Thursday, May 30, 2013

Best Picture: "On the Waterfront," 1954

Movie Stats:
Released 1954 (Japan, a month before its U.S. release)
American, in English
Director – Elia Kazan (who also directed Gentleman’s Agreement)
Stars – Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint

Plot Summary:
A story of corruption and murder amongst a dockworker’s union in NYC. Brando stars as conflicted stooge Terry Malloy; Malden as the local priest Father Barry, who’s trying to get the men to do the right thing; Cobb as union boss Johnny Friendly; and Saint as Edie Doyle, a woman trying to solve the murder of her brother Joey, who was silenced for trying to speak out against union corruption.

Bad Stuff:
If you’re a regular reader of my reviews, then you’ll know I’m a little sensitive to how “romance” is treated in movies. There’s a forcible kiss in this one, which, ugh, come on.

Towards the end, Edie says some stuff that’s inconsistent with her character. I was a little unclear on whether it was intentional, to show how the events of the movie and her budding love for Terry have changed her, or whether it was bad writing. If it’s the former, it’s brilliant. If it's the latter, then it bothers me. I’m going to go with intentional(?).

During the big fight scene at the end, it’s laughably obvious that it’s not Brando fighting.

Good Stuff:
Honestly, there isn’t much to dislike here. Consider the above to be minor nitpicks. The writing, especially the dialogue, is generally fantastic. So is the directing. The story is both interesting & engaging. I thought the ending scene was superb. Hands down, though, the best thing about this movie is the acting. There are a lot of great performances. I enjoyed Brando, of course. This was the kind of performance that made him famous. Even better, in my opinion, was Malden. I was very disappointed to discover that he didn’t earn an Oscar for this role.

My two favorite scenes:
Terry and Edie walking through the park together. Edie drops her glove. Terry picks it up, brushes it off, and then begins to play with it, eventually putting it on. I think this scene is incredibly sweet and subtly gives viewers a glimpse into the true heart of Terry.

Terry and his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) in the cab. Charley has betrayed Terry. The look on Terry’s face as he says, “Oh, Charley. Oh, Charley.” Man, that’s a punch to the gut. The lines that follow are the most famous lines of the movie.

The Verdict:
I’ve seen only two of the 1950s winners before. This is one of them. However, I hadn’t seen it in about 17 years or so. I was genuinely worried that it wasn’t going to stand the test of time, that I wouldn’t like it this time around. I’m so glad that my worries were unfounded.

This is one of those “it’s a classic for a reason” movies. It’s simply a phenomenal piece of filmmaking. You should definitely see it.

I give this movie 4.75 stars.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Best Picture: "From Here to Eternity," 1953

Movie Stats:
Released USA (1953)
American, in English
Director – Fred Zinnemann
Stars – Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed

Plot Summary:
Set in Pearl Harbor during 1941, Private Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt (Clift) has recently been transferred to a new unit, where his new captain (Philip Ober), aware of his talent, wants him to fight on the boxing team. When Prew refuses for personal reasons, he’s subjected to cruel treatment. In the meantime, Prew’s sergeant, Milton Warden (Lancaster), is falling in love with the captain’s wife, Karen Holmes (Kerr). Sinatra costars as Prew’s buddy Private Angelo Maggio & Reed as Prew’s love interest, Alma “Lorene” Burke.

Bad Stuff:
Are we back in the 1930s? This was an awful lot of melodrama. Like, laugh-out-loud-at-serious-moments melodrama.

Both of the female love interests were pretty useless. [SPOILERS, I GUESS] Karen was fairly unlikeable, despite her melodramatic backstory. Why insist that Milton had to be an officer – something he didn’t want to be – before she would leave her loveless marriage to marry him? Sounds like a gold digger to me. And Alma treated Prew the same way – he wasn’t good enough for her until he was dead. Disgusting. Honestly, the men came across as overly emotional and dramatic while the women were cold-hearted and calculating (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

It was really weird to see Ernest Borgnine playing a mean guy, Sergeant “Fatso” Judson.

Good Stuff:
There was some great acting, especially from Clift. His performance reminded me a lot of James Dean's in "Rebel Without a Cause," only way more toned down and more nuanced. Sinatra was good too, very likable and charming. I also really liked Lancaster. Not sure if I’ve ever seen him in anything else.

The special effects were surprisingly good during the attack scene. I believe I saw some real post-attack footage spliced in there as well, which was kind of cool.

I enjoyed the way the film explored the friendships between the men. Hadn’t seen that in one of these Oscar winners for a while.

The Verdict:
It wasn’t so bad. Better than I had expected, at any rate. The romance piece of it was pretty meh. I think the film would have been better without either woman. However, since the iconic scene from the movie is of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster rolling around in the surf, I suppose that wouldn’t work. It tackled some fairly heavy themes, which I liked. I also enjoyed that the male characters showed some vulnerability. All in all though, it was kind of a mixed bag. So what to rate a movie that I didn’t hate but didn’t really love either? I’ll tell you.

I give this movie 3 stars.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Family Photos: Grandpa as a Boy

When I was going through my old family photos, this one quickly became one of my favorites:

I'm pretty sure that my maternal grandfather is the boy in the light-colored shirt, sitting on his friends' shoulders.

I never really got the chance to know my grandpa. He died when I was around two years old. I have two of his old high school yearbooks, and they indicate that my grandpa was a quiet and watchful youth. As an adult, he became a police officer, and later a security guard. Many who knew him during his security guard days would later describe him to me as friendly and likable. My mother adored him. My father once told me that he was terrified of him. While my father never was a reliable source of information, I believed him.

