Monday, February 27, 2006
Dennis Weaver (1924-2006)
How about this for a weird loop — Dennis Weaver introduced Rance Howard to his wife, which led to Ron Howard who worked with Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show who worked with Darren McGavin in Gus and No Deposit, No Return.
Weaver is primarily known for his work in western-type roles in movies and in television, most notably Gunsmoke and McCloud. However, a few features stand out, though one was originally made for TV.
Throughout the 1950s, Weaver bounced through many a lesser Western, though he did get a bit as the hotel manager in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.
A 1971 TV movie he made put its director on the map — Weaver was the terrorized motorist at the mercy of a psychotic semi in Steven Spielberg's Duel.
His most recent feature work was a voice in the animated feature Home on the Range.
His work on the small screen though is astounding in terms of series, miniseries and movies. He even supplied a voice for The Simpsons in 2002.
RIP Dennis Weaver
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Saturday, February 25, 2006
Don Knotts (1924-2006) and Darren McGavin (1922-2006)
The great Don Knotts has passed away at the age of 81. While his most memorable work was on television as the inimitable Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show (which won him five Emmys) and as Mr. Furley, the replacement landlord on the monumentally silly Three's Company, I thought it was worth taking a quick look at some of his film work.
He appeared in a whole series of film which were basically variations on the same theme as an ultra-nervous man who becomes a fish (The Incredible Mr. Limpet), an aspiring reporter in a haunted house (The Ghost and Mr. Chicken), a janitor who finds himself in outer space (The Reluctant Astronaut), a dentist in the Old West drawn into conflict (The Shakiest Gun in the West) and a city bookkeeper set up to take the fall for corruption (How to Frame a Figg).
Of these films, I only remember for certain seeing Mr. Limpet and Figg, but they were both when I was young, though I do remember Figg making an impression on me at the time.
In reality, my first real impression of Knotts were in the movies he made in the mid 1970s before I ever remember meeting Barney Fife. Many were under the banner of Disney and several teamed him with Tim Conway.
The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975): The first teaming with Conway, I saw this at least twice in the theater and loved it as bumbling crooks turned good by some kids in the Old West.
No Deposit, No Return (1976): He was a bumbling crook again, this time opposite Darren McGavin as safecrackers who "accidentally" kidnap some kids.
Gus (1976): This time Knotts wasn't the real jackass in the movie in the story of a mule who becomes a placekicker for a football team. I remember laughing a lot when I saw it as a kid in the theater, but I'd be afraid to see it now.
Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977): Even as a huge fan of The Love Bug and Herbie Rides Again, I thought the Volkswagen was running out of gas in this outing as a child.
Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978): Back to the Old West again, but this one didn't leave much of a lingering impression on me.
The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979): Even as a kid, I preferred the original, but I was growing older and more selective by then. Hell, by this time I'd paid my dad to see Animal House so my comic tastes were changing.
The Prize Fighter (1979): Teamed with Conway again, I got a kick out of this at the time, especially the old lady under the coffee table. (You had to be there.)
The Private Eyes (1981): Buddying with Conway again, but even then it seemed to me a pale takeoff of similar Abbott and Costello classics.
He would occasionally appear in feature films after that, most notably as the foul-mouthed TV repairman who sends Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon to an alternate universe in Pleasantville. His last feature credit on IMDb is as the voice of Turkey Lurkey in last year's animated Chicken Little.
RIP Don Knotts — you were unique.
Then, several hours after learning of Knotts' death, it was announced that actor Darren McGavin had died as well. McGavin worked with Knotts in Hot Lead and Cold Feet and No Deposit, No Return, but to me he'll always be Kolchak in the original Night Stalker on TV. A brief look at some of McGavin's movie roles.
He started making movies in the 1940s, but it was in 1955 that he showed up in a trio of notable films: David Lean's Summertime, Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm and The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell.
Though all of the movies in the series ranged from silly but watchable, I always enjoyed Airport 77 the most and remember as a kid being upset when McGavin's character bought it.
In 1984, he had an uncredited bit as a crooked businessman in The Natural.
Still, despite his prolific television work, I think it's safe to assume that McGavin's lasting legacy will be as the dad in A Christmas Story. His gruff cynicism, his obsession with winning a contest even if the prize is a lamp in the shape of a leg and many other moments are a large part of what makes this 1983 film grow each year in reputation.
