Project 1939 – watching the 10 nominees for Best Picture Oscar from 1939

When one looks back at Oscar winners of the past, there are some years – particularly in ‘40s and ‘50s – when every film in the list is a classic.

1939 is one such year, and is generally considered to be Oscar’s greatest year ever.

On the night of February 29th 1940, David O. Selznick’s magnum opus Gone with the Wind produced for MGM, fought off studio stablemates The Wizard of Oz and Ninotchka to win the gold statuette. The other 7 films in the mix were Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, Love Affair and Dark Victory.

I just finished watching Ninotchka this morning, without realizing it was a member of this exalted group. It was only when I was updating my movie database that I noticed the other legendary pictures under the year 1939, and realized that I had watched 8 out of the 10 nominees from that golden year.

Interestingly, the first movie I watched from this list was only about 10-12 years ago and it wasn’t Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, the 2 films most likely to have been seen by any movie buff early in their ‘movie-watching career’. In fact, I watched both those films only in 2008-09! Instead, that status goes to John Ford’s Stagecoach, the movie that made John Wayne a household name and led to a string of roles in memorable Westerns, many of them directed by John Ford as well.  Ford had a tough time getting a studio to finance this film, because he insisted on casting then-unknown John Wayne as The Ringo Kid. John Wayne was just a B-movie actor at the time and the big studios wanted big names Eventually, the film was picked up by independent producer Walter Wanger and the rest as they say, is history. Westerns were always a big staple on Turner Classic Movies but I had a healthy dislike for them, for some reason. I watched this movie only as an ‘obligation’, as it was so highly regarded, but it kicked off my love affair with the Western genre, John Wayne and John Ford. I can never forget the thrill of watching the scene where The Ringo Kid is introduced to the audience…we hear a gunshot, the stagecoach staggers to a halt, cut to John Wayne with the sun and the Monument Valley landscape behind him; he flips his shotgun full circle (Schwarzenegger did the same thing in Terminator 2) as he shouts out “Hold it!”. The camera zooms into him so quickly that it actually loses focus for a few seconds before settling on his look of surprise as he recognizes the riders on the coach. Even now, I frequently go to Youtube and replay this clip.

My other sentimental favorites from this list are Love Affair and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Love Affair has been remade twice, once by the same director Leo McCarey as An Affair to Remember in 1957 with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and then disastrously in 1994 as Love Affair with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.  I love both the 1939 and 1957 versions equally, with Charles Boyer every bit as charming a leading man in Love Affair as Cary Grant was in An Affair to Remember. My favorite scenes are the ones with Grandmother Janou and of course, the final scene in Terry McKay’s apartment.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is probably the 2nd James Stewart film I have ever watched, after It’s a Wonderful Life, which was made much later in 1946 by the same director Frank Capra. Mr. Smith features James Stewart as an idealistic young man thrust into the unforgiving world of Washington politics. The naïve and earnest Mr. Smith is set off well against the suave and crooked Senator Paine (played by the always reliable and watchable Claude Rains, who received an Oscar nomination for the role). The filibuster scene is one of my favorites, of course.

Wuthering Heights and Goodbye, Mr. Chips are the two films from the list that I admired and enjoyed while watching, but are probably a bit too ‘heavy’ to be watched again and again.

It was in Wuthering Heights that I first saw Anglo-Indian actress Merle Oberon on film; as a kid I had read an article about how she went to great lengths to hide her Asian origins from the public, employing extensive use of cosmetics and drugs which ultimately damaged her skin. A few years later, she was involved in a car accident which caused further facial scarring. During this time, she was married to cinematographer Lucien Ballard who then designed a lighting system – called the ‘obie’ – which would make the scarring disappear on film. The obie is widely used even today! I’m not sure if I was imagining it, but while watching Wuthering Heights, I thought was able to detect the occasional Indian tone in her accent. The film itself is one of William Wyler’s early masterpieces, well before he went on to make Best Picture winners like Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of our Lives and Ben-Hur.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a biographical film, describing the life and times of a school teacher Mr. Chipping (played by Robert Donat) from the start of his career as a Latin teacher at a boys’ school till his retirement as headmaster and subsequent death. It is a warm, sentimental film and provided the role-of-a-lifetime for Robert Donat who had to age 63 years over the course of the film. He beat Clark Gable (Gone with the Wind), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights) and James Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) to win the Best Actor Oscar.

