Sunday, June 30, 2013

Family Pictures: A Study in Plaid

About two weeks ago, I posted a photo tribute to my mom on the second anniversary of her death. If you're too lazy to scroll down the page, haha, you can read the post here. The last picture I included in that post, from 1970, featured my mom in a pretty rad plaid coat. Here it is:

Later, I went through my own childhood photo albums, trying to see if I had a picture of my mother holding me as a baby (sadly, I do not). But I stumbled across this gem:

I'm pretty sure I'm somewhere between 2 and 3 in this photo, so this is circa 1977-78. Note how I'm wearing a plaid coat not unlike my mom's in the first picture, complete with faux-fur collar. However, I also got a matching faux-fur hat. Take that, Mom!

In all seriousness, I love this photo. I love this coat and its little matching hat. I love that my mom, for some reason, always posed us in front of this closet door to take photos. I have countless photos of my brothers and I posed in front of this closet door, haha. Why? Who knows!

If only I had a picture of me and Mom wearing our plaid coats together. :)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Best Picture: "Gigi," 1958

Movie Stats:
Released 1958 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Vincente Minnelli (He also directed An American in Paris. And he's Liza's dad.)
Stars – Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan, Hermione Gingold

Plot Summary:
Rich playboy Gaston Lachaille (Jourdan) is thoroughly bored with his conventional Parisian life in the early 20th century. The only thing that brightens it is his platonic friendship with Gigi (Caron), a young, reluctant courtesan-in-training. When Gaston realizes his true feelings for Gigi, will convention win out, or will he buck it to keep their relationship pure? Chevalier co-stars as Gaston’s playboy uncle, Honore Lachaille, and Gingold as Gigi’s grandmother, Madame Alvarez.

Bad Stuff:
When a movie starts off with an old guy singing “Thank heaven for little girls,” that’s a certain level of “squick” factor that I personally find difficult to overcome. I thought it was going to be all downhill from there, so imagine my surprise when the film actually turned out a few good moments.

This movie deals with a delicate topic: rich guys paying well-trained women to be their companions & sleep with them (but not marry them). Since this was filmed in the 1950s, however, they spent most of the movie alluding to this vaguely and with euphemisms. I think that modern viewers, who are used to things being explained more directly, might find that a little confusing.

Good Stuff:
The costumes were fabulous.

Jourdan turned out a fine performance. Everyone else was okay, but they weren’t given much to work with. His character was really the only one with any nuance.

There were some genuinely funny moments. I particularly enjoyed the “I remember it well” song. I also liked how it poked fun at the whole courtesan culture, although I’m a little perplexed by that topic of choice for a 1950s film.

The Verdict:
There’s not a whole lot to say other than “meh.” There just isn’t much to this film. There’s no point to it. There’s no lesson. At its heart, it’s merely a love story, and not even an especially compelling one at that (although Caron & Jourdan had good chemistry). In the end, I didn’t hate it, but I would never recommend that anyone watch it either.

I give this lackluster affair 2.5 stars.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Family Pictures: Mom

Today is the second anniversary of my mother’s death. If you’re unfamiliar with the story behind her sudden passing, you can read more about it here, if you’re so inclined.

As I mentioned in the post linked above, Mom and I didn’t have the closest of the relationships once I reached adulthood. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t miss her. I think about her all the time.

I think about her every time I’m in the car. Mom had a liberal policy about using her brakes. She used them early and she used them often, haha. If she was in the car with me when I was driving, she would make this sharp gasping noise whenever I didn’t hit the brakes as early as she might have. I still imagine her making that noise every time I drive.

Roses make me think of her. So do lighthouses. So too do haunted hotels and other “weird facts” of Americana. Also, country music. I’m glad that I knew her well enough to know what she loved, so that these reminders are there all the time.

For this anniversary of her death, I decided to do a little photo journal of her early years:

I'm guessing she's maybe around 1 here at most.
At first I thought she was holding a stick of butter.
Then I realized that it's a Kodak film box.
The back says Mar. 12, 1953, 5 yrs. old

Mom (left) with her cousin Ruth Ann, in early
1959, so she was 11.

Her high school graduation photo. 1966.

Her wedding day in 1968. Someone in the family
made her dress, but I can no longer remember who.

Holding my brother Mike, with her dad and (I believe)
my paternal great-grandmother. 1969.

