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Monthly Archives: January 2017

Ben Affleck out as Batman’s director

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Perhaps the last best hope for salvaging the sinking ship that is DC’s fumbling film franchise has finally been dashed.  This week Ben Affleck announced that while he will remain as star and producer of the upcoming stand-alone adventure The Batman he’s turning over the directing duties to someone else.

“There are certain characters who hold a special place in the hearts of millions.  Performing this role demands focus, passion, and the very best performance I can give. It has become clear that I cannot do both jobs to the level they require. Together with the studio, I have decided to find a partner in a director who will collaborate with me on this massive film. I am still in this, and we are making it, but we are currently looking for a director. I remain extremely committed to this project, and look forward to bringing this to life for fans around the world.”

Pullling out of the director’s chair means, for fans, means that the last best hope for saving a floundering franchise.  DC isn’t doing so well.  Unlike Disney’s persistently lucrative and always entertaining Marvel series, DC has yet to find a stable footing.  Its output thus far has ranged from the bizarre (Green Lantern) to the confusing (Man of Steel) to the downright embarrassing (Batman v Superman).  Film after film brings hopes that the next one, the NEXT ONE will be the film that will get DC on its cinematic feet, but every film falls flat on its face.  Even Suicide Squad, last summer’s eagerly anticipated anti-hero adventure left audiences shrugging.

Affleck self-induced ouster as director eliminates hopes that a quality director could step in and save the day.  He won an Oscar in 2013 for Argo, the year’s Best Picture and he’s directed excellent films like The Town, Gone Baby Gone and the recent underrated Live by Night.  It is understandable why he wants to remove himself from the position, but it is dispiriting giving that this dying series needs a sure-footed director.

But, it’s early yet.  The Batman has not only has no director, no release date and no script.  Meanwhile, Affleck will return as Batman in Justice League which opens November 17.

 
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Posted by on 01/31/2017 in Uncategorized

 

SAG plays politics

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No one should have been surprised that the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards would get a little extra-political Sunday night as the awards were handed out amid a tense atmosphere following outrage over President Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim Ban.”

The normal hew of thank you speeches gave way to statements about personal liberties, personal statements and the importance of artistic freedom.  Commentary covered the spectrum from those whose job some agree is to simply entertain without the inconvenience of having to hear a sobering thought about events troubling millions of Americans.  The SAG Awards traditional opening, an odd “up close and personal” sequence that allows actors to make a statement from their table directly into the camera signaled the night’s proceedings.

Ashton Kutcher, from the stage, made a clumsy attempt to rally the crowd in a statement that seemed less personal then simply telling the crowd what it wanted to hear: ““Good evening fellow SAG-AFTRA members and everyone at home, and everyone in airports that belong in my America.”

And it rolled from there.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus who won Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series tried to bring some levity to the proceedings by lampooning Trump but then diverting that by reading the WGA statement about opposition to his policy.

Bryan Cranston, who won Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie for playing Lyndon Johnson in the TV movie All the Way imagined what LBJ might say to DJT, “36 would put his arm around 45 and earnestly wish him success, and he would also whisper in his ear something he said often, ‘Just don’t piss in the soup that all of us gotta eat’.”

Moonlight Supporting Actor Winner Mahershala Ali, clearly emotional at the podium, spoke solemnly about the minutia of being angry with one another about our differences, and taking a page from his own life, the struggle in his own life in finding peace between himself as a Muslim and his mother, an ordained minister.  It was nice that he kept it close to the chest and didn’t further it into the ban on Muslims.

The energy from the SAG awards, mostly from the left-leaning community that openly defies President Trump and his polices (and have, for the most part, even before his inauguration) give voice to a unified community that sees itself in opposition to what it feels is an attack on personal and artistic freedom coming from the highest office in the land.  Since Meryl Streep’s rallying speech at the Golden Globes three weeks ago, it has been expected that the awards season would be peppered with these speeches which are expected to be the major focus of the Oscars next month.  But are they grounded in fact, or are they simply a case of rabble rousing?

In this case, I think it’s both.  The rousing chorus of a room full of artists speaking on its own behalf is nothing new, but perhaps someone should be the voice of reason here.  Someone should really wait and see what Trump is going to do before decrying the notions of being robbed of personal liberties.  Never-the-less, the battle has just begun.  It’s going to be a long four years.

 
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Posted by on 01/30/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017)

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If Mary Tyler Moore had never done anything else with her life then she probably could have found success selling toothpaste.  She had the biggest, warmest smile you ever saw, one that stretched from ear to ear.  It was her trademark.  She turned the world on with it.

Moore, who died Wednesday less than a month after her 80th birthday, leaves us at an ironic moment just as women are converging on Washington demanding their recognition for their basic human dignity.  40 years ago, it was she was led the charge at a moment when women were leaving the confines of their second-class social status to make their own way in the world.  After playing a perpetual housewife Laura Petrie on the immortal Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Tyler Moore set out into the television landscape equipped with a sense of style and a sense of humor all her own.  She was the forerunner to Murphy Brown, “Sex and the City”’s Carrie Bradshaw, “30 Rock”’s Liz Lemon.  Before even Peggy Carter or Sarah Conner, there was Mary Tyler Moore.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was an enigma to the television revolution of the 1970s.  At a moment when “All in the Family” and “Maude” and “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son” were extolling the cold, hard facts about the world we live in, “Mary Tyler Moore” was aiming in another direction.  The adventures of television producer Mary Richards was giving a generation of young women a portrait of a woman on her own in the world, one whose pursuits weren’t cemented in landing a man but in attempting to remain independent, making her own way and building a career for herself.

