I'd like to spank the Academy

Posts tagged ‘Adapted from a play’

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.

Stage Door (1937)

ORIGINAL-STAGE-DOOR-MOVIE-POSTERDirected by Gregory LaCava

I feel like the films from 1937 are trying to deceive me. We had a musical that wasn’t a musical (The Awful Truth), a film noir that wasn’t a film noir (Dead End), a historical movie that ended up being set in the present (Captains Courageous). Now with Stage Door, we get a movie that was promoted as a comedy (“The gaiety…glamour…foolishness and fun of showbusiness!”), but which has a too-serious ending.

So What’s the Story? The young women living at the Footlights boarding house all have the same ambition: stardom on the stage. Some are actresses, some dancers, some singers, but they’re all just waiting for that big break. Into this madhouse of laughter and rivalry comes the mysterious Terry Randall, who just doesn’t fit in. She’s too wealthy and too educated to understand these smart-mouthed girls. As she beings to settle in, she begins to see that much more is required for stage work than talent and pluck.

The Good: I have never seen Katharine Hepburn not a good job in a movie, but she is brilliant as Terry Randall. Standoffish and snobby at first, she learns to appreciate what her housemates are going through the longer she’s there. She loves them and sticks up for them. With a lesser actress, Stage Door would not have been the strong movie it is.

Many of the girls living in the boarding house would become famous actresses in later years. Ginger Rogers was already well known, of course. She is fabulous as Jean, Terry’s slightly bitter wise-cracking roommate. Gail Patrick was also famous at the time. She plays Linda, a woman who has decided that accepting advances from a man is better than struggling as an actress. Ann Miller is Annie, an optimistic girl who is Jean’s dance partner in a tap routine. Eve Arden plays Eve, a jaded young woman who wears her cat around her neck like a stole (yes, it sounds silly, but seriously, how did they train that cat?). The name that is perhaps more familiar to people now is that of Lucille Ball. She plays Judy, a girl from Seattle who is more interested in boys than auditions. All of these actresses are so funny; they deliver their quips at a whip-crack pace that somehow manages to seem natural. Each displays a distinct personality even though they all want the same thing.

There is one girl in the boardinghouse who doesn’t join in the fun, but is still sweet and kind. Kay is recognized as a great actress, but she has lost confidence in her abilities because she hasn’t had a part for over a year. Andrea Leeds plays the part with great sensitivity, showing Kay’s determination and desperation as she tries to get the part she was born to play.

Adolphe Menjou is in Stage Door, as well as being One Hundred Men and a Girl. 1937 must have been a busy year for him. However, he is not the sweet father that he played in One Hundred Men and a Girl, but a slimy stage producer who takes advantage of desperate girls who want to be stars. He is really, really good at being gross, unlikable, and debonair. It’s hard to see the kindly father in this smug, wealthy jerk.

The screenplay is quite good. It brings out the personalities and contrasts between each of the characters in a humorous way, but it’s also able to make tragedy personal and realistic. It’s not just a sunny comedic romp through a bustling girls’ boarding house; the screenplay shows the downsides and sadness of show business just as well as it does the humor. There isn’t exactly a happy ending, which makes the movie deeper and truer.

The Bad: With the quips flying quickly from every direction as the girls talk over each other, sometimes the lines get garbled. Everything is so funny that I want to hear everything they say, so it’s a little bit sad that they don’t all come out clearly.

Both Ginger Rogers and Ann Miller are in this movie, and there is no fantastic dance number to show off their skills. It might have been out of place. It may have slowed the movie down. But still. Two great dancers that don’t get a chance to show off their skills? It is a sad waste of talent.

The Ugly: Nope. Stage Door is really a well-done picture.

The Apology: I’m sorry that I kept referring to all the young women as girls. They are (mostly) all adults. I will use the excuse that they are always called “girls” in the movie, and so that’s what is in my head.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a supporting role (Andrea Leeds); best director; best writing, screenplay.

The Good Earth (1937)

good earthDirected by Sidney Franklin

I read the novel The Good Earth for the first time when I was fourteen, which is longer ago than I’d like to admit. Even though I was so young, I felt the love and respect that Pearl S. Buck had for the people and culture of China, along with some of her criticism (which is fair, because no culture is perfect). I was nervous about watching this movie, because I wasn’t sure what Hollywood would do to such a sensitive book about such a different place. Although the filmmakers did make some horrifying decisions (more on that later), The Good Earth is both an excellent movie on its own and an excellent adaptation of the book, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

So what’s the story? Poor farmer Wang Lung marries O-lan, a mistreated slave from a wealthy household. For many years, they work side by side on his small farm, buying more land whenever they can scrape the money together to do so. They stick together through storms, famine, and locusts. When Wang forgets what is truly important in life, O-lan is there to remind him. (This is basically the storyline, but the movie is much more exciting and subtle than this summary makes it sound.)