Getting back to Ninotchka which started this entire train of thought, it’s actually my first ever Greta Garbo film. Having only seen stills of her from her silent era, I initially didn’t recognize her when she appeared on the railway platform as Russian envoy Nina ‘Ninotchka’ Yakushova. I love Ernst Lubitsch comedies (Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be) as they are filled with sharp, intelligent dialogue and memorable supporting characters. I have to admit though, that I was a bit creeped out the first time Great Garbo laughed, having got so used to her stern ‘comrade’ persona up to that point in the movie.

So, I’ve decided to retrospectively call this 10 year unfinished journey Project 1939. I have 2 more films left on this list. The first is Of Mice and Men, which stars Lon Chaney Jr., who took a sharp career turn after this film and went on to play the full suite of Universal Studios’ horror characters in films like The Wolfman, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Ghost of Frankenstein and Son of Dracula. The second film is Dark Victory, which has Bette Davis in the lead role of a socialite dealing with terminal cancer and Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role. Both are rather grim films and it’s no surprise that I haven’t watched either yet. Hopefully, I will get hold of the two films and be able to report the completion of Project 1939 in the near future!


A string quartet, a play about Caesar and a film by Orson Welles

This weekend I watched 3 very different films, which were connected by two very dissimilar threads – Imogen Poots and Orson Welles.

First up was the 2012 drama A Late Quartet, directed by Israeli director Yaron Zilberman. I think the last time I watched a movie connected with classical music, it was The Red Violin in 1998 which followed the story of a famous violin over a period of 4 centuries. I got to listen to some wonderful pieces of music and the film won an Oscar for Best Score. A Late Quartet is also set in the world of classical music and it gives the director the opportunity to integrate the works of Beethoven, Haydn and Bach into the plot. However, unlike The Red Violin, the star attractions in this movie are the musicians rather than the instruments, specifically the 4 actors who portray the members of a world famous string quartet – Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Russian-born Israeli actor Mark Ivanir. In the film, the quartet have been playing together for 25 years  and are now shaken by the news that Walken’s character has early stages of Parkinson’s. Walken proposes a farewell concert after which he will hand over his cellist chair to a talented musician who has previously played with the group. While the rest of the group are struggling to come to terms with this development, Hoffman who plays 2nd violin starts talking about the possibility of alternating the 1st violin chair with perfectionist Mark Ivanir, much to Ivanir’s discomfort. Keener and Hoffman’s characters are married to each other and she asks Hoffman to give up this idea to avoid further disrupting the quartet; a request which hurts his feelings deeply, as he had expected her to back him up. Meanwhile, their talented college-age daughter, played by the vivacious British actress Imogen Poots, starts flirting with Ivanir during her music lessons with him. As you can see, there’s quite a lot going on here and before you start thinking that this sounds like the plot of a daytime soap, let me say that that the story lines unfold very naturally and the performances by these multiple Oscar nominees were nuanced and entirely believable. There are a few moments of melodrama, but ultimately, all the characters sacrifice their personal needs in order to keep the quartet together. The film culminates with Walken’s farewell performance, the quartet playing Beethoven’s Opus 131, which is considered to be one of his greatest pieces.