On the show, Mary headed out on her own, for Minneapolis after a broken engagement (the original concept had her as a divorcee but at the time the subject was a little controversial).  She barely unpacked her suitcase in The Twin Cities when she found work at WJN, a local television station.  The secretary job was filled, so she was offered the job of Associate producer by the station’s world-weary news producer Lou Grant who famously told his new employee “You got spunk . . . I hate spunk!”

The show was not a rallying cry for women’s lib, like “Maude” but was a much more sophisticated statement, a workplace sitcom about people we liked with a girl at the center that we couldn’t help but fall in love with.  She was funny and charming and always with a sense of style – her wardrobe on that show is a monument to a decade that seemed dead set against it.

Mary’s tour-de-force?  That’s easy.  “Chuckles Bites the Dust”  a brilliant piece of comedy writing that finds everyone at WJN cracking jokes over the tragic death of the station’s beloved kiddie show icon Chuckles the Clown after he is shelled to death by a rogue elephant during a parade while dressed as a peanut.   Mary shames her co-workers for their insensitive attitude but it is she who can’t hold it together during Chuckles’ memorial service at which she struggles not to burst into laughter particularly when the good reverend breaks into Chuckles signature catchphrase: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

I watched every episode in order from Mary’s job interview all the way through to the timeless final episode when everyone, save for bumbling newsman Ted Baxter, got canned.  They marched confidently out the door singing the old World War I music hall standard “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” as Mary turned with sad eyes at the newsroom that had been her home for seven years.  But then she smiled a smile that seemed to say “Well, life goes on,” and turned out the lights.

I was late to the party.  I was only 6 years-old when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air in 1977 but I caught up with it many years later when TV Land began running reruns.  I’d never seen this show before so its textures were new to me.  I was familiar with Archie Bunker and Fred Sanford but this was something different.  The characters didn’t squabble about this and that.  They loved each other dearly and there was a unity to their work.  I know it sound corny but I think that show taught me that I don’t have to hate my co-workers, that I can find friends in my work mates and that the relationships I build there can last a lifetime.

Much of that came from Mary.  Within this colorful group of characters remained this attractive and charming woman that you wanted to have coffee with.  It was Mary, and you sensed that she didn’t really need to find the character.

There was nothing mean or sour about Mary.  Maybe that’s why her role in Ordinary People was such a revelation.  As Beth Jarett, she’s the opposite of Mary Richards.  A woman who so isolates the death of her eldest son that she can’t make room for the pain that is destroying her younger son Conrad and pulling her marriage to her husband Calvin into pieces.  It was a brilliant piece of acting that brought her only Oscar nomination, unfortunately in the same year the Sissy Spacek played Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter.  Moore never had a film role that effective again.

Years later, around the time that I was discovering “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Moore came out with her autobiography titled “After All.”  To this day it is the only autobiography I’ve ever read.  In it she revealed that the Mary persona was not always easy to maintain.  She was sexually abused as a child by a neighbor and struggled to find affection from her father.  She was the veteran of two failed marriages, one when she was just eighteen and the other, a 19-year marriage to NBC CEO Grant Tinker.  She recalled a roller coaster of events that transpired around the time of Ordinary People culminating in the accidental death of her son Ritchie.  She talked about her alcoholism, her struggle with diabetes.  She wanted people to understand that there was a person behind that trademark smile, that she was a survivor.

I wasn’t surprised that she struggled, even as I read the book.  Everyone struggles, everyone has demons, and everyone has a skeleton in the closet.  It’s reassuring that she could come clean about the worst parts of her life, but through it all, we still loved her.  As I said, there was nothing mean or sour about Mary Tyler Moore.  There are no bad stories, no tell-all books waiting to be written.  She seemed to be a welcomed ray of sunshine in a world dead-set against it.  She was good-hearted in a world of cynicism.  Yet, she never obscured that a real person lurked beneath that smile.  There is a dark side. I tend not to be as optimistic as Mary Richards. I have an anger in me that I carry from my childhood experiences — I expect a lot of myself and I’m not too kind to myself.

 
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Posted by on 01/26/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Jerry’s First Time . . . seeing “10”

jfts10

I’ve seen thousands of films in my life, and sadly I realize there are thousands more that I haven’t seen.  So, in an effort to cure myself of the films I’ve missed, I present “Jerry’s First Time,” a series in which I choose one well-known film that, for whatever reason, just passed me by.  For the very first “Jerry’s First Time” I have selected a film that came out when I was far too young to understand what on Earth my parents were laughing at in the other room (Hint: I’ve seen it and I still don’t know).

Long story short: It’s about 46 year-old Dudley Moore obsessing over 23 year-old Bo Derek (and, yes, it’s as creepy as it sounds.)

How did I miss this one?:  My parents went to see this in a theater and, as stated above, later watched it on television after I had been sent to bed.  I promised myself I would catch up with it sooner or later.  I heard about it, I knew there were scads of nudity in it, mainly on the part of Bo Derek (she was hot back then) and all the adults were telling each other how incredibly funny it was.  When I grew up, I sort of avoided it because I never really developed much of an appetite for the films of Blake Edwards – at least the ones outside of The Pink Panther series.  His films always seemed to be about middle aged people dealing with an over-inflated libido and that always repulsed me.  So . . .