The Good: Luise Rainer makes an excellent O-lan. O-lan is a very quiet, shy character; she never has much to say. Rainer finds O-lan’s soul and brings out her inner strength for the world to see. Her expressions and body language are incredible; they let the viewer get a glimpse of O-lan’s inner workings.

Paul Muni shows boyish delight as Wang. He takes pride in the beautiful things that are his – his farm, his wife, his children. He loves the land and all it gives him. When the land betrays Wang and later, when he becomes wealthy, Muni is able to show the despair and hubris Wang experiences. Yes, Wang has more to say than O-lan, but he, too, has his inner struggles.

The cinematography is exceptional. Karl Freund, the cinematographer, makes excellent use of light and shadow. The scene where O-lan is having her baby during a thunderstorm with lightning as the only light is incredible. Freund also does wonderful work with wide-angle lenses. The panoramic views of people travelling during the famine adds to the feeling of despair, while the views of the locusts make it seem like the entire world is about to end. It’s amazing.

I know I’m not supposed to compare movies to books, but there are so few good adaptations that I have to mention it when I see it. Yes, some things get left out, but that’s because no one wants to sit through a five hour long movie. The story that is left is rich and full and draws the viewer in. So maybe I’ll excuse my indulgence by saying The Good Earth has an excellent screenplay.

There was no Oscar for special effects in 1937, but if there had been, The Good Earth would have deserved it for the locust scene alone. It was frightening on the 19 inch screen I watched in on in 2017. It must have been terrifying on a big screen in 1937, when people weren’t jaded by the CGI monsters that are so common now.

 The Bad:  Most of the music is very stereotypically Chinese; it uses the “Oriental” chords to evoke the strangeness of China. However, I did like music during the scene where O-lan kills the bull. The sweeping chords and building melody were how heroism was often underscored in the 1930s, and it echoes the O-lan’s heroism in the face of starvation.

The makeup was sketchy. While the makeup artists did a fabulous job using makeup to age the characters, they did not do a great job of making Paul Muni and Luise Rainer look Asian, which leads us to…

The Ugly: Let’s talk about the whitewashing. Yes, Paul Muni and Luise Rainer were wonderful in their parts. I’m not going to blame them for starring in the movie. But I do have a problem with the fact that the prominent roles of Wang, O-lan, Wang’s father, Wang’s uncle, and Wang’s second wife, along with a few less-prominent characters, were not played by people of Chinese descent, or even people from other Asian countries. They were all white. I recognize that the Hollywood of the day would not have even auditioned actual Asians to star in a story about China even though there were plenty of Asians living in California, but it still bothers me. It still happens today in Hollywood, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, because there are lots of very good Asian-American actors to choose from. I would have like to have been able to see The Good Earth with actors of the proper race. Since I can’t, I hope Hollywood will get over itself and let Asians play Asians.

Oscars Won: Best actress in a leading role (Luise Rainer); best cinematography.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best film editing.

Fun Fact: With her Oscar for this role, Luise Rainer became the first person to win Oscars for a leading role back-to-back.

Dead End (1937)

dead endDirected by William Wyler

“There was blood on his hands…and a price on his head!” I knew absolutely nothing about Dead End before I watched it, but this tagline made me pretty sure it was film noir. I was so excited; I love film noir. Turns out Dead End is not film noir, but something better: a look at the life of poverty-stricken people in New York’s Lower East Side.

So what’s the story? Drina is single and poor, struggling to raise her younger brother, Tommy. She has always been in love with Dave, a man who worked hard to put himself through college so he could escape the slums, but who can’t get a job now. Dave is falling for Kay, a young woman living in the fancy new apartment building that backs onto Drina and Dave’s block. Tommy is the leader of a street gang; he’s getting into more and more trouble lately. One day, a mysterious man comes to the block. On that one fateful day, the tensions between rich and poor, wealth and poverty, and law and crime all come to a head.

The Good: The lead actors (Sylvia Sydney as Drina and Joel McCrae as Dave) were amazing. Their performances were so good that I can’t figure out why I wasn’t familiar with their names. They both deserved to have much bigger careers than they did. Humphrey Bogart did a good job as always, as did some of the teens in Tommy’s gang.

