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Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Great Expectations (1946)

Great_expectationsDirected by David Lean

I read Great Expectations, the Dickens novel this movie was based on, when I was fifteen. I had to read it for my English class. And guess what? I hated the book. However, I was blown away by the opening scene of this movie when my teacher showed it to us during class. It was so moody and so perfect. It was proof to me that they could make a good movie from a not-so-great book.*

So what’s the story? Young Philip Pirrip, called Pip,  lives an uneventful life with his sister and her blacksmith husband, Joe, until one day when they hear that a convict has escaped from a nearby convict ship. Pip meets the convict in the graveyard and feeds him until the convict is recaptured. A year later, Pip’s  interesting life continues when he is asked to come to the home of the mysterious Miss Havisham, a recluse living in a great house. There he meets the beautiful, yet horrible, Estella, with whom he immediately falls in love even though she treats him so terribly. He continues to visit Miss Havisham and Estella until one day he is informed that someone has set up an annuity for him so he can live like a gentleman in London. Who is his mysterious benefactor? What is Miss Havisham’s secret? Why is Estella such a brat?

The Good: Great Expectations is a movie filled with light and shadow, both figuratively and literally. The cinematographer, Guy Green, did a remarkable job painting the book’s theme of the impossibility of judging good from bad simply from appearances with his choices of when to use bright lights and when to use darkness and shadow. Miss Havisham’s house is dark and brooding, rather  like the lady herself.

Screenshot_20181102-092323_FilmStruck

I couldn’t find an example of the chase scene online, so I took a screenshot while watching Great Expectations on my phone. I heartily apologize to the copyright owner if this is a violation, but I did it in admiration and I’m not making any money from this blog. 

 

Pip’s rooms in London are generally filled with the careless light of a young man finding himself wealthy for the first time in his life, yet when a menacing figure comes into the room, it is suddenly filled with shadow. The best part, though, is when Pip, Joe, and the policemen are chasing the convict over the marshes. The men are shadows against a slightly lighter background. No words are spoken; it’s a pantomime of shadows set to music. I honestly don’t remember if I saw the whole movie in my English class, but I remembered that particular scene for twenty years.

miss-havisham-estella-and-pip-16jd1x9

Estella, Miss Havisham, and Pip in the ruined mansion.

The movie is so well cast. The actors not only do an amazing job in their respective roles, but they also have really good chemistry together. Even the actors in small parts are great. Tony Wager shines as young Pip. John Mills is excellent as Pip in his later years, even though he looks waaaay too old to be a young man just starting out in London. Alec Guinness has the enthusiasm and carelessness needed for the character of Herbert Pocket, while Francis L. Sullivan plays the solicitor Mr. Jaggers to world-weary perfection. Bernard Miles is sweetly humble as Joe, and Martita Hunt is fabulous as the cold, haughty Miss Havisham. Finlay Currie brings a goodness to the role of Magwich the convict while still retaining his rough edges. I just realized that I basically listed the entire cast, so that just goes to show how brilliantly the movie was cast.      

Historical costuming is often a challenge. Many, many costume designers feel the need to bring the clothes “up to date” by using contemporary hairstyles or completely decide to ignore the time period altogether and put the characters in whatever they think looks good. The designer here managed to resist the temptation; the clothes are both period- and class-appropriate.  

The screenplay is a good adaptation of Dickens. Some Dickens adaptations I have seen are much too sunny when compared to his books (I’m looking at YOU, “Oliver!”[1968]). Others have been so bleak. But Dickens himself was a master of of striking the balance of showing the bleakness of his times while celebrating the wonderful things and odd characters in life. The writers of this adaptation of Great Expectations did an excellent job finding their own balance.

Bad: Besides John Mills looking too old to play Pip as a young gentleman, it is never explained why Pip has a high class accent when he was raised by a blacksmith. It’s such a tiny thing, but it bothered me throughout the movie.