How was the movie?:  Eh.

This is kind of an odd picture for me.  Dudley Moore plays George Webber, a wealthy musician with four Oscars, a big house, a Mercedes and a loving wife played by Julie Andrews.  As the movie opens he’s just turned 42, but if I did the math correctly, Moore was actually 44 at the time the movie was made (actually he looks like he’s in his mid-50s).  I’m 45 so watching the story of “42 year-old” Dudley feeling the pangs and woes of his age and obsessively pursuing nubile young Bo Derek is a real-life mindbender that even M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t conceive.

Anyhoo, George Webber has everything in the world, so naturally he’s lonely and unsatisfied.  Out driving in his Mercedes to clear his head (read that sentence again slowly) he stops at a traffic light and, over in the next car, he spots a vision in a wedding dress (that would be Bo).  George follows her wedding party into the chapel and, while gawking at her, is stung by a bee that was hiding in a floral arrangement.  I actually laughed at that moment but it wasn’t quite as surprising as the revelation that Bo’s is about to marry Flash Gordon.  I’m not kidding, her new husband is played by Sam Jones!  Surprise, Surprise, he has about as much personality in this film as he did in that one.

So, basically the rest of the movie sees George going through outrageous slapstick circumstances all in the name of pursuing this gorgeous young woman.  While visiting the dentist George discovers that his DDS is Bo’s father (her name is actually Jenny) and he gets the exciting information that she’s on her honeymoon in Mexico.  What’s not so exciting is that the dentist has discovered that George has six cavities and wants to drill and fill right then and there.  That leads to a bizarre scene in which George goes home and gets drunk and can’t talk, first because of the effects of the Novocain and second because of the effects of the alcohol that he unwisely guzzles.  What follows is a long and aggravating scene in which his wife keeps calling but he can’t talk to her.  She calls the cops and they come by but he can’t talk to them either.

Forgetting all good sense – plus the fact that he has a loving wife – George heads down to Mexico because . . . . well, I’m not really sure why.  Why is he following Bo outside of her looks?  It’s not established that he knows her, and so what does he plan to do if he gets close to her?  Even if he does meet her, she’s married and so sex is out of the question.  Common sense is not in the repertoire here.

Anyway, in a fantasy fit for porn, George goes to Mexico and ends up on the exact same beach that Bo and Flash Gordon are visiting.  Flash goes surfing and falls asleep on his board and George sails out to rescue him.  While the Savoir of the Universe is convalescing in the hospital, George visits Bo’s hotel room.  Whaddaya know!  She’s attracted to him!  Because . . . . of course she is!  She smokes grass, gets naked and puts on Revel’s “Bolero” which George has to keep starting over while they are trying to get the sex going.  Did I mention they’re both married?

Then . . . something unexpected happens.

Flash Gordon calls from the hospital and Bo informs him that George is there – she’s not shy about what they’re doing.  When he confronts her about this, she says that she’s in an open marriage and only got married because her father pressured her to do so.  George, realizing that this apparent dream woman is a complete flake, comes to his senses and goes home to his wife.  That’s the good part.  I love that the reality of the situation comes crashing down on George’s head, yet I’m forced to ask why he didn’t come to that conclusion before he GOT TO HER BED!?!

Anyway, George realizes his mistake, goes home and has sex with Mary Poppins on the kitchen floor.

Ultimately: I heard my parents laughing at this movie all those years ago but seeing the movie now I can’t really figure out why.  I laughed once and I smiled twice.  I was unnerved by the idea that a man who is only 42 would be having mid-life problems when he is wealthy, healthy and married to the Practically Perfect Julie Andrews. Yet, this entire plot made me feel a bit uneasy.  It’s creepy and not in a good way.  Sure Bo Derek is (was) a knock-out but she’s nothing to destroy your life over.  I’ve never understood these movies where middle-aged men see the end of their sexual prowess and begin trying to sew their wild oats.  Maybe they need more fiber in their diet, or a cold shower.

 
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Posted by on 01/26/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Meryl Streep tops 20.

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Apparently the Hollywood community doesn’t think Meryl Streep is overrated.

Just three weeks after the actress took President Donald Trump to task on the stage at the Golden Globes for his alleged mocking of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, Meryl Streep broke her own record Tuesday morning, picking up her 20th Oscar nomination for playing a New York heiress who dreams of becoming an Opera singer despite being, well, a terrible singer in the comedy Florence Foster Jenkins.

In her career, Streep has been nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role 16 times and 4 times for Supporting.  The only two actors to trail her are Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson, both of which had 12.  Hepburn has the most wins with four, and Streep has won three starting with a Supporting Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980, then for Sophie’s Choice in 1983 and most recently for The Iron Lady in 2012.

Whether or not, she will win is debatable because her competition this year – which includes Natalie Portman, Ruth Negga, Isabelle Huppert and Emma Stone – is extremely tough and there is no front-runner.  Plus, no one from a straight-up comedy has won Best Actress since Helen Hunt in As Good As it Gets back in 1998.

The 89th Annual Academy Awards air Sunday, February 26th on ABC.

 
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Posted by on 01/25/2017 in Uncategorized

 

The Oscar Nominations: The Academy learns its lesson

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What a difference a year makes.