The filmmakers used several elements to contrast the realities in the lives of the rich and poor. At the beginning, they use editing to show alternating scenes as both groups get ready for the day. The costumes also show class contrast. Drina has one dress on throughout the day, and although it’s clean and pressed, it’s not fashionable. We see Kay in a couple of dresses: a fashionably simple, blindingly white day dress, and a beautiful evening gown. The gang of teenage boys wear a variety of clothes, many of which are obviously hand-me-downs, while the teen boy who lives in the apartment house wears a tailored suit. Martin wears (and brags about) his expensive clothes, while Dave wears worn shirts and trousers. Those living in the poor neighborhood use more slang than the wealthy apartment dwellers; their grammar is also not always perfect. These things all come together to subtly remind viewers of the contrasting lives.

The musical score in Dead End is perfect for the movie; there isn’t one. Sure, there’s some music over the opening credits, and again at the “The End” placard, but the only other music in the movie is the naturally occurring music throughout the day: the player piano in the bar; the kazoo that one of the boys joyfully plays; the songs people sing; the jazz records of the wealthy. This adds to the realism of the movie.

More than anything else, though, the story and screenplay made me love this movie. Dead End speaks for people who don’t have voices, people who are doing their best but who can’t make it out of poverty. It shows why people get stuck in the poverty cycle. It explores that while all people have dreams, sometimes you can’t have all of your dreams. Fighting for your dreams is important, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll get what you’re fighting for. Doing your best isn’t always good enough. The wealthy are not only privileged in their money, but also with the law. They have connections that can get them what they want. On the other hand, just because they are wealthy doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve the protections of the law. All of this was packed into one movie that takes place in one day. That was extraordinarily well done.

The Bad: While Tommy’s gang has some good actors in their midst, some of them are not so great. Also, some of them have such thick New York accents that it’s hard for this person from “out West” to tell what they are saying sometimes.

There were a few parts that felt a little bit slow, but everything is important at some point, so don’t let your attention wander.

The Ugly: This is still happening. People are still living in poor, crime-ridden parts of town. They want to move to a nicer place, but they don’t have the money. Kids still get in over their heads in gangs. Some people decide that they would rather have the money that comes with a life of crime than live an honest life. Some people try to get out of the life, but society makes it hard for them. The justice system comes down harder on poverty-stricken people. I have never ever said that a movie should be remade, but I think this one should be. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because many people won’t watch a black-and-white movie to save their lives. I also think some of the parallels to today might be lost on some people. But this is partially what the humanities are for: to help people understand other people whose lives are so completely different than their own.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a supporting role (Clair Trevor); best cinematography; best art direction.

The Awful Truth (1937)

awful-truth

This is not the picture that steered me away from the movie. This one is much more fun!

The Awful Truth
Directed by Leo McCarey

I love old movies. I love Cary Grant. I love light-hearted comedies. Even though The Awful Truth fits all of those criteria, I had never wanted to see it. Why? The cover of the DVD that we have at my local library looks like it’s a musical. I couldn’t fathom Cary Grant in a musical; it made me uncomfortable. If it hadn’t been nominated for best picture, I never would have watched it. I would have missed out on a great movie.

So what’s the story? Married couple Lucy and Jerry Warriner have a silly misunderstanding and decided to get divorced. The divorce is granted, but they must wait three months for the divorce to be final. During these three months, both Lucy and Jerry date new people, but they both do everything they can to disrupt the other’s new relationships.

The Good: ASTA!!!! He may have been a dog, but Asta was a minor Hollywood star in the 1930s and 1940s, appearing with such stars as William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Katharine Hepburn. Not only is he adorable, he’s very well-trained. He’s also charming, which I didn’t realize a dog could be, but Asta is.

Asta’s human costars are wonderful, too, even if they aren’t as cute as he is. Although he plays Jerry Warriner with his characteristic suavity, Cary Grant also imbues his character with an inner delight in life. Irene Dunne’s Lucy is full of (justifiably) wounded pride; Dunne draw on this pride to explain both her rebound “love” and her fiendish delight in ruining Jerry’s new relationship. Of course, it’s expected that Dunne and Grant will be good; they weren’t famous just for their good looks. The totally unexpected performance came from Cecil Cunningham, who plays Lucy’s sardonic aunt, Patsy (or Patty; both were used in the movie). I had never heard of her before, but she is hilarious in this movie. She brings good, solid common sense into a screwball situation, letting both main characters know that they are being completely ridiculous.