Finally, I love the picture below for two reasons: 1. Mom’s awesome plaid coat and 2. The fact that my “Uncle” Bill looks like Drew Carey. From left to right, this is who’s pictured: Great Aunt Vi (maternal grandma’s sister); Dad; Mom; “Aunt” Marlys (my mom had a thing with making us call her cousins “aunt” or “uncle”), Bill’s wife; “Uncle” Bill (Vi’s son, Mom’s cousin); and Grandpa F. (Mom’s dad), holding my oldest brother Mike. This pic is from 1970.

Seriously, doesn't it look like Drew Carey photobombed my
family photo?

I’m feeling pretty okay on this anniversary. After she died, I read this really great book that compared the pattern of grief to waves crashing on a shore, rather than to steps or stages. I’ve found this to be true to my experience. Sometimes the sadness is almost overwhelming. Last Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday) was difficult for me because it fell on what would have been her sixty-fifth birthday. Other times, most times, I feel completely fine. Ultimately, while I can say that there were bad times between us, there were good times too.

I'm glad that I have the good times to remember.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Best Picture: "The Bridge on the River Kwai," 1957

Movie Stats:
Released 1957 (UK a couple months before USA)
American & British, in English (some non-translated Japanese & Thai)
Director – David Lean
Actors – William Holden, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa

Plot Summary:
When British Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) clashes wills with the man running his POW camp during WWII, Colonel Saito (Hayakawa), he eventually wins out. However, once he and his men begin the task they’ve been assigned – building a bridge across the River Kwai in Thailand – it soon becomes clear that, rather than subtly working against the Japanese, Nicholson is determined to build the best damn bridge that a British regiment can build. In the meantime, American Commander Shears (Holden), who previously escaped the POW camp, returns with a small force to blow up the bridge.

Bad Stuff:
I spent a large portion of the movie feeling confused. Am I supposed to admire Nicholson? I thought. He kind of seems like an asshole. Seriously, while I understood his motivation in the beginning, I felt that he was being headstrong and foolish, risking lives for principles. I actually felt sorry for Saito. I thought, Damn, the guy just wants to get his bridge built so he doesn’t have to kill himself.

As the movie went on, and Saito caved to Nicholson’s will, essentially letting him take over operations, it became increasingly clear that I was feeling was what I was supposed to be feeling. Nicholson is not the hero of this story. But I sort of wish that had been clearer from the start.

From what I read online, the book, and subsequently this movie, is based on real-life events. However, the real man on whom Nicholson is based did not collaborate with the Japanese. Apparently, he and the men who survived the actual camp were deeply offended by how he was portrayed. I think it’s reprehensible to slander a hero like that (fortunately, his name was changed for the book & movie) and it makes me like the movie less.

Good Stuff:
Really, really great performances all around from everybody. All of the major players were great, especially Guinness, but I also want to give a shout-out to Jack Hawkins (as Major Warden) and James Donald (as Major Clipton). I thought both of them gave performances that were vital to the film’s success.

I admire the film’s ability to evoke strong emotions. While I may have felt confused for a long time, I enjoyed the complexity of the Nicholson character. He was one of the “good guys” and yet, in the end, he really wasn’t. I also enjoyed that the Shears character wasn’t all gung-ho, rah-rah, war-is-so-awesome. He wants to get the heck out of there, preferably alive. That’s a guy I can relate to.

While this film came out twelve years after the end of WWII, it still surprised me that, more than once, it showed the Japanese in a sympathetic light. I thought that people were still a little sore about the Japanese at that time (heck, I know people who still hate the Vietnamese, even though the Vietnam War ended 38 years ago). So I liked that the movie showed a little sympathy. I think that took some guts.

The Verdict:
I’ve really struggled with how I want to rate this film. On the one hand, I don’t like the changes they made to the real story. I also felt that it was much longer than was necessary. The petty side of me wants to down rate it simply for the fact of how many times I shouted, “Just blow up the damn bridge already!” at the screen. On the other hand, the performances are really stellar. Also, it evoked strong emotions in me, and I’m not talking about “Oh god, I hate this movie!” emotions.

So I went back and forth, hemming and hawing over a quarter of a star. In the end, I decided to give the movie 4 stars.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Best Picture: "Around the World in Eighty Days," 1956

Movie Stats:
Released 1956 (USA)
American, in English (some Spanish, most of it translated)
Director – Michael Anderson
Stars – David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Newton, plus about a billion famous people in cameos

Plot Summary:
In 1870s England, stuffy rich guy Phileas Fogg (Niven) makes a monetary bet with his stuffy rich friends that he can cross the globe in 80 days. Cantinflas co-stars as Fogg’s manservant Passepartout; MacLaine as Fogg’s love interest, Princess Aouda; and Newton as Inspector Fix, who’s convinced that Fogg committed a daring bank robbery.

