Friday, October 29, 2010

1965: The Sound of Music

Maria wants to be a nun, but she keeps getting into trouble at the abbey, so the Reverend Mother sends her to become a governess for Captain Von Trapp's seven children.  After the children play some tricks on her, Maria manages to gain their respect and love by teaching them to sing.  Even their stern father softens when he hears his children singing Maria's songs.  But this is Austria at the end of the 1930s, and when the Germans take over, Captain Von Trapp is expected to join the Nazis, something he will not allow himself to do.

I know there are some people who don't like this movie, but I can't understand why.  Despite a few semi-cheesy lines (and the fact that it's three hours long), I love this film.  The songs are fun and beautiful, not to mention deeply ingrained in our culture (does anyone not know the Do-Re-Mi song?); clearly Rodgers and Hammerstein at their best.  The character development is superb: one would think seven children would be easy to get mixed up, but each has his or her own distinct personality.  Then there's the incredible chemistry between Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer as their characters find themselves unintentionally falling for each other, and the beautiful framing of every shot.  All this combines with a powerful, moving and uplifting story to make a positively inspiring and entertaining film.

The beginning of this film gives me chills.  It starts with aerial shots of gorgeous green hills, while the sound of wind blowing is heard.  The picturesque aerial shots continue as birds begin chirping, and music gradually fades in.  There are some shots of quaint houses and buildings before we return to the hills, and one particular hill, on which Julie Andrews is walking.  The music swells, she twirls around and sings, "The hills are alive with the sound of music!"  I believe that this is the closest any film has ever gotten to capturing pure joy.

I may be biased in favor of this movie because I love Julie Andrews so much, but she's definitely not the only reason I like this film.  I'm also very glad that The Sound of Music won Best Picture because it further proves that a film doesn't have to be extremely depressing to be deep or Oscar-worthy.

Coming up next: A Man for All Seasons

Thursday, October 28, 2010

1964: My Fair Lady

Eliza Doolittle is a poor but good-hearted girl who sells flowers on the streets of London and speaks with a Cockney accent.  Henry Higgins is an independent professor of phonetics with little regard for anyone's feelings but his own.  Merely for the fun of it, Higgins makes a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering that in six months he can teach Eliza to speak and act like a proper lady.  So begins one of the most famous musicals ever created.

There are a lot of things I love about this film, and only a few that I dislike.  The songs are wonderful, and I often find myself unintentionally singing along.  But unlike many musicals, My Fair Lady is not good merely because of its songs.  Even if you ignore the music, it's a fascinating story with a witty script, unforgettable characters, and a fabulous cast.  Though I detest Henry Higgins (and urge Eliza not to go back to him, but she never listens to me), I think Rex Harrison is magnificent in the role.  Gladys Cooper is hilarious as Henry's mother, Stanley Holloway is perfect as Eliza's alcoholic father, and Wilfrid Hyde-White is very likeable as Colonel Pickering.  But I must say that as magnificent of an actress as Audrey Hepburn is, she isn't the perfect choice for Eliza.  She is good in the dramatic scenes, but most of her singing is done by Marni Nixon (who is once again uncredited).

I really think that Julie Andrews should have been cast as Eliza Doolittle, a role she originated on Broadway, because she could actually handle that type of singing.  Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway were in both the original Broadway cast and the film, but the filmmakers decided not to cast Julie Andrews because she had never been in a movie before, and they were afraid she wouldn't be able to handle the transition.  Instead, she was cast in Mary Poppins and won the 1964 Oscar for Best Actress.  So I guess it all worked out well for her, and I can't imagine anyone else as Mary Poppins, but I still would have liked to see her play Eliza Doolittle.  Oh, well, Audrey Hepburn did a fine job.

Despite the Julie Andrews thing, and the fact that Eliza goes back to Henry Higgins even though he always treats her like dirt, for the most part, I thoroughly enjoy watching this film.  As far as musicals go, it's one of the best.

Next: The Sound of Music (speaking of Julie Andrews...)

Monday, October 25, 2010

1963: Tom Jones

In 18th century England, Tom Jones is abandoned as a baby, but Squire Allworthy takes him in and raises him as his own.  When Tom grows up, he falls in love with Sophie Western, but is still far from objecting to other women.  His escapades eventually lead Squire Allworthy to throw him out, forcing Tom to embark on a series of adventures that all seem to end up in a woman's bedroom, or prison.