The costumes and sets are gorgeous. The dresses are beautiful, and it was impossible for me to not admire the furs, even though I am anti-fur. Combined with the sparkling wit of the screenplay, The Awful Truth makes me wish that I were a wealthy person in the 1930s. It’s an impossible wish, I suppose, but it would be fun.

Leo McCarey’s direction was excellent. I don’t write often about whether or not I think the director did a good job, but that’s because I don’t know enough about directing to know how much of a part the director actually plays. I read a little bit about this movie, however, and apparently McCarey would tell people to not follow the script, to just say what they thought their character would say. He looked at things happening around him and encouraged the actors to do things on the set in character when they thought they weren’t being filmed, then used those almost candid scenes in the movie. It worked perfectly in a screwball comedy and added to the realism of the characters.

The Bad: The ending, which uses a cuckoo clock as a symbol, is ridiculous. I’m guessing that the director used it because of the Hays Code, which forbade any “indecency” in motion pictures, but I think this ending went too far in its pursuit to avoid being censored and just ended up being stupid.

The Ugly: There’s a little tiny bit of racial stereotyping, which was unfortunately common in movies from this time.

Oscars Won: Best director.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Irene Dunne); best actor in a supporting role (Ralph Bellamy); best writing, screenplay; best film editing.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

heaven_can_waitHeaven Can Wait
Directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry

Heaven Can Wait is the only movie from 1978 that I was familiar with before this project of mine, and by “familiar with,” I mean I have it practically memorized. This is another movie that I grew up, one that my dad would play over and over again while he was working at home. It’s both easier and harder to analyze a movie that you’re familiar with. On one hand, because you know the plot so well, you can concentrate more on the film elements. On the other hand, it’s sad when you find flaws in a movie you know so well. When I do find things that are less than perfect, I just have to remind myself that I can still enjoy an imperfect movie.

So what’s the story? Los Angeles Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton has been working hard to get back in the game after a bad knee injury. Just as he is getting back in shape, Joe is killed in a bike accident. When he shows up in the afterlife, however, he finds that he wasn’t supposed to die for another fifty years. Mr. Jordan, the angelic supervisor, offers to put Joe back into his body, but unfortunately, Joe’s body has already been cremated. Joe and Mr. Jordan look at several new bodies, Joe insisting that the new body be in good enough shape to play for the Rams. When Joe spots beautiful Betty Logan, he decides to accept the body of ruthless business mogul Mr. Farnsworth so that he can help Miss Logan out. Will Joe ever make it back to the Rams? Will Betty be able to look past Mr. Farnsworth’s terrible reputation to see Joe inside? Will Mr. Farnsworth’s scheming wife and his private secretary murder him before Joe has a chance to find happiness?

The Good: The screenplay is fun and funny. Joe gets himself into funny situations, which are often met with dry humor or great one-liners from the other characters. The people in Mr. Farnsworth’s life aren’t used to working with a young quarterback, and their reactions to some of Joe’s requests are priceless.

The sets are excellent. Joe ends up in three very different places: his little house where he lives as a football player, the waystation to his final destination, and Leo Farnsworth’s mansion. Each one is very different, and each reflects the person who lives there. It’s a subtle thing that helps to develop the characters.

Heaven Can Wait is a movie in which the supporting actors do a better job than the leads. Jack Warden shows a great range of emotions as Joe’s friend and trainer, Max; he’s happy when Joe overcomes his injury, devastated when Joe dies, disbelieving when Mr. Farnsworth tells Max that he (Mr. Farnsworth) is really Joe. Warden does all that and more perfectly. Mr. Farnsworth’s scheming, hysterical, alcoholic wife, Julia is played to perfection by Dyan Cannon. Charles Grodin is her perfect counterpart as the scheming, yet calm, personal secretary Tony Abbott. Joseph Maher is hilarious as Sisk, the very proper butler who deals with his employer’s new personality with complete aplomb. I’ve always loved the nameless angel who takes Joe out of his body too soon and then throws a fit when Joe won’t believe he’s dead. It turns out that the angel is played by Buck Henry, who is also the co-director of the movie. Too fun! And the calm, stately Mr. Jordan, the angelic supervisor, the played by the great James Mason. The casting of the supporting cast was perfectly done.

The costuming was also very good. The ugly jackets that Max wears, Julia’s over-the-top designer dresses, and Leo Farnsworth’s ridiculous sailing outfits that he wears even though he doesn’t sail all add another dimension to the character’s personalities.