The Ugly: I waited in vain for an explanation of why Pip loved Estella. She was always, always mean to him and to everyone else. She was pretty, but there was literally no other reason for Pip to love her beyond her beauty. I don’t think it’s completely the movie’s fault; Dickens didn’t explain it, either. But I would really love to see any glimmer of a reason for a good soul like Pip to spend his life wanting a thoroughly unpleasant person. (Although I did just realize that maybe he thinks that is how men should be treated based on how he sees his sister treat Joe. Still, I want a better reason.)

Oscars Won: Best cinematography, black-and-white; best art direction-set decoration, black-and-white.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay.

*(Don’t worry, though. I reread Great Expectations ten years later, and realized that it’s actually an enjoyable book when a) you’re reading it for pleasure rather than because you are forced to, and b) when you have enough life experience to be able to relate to it.)

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

downloadDirected by Henry Koster

Happy Christmas Eve! I decided that there is no better way to celebrate Christmas Eve than in reviewing an Oscar-nominated movie that ends on Christmas Eve.

The Bishop’s Wife is a Christmas classic that I did not grow up watching, which is actually kind of strange, come to think of it; we watched so many in my family when I was growing up. Anyway, I saw it for the first time a few years ago, and I thought it was kind of creepy. Yes, it has some familiar Christmas movie elements – someone who has forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, an angel sent to help, a moment with a lovely carol – but in a normal Christmas movie, the angel is not trying to seduce the wife of the man he’s sent to help.

So what’s the story? Episcopal bishop Henry Brougham has decided that his purpose in life is to glorify God by building a huge cathedral, but he can’t raise the money. In his obsession to build the cathedral, he has started to neglect his family, his parishioners, and his relationship with God. One night, desperate to get the money for his cathedral, Henry prays for help. Help comes in the form of angel Dudley, but it’s not the kind of help that Henry was expecting.

The Good: Most of the cast are excellent. David Niven makes a fabulously stuffy bishop. Loretta Young does a wonderful job as Julia, the distressed wife who can’t seem to get her husband to see past his plans for his cathedral. James Gleason is delightful as always in his role of Sylvester, the comedic taxi driver. Monty Woolley plays atheist Professor Wutheridge with charm and sympathy. Gladys Cooper in her role of Mrs. Hamilton is the epitome of the wealthy society dame who always gets her way in the end. There is good chemistry among the cast; they just work well together as a team.

Other film elements work together well, also. The music is just right, jolly and Christmassy at times, dramatic and sad when needed. There are some fun editing tricks that showcase Dudley’s angelic powers. The design of the bishop’s house (the rectory? I’m not sure of the right term) – nice, but old-fashioned – contrasts perfectly with Mrs. Hamilton’s fashionable mansion and Professor Wutheridge’s tiny apartment in a poorer part of town. 

The Bad: Whoever decided to cast Cary Grant as an angel had a lapse of judgment. Don’t get me wrong; I love Cary Grant, but this role just doesn’t fit him. His calm angel’s demeanor comes off as smarmy half the time. The “angel knows best” attitude doesn’t work with him. Grant seems supercilious rather than sympathetic.

The Ugly: The story and screenplay make me so uncomfortable. I have no problem with an angel coming to help someone remember what’s truly important in life, but an angel should not make a woman fall in love with him in order to make her husband feel like he has to literally fight for her in order to keep her. It’s underhanded and gross and a little misogynistic. Dudley uses his powers to keep a woman’s husband away so that Dudley can take her on a date? Creepy! The fact that Dudley makes the women around him feel better about life by charming them seems to say that women will be happy as long as they have a little attention from a handsome man. The screenplay is quite funny in places, and the idea of an angel falling for a human woman is fine, but the rest of it is just plain wrong.

Oscar Won: Best sound, recording.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best film editing; best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

miracle on 34th streetDirected by George Seaton

It’s December 1st! For me, today is the day that I can hear Christmas music on the radio without being annoyed by how early it has started. I can justifiably watch Christmas movies, and I can start eating my daily piece of advent calendar chocolate. I’ve decided I’m going to start this Christmas season with a review of a Christmas movie. Have a happy holiday season!
(Also, yes, I am completely aware that this is not the first movie alphabetically. I had some availability issues, so I’m going backwards this month.)