This time last year as the Oscar nominees rolled out, the Hollywood community was in a fiery rage over The Academy’s so-called whitewash – no a single African-American actor found a place on the final ballot.  This year the only chief complaint is that Amy Adams didn’t get a Best Actress nomination for Arrival.

Nominations for the 89th Annual Academy Awards were rolled out Tuesday morning and, in a move that seems bound to prove that the voting Academy does have the potential to learn from its mistakes, diversity was the order of the day.  Of the 20 nominees for acting, five were African-American, one was Ethiopian and one, Dev Patel, is Indian.  Added to that Moonlight director Barry Jenkins becomes only the fourth black filmmaker to be nominated in the Best Director category.  And the Documentary branch did its part by taking a break from the safer, more traditional waters of holocaust documentaries by nominating O.J. Made in America, 13th and the James Baldwin masterwork I Am Not Your Negro.

The move toward diversity comes from a call to action made one year ago when the Academy promised more diversity and a wider birth of Oscar rewards after the embrassing #oscarsowhite campaigned that marred the festivities last year.  This year, it was a relief that such films as Hidden Figures, Fences, Lion and Moonlight were singled out as achievements and not apologies  But the real test will come next year.  Will the Academy keep it up?  There’s always next year.

The other news was the massive sweep of La La Land, a sweet critical darling that rekindles the glory days of Hollywood’s romantic musicals.  The picture, which may have been so lauded because it takes place in L.A., picked up a walloping 14 nominations, tying it with 1950s All About Eve and 1997’s Titanic.  The acting nominees include Ryan Gosling, picking up his first bid for Best Actor and the year’s Best Actress front-runner Emma Stone.

The Best Picture category, which has been given an elastic status since 2009, meaning that voters can choose up to 10 nominees decided to stop just short of the limit with nine.

Besides the sugary confection of La La Land, the nominees are a pretty sober bunch, but none feel dusty or familiar.  There are issues of family (Fences), issues of sexual identity (Moonlight), issues of personal identity (Lion), issues of human identity (Arrival), and also crime, war and a group of black women that you never knew worked for NASA in the 60s.

Over in the Best Actor category, Denzel Washington becomes the 18th director to direct himself to a Best Actor nomination although he did not receive a nomination for directing the adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences.  The 62 year-old actor/director faces competition from Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic, Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, Casey Affleck in Manchester By the Sea and Ryan Gosling in La La Land.

The news over in the Best Actress category is yet another record for Meryl Streep, whose nomination as a socialite with questionable singing skills in Florence Foster Jenkins pushes her record nominations up to twenty.  Streep has been nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role 16 times and 4 times for Supporting.  The only two actors to trail her are Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson, both of which had 12.  Hepburn has the most wins with four, and Streep has won three starting with a Supporting Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980, then for Sophie’s Choice in 1983 and most recently for The Iron Lady in 2012.  It isn’t likely that she’ll win her fourth Oscar as the current trend seems to be leaning in the direction of Emma Stone as a struggling actress in La La Land – this is her second nomination.  She faces Natalie Portman in Jackie, Ruth Negga in Loving and Isabelle Huppert in Elle.

The supporting nominees this year proved to be some of the best in many years.  For the women, it is likely that Viola Davis might finally get some love as she is the frontrunner playing Denzel’s devoted wife in Fences.  She faces Naomie Harris as a crack-addicted mother in Moonlight; Nichole Kidman as a loving adoptive mother in Lion, Michelle Williams as a haunted wife in Manchester by the Sea and the invaluable Octavia Spencer as a mathematician working for NASA in Hidden Figures.

For the men it is sobering as well.  The frontrunner here is Mahershala Ali for his beautiful performance as a drug dealer and father figure in Moonlight.  He faces Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals, Dev Patel in Lion, Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea and Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water.

Snubs were easier to deal with this year.  2016 was a soft year at the movies and so it’s easy to forgive the academy for overlooking Tom Hanks in Sully or any of the confections from Pixar, no Finding Dory.  But it might have been nice to see a nomiantion for Hugh Grant’s lovely performance as Meryl Streep’s devoted husband in Florence Foster Jenkins or a supporting nod for Simon Helberg as her quietly amused musical accompanist.  And where is Denzel’s nomination for Best Director for Fences?  Having given him a nod for Best Actor and as producer of the film I suppose it is hard to complain.  His slot is taken up by a comeback, of sorts, for Mel Gibson, who picks up his first directing nod since Braveheart 20 years ago.

Some issues remain:

1. So long and Thanks for All the Fish.  Pixar walks away with a thanks but no thanks.  The studio, which recently announced that it would be taking a break from sequels after 2019’s Incredibles sequel found itself on the sidelines.  No nomination for Finding Dory in the Animated Feature category, the Disney computer-animation house does however, have a nomination in the Animated Short category for the realistic looking Piper.

2. Bringing Out the Dead.  Nominees in the Best Adapted Screenplay category are going to have to fight for space with a dead man.  The frontrunner August Wilson, who died in 2005 is nominated for his adaptation of his own play Fences.

3. Just Wear Jeans and a T-shirt.  So why was La La Land nominated for Best Costume design when most of the actors just wore regular clothes?  Was there no room for stellar work from Rogue OneSuicide SquadDeadpoolHail Caesar!Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesThe Magnificent Seven?  Just sayin’

4. The Music of James Foley.  It might have seemed a little more pertinent that Jim: The James Foley Story would find itself among the year’s Best Documentary Feature nominees, but in a real puzzler it instead found itself among the Best Original Song nominees for the melodic “The Empty Chair.”

