging the issue completely, I'm inclined to steer clear of the whole Crash/Brokeback passion play, partially because it was all so recent and so heated that we hardly need another rehearsal: you all know how you feel, and so do we. Partially because I'm the host, and I wouldn't have voted for either one of those movies; given Oscar's choices, I was all about Capote and Munich that year. And partially because our goal is to reassess the movies, not the conditions or controversies that surrounded their victories.

So, with that caveat loosely in place - the First Amendment does, after all, still prevail on this blog - I think we might begin more fruitfully with the moralizing aims of All Quiet on the Western Front (war is hell, and the homefront has no idea!) and of Crash (contemporary racism is as horrible as it is pervasive, and you, the viewers, have no idea!). Neither film leaves any doubt about its motivating ideology, although they position themselves a little differently with regard to their didacticism. All Quiet... is brazenly anti-war, as expressed through its stomach-turning battlefield scenes as well as its dialogues and voiceovers—but the film is also intent on making huge forward leaps in realistic "style" and in technical sophistication. Considering how alert we were last week to The Broadway Melody's crude fascination with its own soundtrack, it's amazing that All Quiet...—so much more ambitious in scope, depth, sonic density, and especially camera movement—is only a year older. Director Lewis Milestone makes a huge case for All Quiet... as groundbreaking cinema, which Paul Haggis all but refuses to do with Crash. That film is formally and technically modest, almost TV-like, as though this in itself will make the movie's elaborately contrived dialogue and dramaturgy more "believable."

So, while we grab our first round of cocktails, I have some questions: did you guys feel that the grand scale and artistic ambition of All Quiet... or the almost anti-cinema aesthetics of Crash made you take their implied "messages" more to heart, or less so? What IS the message of Crash, anyway, and does the movie have an artistic identity apart from its rhetorical points? And if I can ask a more pointed question than we sometimes have in beginning these chats, is there a single scene or moment in either film that sums up how you think the movie works, or how you feel about the movie? (I'll keep quiet about my answers till after I've opened the floor.)

Go to it, you crazy lily-white crackers!

Nathaniel: I love that it took us until episode 3 to get to the Worthy Message film... although I fear we shan't ever be granted a two week leave again. We'll be abandoned on the front lines from here on out.

I'm glad you mentioned the anti-cinema aesthetic of Crash. It's one of the reasons I have a problem with it. I'm not predisposed to hating anti-cinema cinema but I almost never take it as seriously as the Movie-Movie. Even in cases where I like the former kind more than in this case, I can never get truly passionate about them. I think it's charitable that you view this deficiency as an aesthetic choice... I'm inclined to view such films as merely lacking in visual creativity or technical skill. So my answer to the first question is that I can't take Crash's message as seriously as All Quiet's, even before we get to the other problem: Racism is Wrong! is hypocritical in delivery. One of the things I respect a great deal about War is Wrong! is that its message is not compromised. It doesn't wallow in the thrills of the battle and victories like many supposed anti-war movies do. The War is Wrong! soldiers actually look distraught whenever they win OR lose... which I think marks a brave commitment to the Message first and foremost. It's not interested in having and eating its cake. Meanwhile, over in Racism is Wrong!, the players and audience seem to be blatantly pandered too whenever the occasion permits. So often the movie seems to be saying, "It's wrong but we all do it—and that doesn't make us bad people!" I think we need a YouTube mashup of Crash scenes set to Avenue Q's "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist", pronto. The movie is similarly "Oops, my bad!"-forgiving, if much less witty in the delivery.

When thinking on Crash, it's not a scene but a line that careens into me. It's the often lampooned but interesting (to me at least) moment when whitey Sandra Bullock has her inchoate breakdown: "I'm angry all the time and I don't know why." I much prefer the movie when its notions of widespread psychosocial sickness are vaguely expressed. I think Crash is more effective in these fuzzier moments than when it hits any nail (black, white, brown or yellow) on the head. We, as humans, may like easy explanations and diagnosis but that doesn't mean they're good for us. Easy categorizations are part of the problem. If I have to choose a scene I'm going with the bookend of Michael Peña and the bedtime story of the magic cape. The first scene is a beauty since Peña is a sympathetic and fine actor. [Note: producer/star Don Cheadle ventures on the DVD commentary that Peña's performance is "arguably the best thing in the movie."] But the payoff, potent as it may be, is manipulative. It works but the aftertaste is gross. That's how Crash plays for me throughout. I think it's well meaning. I really do. It's the delivery that's the real problem.