Miracle on 34th Street is a movie that I grew up with. We watched it at least once every Christmas season. I loved it so much as a child that I was angry when it was remade in 1994. I was twelve, and could see no reason why there needed to be another version. The excuse that kids wouldn’t want to watch a black-and-white movie or an old movie made me so mad; I was living proof that kids were, indeed, capable of enjoying things besides the latest movies. Now I’m an adult, and I still don’t see that there was any need for a remake. I absolutely love this movie.

So what’s the story? Macy’s Department Store hires a man to play Santa at the last minute, not realizing that they have hired the real Kris Kringle. Although he is sad by how commercialized Christmas has become, Kris decides he will not only do his best to help everyone have a happy Christmas, but will also help no-nonsense Doris Walker and her young daughter, Susan, believe in Santa again. But when a jealous coworker accuses Kris of insanity, will Kris’s new lawyer friend be able to prove to the court that Kris is actually Santa Claus?

The Good: I would honestly not be surprised if it came out that Edmund Gwenn were truly Santa Claus. His performance as Kris Kringle is fabulous. He’s a jolly, twinkly-eyed man whose only sorrow in life is the unhappiness of others. Each of his scenes is a delight to watch because he truly embodies the spirit of Santa.

The rest of the acting in the movie is good, too. Maureen O’Hara plays Doris Walker perfectly, showing her growth as she changes from a bitter, jaded divorcee to a woman who believes that good things might be possible after all. Precocious seven-year-old Susan Walker is played wonderfully well by Natalie Wood. Besides showcasing these marvelous actresses, Miracle on 34th Street is also the film debut of one of my favorite character actresses: Thelma Ritter, who plays the exhausted, exasperated mother whose little boy wants a special fire truck, the catalyst for Kris’s shocking idea of helping people find what they want for Christmas, no matter where it is for sale. I adore Thelma Ritter in all of her roles, and even though her role is tiny in this movie, I am still happy to see her.

Miracle on 34th Street is a bit of an oddity in that it was released as a book and a movie at the same time. I’m not sure if the screenplay is wholly based on the book, or if the writers worked on both at the same time. I have read the book, and bits of it are word for word the same as the screenplay, but I’m not sure exactly how the dynamics worked. However it worked, though, the screenplay is perfect. The story of how Santa would fare in the modern Christmas season is simple and sweet, but the screenplay elevates the basic story to really make the characters come alive. There’s heart and humor and love without being too sickly sweet; it’s really just delightful.

The Bad: John Payne doesn’t do a bad job of playing Fred Gailey, per se, but Fred is such a flat, bland character that anyone could have played him. There’s just not much for him to work with. It’s a little bit sad that a movie with such dynamic characters has such a boring man for the leading lady to fall in love with.

The Ugly: Like One Hundred Men and a Girl, Miracle on 34th Street is much too sweet of a movie to have anything really ugly in it.

The Major Disappointment: I had always thought that the real Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimbel played themselves. However, I learned this year that they were played by actors. It’s obviously not a huge deal, but it feels like I’ve been lied to my whole life.

A Satisfying Fact: Even though Macy and Gimbel weren’t really themselves, Edmund Gwenn really was Santa Claus for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The film of him being Santa in the parade is real, not staged.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a supporting role (Edmund Gwenn); best writing, original story; best writing, screenplay.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Driving Miss DaisyDirected by Bruce Beresford

It has taken me forever to finally get my thoughts about Driving Miss Daisy written down. It’s partly because my feelings about it are complex, but it’s also because I have a new boyfriend, and while I like to write about movies, there are many things that are more enjoyable that I can do with my boyfriend, so this has been put on the back burner for a bit. Once I get in the rhythm of having a boyfriend again, posts should start appearing with more regularity. So without further ado, I present my thoughts on Driving Miss Daisy:

As is oddly common with so many of these movies from 1989, Driving Miss Daisy is a movie I grew up watching. Again and again and again and again. Yet somehow, I haven’t ever gotten tired of it. In fact, immediately after I finished watching Deliverance and was traumatized by it and wanted to get it out of my head, I turned on Driving Miss Daisy. It calmed me down and got the scary, icky feeling to go away. It reminded me that there is good in this world.