5. Kubo and the Night of a Thousand Pixels.  A Nomination in the Best Animated Feature category Best Animated Feature category was a foregone conclusion for Laika studio’s breathtakingly ambitious stop-motion adventure Kubo and the Two Strings but it is nice that the hard work of the animators was rewarded over in the Visual Effects category as well.

The 89th Annual Academy Awards air Sunday February 26th on ABC.

 
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Posted by on 01/24/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Armchair Oscars – 1927-28

I consider this to be my life’s work, a full-service series of articles detailing each and every year of the Academy Awards from the first awards right up to the present offering my choices in the top three categories.  So, here at the blog I’m going to share it with you, one week at a time.  I hope you’ll stick around.  This gets interesting, I promise . . .

Armchair Oscars – 1927-28

Best Picture

THE WINNER:
Wings
(Directed by William Wellman)
The Nominees:
The Crowd, The Racket


MY CHOICE:
Metropolis
(Directed by Fritz Lang)
My Nominees:
The Crowd (King Vidor), The General (Buster Keaton), The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dryer), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau)

1927-28-Metropolis

With all the media hoopla given to today’s Oscar telecast, it is a little hard to imagine that the first Oscar ceremony was a simple private industry party at a hotel with only 250 guests. Given the infamous length of the telecast today, it is also hard to believe that at that first ceremony, it took only five minutes to hand out all the awards. Yet, on May 16, 1929, that is exactly how the Oscar ceremony was born.

That night, no one could have understood the institution that was being inaugurated nor the massive industry changes that were about to happen.The Academy Awards ceremony was born at a time when the film industry was in a state of rapid change. Almost overnight, the new innovation of sound revolutionized the motion picture industry. Many actors who couldn’t make the transition to “talkies” would soon find themselves out of work. Talking pictures were becoming a reality thanks to a new innovation called “The Vitaphone Process” by which the projector was interlocked with a phonograph so that a spinning audio disc played in sync with the film and produced sound through an amplifier.

The Jazz Singer, a heavy-handed passion play about a Jewish boy (Al Jolsen) who defies his father’s wishes for him to become a cantor and instead becomes an entertainer, was the first film to use the process to incorporate both sound and dialogue. Other films, like the 1926 John Barrymore vehicle Don Juan, had used the process with music and sound effect but no dialogue. Needless to say, The Jazz Singer was an enormous hit.

During the induction of the first academy awards, the central board of judges of the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made a decision that The Jazz Singer had an innovation that would give it an unfair advantage over the other nominees in the category of Best Production (later “Best Picture”) which were all silent. It was therefore disqualified although it was given a special Oscar.

I’m not too thrilled about any of the films that were nominated in that first year, especially the film that the academy chose as its first Best Production. William Wellman’s Wings, like The Jazz Singer, was also a technological innovation with its incorporation of state-of-the-art special effects and color tinting. This film, about two war buddies vying for the same girl, was celebrated at the time for its World War I aerial dogfight scenes but, truthfully, I can’t get excited about any of this stuff because the story is thin and the continuity in those dogfight scenes is hard to follow.

Wings and The Jazz Singer, while being technological milestones, were not great films in and of themselves. In fact, nineteen twenty-seven was not a good year for movies at all. Very few films from that year had a long-lasting impact and the only film that really fits that description is my choice for Best Picture, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a movie for which the word “landmark” was invented. I could not imagine the academy awarding the first Oscar to a German film but since they gave the first Best Actor award to a German actor, I think my selection is justified. With that logic in mind, and for many other reasons, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis gets my very first Armchair Oscar.

Metropolis is a film that has effected a long-lasting impact on the face of motion pictures by creating entire genres. This was the movie that invented movie science fiction and heralded the “doomed future” of H.G. Wells The Shape of Things to Come, George Orwell’s 1984 , Planet of the Apes, Oblivion and The Hunger Games.  Fritz Lang set in place science fiction elements that are so familiar to us today that they have become the standard of the genre: an oppressive urban hell ruled by the upper-class and operated by slave-like poor; a city that seems to touch the heavens; the mad scientist giggling in his lab as he plays God; the lone hero who discovers the diabolical machinations of the villain and tries to throw a monkey wrench into his plan. These elements can be found in this film’s ancestors: Frankenstein, Batman, Gattaca and the cities of Blade Runner, Star Wars and Minority Report. Each of these films contain elements that were inspired, in one way or another, by Lang’s work.

Metropolis has gone down in history as one of the most influential films ever made, certainly one of the most studied of all silent films and yet the movie languishes. After its success in 1927, the film has had an uneasy time. The fact that it is a silent film turns off the usual science fiction audience. Heavy censoring and editing through the years has left the film in pieces, with some scenes lost to history. Over the years and there have been numerous attempts to restore the original print based on all usable remaining footage. Some of the restorations work and some do not. The restored version released on DVD in 2001 was based on a digital restoration at 2K resolution from all available sources. It is the best version that I’ve seen. The worst is a 1994 print released through GoodTimes Video which contains no restoration at all. The film in grainy and thus difficult to see, and doesn’t even have a soundtrack. I dub that one the worst because I’m still a little ambivalent about the 1984 restored version by Georgio Moroder with color tinting (good!), sound effects (not so good!) and a soundtrack that includes songs by Loverboy, Freddy Mercury, Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant and Pat Benatar (abomination!). That version filled in the gaps using still photos and some odd editing, the result was hit and miss – mostly miss.