This is an extremely silly and bizarre movie.  It seems very Monty Python-esque, except the humor isn't as good.  And while I love Monty Python, I don't consider it Best Picture material.  I have no idea why Tom Jones won this award.  There are a few aspects that I like: the occasional character-audience interactions are well-placed and amusing, and some of the jokes are quite funny.  The end is pretty good, in a ridiculous sort of way, but it's hardly worth wading through the rest of the film.  Many of the scenes drag on far too long, and it becomes tiresome to watch the same thing happen over and over again.  Tom meets a pretty woman.  He sleeps with her.  He gets chased away.  He meets another pretty woman, and it happens all over again.  I have just spoiled approximately 3/4 of the movie.

While I didn't particularly like the bulk of this film, I can see how it would be entertaining to a certain audience.  I wouldn't call it a bad movie, but I really don't think it deserved to be called the Best Picture of 1963.  I think that Lilies of the Field is a much more profound and important film than Tom Jones.

Next year's winner: My Fair Lady

Saturday, October 23, 2010

1962: Lawrence of Arabia

Using mainly will-power, a British officer manages to achieve feats which no one else is willing to try, uniting Arabian tribes to overthrow the Turkish Empire.  For a time, the Arabs all love him and manage to put aside their differences to support him.  But despite his success, he leaves Arabia disillusioned and friendless.

This movie tends to rank very high on lists of the best films ever made.  The cinematography is quite remarkable, and the extreme long shots of the vast desert are at once picturesque and daunting.  Peter O'Toole is fabulous as the title character.  A lot of the important Arabs are played by Caucasian actors, which is quite annoying, but for the most part they do a good job pretending to be Arabian.  The story is engaging, interesting, and inspiring, at least for the first half.  After the intermission, I think the film loses some of its steam.  Lawrence is always a little strange, but in the second half of the film he becomes mind-bogglingly inconsistent.  One minute he's determined to take Damascus; the next he would rather slaughter a bunch of Turks.  He wants to go home, then he wants to go back to the Arabs, then he wants to do something else.  I feel like this must be one of those films that has to be watched a few times before everything makes sense, but frankly I don't think I'll be able to re-watch this any time soon.  I don't mean to imply that it's not a great film; it is.  But it's also very long, very disturbing, and very uncomfortable to watch, not to mention somewhat confusing, though I think I might have understood it better if I was more knowledgeable about the situation in the Middle East during World War I.  All in all, I perfectly comprehend why this film receives praise, but I think it might be overrated just a little bit.  But maybe I'll watch it again in a few years and find that my opinion has changed.

Coming up: Tom Jones

Thursday, October 21, 2010

1961: West Side Story

This updated, musical version of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City tells the story of two rival gangs: the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.  Tony is a co-founder of the Jets, but he is becoming disillusioned with the gang life.  His best friend Riff convinces him to go to a dance, where he meets Maria.  It's love at first sight, but it turns out that Maria's brother Bernardo is the head of the Sharks.  This doesn't bother Tony or Maria, but it really bothers everyone else.

While this story is incredibly depressing, it's also incredibly good.  They took a classic tragedy about how meaningless hate ruins lives and modernized it, introducing racism and gang warfare.  Even if the story wasn't as powerful and moving as it is, this would still be worth sitting through for the music.  The songs are fantasic, and the score is positively awe-inspiring.  And then there's the dancing.  Even the fight scenes are dances: magnificent, intense, perfectly-choreographed dances.  A lot of times, Broadway musicals lose some of their magic when they're transferred to the screen.  Granted, I never actually saw West Side Story on Broadway, but I think this must be one of the exceptions.  The filmmakers used the camera to enhance the storytelling of the dances, rather than letting it limit the audience's experience.

Of course, I don't mean to imply that this film is flawless.  Natalie Wood was a wonderful actress, and a very good dancer, but she was not Hispanic, let alone Puerto Rican, which I thought made her an odd choice for Maria.  She also did not do her own singing, which is not at all unusual, but they could have at least given Marni Nixon screen credit.  Also, a lot of the acting in this film seems forced, but that's probably because the primary focus in casting was to find people who could handle the intense dancing.  So, despite its shortcomings, this film deserves to be called a classic, and it certainly deserved to be named Best Picture of 1961.

Next up: Lawrence of Arabia

Friday, October 8, 2010

1960: The Apartment

C.C. Baxter works for a big insurance company, where he is very popular...because of his apartment, which is a very convenient place for his co-workers and bosses to have their extramarital affairs.  In return for handing over his key (and hardly ever being able to go home), Baxter receives several promotions.  He considers this a fair trade until he falls for an elevator girl named Fran Kubelik, and finds out that she's in love with the married big boss, who has been using Baxter's apartment.