So what’s the story?  After 72-year-old Miss Daisy Worthen crashes yet another car, her son Boolie decides that she needs a chauffeur. Against her wishes, Boolie hires Hoke Colburn for the job. Although Miss Daisy refuses to even acknowledge that Hoke’s existence at first, their relationship slowly becomes one of mutual admiration and friendship, something amazingly unusual between and white woman and a black man in pre-Civil Rights era Georgia.

The Good: Because I have a hard time explaining everything else, I’m going to start with the screenplay. It’s easy. The screenplay is wonderful. The author, Alfred Uhry, adapted his own Pulitzer-prize winning play for the screen. In my opinion, the best way to get a good movie from another medium is to have the author of the original medium write the screenplay. They know why they wrote the play/book/short story and can put that motivation and intention into the screenplay. They are able to take out the less important things and expose the important core more easily than some random screenplay writer. Anyway, back to the screenplay – it’s delightful. The speech patterns and expressions of the American South are fun, and in this case, you get to hear ways of talking from the black people and the white as Hoke and Daisy become close and share so much of their lives.

Here is where I come to the tricky part that I’m not sure how to explain. To show the passage of time in a movie that spans 25 years, everything had to come together perfectly–and everything did. The film elements do double duty; they show things about the characters, like social class and funny characteristics, but they also have to show the passage of time. Instead of making one long paragraph explaining how all the film elements came together to really show that the relationship took time to grow from nothing to tolerance to true friendship, I’ll write about each one separately to highlight how exactly it did its job.  

Acting: Jessica Tandy as Daisy and Morgan Freeman as Hoke both give amazing performances. Daisy, who is described as “too much there,” is intelligence, fierce and iron-willed, unyielding in her ideas of standards. Tandy shows how Daisy softens as she ages, realizing in her old age that maybe some of her ideals weren’t so good after all.  Freeman plays Hoke as a man who is too proud to take money for nothing, a man who knows his own worth but isn’t pushy about it. I love the habit that Hoke has of working his mouth in a certain way; it’s something I’ve always respected about Freeman’s performance. As he ages, Hoke realizes that he and Daisy are on a much more equal footing, and he acts accordingly. Dan Akroyd is excellent as Daisy’s only child, the long-suffering Boolie. Although he respects his mother, he is often impatient with her stubborn ways. He mellows, though, especially toward the end when he realizes that he misses his mother’s funny ways. Boolie’s wife, Florine, is played by Patti LuPone. Florine tries hard to be kind to her impossible mother-in-law at the start of the movie, but eventually realizes that no matter what how hard she tries, Daisy is never going to accept her. Florine remains high-strung her entire life; some people just don’t change. LuPone shows this to perfection.

Set Decoration: As happens in life, the things surrounding the characters change. Since the movie is about driving, the cars are an obvious example of this. The car that Miss Daisy crashes, the catalyst for the events of the movie, is a brand-new 1948 Hudson. Her car is replaced by another exactly the same, but whenever Boolie decides it’s time for his mother to have a new car, every five years or so, the styles change. The car from the fifties is longer and sleeker than the 1948 Hudson, and the cars continue to get more aerodynamic as time goes on. The photography occasionally highlights the registration tag, which changes year to year as does the registration on cars in real life. Daisy often calls Boolie, and since Boolie’s wife, Florine, is fashion-forward, her telephones are, too. They have a standard black dial phone in the 1940s, but the phone Boolie uses in the 1970s is harvest gold. It’s a teeny detail, but it’s evidence of how hard the crew worked to make everything perfectly fit the time. Boolie’s factory is another place where we can see the passage of time. At the beginning, it’s full of factory workers manually running the machines. By the end, the factory has many more machines with fewer people; these people are keeping an eye on the machines rather than physically running them. Even the songs used keep the passage of time in mind. The songs are always accurate for the year. Daisy sings songs that were written before the turn of the century, ones that a woman of her age would have learned as a child. When Florine throws her <GASP> Christmas party, one of her records is “Santa Baby.” Boolie is looking skeptically at it, as it’s the first year it came out. I suppose the music isn’t usually set decoration, but in this case, where it’s used to set the year and not just the feeling of a scene, I think it fits.