The performances of the key actors were outstanding of course, but I was really taken by the screen presence of Imogen Poots. I immediately searched for any other films she had recently acted in and I saw that she had a bit part in the critically acclaimed period drama Me and Orson Welles. This film created a great deal of buzz when it came out in 2008, but sadly was not picked up for distribution by any of the major studios. It eventually had a very limited theatrical run, but of course made a number of appearances at film festivals leading to an astounding 5 wins and 12 nominations for the actor – Christian McKay – who played Orson Welles. The film is directed by Richard Linklater, who along with Kevin Smith was considered to be the best American ‘indie’ director of the 1990s. The film also stars Zac Efron and Claire Danes and is based on the novel of the same name. It tells the fictionalized story of a young man (Efron) who is hired by Welles for a small part in his stage production of Julius Caeser for the Mercury Theater. The story takes place in the frantic few days before opening night and like Linklater’s ‘90’s works, is a coming-of-age film. The movie has a great ensemble cast, but ultimately it all boils down to McKay’s performance as the larger-than-life Orson Welles, who motivates those around him by the sheer force of his personality. The film gives an insight into the emotional upheavals involved in any creative process, not dissimilar to that of A Late Quartet. But the film that really came to mind as the climactic opening night scene unfurled was Shakespeare in Love. In both cases, the brilliant but tortured creator must beg, borrow, argue and cajole to ensure his play sees the light of day and in both cases, we as the audience get to experience vicariously, the unbounded joy of the entire crew at the end of a successful opening night.

In real life, Orson Welles followed up the success of his Mercury Theater plays with his directorial debut, Citizen Kane, which for many years has been considered the greatest film ever made. A year later, he released his 2nd film, The Magnificent Ambersons which also was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (Welles ultimately never won an Oscar in competition, but was awarded an honorary statuette in 1971). In one of the scenes in Me and Orson Welles, Mr. Welles reads out a few lines from the novel The Magnificent Ambersons and soon after ad libs the very same lines during a radio performance…this was a book he was really in love with. So, I decided this would be the film I would watch as a logical conclusion to the weekend. The final cut of the film differed significantly from how Welles wanted it edited and sadly the unused raw footage was destroyed to make room in the studio vaults, so Welles never had the chance to do a director’s cut in subsequent years. Even so, the finished product is highly regarded by many film critics and features in my copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. It is a depressing story and Welles’ genius (along with that of cinematographer Stanley Cortez) is in shooting much of the film inside the darkened manor to magnify the slow decline of the Amberson family. As in the case of Citizen Kane, this is a film that can be studied by film historians for its technical brilliance, but I confess that this film did not connect with me emotionally (neither did Citizen Kane). The much awaited ‘comeuppance’ which the spoilt heir George Amberson Minafer is supposed to get at the end of the story wasn’t very satisfying either (if you want to see what my idea of a real comeuppance is, then check out the last scene of There Will be Blood). And so, Touch of Evil must remain my favorite Welles film (the opening scene alone is worth watching).

It was a somewhat disappointing end to my thematically linked trilogy, but I guess watching an Orson Welles movie can at least be considered educational in terms of film history and creativity. The other 2 films were very engaging and I wait to see Imogen Poots in Danny Boyle’s upcoming Filth (with James McAvoy) and certainly I hope that director Yaron Zilberman will come up with a suitable follow up to A Late Quartet. As for Richard Linklater, I am considering a viewing of his “Before” trilogy, with the 3rd film Before Midnight being released next month.

And more apocalypses coming in 2013

Further to my post on Nov 13th about apocalypses of all forms being the current flavor of popular fiction and a follow-up post on Nov 15th, I can’t help but call attention to another variety of apocalypse hitting the big screens in 2013.

In these posts, I referred to apocalypses caused by plagues (resulting in zombie and vampire swarms), robots, aliens and gendercide. Besides these exotic apocalypses, we also have the garden variety of apocalypse caused by good old nuclear war and also pollution/ ecological disasters.

I am currently reading just such a book – the classic scifi post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, referred to by many critics as the only true literary masterpiece to have emerged from the scifi genre. The novel was published in 1960 and having reached halfway through the book, I am inclined to agree with the opinions of the critics. I’ll probably write about this book at length once I have finished reading it.