Goatdog: The scene from Crash that best illustrates why I think that movie is a train wreck is Sandra Bullock's post-sprain embrace with her sometimes helpmeet, sometimes whipping Hispanic, Maria (played by Yomi Perry). Crash structures itself around a series of accidents—of wrong-place-wrong-time meetings, of "there are only five cops on active duty in LA" coincidences, and of genuine accidents proving that nothing is more unsafe than the home except the outside. These accidents both (1) provide fodder for people to dig out their Racist Thesaurus and Old-Timey Book of Creaky Insults, and (2) provide opportunities to realize the errors of their ways. So Sandra takes a tumble, and none of her self-obsessed (presumably white) friends will help her, but her savior, Saint Maria, rescues her from her beige cocoon, takes her to the hospital, and brings her tea.

How lovely! How loyal! You know, the Maria whom Bullock pays to help out, who would likely get fired if she did not help out. In this grand rapprochement between representatives of the Unaware Racist White Union and the Long-Suffering Hispanic Union, Paul Haggis doesn't see fit to give her a single closeup without Bullock, and after Bullock makes her silly declaration, doesn't show her face at all. By that time, she's a prop, not a person. What. the. fuck? Is he making some subversive statement about how Bullock's self-deluded epiphany isn't real? If so, why not at least one little closeup of Maria rolling her eyes? (We all know Ang Lee would have given Perry her own closeup.) It doesn't matter to Haggis what Maria thinks of this, because he's already dealt with what Hispanics think about race in his Michael Peña storyline. This, like Matt Dillon's rapprochement with Thandie Newton in the flames of the burning SUV, strikes me as completely false in so many ways: it illuminates the silliness of the film's reductively interlocking circle of characters, it proudly brandishes the film's reductive view of how people deal with race every day, and it posits a reductive solution in which we only have to viciously stub our toes while running for the teapot in order to have a grand epiphany about how we're racists but we're not bad people and there's hope for us yet.

Which brings me to All Quiet on the Western Front. You know, because it stands at the opposite pole from Crash's technical, moral, and thematic deficiencies. The one scene I'd choose as being emblematic of everything it does right with its technique and message is the recruits' first outing with the lovably ugly Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) to lay barbed wire. What struck me was the screaming. When people are shot or struck by shrapnel in this film, they don't fall over on their side and die quietly: they scream, they run around, they tear at their faces, they cry, they're in agony, and their friends have to watch because there's nothing else they can do. When they try to help, it's useless—heroism is useless. Like Nathaniel said, it never deviates from this message, not for a second. I don't think audiences had seen a film deal with war this way before (because the sound is so important to the effectiveness), and it would be another 15 or so years before a film dealt with war this honestly again.

The bumper crop of early-30s antiwar films this one kicked off (many of them written by John Monk Saunders, who wrote Wings) weren't this realistic, and from what I remember of the early WW2 films that dealt with combat, they chose the "slight grimace, then fall over quietly" type of battle death. This scene also plays up Milestone's mastery of all the tools available to him as a filmmaker, and at times it's almost as if the creaky-early-talkie period didn't exist, that he was able to meld some of the impeccable technique of the late silents with all the possibilities of sound without losing anything from either side of that formerly impenetrable boundary between sound and silent. It's a legitimately great movie, one of the ten best winners of all time.

Nick: I'm glad you highlight a failure of Crash's editing, Mike, because I do find it galling that the two specific crafts for which Crash won Oscars—the writing and the cutting—are the two things it misjudges more often than anything else. This might seem like nitpicking, but for me a defining moment in the movie is when Don Cheadle's character barks at his mother over the phone that he's "having sex with a white woman," but rather than move closer to Jennifer Esposito's reaction or even hold the full shot where they are lying on the bed in real time, editor Hughes Winborne actually cuts to an arbitrarily different shot as Esposito gets off the bed. This means we don't experience the moment as the character does, in any way; instead, the screenplay digs in its heels for another righteous monologue where a character describes what is structurally wrong with what someone else just did/said. The coarseness of the editing here is botchy in exactly the same way (for me) as the moment you describe, Mike, and works against the film's occasional strength (I agree with Nathaniel here) at showcasing human behavior and vulnerability without always underlining what exactly is most troubling or wrong with the person or moment or event we've just witnessed.

Offending Dialogue + Anti-Reaction Shot = Freestanding Lecture

That said, I don't always think Crash is one-dimensional or totally overt. I don't experience the Matt Dillon/Thandie Newton scene on the highway as a "rapprochement," for example, because I find both of their affects—hers especially, when she subtly shakes her head at the end of the scene—interestingly inscrutable. Some of the writing works, both in the rare understated moment ("You embarrass me") and even some of the florid ones, if you take the movie as a Eugene O'Neill-ish exercise in forcing characters to speak their subconscious thoughts aloud, rather than a snapshot of alleged "reality." And the actors frequently save the movie, or parts of the movie: Terrence Howard's painful apologies to the police, Shaun Toub's and Michael Peña's fight over the door and the lock, Loretta Devine calling office security but then holding them off to hear Matt Dillon out. Strong scenes, sharply played. I do have to give Crash credit for being punchy and vivid and occasionally quite bracing, for all the other times when it's tripping over itself.

