As I mentioned in an earlier entry, I've begun watching all the movies that have won best picture at the Academy Awards. The ones I haven't seen, that is. I also got to see the latest blockbuster.
All Quiet on the Western Frontwon best picture in 1929/30, competing against The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee and The Love Parade.
Based on the book by Erich Maria Remarque, the film follows a group of German volunteers to the World War I front lines.
All Quiet on the Western Front
It's been a long time since I read the book, but many of the scenes felt familiar, and I'm fairly certain it's a faithful adaptation. The film is an ensemble piece, telling the stories of the various soldiers along the way. Near the end, the film focuses on one soldier over the others, in part because so many have already met their fates.
The cinematography is incredible, with well-composed wide shots that give the full impression of the scene at the front, contrasted with claustrophobic shots inside the trenches. The battle scenes are impressive, with dozens of extras and carefully coordinated explosions. Some of the battle scenes are so realistic that it reminded me of the Normandy Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan. The intimate, up-close portrayals of hand-to-hand combat shows just how brutal the fighting was.
There are a few scenes where the acting is over-the-top, such as when one soldier rails about the injustice of his condition, fearing death and wishing he'd never joined up. But such scenery-chewing "Oscar moments" are fortunately rare.
Anybody who has read the book knows it doesn't have a happy ending, and the filmmakers did not shy away from the author's intent, capturing the dreamy spirit of the last scene, marred by tragedy. The moment feels like a poetic inevitability, instead of an overblown ridiculous moment, such as another filmmaker might have done.
As one of the earliest war epics, All Quiet on the Western Front still feels current and deserves its place among Oscar's best.
Rating (out of 5): *****
The following year, the sprawling epic Cimarron won, against the films East Lynne, The Front Page, Skippy and Trader Horn. I had heard of the movie before and assumed it was a western, because it's set in frontier Oklahoma. In fact, it's a story about the settling and growth of Oklahoma, told from the perspective of one family, the Cravats.
This movie is also based on a book, this one by Edna Ferber. But unlike All Quiet on the Western Front, the film doesn't stand on its own. Many years are condensed into this 131-minute film, which is not exactly short. Yet, the film feels disjointed. Title cards indicating the year serve to mark the passage of time, over a shot of the main street of town, which starts out as a little boom town in the 1800s and flourishes by the 1920s into a large city.
At the beginning of each section, the characters must talk in exposition, to inform the viewer what has happened during the gaps, such as births or marriages.
Ultimately, the film feels like a Cliff Notes version of a larger work, and much seems to have been left out. It's tricky to tell a narrative that takes place over such a long period of time. Ironically, another adaptation of an Edna Ferber novel, Giant (1956), tells a similar story (about Texas, the growth of the oil industry and its impact on one family) with greater success. Unlike Cimarron, Giant handled the passage of time gracefully, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks based on information contained in the scene or changes in the dress and appearance of a character.
In much the same way, Gone with the Wind (1939) condensed an epic novel spanning years into a streamlined narrative that touched on all the important moments.
If the plot is weakly spun, the acting also doesn't help. Early in the movie, we meet Yancey Cravat, played by Richard Dix. He's the sort of square-jawed hero who often starred in B westerns. You're supposed to believe he's tough because he talks a certain way, yet in his case, he wasn't convincing. The way he shot his gun from the hip without even looking through it produced no confidence about his abilities. (The gun handling, in general, was dreadful, with one bank robber even gesturing and scratching his head with a gun!)
Yancey is supposed to be something of a superman. Throughout the course of the movie, he proves to be a successful settler, beloved in his community. Then he takes on the role of vigilante, hunting down a gang of killers and ridding the town of a ring of bank robbers. He runs a popular newspaper with the perplexing name of the Oklahoma Wigwam.
Later on, he successfully steps into the role of defense attorney, in order to rescue a fellow citizen from injustice. He spends long years away from his family, exploring the world. And at the end of the movie, he reemerges, only to become a self-sacrificing hero. So Yancey is truly larger-than-life, no doubt supposed to represent all the bravery and good qualities of the settlers.
Yet, he also possesses weaknesses. He never seems to listen to his wife's concerns, and he abandons his family, without contacting them for years. Perhaps in a better actor's hands, with a better script, Yancey might have become a compelling character, but not in this film.
The wife, Sabra Cravat, as played by Irene Dunne, is even more irritating. She isn't even introduced until a quarter of the way through the film, and she is initially very supportive of her husband. Then she becomes his biggest critic, a real naysayer. She vacillates so often that it seems as if she was merely at the whim of the script writers, who had her do and say what they felt was necessary for the plot. She gives voice to the dissent that others in the community might feel.
By the end of the movie, in her husband's absence, she's continued the newspaper's success and been elected to Congress. At a banquet honoring her achievement, the woman who objected vociferously to her son marrying a Native American is, by contrast, proud of her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. While that sort of change happens in life, this movie never shows us what caused her to reconcile her feelings. It just seemed convenient to the plot.
The aging makeup is terrible. It's not initially clear how much the characters are supposed to be aging until the children are replaced with young adults. The extent of the aging makeup seems to have been to add more and more gray hair and then, near the end of the movie, to tell the actors to shuffle.
The best part of the cinematography were the wide shots containing dozens of extras who, combined with matte paintings and probably with the judicious use of cells, show the activity around the boom town.
Cimarronwas the first epic to win an Oscar, and it falls prey to common failings. It concentrated on the largeness of scope, documenting an important subject, over telling a story well. Academy voters are often swayed by such vastness, overlooking the actual craft of the movie. And so Cimarron won.
Rating (out of 5): **
Just because I haven't written in length about it yet, let me say a few words about Iron Man: go see it. One of my friends said that this the best superhero movie since Spider-Man 2. I agree. Considering that I put Spider-Man 2 on my list of 100 top movies, that will give you some indication how much I liked Iron Man.
Robert Downey Jr. is very well cast in the lead role of Tony Stark/Iron Man. He handles with finesse the different facets of this character. While the story stretches believability at times, he makes it work.
It's a little odd to see Gwyneth Paltrow in a subservient role, as Pepper Potts, but she is no milquetoast. She maintains an inner strength that grows throughout the film. Jeff Bridges seems to relish the chance to play bad guy Obadiah Stane, but he wisely portrays him as human, if ego-driven and selfish.
No matter how great the acting, this movie needed some great special effects, and it has them, down to the robots in the workshop who have their own personalities. You will not be disappointed by the display of rocketry and high-powered weaponry.
Speaking as someone who had no familiarity with the character on which this film was based, I had no difficulty getting into the film. I think it's a great summer movie, and you should see it. And then, see it again.
Rating (out of 5): *****
Bigger doesn't mean better.