However, the main purpose of this post is talk about the trio of post-apocalyptic films coming up in 2013, all of which feature a largely depopulated Earth ravaged by war or some other form of man-made cataclysm.

  • The first of these films is Oblivion (Universal Pictures), to be released April 19th. The film, which just had its first teaser trailer and poster released last week is directed by Joseph Kosinksi (of Tron: Legacy fame), based on his own graphic novel. The movie features Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who plays the infamous Jamie Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones). The response to the poster was very positive, although the trailer itself left me feeling a bit underwhelmed…a confused. For some reason, it felt like a mash-up of several other futuristic stories, although I couldn’t specifically pinpoint any one element which I could say was copied from past source material. Nevertheless, I am very much looking forward to the film…I don’t expect something award winning, but clearly there will be some strong individual acting performances and great visual effects.
  • Next we have After Earth (Columbia Pictures), to be released June 7th and directed by M. Night Shyamalan – his first film since 2010’s disastrous adaptation of Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender. Mr. Shyamalan has certainly lost his way – and his goodwill with the movie-going public – since the great days of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. In this case, there is some hope, as the screenplay is by Stephen Gaghan who won an Oscar for Traffic and was nominated again for Syriana. More importantly – from a box office perspective – the film stars the father-son super-duo of Will Smith and Jaden Smith as General Cypher Raige (yes, really) and his estranged son Kitai Raige. Clearly Will Smith has a clear strategy to build up his son’s box office credentials. Young Smith started off in a supporting role in 2006 (at the age of 8) with his father in The Pursuit of Happyness, then held his own with Jackie Chan in The Karate Kid in 2010 and now will effectively play the lead in After Earth. All 3 films are produced by Will Smith and his producing partner James Lassiter and generally speaking, these guys have yet to pick a stinker as a project. So, there is every possibility that Mr. Shyamalan will once again have a genuine hit on his hands.
  • At the very end of the summer comes Elysium (Sony Pictures Classics/ Columbia-Tristar), to be released Aug 9th, Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to his masterful debut film District 9.  The film features a very buff Matt Damon alongside Jodie Foster and the star of District 9, South African actor Sharlto Copley. The set photos I have seen indicate that we will once again see a gritty action picture with socio-political overtones like District 9, but I am also looking forward to seeing Elysium, the pristine space habitat built using the Stanford Torus design concept (essentially a hollow, doughnut shaped construct with the populace living inside). Based on the concept art featured here, Blomkamp will use the space habitat setting to accentuate the stark difference between the ‘Haves’ living there and the ‘Have Nots’ living on the surface of a ruined Earth.

As a scifi fan, I will be rooting for all 3 films. I expect Elysium to have the highest critical acclaim, followed by After Earth – provided the critics can get over their hatred of Shyamalan. Oblivion looks a bit generic right now, but will probably benefit by being the first off the blocks at the start of summer and therefore may actually end up earning the highest box office revenue among the 3.

I am pretty sure that by now I have covered every possible post-apocalyptic scenario that can be featured in scifi books, graphic novels and movies. But if I come across a new spin on this sub-genre, I’ll be sure to write about it!


My year-end movie list

It’s that time of the year again when Hollywood rolls out their award contenders as well as some big-budget feel-good blockbusters.

There are 7 movies which are on my must-watch list, another 5 which I will watch, either because they will be Oscar front-runners or because they come from big names, but am not necessarily interested in the subject matter or actors involved. And there are 3 high profile releases which I have no interest whatsoever in (but will probably end up watching anyway at some point). I have also thrown in two films under the heading Guilty Pleasures!