My grandpa was also a carpenter who made beautiful things and a photographer who produced hundreds of slides. When we were kids, we were always desperate to see a fabled slide that Grandpa had (for some unknown reason) produced of a dead body. Of course, my mother never let us look at it. While I'm now in possession of all of his slides, I've yet to search through them at all, let alone to look for that one. It seems that, now that I'm an adult, I have little desire to see dead bodies. (Note: most of the slides are of far more innocuous things, such as flowers and places where he went on vacation.)

Anyway, I often wonder, who was my maternal grandfather? The sad truth is that I'll never know for sure. Like most of us, I suspect that he was many things. A police officer and a photographer; a security guard and a carpenter; a father who loved his daughter, but disliked the man who wasn't good enough for her. I'm sure different people saw different aspects of his personality. Although I never got to know him, I feel lucky to have these pictures and scrapbooks, a small part of his life.

I like him like this: a boy, looking triumphant and a little defiant, sitting on the shoulders of his friends.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Best Picture: "The Greatest Show on Earth," 1952

Movie Stats:
Released 1952 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Cecil B. DeMille
Stars – Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, and James Stewart

Plot Summary:
It’s about the circus.

Bad Stuff:
Once more, let’s get this straight: forcibly grabbing a woman (especially one who’s a stranger to you), telling her “when you say ‘no,’ you really mean ‘yes’” (yes, Sebastian [Wilde] really did say that to Holly [Hutton]), and kissing her against her will is NOT romantic. This will not induce a woman to fall in love with you, despite what the movies tell you.

The blue screening/special effects are terrible and thus distracting.

Most of all: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Good Stuff:
The costumes are fantastic.

I liked Stewart’s story line. It went in a direction I wasn’t anticipating at the beginning of the film. And his acting was great, as always.

The Verdict:
Man, this movie was awful. The story is cliché. The acting is almost universally terrible (Hutton is the worst of the worst). The characters have no dimension. The dialogue – oh my GOD just shoot me. An actual line for the movie: “Of course I feel sorry for you, you’re stuck with a blonde for the rest of your life!” Ugh. Betty Hutton’s breathy little girl voice made me want to stab myself in the ears. The endless circus crowd reaction shots – do I really need to see multiple scenes of people with ice cream smeared all over their faces? Really? And this movie is soooooo long and boring.

Seriously, it’s so bad that by the end I was rooting for one of the lions to escape & maul somebody. I didn’t care who, just somebody, anybody. Alas, it didn’t go there. At least my friend P should be happy. A movie has finally joined The Great Ziegfeld at the bottom of the barrel.

I give this atrocious movie 1 star.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Best Picture: "An American in Paris," 1951

Movie Stats:
Released 1951 (UK; premiered there a few months before its American premiere)
American, in English (significant non-translated French & German, although you can still tell what’s happening in the scene without knowing either language)
Director – Vincente Minnelli
Stars – Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guetary, and Nina Foch

Plot Summary:
Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) is an American artist trying to get by in Paris. He’s good friends with an equally struggling concert pianist by the name of Adam Cook (Levant), who happens to be good friends with a French singer named Henri Baurel (Guetary). Through a convoluted series of circumstances, Jerry and Henri fall in love with the same woman, Lise Bouvier (Caron). Nina Foch also stars as Jerry’s patron Milo Roberts, who is deep in unrequited love with him.

Bad Stuff:
The “love” here is really kind of gross. Jerry becomes obsessed with Lise from the first moment he sees her. He grabs her and forces her to dance with him. (Back in my club-going days, I had guys try to do this to me. It is neither cool nor romantic.) He gets her phone number through trickery and continues to pester her, even though she tells him to leave her alone, until she breaks down and agrees to a date. That’s called stalking not romance. On the other hand, Lise knows Henri because he sheltered her during the war when she was a girl. He fell in love with the young girl he was charged with protecting and she feels like she “owes him.” ICK.

Also, if a guy started dancing around and singing “It’s very clear, our love is here to stay” to me on our first date, I would run as fast and as far as I could in the opposite direction.

The dance sequence at the end was interminable. I have a feeling that it’s what wowed moviegoers at the time, but I thought it was overblown and weird. The movie ends right after this sequence and I literally said, “Oh thank GOD” out loud.

It’s in color. I know they probably shot in color so we could see all the gorgeous dance costumes, but color film wasn’t very forgiving back then. It’s obvious from the first scene how much make-up Gene Kelly is wearing. I found that distracting. It’s difficult not to sit there sniggering when the male lead is wearing more rouge in a scene than the female lead.

Good Stuff:
Watching Gene Kelly sing and dance is always a pleasure. Also, Georges Guetary was very easy on the eyes.

The dance costumes are fantastic.

I really liked Oscar Levant. He’s absolutely hilarious in the scene where Adam discovers that his two friends are in love with the same woman. Unfortunately, his character is underutilized. Absolutely nothing happens to him. He’s there only to eek out a few laughs from the audience, which is unfortunate.

The Verdict:
I’m not opposed to fluffy movies in general. However, there was something really off about this one. The longer I watched it, the lower it went in my estimation. There is absolutely no character development whatsoever. There is no real plot. Kelly and Caron have no chemistry together. Their “love” was completely unbelievable because they really had very little screen time together, except for in scenes where they walk around, telling the audience that they’re in love with each other. Why? They barely know anything about each other. And as much as I loved Levant, why was his character even there? There’s no point to him.

By the end of the movie, I had a really hard time imagining how it won the Best Picture Oscar. I said to myself, “This can’t possibly have been the best movie of 1951.” Then I saw that it beat out “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Now I know the Oscar voters were smoking crack.

I give this movie 2 stars.