Yet, even with some pieces missing, the film is still an incredible achievement. Those who study the film (myself included) find the story impenetrable. Metropolis has a plot that is so maddeningly erratic that it is hard to pin it down as a whole. Many conceded this as a fault but I think it adds to the film’s grand chaotic narrative.

Metropolis takes place in the future (title cards suggest that it takes place in the year 2000) in an overcrowded city with immense skyscrapers built out of a strange, grotesque architecture. The wealthy inhabitants of Metropolis are content with their lives, dancing in their penthouses and spending their money. The poor work as slaves beneath the city like cogs in a machine. Lang choreographs the scenes in the subterranean levels magnificently so that the workers are never out of step. They don’t so much work as toil under oppression like Ramses’ slaves building his pyramids (the biblical parallels are not subtle). The rich and poor of Metropolis are ignorant of one another, except for the ruthless Joh Fredersen (Alfred Able), a businessman who rules Metropolis from his office high above the city.

Joh’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) partakes of the wealth of his father, blissfully unaware of the tyranny taking place beneath his feet. When we meet him, he is happily enjoying the Pleasure Gardens until he notices a woman rising from the underground caves with a group of the worker’s children. Curious, he follows her to the depths and is aghast at the tyranny in motion there. He witnesses the massive machines that belch forth smoke and flames and the workers who are employed to keep the machine running, lest it explode in their faces. The work is relentless, the men strain to keep up.

The woman that Freder has followed is called Maria (Brigitte Helm), a revolutionary who holds sermons to remind the workers that a peaceful resolution can and must be found – she’s a sort of Gandhi with false eyelashes. Added to that, he also uncovers an insane plot by the mad scientist named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a robotic duplicate of Maria that will replace the real thing and inspire the workers into a riot. The scientist kidnaps the real Maria and sends the robotic version to convince the workers to rise up and then sends her to taunt the rich men and drive them into a sexual frenzy. That’s when all Hell breaks loose.  A riot breaks out in the streets.  There is a fight on the rooftops between hero and villain.  The masses burn the robot at the stake.  Joh Frederson’s hair turns white when he thinks he has led his son to his death.  And finally, there’s an odd negotiation between rich and poor and some fortune cookie advice from the real Maria about love and understanding.

Lang based the film on the book written by his wife Thea Von Harbou. In the book (which I have read), the story is about as chaotic as the film, the difference is that Lang has the visuals to suggest the chaos where von Harbou strain to explain it in words. He uses every technical tool at his disposal to visualize the Hell of the subterranean machine run by the workers. At one point Freder, disguised as a worker, witnesses one of the huge machines explode and visualizes it as a horrendous monster swallowing workers by the dozen. Another suggests an odd device, a giant dial in which the worker is made to keep the arms in the same place as the light bulbs go on and off around its edge. The machine doesn’t seem to have any purpose until Freder imagines it as a giant clock and tries to pull the arms forward to end the merciless day.

The film is one of the pinnacles of German Expressionism, astonishing in its use of light and shadow. One of the best examples is the scene in which Rotwang pursues the real Maria through the caves using only a beam of light to strike terror as he closes in. Another brilliant moment comes with Maria’s erotic dance as the men gawk, the camera filled with their moist eyes. This scene was completely removed after the initial release and not restored until home video.

More obvious are Lang’s biblical references – the rise of the city parallels Marie’s retelling the story of the Tower of Babel; the giant unholy pentagram in Rotwang’s lab as he plays God; the breathtaking image of the plague-bringer who comes wielding an obscene scythe during Freder’s hallucination; the very heaven-and-hell nature of Metropolis itself with the paradise above and the damnation below. Maria even has a Christ-like quality when she gives her sermons and reinforces that indeed, blessed are the peacemakers. The robotic version of Maria is somewhat of an anti-Christ.

These elements and images are brought to life through Lang’s infamous demand for no less than absolute perfection. He was known as a cruel taskmaster, working his cast and crew like a dictator. He cast some 20,000 extras (1500 of them for the Tower of Babel sequence alone) and worked them from morning till night. The water that covered the set for the climactic flood was ice cold. Many of the extras were soaked through from morning till night. Actress Brigitte Helm was nearly killed several times, once by a fall and another by the fact that the bonfire scene was real! Helm was so rattled by her experience working with Lang that she thereafter refused to make another film with him.

I could go on and on, since this film, like all great films, invites lengthy discussions. It can be seen in at least a hundred different ways, as a foreshadowing of fascism or the tyranny of communism or just capitalism boiling over. But when you get down to it, the best way to view Metropolis is not as a film to pick apart but simply as a film of its time. In the decade between two world wars, when the real-world machinations were being put into place that would lead to the Nazi era, Metropolis is a warning of things to come. Lang created the story of a world gone mad while the world around him was, in fact, going mad.