I’m going to start with the 3 big ones which I am not interested in:-

  • Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 – I have watched the entire series so far. I really enjoyed the first film, but I feel the acting and actors have increasingly looked more suited to a daytime soap than a big-screen film…nothing against it, but not really my cup of tea. And I am now thoroughly irritated with the Kristen Stewart approach to acting which mainly consists of furrowing her brow. No doubt, being the last in the series, the film will have a monster opening weekend. Stephanie Meyer fans can next look forward to the film adaptation of her scifi novel, The Host in March 2013.
  • Life of Pi – I am a huge fan of Ang Lee’s work, but have no interest in a story about a boy named Pi stuck on a boat for 227 days with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. I don’t see the point at all and the trailer did nothing to help me change my mind. I can understand that Ang Lee would want to push his own boundaries just as he did when he directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hulk, so I hope for his sake that the film is at least a critical success if not a commercial one.
  • Frankenweenie – I had already covered this in a post soon after the trailer came out. I have watched every single Tim Burton film, except the latest Dark Shadows and his animated 2005 film Corpse Bride, but I haven’t really enjoyed one of his films since Sleepy Hollow back in 1999. And I find his stop-motion animation style too creepy, unless taken in small doses like in Beetlejuice.

Then come the 5 obligatory viewings:-

  • The Master – I have no real interest in this story of a man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who creates a quasi-religious cult and has a troubled relationship with his most fervent disciple (Joaquin Phoenix). Having said that, I had no real interest in the story of a man who discovered an oil field and had troubled relationships with his son and with an over-zealous preacher, but 2007’s There Will be Blood remains one of my all-time favourite films, so I am certainly going to give Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest effort a fair chance, not to mention that it is most likely to win the Best Picture Oscar in February.
  • Cloud Atlas – I was so looking forward to the return of the Wachowski siblings, but was quite underwhelmed by the trailer. This hard-to-describe novel by David Mitchell was always going to be a challenge for any one director, so the producers hired a team of 3 directors, i.e. the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer to bring it to life. I hope that audiences are able to decipher the plot consisting of 6 nested stories beginning on a Pacific Island in the 1850’s, progressing to a distant post-apocalyptic future and then concluding back where it began. All of this spread over 3 hours with each actor playing multiple characters across the nested stories. I so want to like this movie, but something tells me The Wachowskis will continue the search for their first hit since the Matrix trilogy.
  • Les Miserables – Musicals have never been my cup of tea, but they are so few and far between these days that there is always a big buzz when a Moulin Rouge or Hairspray or Chicago is released. I’ve watched them all, but wouldn’t care for a repeat viewing of any of them. In this case, I certainly can’t say “No” to a film starring Hugh Jackman, Russel Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter…and directed by Tom Hooper (director of The King’s Speech and the outstanding 2008 HBO mini-series John Adams)!
  • Silver Linings Playbook – I am not a Bradley Cooper fan and his presence in films like the Hangover series have done nothing to improve the situation, but I am intrigued by the buzz from this film which won the People’s Choice Award at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival. I absolutely loved director David O. Russell’s Desert Storm-set action-comedy Three Kings from 1999, but haven’t seen his critically acclaimed boxing drama The Fighter from 2010. This film represents a change of pace, a dramedy, somewhat similar to his I Heart Huckabees from 2004.
  • Killing Them Softly – New Zealander Andrew Dominik has directed just 3 films in his career. The first was Chopper in 2000, which introduced the world to a certain Eric Bana. Then in 2007, he released The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford starring Brad Pitt to great critical acclaim. He now reunites Brad Pitt in this crime-thriller which is already generating awards buzz, having been nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes.

Guilty Pleasures

  • Jack Reacher – After the embarrassment of Rock of Ages this summer, Tom Cruise returns to a more comfortable setting in this screen adaptation of crime novel One Shot, one of a series of novels by Lee Child featuring former Army Major Jack Reacher. Having said that, I cannot imagine what the studio was thinking when they cast the 5’7” Cruise to play a character described as being 6′ 5″ tall with a 50-inch chest and having ice-blue eyes and dirty blond hair. Why even bother to call it an adaptation of a Jack Reacher novel and risk upsetting the hard core Reacher fans? Anyway, I am a big Tom Cruise fan, so I count this film as a guilty pleasure.
  • Taken 2 – In early 2009, Liam Neeson had his biggest career hit as a leading man, playing former CIA operative Bryan Mills who creates mayhem among East European human traffickers after they take his daughter. There is nothing as enjoyable as a good old-fashioned action thriller where the good guy takes apart the bad guys one by one. Fans have been looking forward to seeing more of Neeson’s character, so writer-producer Luc Besson has come up with a new adventure, this time the bad guys specifically target Bryan Mills’ family in revenge for the people he took out in the first movie.