But I'm short-shrifting All Quiet on the Western Front! Ditto on its conviction that war really is ghastly and intolerable. I also love the palpable violence of some of the social encounters (Himmelstoss the mailman, converted overnight into a defensive and hostile automaton) and even the camera movements (tracking back as the soldiers rush into their barracks for the first time, underscoring their excitement but also sort of retreating from their painful naïveté). I agree it's one of the best winners Oscar ever chose... but are we going too easy on it? Does it have a Saving Private Ryan-ish problem of getting weirdly talky in the second half? Compared to something as visually and cinematically robust as that horrible scene where the bunker caves in on itself and Franz Kemmerich (Ben Alexander) goes stir-crazy inside, the scenes where the soldiers discuss what war "really is" by the side of the river or where Lew Ayres wrestles internally with his own guilt at killing an enemy feel like a different and slightly lesser movie to me.

Nathaniel: I do think All Quiet gets talky to its (very slight) detriment but it was pointedly moving all the same. The film works best when it's visually conveying the message... like that simple but effective journey of the coveted bad-luck charm boots, or the absolutely stunning ending, which merely recycles a shot from earlier in the film but double exposes it to remind you of the cumulative losses of the movie. It's a gut punch but a humane one, I think. I was also, like Nick, amazed at its technical control. This is only a couple of years into sound filmmaking? They learned very very quickly in Hollywood. Or at least Lewis Milestone did.

But here's where I get all Lew Ayres post-war disillusioned on ya. Perhaps it's distasteful to be this cynical but I've seen too much of the annual Western Fronting. Western as in Hollywood, California. Don't these two movies paired (and other wins too) suggest that the technical mastery and aesthetic sensitivity of a film like All Quiet on the Western Front are rather irrelevant to its triumph on Oscar night. Doesn't The Message film always win because of group sympathies for The Message?

Goatdog: I agree that the talkiness of a few of the late scenes detracts from All Quiet, but only a little: yeah, the "let's put all the leaders in a circle and let them fight it out" bit is belabored, but it's such a small part of the film. By the time of Lew's alienating trip back home, his return to discover that just about everybody he knows is dead, his tragic reunion with Wolheim, and that ending, I had forgotten my issues with those few too-talky scenes. I can't put Lew's soliloquy to his dead French foxhole-mate in the same category, because even despite the sometimes creaky dialogue, it's one of the most horrific scenes in the movie, one that drives home the general awfulness of everything Lew's been through. That dead guy sitting there with that half-smirk on his face... shudder. Plus, I just took a break from viewing next week's offering, and my god, All Quiet on the Western Front is a miracle, hallelujah! Although healing the problems of the other talkies around it is not part of its legitimate claim for canonization.

But with Crash, it's the other way around: the general morass of the hapless shooting and editing (my favorite [read, least favorite] being Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton fighting in their apartment, and Haggis deciding to shoot it through the patio doors because he's seen better filmmakers do that, but doesn't stop to wonder why it might work in some cases but not in others), the general preachiness and obviousness of the dialogue and scene construction, etc., make the good moments—I'll admit that there are a few, some of which are really powerful—seem to disappear.

What has Oscar done to make you so cynical, Nathaniel? I'd like to imagine that voters are familiar with their craft and they recognize outstanding work when they see it. That's the way it works, right? But this pairing (and so many other "message" winners, good and bad) (and, for that matter, their repeated demonstrations of their lack of familiarity with their craft) could suggest that they're blind to anything but the message, at least when they go for a message film. That's a therapy session I'd love to eavesdrop on. But at least sometimes, as we saw last week, they can look past clumsy sermonizing (like Babel) and go for something that seizes the brass ring through sheer, ballsy technique. Looking through the list of films we'll be addressing in the coming months, we'll be wondering a lot about what specific motives led to the choice Oscar made in a given year, even when, as here, they made the right choice. Sometimes it's a strong message or phenomenal technique. Or vast, overwhelming scale. Or a comeback vehicle for a director who doesn't get enough credit. Basically, Oscar needs something huge and noticeable to pin its medal to. It might be fun at the end to try to divide the winners into categories: technique, message, scale, comeback. And Ernest Borgnine.

Reader: Don't front. Don't be all quiet. Do you agree with us that the Milestone film is a milestone? Are you angry at Crash all the time, and do you know why? Though Oscar may have said it all with that interpretive dance of "In the Deep" before a blazing car, leave us your impressions in the form of a Comment...

Stats: All Quiet on the Western Front was nominated for four Oscars, winning Best Picture and Best Director. Crash was nominated for six, winning Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing in addition to Best Picture.

Currently: Goatdog's and Nathaniel's posts on this week's films
Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed

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