Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Oscar Nominations!

At this year's Academy Awards Hollywood decides to celebrate itself.

That is actually a bit of a redundant statement considering the Academy Awards is in itself a celebration of Hollywood but, what I mean is, this year's nominees are a look back on Hollywood's history.

The two leading nominees at this year's 84th annual Academy Awards are Martin Scorsese's "Hugo", with 11 nominations and the French silent film, "The Artist" with 10 nominations.

Those movies look at the early days of Hollywood. In the case of "Hugo", the film looks back on the career of Georges Melies, an important filmmaker in the early 1900s. "The Artist" takes place in 1927 and is about Hollywood's transition from silent films to "talkies", sound pictures. And how this move affected certain silent movie stars.

When I made my "top ten" list last year (which "The Artist" placed number two on) I made a subtle argument that 2011 was about a yearning for the past. Films like "Hugo", "The Artist" and even Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" (which is up for four Oscar nominations and was at the top of my "top ten" list) prove this point. But socially there is also a desire to go back in time. Politically look at the "tea party" movement. They repeatedly say they want their country back. Some liberal commentators believe there is a racial component to these comments but, I think what they mean is, they want to go back to a time when America had a balanced budget, when this country had a surplus. Unfortunately, for the "tea party", a Democrat (Bill Clinton) was in office the last time that happened.

But when you add these things up they all lead to a hope that we can go back in time. Almost all nine of the "Best Picture" nominees take place in the past. Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" takes place during WW1, Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" even goes back to the big bang theory, and "The Help" takes place in the 1960s.

Of the nine nominees, I have seen seven of them. The two I haven't seen are "Moneyball" and "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" (which only recently opened in Chicago). Of the seven I have seen, I only really disliked "War Horse" and "The Help". Three of the nominees even made my "top ten" list; "The Artist", "The Descendants" and "Midnight in Paris".

With every year there are surprise nominations and surprise snubs. This year they include "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" which most film critics did not like. Ben Kingsley wasn't nominated for "Hugo" A real shame! "Cars 2" wasn't nominated in the "Animated Feature Film" category. Neither was Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tin-tin". Two big mistakes. A lot of people are unhappy Michael Fassbinder wasn't nominated for "Shame" or that the film or its director, Steve McQueen, wasn't nominated (I am not among those, as I really didn't like that movie). Personally I can't figure out why Melissa McCarthy was nominated for "Bridesmaids", which wasn't a bad movie, just incredibly over-hyped in my opinion.

Overall I'm not upset about this year's nominations. I might even watch the show this year, which is being hosted by Billy Crystal. Something I haven't done in a decade. The Oscar telecast will air February 26 on ABC.

For a full list of this year's nominees click here:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Film Review: The Cheat

"The Cheat" *** (out of ****)

It has always bothered me that I have never reviewed a movie directed by Cecil B. DeMille. I may have name dropped him a couple of times but never devoted myself to writing about his work. Those that read my reviews should be aware I have a great appreciation for not only classic Hollywood films but silent cinema as well. I grew up watching these movies. That is what makes it so strange that this is the first time DeMille's work will be written about.

However, I want to point out don't take it upon yourself to interpret my lack of DeMille film reviews as a way of my saying, in a subtle way, I don't like him or his films. Nonsense! His omission here was purely accidental.

To today's film goers and fans of film history DeMille can be seen, at times, as a larger than life presence. A showman. A director who made big, splashy, expensive films which showed a lot of sex and disguised it behind a biblical setting. That is and isn't true. Some also feel DeMille really wasn't a great filmmaker. That he didn't advance the medium in any artistic way compared to D.W. Griffith for example. That's not fair in my opinion. DeMille is just as important to the early history of cinema as Griffith. Movie fans should expose themselves to the work of both of these men. Their films deserve to be seen. No serious movie buff should go without watching one of their movies.

Watching "The Cheat" (1915) DeMille in fact seems to be in Griffith territory. The film could be read as a moral chamber piece with religious undertones.