If there were a category for best use of classical music in a movie, I would give the Oscar to Heaven Can Wait. The scene where Joe and Max try to get Farnsworth’s body into pro football shape using the servants as players is great by itself, but the musical accompaniment of Handel’s Sonata #3 makes the scene brilliant. It might be my favorite part of the whole movie.

The Bad: While the original musical score isn’t bad, the instrumentation is dated. Just like in An Unmarried Woman, there is too much saxophone. While it could be a subtle reference to Joe and his badly-played soprano sax, it didn’t age well.

The Ugly: When I was little, I always thought Julie Christie’s hair style was ugly. When I watched it this time, I decided I would be open-minded about her hair. Apparently, it’s ugly no matter how old you are.

Because they are souls without bodies, Mr. Jordan and Joe can walk through walls. The editing for the wall-walking is terrible. My nine-year-old niece literally does better editing on her dad’s smartphone. Yes, technology has changed over time, but there is no excuse for the bad effects.

The copy of Heaven Can Wait that my family had when I was young was copied from TV onto a video that wasn’t long enough, so I haven’t seen the ending as often as I’ve seen the rest of the movie. I’m okay with that, though, because I’m not fond of the ending. It goes on too long, and Joe doesn’t get a very good deal at the end. (Because I don’t do spoilers, I won’t say what bothers me specifically, but if you want to argue that the ending is perfect, we can do so in the comments.)

As I watched the movie this time around, I realized that there is a major plot hole. If the angels know the exact date that someone is going to die, why would they send an angel out to collect his soul at the wrong time? Don’t get me wrong; I still love the plot, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the premise is logically wrong.

The worst thing about Heaven Can Wait is that it is a very obvious vanity project for Warren Beatty. Near the beginning, Joe (who is played by Warren Beatty) says something about how he’s old in the football business, but in any other field, he would just be getting started. At that point, I realized how old Beatty looks in the movie. I checked his age, and he would have been 41 when he made the film. There aren’t very many forty-one-year-old NFL players, and most of them are kickers. Starting quarterbacks that old are few and far between. If the character was supposed to be 41, he wouldn’t be young in another field. Even setting aside the age issue, Joe is just too good to be true. He’s a not-too-bright football player, but he is able to spontaneously come up with brilliant, profitable business ideas that none of the experienced businessmen in Farnsworth’s firm have ever thought of before. Women fall in love with him quickly and with flimsy reasons. In addition to that, he’s a great quarterback. His only fault seems to be his inability to play the soprano sax. This is why I feel that Warren Beatty’s acting is not the best; he’s basically playing himself.

Oscar Won: Best art direction-set decoration.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Warren Beatty); best actor in a supporting role (Jack Warden); best actress in a supporting role (Dyan Cannon); best director; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best cinematography; best music, original score.

Les Misèrables (2012)

Les-miserables-movie-poster1Directed by Tom Hooper

This was one of the posts that I lost when I lost my flash drive. As much as I hate rewriting things that I’ve already written, I won’t have a hard time rewriting this one. I have a lot to say about Les Misèrables in general, the musical and this movie version of it in particular.

When I went to study in London about ten years ago, I wasn’t planning on seeing the stage version of Les Misèrables. The touring coming comes to my town often enough, and I wanted to see things I wouldn’t have the chance to see at home. But then I saw a poster of the cast, and the man playing Enjolras was really attractive (I might use the term “super hot” if I weren’t trying to be taken seriously), so I let my friends persuade me to go with them. I knew many people who had seen the musical and thought it was the best thing ever, and I had read an abridged version of the book before I saw the play and seen the movie version from the 1930s and knew that there was fantastic material to work with, so I was expecting really good things. I was really disappointed. I kind of wish I could find the scathing essay I wrote about it. I told my friends that I didn’t really like it, and that got spread around the entire group I had come with, kind of like in the claymation version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when they find out that Herbie doesn’t like to make toys.  (“Melanie didn’t like Les Misèrables!”) I got a lot of weird looks after that from people in my study abroad group, but I didn’t care. I got that same kind of look when I told people I had no desire to see this movie because I didn’t much care for the musical, kind of a mix of shock and disgust. I was never planning on seeing this movie. Stupid best picture nomination. I wasted three hours of my life to see a subpar version of a subpar play.