Makeup/Hair: Every single makeup artist who needs to age people for a movie needs to take note of the artistry of Driving Miss Daisy. Growing up watching  this movie may be why I am so impatient of poorly-done aging. (I’m looking at you, Giant!). All of the actors get more wrinkly as the age, even Miss Daisy, who is so old to begin with. She becomes skinnier the way that some old people do as they age. Boolie gets chubbier and balder with the passage of time. Hoke looked like an old man to begin with, but the makeup (along with Freeman’s old man walk) manages to age him, too, with the wrinkles on his forehead becoming deeper and more pronounced. His hair  slowly goes from grey to white. Flourine gets some wrinkles, but she also looks incredibly preserved, leading the viewer to wonder if maybe Florine got some work done. Her hairstyles change with the times perfectly. (Also, her makeup is so well-done that I didn’t even recognize Patti LuPone, even after I realized that she was in the movie.)  Near the end of the movie, Hoke’s granddaughter drops him off at the Worthen home. She has an Afro. Again, a tiny little detail is snuck into the movie to show how much time has passed and how the world has changed.

Costumes: The costuming was so crucial for this movie. If the clothes hadn’t been right, no one would have believed that 25 years had passed throughout the movie. Daisy’s clothes don’t change much, of course, because she’s an older woman and is happy in the clothes she has. My great-grandmother was the same way; when I was in my 20s, she was wearing the same clothes I remembered from my  childhood. Hoke wears a uniform, so his clothes don’t really change. But Boolie’s clothes – oh, they change. The first time we see him, his suit pants are high-waisted and his tie is very wide. Throughout the movie, the pants’ waists get lower, the ties get skinnier, and the colors of the suits vary as the styles change. He wears a hat at the beginning, but has given up his hats by the end of the movie. He starts wearing glasses as he gets older. While Florine is always wearing year-appropriate fashions, she’s not in the movie nearly as much as Boolie is. I can imagine her picking his clothes for him so that he is always stylish, and I can see him wearing whatever she tells him to because it’s just not  worth the fight.

The Bad: The score itself  isn’t bad; I once had a film teacher say it was “nice,” and you “can tell it’s nice, because it has lots of clarinet in it. Clarinets are nice instruments.” The themes are fun and positive. The thing that bothers me is that it’s always there. It’s like the filmmakers just couldn’t stand the silence. I realize that was how film music worked at the time, but I’m glad that’s not the fashion anymore.

The Ugly: It’s too nice of a movie to have anything ugly in it per se, but there is ugly beneath the surface. I just accepted the story as it was presented in the movie when I was young, but now I feel kind of uncomfortable watching it. There’s almost an undertone of “Isn’t the white lady wonderful because she made friends with a black man?” The only thing that makes me okay with watching the movie is that Alfred Urhy based his play/screenplay on the relationship of his white southern grandmother and her black chauffeur. I guess I would like to see the story from both sides: how did Hoke feel about the relationship? How did the growth of this friendship change or not change his life? Part of me wants to say it was just the South in the 1940s-1970s and to accept what’s there, but the rest of me wants to point out that Hoke has a life outside of being Daisy’s driver, and we don’t get to see any of that. It’s a two-sided story that only gets told from one point of view.  

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Jessica Tandy); best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best makeup.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor in a leading role (Morgan Freeman); best actor in a supporting role (Dan Aykroyd); best art direction-set direction; best costume design; best film editing.