And finally, the 7 movies I am really looking forward to:-

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – A few months ago, Peter Jackson delighted his fans with the announcement that he had shot enough footage of The Hobbit story to produce 3 films, not the 2 as originally planned. The films are adapted not just from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but also depict incidents from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings books and from Tolkien’s companion-piece publication The Silmarillion, hence the over-abundance of available material and the opportunity to feature characters from LOTR like Galadriel and Legolas. The build-up to the release of the first film has been perfect, with the release of a number of photos of the 13 hobbits comprising the Company of Dwarves and recently the release of an iPad App with lots of goodies. I expect/ hope this will be the biggest box office hit of the fall season and also that it will be as critically acclaimed as the original trilogy. The latest trailers with their four different endings are superb.
  • Django Unchained – I raved about the Django Unchained trailer when it first came out. It’s a new Quentin Tarentino film, not much more needs to be said.
  • Skyfall – I am really looking forward to seeing Daniel Craig chug a can of Heineken in the upcoming Bond film…and of course, eager to see if they can get the Bond franchise on track after the mess that was Quantum of Solace. I am looking forward to some of the gritty storytelling that director Sam Mendes put on show with Road to Perdition back in 2002 (interesting bit of trivia here – Road to Perdition featured a then-unknown Craig playing the cowardly son of mob boss Paul Newman).
  • Lincoln – Daniel Day Lewis brings his famous method acting chops to play the great American President. I expect to see the full bells and whistles which we have come to expect from Spielberg, hopefully it doesn’t become another Amistad. I was surprised at Lincoln’s nasal voice after years of hearing him portrayed with a deep sonorous voice. There has been a fair bit of internet chatter about the voice, which is apparently historically accurate. I think a lot of viewers will really have a problem with this, but hopefully the rest of the movie will be engaging enough.
  • Argo – It’s interesting that Ben Affleck, an actor I have taken such a dislike to, has directed two of the most gripping films in the last 5 years – Gone Baby Gone and The Town, both set in his native New England. This time around with Argo, he goes across to Iran for a fact-based drama-thriller in which he also acts (and looks quite good in that beard, by the way).
  • Hyde Park on the Hudson – I am a sucker for period dramas – Downton Abbey being my current favourite – and there has been steady buzz building up about this FDR biopic, featuring funnyman Bill Murray as The President and directed by Roger Michell of Notting Hill fame.
  • Flight – This is Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action film since Cast Away in 2000. It features Denzel Washington as a pilot who becomes a hero after safely landing a flight in distress, but the subsequent investigation reveals that he may not be a hero after all. Denzel does this sort of role very well (remember Courage Under Fire?) and I am hoping Zemeckis has not lost his edge after making only motion-capture pictures for the past decade.
  • On the Road – Jack Kerouac’s beat-era cult classic finally gets the big screen treatment, directed fittingly by Brazilian ‘road movie expert’ Walter Salles, famous for the touching Central Station and the delightful Motorcycle Diaries. On the Road features a great cast of actors including Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams and oh…Kristen Stewart. Well, if I needed a good omen on that last one, it could be the fact that Kristen Stewart played a very short and sweet role in her last road movie Into the Wild. Hopefully the same will be the case here.

Altogether, there is an incredible array of award-winning directors and actors on show in the next few months. Looks like I will have to watch multiple movies on some weekends if I am going to fit in 17 movies from now till end-December!