Best Actor

MY CHOICE:
Emile Jannings
(The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh)
The Nominees:
Richard Barthelmess (The Noose), Richard Barthelmess (The Patent Leather Kid)


MY CHOICE:
Buster Keaton (The General)
My Nominees: George Bancroft (Underworld)
, Gustav Fröhlich (Metropolis), George O’Brien (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans)

1927-28-BusterKeaton

Emil Jannings was a heartthrob in his homeland of Austria and made no less of an impression when he came to America. At the time that the first Academy Awards were presented, he had become a legend in his own time. He was hailed as one of the best actors of his generation and during the inaugural awards, when actors were rewarded for a year’s worth of work rather than a single performance, two of his most popular performances won him the very first Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

The first was for his work as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander in Joseph Von Sternberg’s The Last Command, based on the true story of a former Czar General who experiences the communist revolution and eventually finds himself reduced the lowly position of a dollar-a-day extra in Hollywood. The other was for the role of August Schilling, a good man who falls for a bad woman in Victor Fleming’s The Way of All Flesh. I have seen The Last Command, in which he plays the kind of character that Jannings was famous for – a nobleman who experiences the depths of despair. Sadly, no print of The Way of all Flesh, is known to exist.

Jannings was given his Oscar three weeks before the actual academy awards ceremony after he had told the academy’s central board of judges that he was going home to Germany and wouldn’t be able to attend. What no one knew at the time was that this would be the last highpoint of his career. He would struggle in his attempts to make the transition from silent films to talkies (due in part to his thick accent) and his career more or less faded. Furthermore, his reputation was forever tarnished when he returned to Germany and joined the new Nazi Party and began making propaganda films for the cause. For his efforts on behalf of the Nazi party, he was awarded a medal by Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels. This, more than anything, is probably one reason that he has fallen out of common knowledge.

I want to make it clear, however, that this is not why I disliked his performance in The Last Command. I have seen nearly all of Janning’s films (at least, the ones that are available to me) and watching his performance, I feel as if I am seeing him play notes he displayed much better in his earlier work.

While Jannings has become a footnote in film history, Buster Keaton is more popular now than he was in his heyday. Many of the films he made during the silent era, even initial flops, are beloved even by audiences who don’t like silent films. For me, his best is the Civil War action comedy The General. Here is the best film of his career and one of the best examples of a director directing his own performance. He does a brilliant job on both counts and it makes me happy to give him my very first Best Actor award.

Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a lad from the Confederate side of the Mason/Dixon line, whose heart is filled with love for two things: his locomotive and his girl Annabelle (possibly in that order). He pines for Annabelle’s heart, but she won’t have him until he proves himself. She informs him: “I don’t want you to speak to me again until you are in uniform,” and quickly shows him the door.

Johnnie is the engineer of The General, a locomotive owned by the Confederacy. Yankees steal The General out from under Johnny with Annabelle onboard, and he spends the rest of the film trying to get it back. He chases the thieves on foot, then with a handcar, then on a bicycle, and finally with another train, called The Texas.

Logically, it is impossible to make an exciting chase between two trains since they are both on the same track, but Keaton makes it work. At one point, the bad guys fight with Johnny on top of the train until, eventually, Johnny has commandeered The General and the bad guys are at the controls of The Texas. Later, Annabelle is rescued from the clutches of the bad guys only because Johnny is now at the switch of The General.

Keaton never allows the film time to slow down for a moment. Once the film gets rolling, it is high-energy all the way to the end. During the chase between the two trains, for example, the bad guys throw lumber onto the tracks to derail Johnny’s train. Sitting on the cowcatcher, Johnny picks up the pieces of wood to knock the other pieces of wood off the tracks to clear the way.

Another great scene has Johnny dismounting The General so that he can bend the track in order to slow down the progress of the bad guys. When he turns around to board his train again, he notices that it has left without him. He chases his train on foot and until it disappears around a corner. Thinking fast, he heads the train off by running down a steep hill and jumping on board just as it comes around the other corner.

The action scenes usually dominate conversations about The General. Keaton’s sheer inventiveness has made the film a classic, but what is never discussed is Keaton’s performance. He is an action star, here performing his own stunts. We can clearly see that no stunt man is involved, even in the scenes in which he required to hang from the side of a moving train, mere inches from death. He used no stunt men – Keaton was his own special effect

It says something about Keaton that he would write himself into scenes that required him to risk his own neck for the sake of making a movie. As director, writer, producer and star, he had complete control over the content of his film. It allowed him to make his own legacy and allowed him to be able to keep the glorious moments for himself. For example, take the now legendary moment when Johnny is rejected by Annabelle and sits on the wheel rod of the train. He is too sad and dejected to even notice that it has begun moving up and down.

Keaton’s films were loaded with moments like that. They were like watching a wind-up toy. You never knew what direction they were going in. If there is an overriding theme in his films, it is that his characters always represented the working-class. His chief rival, Charlie Chaplin, represented the down-trodden who lived on the fringes of society, but Keaton’s Stone Face (as he is called) worked within society and had to deal with the insanity of the work-a-day world. He was the little guy who didn’t get revenge by getting knocked down but rather used his ingenuity to keep from getting knocked down in the first place.