I don't like the beginning of this film very much.  I find it disturbing that all those men think nothing of cheating on their wives, and throwing poor Baxter out of his own apartment.  But it definitely gets better, and by the end I decided that overall I liked it.  Jack Lemmon's always fun to watch, and he's the perfect Baxter.  Shirley MacLaine is also good as Fran (at least she's not pretending to be Indian, like she did in Around the World in 80 Days).  And Fred MacMurray is perfectly slimy as the boss she's in love with.  This movie is also full of really good comedic writing, which is the mark of a good Billy Wilder film.  And while at the beginning the story seems very anti-feminist, it gets better by the end.

This is definitely a transitional film.  It is the last Best Picture Winner that is entirely in black and white (Schindler's List is mostly black and white, but it has some color).  This movie also provides a great example of Hollywood's shift in the 1960s.  Production codes were loosening, soon to be abandoned entirely in favor of the rating system, so the subject matter of films was changing.  The innuendos in films of the past few decades were being replaced by more explicit material.  I don't think this film would have been made even a few years earlier, and if it had been attempted, many of the lines would have been censored.  Calling this film explicit is almost laughable by today's standards, but I'm sure it shocked some people in 1960 (though not as much as Psycho, which should have at least been nominated for Best Picture).

Stay tuned for: West Side Story

Thursday, October 7, 2010

1959: Ben-Hur

This classic tells the epic story of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman living during the time of Christ.  When Judah, his mother, and his sister are wrongfully convicted of a crime, he vows revenge on Messala, his former friend who has condemned them.  After surviving three years as a slave on a Roman ship, Judah gains his freedom and returns to compete with Messala in an intense chariot race.

Two things would make me like this film better: if it was a little shorter, and if someone else played Judah Ben-Hur.  For as long as it is, it's surprisingly not boring, but there are a few scenes that could have been cut down a bit.  And I'm not sure what it is about Charlton Heston that irks me so much, but I can't stand him.  When I watch this film, I have to keep reminding myself to be on his side.  But other than that, it is a very good film.  A lot of people only watch it for the chariot race, but the rest of the film gives the chariot race meaning.  The character development throughout the movie is very well done.  I also really like the way Jesus is portrayed in the film.  His life intersects with Judah's several times, but we never see Jesus' face clearly, nor do we hear his voice.  I thought that was a very interesting choice by the filmmakers, and it works well.

This was a really good year for films.  I'm slightly surprised that neither North By Northwest nor Some Like It Hot was nominated for Best Picture, since those are both excellent, highly acclaimed movies.  They're also more fun to watch than Ben-Hur, especially since they have nothing to do with Charlton Heston.  But I'm not at all surprised that this film won because in years when there are a lot of good films to choose from, the Academy almost always picks the long epic (see 1939).  And, much as I hate to admit it, this film definitely deserved to win.  If I could get over my dislike of the star, I would enjoy it a lot more.

Next film: The Apartment

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

1958: Gigi

Young Gigi is being trained by her grandmother and great-aunt to become a courtesan.  Rich playboy Gaston is bored with the world.  He is also slowly falling in love with Gigi, but it takes him a long time to notice.  Then when he does, he's not sure how to show it.  Gaston's uncle is glad he's not young anymore, as long as it doesn't prevent him from chasing after young women.  They all sing random songs, and everything turns out all right in the end.

I find this film incredibly disturbing, especially since it's disguised as a happy musical.  Maurice Chevalier does a good job, don't get me wrong, but I find it creepy for a film to open with an old guy singing, "Thank heaven for little girls."  Maybe that's just me.  But the fact that Gigi's relatives want to send her off to get her heart broken by a notorious playboy makes me cringe.  Beyond the disturbing storyline, I guess the film's okay.  The performances are good, except Leslie Caron seems a little old to be playing a schoolgirl.  Most of the songs are excellent, or at least have clever lyrics, but if they had to dub Caron's singing, couldn't they at least get someone who sounded a little like her?  The sets and costumes are vibrant, and there are some interesting camera angles.  Still, I think this film was overrated.  I definitely do not think it deserved to win nine Academy Awards.  But maybe the films of 1958 were particularly bad.  I don't know.  This film isn't terrible, but it's not great either.

Next: Ben-Hur