Fannie Ward stars as Edith Hardy, a simple-minded socialite. He world revolves around, money, having a good, cocktail parties, dancing, socializing. She has no time for the "real world". No concern about finding a job, doing housework, taking care of a family, or even paying her rent. She has a husband for that, Richard Hardy (Jack Dean). He is a stock broker who is waiting for a big payoff after investing some money into a new company.

Richard has asked Edith to cut back on her spending, at least until his investment shows a profit. but, Edith will not hear of this. How can a woman of her standing go with spending money on new dresses and socializing? What would people say? They may even begin to think Edith was on a budget. This is simply unacceptable.

Edith is treasurer of a women's fund, where she has been put in charge of the club's $10,000. In a moment of desperation, Edith takes the money and gives it to one of her husband's investor friends to put into a stock of his choosing. The friend does and Edith loses all her money.

In yet another moment of desperation Edith arranges to have her friend, a Burmese Ivory Trader, Haka Arakau (Sessue Hayakawa) loan her the money. In return he seeks a night of lust.

There are so many things going on underneath this film it can be difficult to keep track. Lets start with the Haka character and his relationship to Edith. First, many film historians believe Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" (1919) was the first film to deal with an interracial romance. In that film a white woman (Lillian Gish) falls in love with a Chinese man (played by the non-oriental actor Richard Barthelmess). But, we can see interracial undercurrents here, in a film made four years prior. Of course, this time the Burmese man is a villain. He is heartless, feeding into a nasty stereotype that all foreigners are evil and should not be trusted with white women.

But, we should acknowledge one thing. At least this time around a Japanese actor is playing the part. It was not common during this time period to actually have Asian actors playing Asian characters along side white people, especially when kissing scenes were involved. Mixing of the races was forbidden after all.

As I watched "The Cheat" a thought occurred to me. The negative treatment of female characters in cinema. Think about it. Yes, Haka is the villain, but, Edith doesn't have clean hands either. The actor falls into female cliches about woman who are greedy, gold diggers, tramps, untrustworthy and easily susceptible to temptation. These ideas all really go back to the Bible and the story of Adam and Eve, where Eve was the one to first eat an apple from a forbidden tree, because the devil was able to easily tempt her. And then she tempts Adam.

In the 1940s movies started to have femme fatale characters. Cold-hearted female characters who lured men into acts of crime and murder. In both cases they stem from Eve.

"The Cheat" shows a woman who has a love of money. And anyone who has read the bible can tell you, the love of money is the root of all evil.

One scene in this film has Haka brand Edith with an iron. Haka brands everything in a sign of it being his property. But once he brands Edith she now, literally, becomes a "marked woman". A woman of ill-repute. That is another message of the film. Yield yourself from temptation. Women though, according to the film, have a tougher struggle then men.

While such messages and themes may turn off modern audiences I must say the film is somewhat entertaining. We must remember the context in which this movie was made. It was 1915 after all. A different society. Different morals. We don't have to accept these ideas today but we cannot divorce the film from its time. It is a reflection of the era.

Viewed in that context "The Cheat" works. The performances do what they are suppose to do. The film actually feels a bit more "modern" than 1915. I was surprised to find out the year of release. It feels at least like a 1920s picture. The acting is decent and the story moves along nicely at a decent pace. The moral preaching isn't really pushy. It gently weaves itself into the story.

Technically speaking there really wasn't anything which truly dazzled me. There are some scenes, dealing with Haka, which have nice lighting. And some shadow scenes are interesting. The cinematography didn't impress me the same way it does in a Griffith film. Thinking back, I don't recall many close-ups or fade in or outs.

When I think of Cecil B. DeMille I don't associate him with these morality plays. He did make religious epics during the silent era such as "The Ten Commandments" (1923) and "King of Kings" (1927) but then again he did make "The Godless Girl" (1929) about an atheist cult. He was also known for historical epics; a "talky" remake of "The Ten Commandments" (1956, his final film), "Samson & Delilah" (1949), "Cleopatra" (1934) and "Sign of the Cross" (1932) and he even managed to make one film which won the "Best Picture" Oscar, his circus themed "The Greatest Show On Earth" (1952), cited by some as the "weakest" "Best Picture" Oscar winner of all time.

Any of those would be worth watching if interested in DeMille's work. I promise to write more about him in the future.