So what’s the story? Convict Jean Valjean is released from prison. He steals some silver from a priest, who tells the police that he gave Jean Valjean the silver. The priest then tells Valjean that he has to turn his life around. Valjean does so, changing his name so that the stigma of having been a convict won’t follow him throughout his life. However, Javert, a policeman who worked at the prison, recognizes Jean Valjean for who he was, and Valjean must go on the run, taking the daughter of a factory worker with him.

The Good: Les Misèrables has some truly beautiful music. They may not be all completely memorable, and some are hard to tell from others (when I’m not actively listening to them, I always get “Bring Him Home” and “On My Own” mixed up), but they are beautiful nonetheless. I have never forgotten “Castle on a Cloud,” which I learned over twenty years ago in school, and “Stars,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” always give me goosebumps.

There was some decent acting. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe both did fine jobs as Valjean and Javert, respectively. Crowe does especially well as Javert, who is perfectly convinced that the law is always right and simply cannot reconcile justice and mercy. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks both gave excellent performances as women torn apart by the way French society works. Aaron Tveit and Eddie Redmayne were very good as young revolutionaries Enjolras and Marius, and although I think they took up too much time in the movie, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen were perfectly cast as the comic relief-bringing Thènardiers.

The costuming, production design, and makeup were all admirable. Early 19th century France was brought to life thanks to those elements. I always like seeing a historical movie that doesn’t only involve wealthy people. It always makes me happy to have people acknowledge that a)poor people existed, and b)that poor people had different hairstyles, homes, and clothes than wealthy people.

The Bad: I don’t whose idea it was to have the actors sing live instead of lip-synching and putting in the songs later, but it was a bad idea. This movie would have been so much easier to watch if there hadn’t been so many cringe-worthy notes. I think the only person who pulled off all her singing with no problems was Samantha Barks, who played Èponine.

I have never understood the ending. It makes no sense to me to have all the people who have died throughout the movie/Jean Valjean’s life would be together in one place singing about the same thing. All those various people weren’t fighting for the same future, exactly. Also, if Heaven is a barricade as the finale hints, I don’t really want to go to Heaven.

The Ugly: Amanda Seyfried should never have been cast in this movie. Her singing is terrible to the point of distraction. She does have the right look, but I’m sure there are other innocent-looking blondes who could have sung the part much, much better.

Most of the other reasons I didn’t like the movie have to do with the weaknesses of the musical itself. Way too much time is spent on the Thènardiers at the expense of other things from the novel that would have made things make more sense. I wish a bit more time had been spent on the bishop, for example; that felt kind of glossed over. I hated that Javert didn’t recognize Valjean because of his face, but because he was strong. I can understand that people change after twenty years, but I’m sure that Javert had met other strong men in prison before. There was nothing really special for Javert to recognize him. (In the novel, in case you’re wondering, Valjean acts like a human jack to get carts off of men. That’s not something you see often, and makes a lot more sense. Not sure why that was changed.) I was annoyed by Marius and Cosette’s literal love at first sight. They did nothing except see each other, and suddenly life wasn’t worth living without each other? There are other little bits and pieces like that throughout the movie that just add up to me being annoyed with the whole thing.

Okay, now I get to talk about how the book compares to the movie. Since seeing the musical ten years ago, I have read the unabridged version. It’s not perfect. Victor Hugo needed a friend to tell him that when your characters are racing through the sewers in a life-and-death situation, you don’t need to cut from the action to give an entire history of the sewers of Paris. But one amazing, amazing thing that Hugo did do was give everyone a history. The first fifty to one hundred pages are not about Jean Valjean at all, but about the bishop, who, we learn, has given up all of his privileges and only keeps enough of his salary to keep himself fed. The rest he gives to the poor. The only thing he kept was his silver, so when he not only allows Jean Valjean to keep the plate, but also gives him the candlesticks, it’s a huge deal. The students all have back stories, so we care a lot more when they die so uselessly. The Thènardiers are not funny at all. They show the corruption and evil that can happen in poorer classes. They are menacing and horrible. Also, they are the parents of Gavroche, which gets skipped over in the movie completely. There are more connections which make everything that happens much more meaningful. I realize that not everything from a 1500 page book can make it into a three-hour movie, but that’s why making  Les Misèrables into a musical was just a bad idea to begin with. My final advice? If you haven’t seen the movie already, skip it and read the unabridged book. If you have seen the movie already, read the unabridged book. You will be amazed at the depth of feeling.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actress in a supporting role (Anne Hathaway); best achievement in makeup and hairstyling; best achievement in sound mixing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actor in a leading role (Hugh Jackman); best achievement in costume design; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original song (“Suddenly”); best achievement in production design.