Best Actress

THE WINNER:
Janet Gaynor
(7th Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans)
The Nominees:
Louis Dresser (A Ship Comes In), Gloria Swanson (Sadie Thompson)


MY CHOICE:
Maria Falconetti
(The Passion of Joan of Arc)
My Nominees:
Brigitte Helm (Metropolis), Janet Gaynor (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans)

1927-28-MariaFalconetti

In 1927, Janet Gaynor was a top box office attraction and a very lovable star. Moviegoers fell in love with her and the new academy voters didn’t love her any less.  At the first Academy Awards, actors were selected for a year’s worth of work and I think that Janet Gaynor’s name alone made her the winner. I’ve only seen two of the films for which she won Best Actress (I haven’t seen 7th Heaven) and the best is F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans in which she plays the dutiful wife of a man who strays into the arms of an evil seductress. Street Angel, an adaptation of a Monckton Hoffe novel called “Cristilinda,” was a vehicle that the studio rushed into production to cash in on her stardom. In that film, she played a poor waif who turns to prostitution in order to afford money for her sick mother and is arrested (before she can pick up her first customer!) and sent to a workhouse. She escapes and joins up with a traveling carnival and wins the heart of a painter who doesn’t know about her past.

Sunrise is a wonderful picture, displaying the best of what Gaynor could do as an actress, but Street Angel undermined her skills by binding them in a stupid, predictable melodrama that runs the cliche playbook from A to Z. Janet Gaynor’s win was based on timing; in 1927 she had everything audiences wanted and everything studio bosses could sell. She was young (21), she was pretty, she was virginal (she still lived with her mother) and she was being hyped as the first great star of the talking picture. Today Gaynor is a footnote in Hollywood history, mostly noted for her later performance in A Star is Born uttering the famous closing line: “This is Mrs. Norman Maine!” She didn’t do anything in that film that Judy Garland didn’t do better in the remake 27 years later.

My choice for my first Best Actress prize has gone down in history as one of the greatest, most studied, most admired performances in the history of film. Maria Falconetti would give only one substantial screen performance in her life, but it was a completely wordless performance of such lingering impact that it still resonates today.

In the title role of Carl Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Falconetti plays the maiden of Orlean beginning somewhere in the middle of her trial. Condemned, vilified and punished by accusations of being a heretic, she kneels upon the stone floor while accusing eyes and ugly pox-marked faces bear down upon her. Dreyer’s canvas is shown mostly in close-ups with hard, washed-out light so we get a sense of Joan’s agony.

We see her through the process of several trials, interrogations, humiliations, tortures and finally her agonizing execution. Through it all, our narrative focus is rooted in Falconetti’s eyes as she registers the depths of despair, hopelessness and confusion while trying in vain to defend herself against a court of religious judges who glower at her blasphemy. She believes that she has heard the voice of God commanding her, but her jailers think that this unholy act makes her a vessel of the devil. The tragedy of Joan comes from what we can read in her eyes, the suspicion that she has been commanded by God and then abandoned. From Falconetti, the eyes convey a world of emotion.

Most of Falconetti’s performance comes from Carl Dreyer’s unconventional direction. He did away with all the normal conventions of filmmaking, of editing, makeup, set direction and screenwriting so that we get a sense of chaos and confusion and a sense of how the trial must have been seen in Joan’s mind. The film often seems like a series of disorganized memories. In every other film, the editing establishes placement of characters and how they interact. We are often given establishing shots to place us in small or large rooms, or in buildings or a house. In conversations, the editing allows us to understand the placement and perspective of everyone and everything in the room. Dreyer’s work is different. Here we aren’t sure from one moment to the next where one wall begins and another ends, where characters stand in conjunction to one another. Men enter Joan’s holding cell and assault her verbally but often we aren’t sure when that character came in and how that character stands in conjunction with Joan. This may seem lazy to the casual viewer, but if you follow the film from Joan’s point of view, it takes on the qualities of a nightmare where one images flows to the next and we aren’t sure where we stand.

The convolution of narrative is born out of Dreyer’s refusal to work from a screenplay. Instead he creates the film from the transcripts of Joan’s trial so we get a sense of the reality coming out of the nightmare. The effect is a feeling of being an eye-witness to an event in history, the sparseness of the film and the choice to eliminate anything sleek and pretty gives it a documentary feel.

What the film always comes back to are Falconetti’s eyes. Here she gives her only screen performance of any significance and yet it is a performance that is said to have been the greatest ever put on film, her face roots us in the heavy burden that she is carrying. She has witnessed an exchange by a heavenly being that is so far beyond human understanding that it is impossible to convey in simple words. Her eyes are a window to the despair and confusion of the agonizing feeling that she has been commanded by God and then abandoned in her hour of need. Joan is told that her life depends on confessing to her crime, but she holds strong to the faith that God has spoken to her. She is worn down, tired and shivers from the cold.

Dreyer uses tight close-ups of Falconetti’s face against those of her interrogators. Where everything else in the film is erratic and non-linear, our emotions are rooted in what she is able to convey in her face. Falconetti was obviously an attractive woman, but Dreyer resisted the temptation to make her look the least bit glamorous. She wore no make-up and was put through the torment of spending painful hours on her knees and long periods without food or sleep. The effect is that she is able to convey the torment of a woman who simply cannot cash in her faith in an effort of self-preservation. She believes that she has been instructed by God to lead the French in an uprising against the occupation by the British and cannot find it within herself to relinquish her faith in an effort to satisfy her interrogators.

What we are left with is one of the most effective uses of pure filmmaking in the history of the medium. Dreyer set out to make a film that used only what was needed to tell the bare bones of a story that we already know. The sparseness of this film sets off beautifully against those haunting eyes – eyes that allow us to peer into a haunted soul.

 
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Posted by on 01/24/2017 in Armchair Oscars