Bad Stuff:
At 3+ hours, this is a very long movie. It honestly didn’t feel especially long as a whole – P, it has an intermission! – but certain scenes felt really long. For example, the “bullfighting” scene comes to mind, as does pretty much the whole entire sequence in America.

Most of the movie is go-go-go, except for the ending, which felt really abrupt. The husband, who was only half-watching with me, actually said, “Wait, that was it?” I also felt that resolution of the bank robbery storyline was very unsatisfactory.

The opening sequence, narrated by Edward R. Murrow, was strange and off-putting. I kept thinking I had clicked on the wrong thing, accidentally starting a bonus clip instead of the movie. Not really the best idea to leave viewers confused at the start of your film.

Good Stuff:
The special effects were actually really good. I was expecting a lot of green screening, so imagine my surprise when I instead got a lot of great, scenic shots.

For the most part, the director seems to have used the correct ethnicity actors. Okay, so Shirley MacLaine played an Indian (of the Asian, not Native American, variety) and a Mexican guy played an Arab, but as far as the extras went, there seemed to be Indians playing Indians, Japanese playing Japanese, Spaniards playing Spaniards, etc. I was impressed. You still don’t see a whole lot of that today, let alone back in the 1950s.

It was funny, especially the dialogue.

The Verdict:
You know that “Everything went better than expected” meme? That’s exactly how I feel about this movie. I wasn’t looking forward to it, and once I realized that it’s over three hours long, I thought it was going to be torture. But it actually wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was fairly entertaining.

Having never read the book, I have no idea how true of an adaptation this is. I believe the book was meant to be a fun romp, and that’s certainly what the movie is. There’s no grand message here. You’re meant to sit back and enjoy the ride, which is what I did, for the most part.

If someone were to ask me for a movie recommendation, I can’t say that this would be high on my list, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a chance if you ever come across it.

I give the movie 3.5 stars.

6/11/14 - Upon further reflection, I decided to lower the rating of this movie to 2.5 stars. To find out more about why click HERE.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Best Picture: "Marty," 1955

Movie Stats:
Released 1955 (USA)
American, in English
Director – Delbert Mann
Stars – Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti, Joe Mantell

Plot Summary:
Marty (Borgnine) is a 34-year-old bachelor who’s under a lot of pressure from his family & friends to get married. He’s a nice, successful guy but the problem is that he’s kind of homely. He finds it difficult to meet nice girls. One night, though, while he’s out on the town, he meets the rather plain Clara (Blair). As they stumble toward love, they face opposition from outside forces. Will they make it in the end? Esther Minciotti co-stars as Marty’s mother, Theresa, and Joe Mantell as his best friend, Angie.

Bad Stuff:
This movie is about two “dogs” falling in love, but I don’t think that either Borgnine or Blair were all that bad looking. Not Hollywood beautiful. Plain, perhaps, but not ugly. I know that Hollywood never has liked to feature ugly people as leads. I should probably be grateful that they got two people who were closer to ugly than most “ugly” people in modern cinema.

I’m not in love with Blair’s performance. I thought she was okay.

The ending is really abrupt.

Good Stuff:
Great performances from Borgnine, Minciotti, and Augusta Ciolli, who plays Marty’s aunt, Catherine.

It has a lot of humor, especially when Aunt Catherine is on the screen.

The Verdict:
I love this sweet-tempered, kind-hearted movie. It’s got to be one of the most forgotten Best Picture winners. I’d never even heard of it until a few years ago, when a friend (who’d watched it on a whim) recommended it to me. Although I’d already seen it once, believe me, it was no hardship to watch it again now.

This isn’t a life-changing movie. It’s very simple, uncomplicated, and honest. One of its greatest strengths lies in its ability to get you to immediately empathize with Marty & Clara, and to have you rooting for them as a couple from the get-go. When Marty’s family & friends respond negatively to his interest in Clara, you just want to shake them all and tell them to stop being so selfish. That just shows you what a great job the movie has done, that it can make you feel so protective of its central character.

If you're looking for something uplifting, you'll find it here. I give the movie 4.5 stars.