RIP Darren McGavin
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Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Last night, I finally watched Nine Lives and my reaction was about what I expected, namely the same that happens when I watch any film that is an anthology of scenes. To me, by their very nature, they can't help but be unsatisfactory. I liked segments in Nine Lives and there were certainly a lot of strong performances, but for me films made up of what are essentially short films are doomed to disappoint.
You start and stop nine different times in this movie and it's inevitable that you are going to like some segments more than others and unless they hit a lucky streak where there are more segments you like than segments you don't, the film itself will leave you underwhelmed.
This has been the case with nearly every film anthology I can think of. Take Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). I could watch the segments inside the male body, with Gene Wilder and the sheep, the "What's My Line?" takeoff and even with Woody's court jester numerous times, but I doubt there is enough money in the world to make me endure the segment with Lou Jacobi as a cross-dresser again. Fortunately, I think there is more good than bad in Allen's film, but not enough to compete with his truly great works.
Another example involving Allen was New York Stories. I think the first segment, "Life Lessons," by Martin Scorsese is brilliant. So good in fact that anything that follows it is almost certain to disappoint and, in the case of Francis Ford Coppola's "Life Without Zoe," do more than disappoint. It's such a lifeless, pointless mess that all the goodwill that Scorsese built up in the viewer evaporates. When Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks" shows up, it skews your reaction. It's funny and a welcome respite from Coppola's train wreck, but is your reaction truly because you find it funny or just because you are relieved. Would it have played differently as the middle film of the trilogy or the first?
One of the greatest anthology misfires I've ever endured was Aria, where 10 directors take their shot at making short films out of classic opera passages — and all but one fail. This list included Robert Altman, Bruce Beresford, Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, Nicolas Roeg, Ken Russell and Julien Temple. The only segment I liked was Franc Roddam's "Liebestod," set in Las Vegas and starring a young Bridget Fonda — and I wasn't familiar with any of Roddam's previous works.
By their nature, anthology films start to remind me of old episodes of TV's Love American Style. You almost expect each segment to end with some cutesy freeze frame and explosion of fireworks. Honestly, I don't even see what the appeal is for filmmakers. Look at the disaster that was Four Rooms, connected only by the character of Tim Roth's bellhop. Only Robert Rodriguez's segment entertains and the other three segments are ponderous misfires.
The one example I can think of where all the segments of an anthology are about on par is the film adaptation of Neil Simon's Plaza Suite — each segment is funnier than the one that precedes it. It's not a great film, but it works for what it is.
On the other end of the scale, there are things like Creepshow and Twilight Zone: the Movie where you are lucky that you get one segment worth watching. Hell, in Twilight Zone, the prologue and epilogue with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks are better than three of the segments of the film itself.
There is something to be said for having a movie that moves from beginning to end in whatever way it chooses. The films that choose to merge and intercut stories and characters (such as Pulp Fiction or Nashville or Short Cuts) end up infinitely more satisfying than the ones that start and stop and start again. Nine Lives does have some characters who recur in subsequent segments, but really it's to no point and no avail.
Perhaps the only anthology that I would call great is Richard Linklater's Slacker and that's because it doesn't play like an anthology. It flows from one segment to the next on a nonstop trip from beginning to end.
Come to think of it, my resistance to movies as anthology is probably why I've always been lukewarm to Fantasia.
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Saturday, February 18, 2006
The surprises you can find
As I have mentioned before, it's been nearly a lifelong obsession of mine to try to catch up with as many of the major Oscar nominees as I can. As a result, I often tape things off TCM and they'll lie around for ages before I get around to them. This is what happened recently when I mentioned Merrily We Live. Today, on the same tape, I caught up with 1949's Edward, My Son and I have to say it was a revelation.
All I knew about Edward, My Son going in was that it brought Deborah Kerr her first Oscar nomination as best actress. (She's good — but this is a supporting role, no question). Kerr was the only nomination the film received and that is a shame. The real star of the film is Spencer Tracy, who plays Kerr's husband, a Canadian transplant to England who has risen in both title and the business world, by sometimes unscrupulous means.
The thrust of the film is all the things both parents do for their son Edward — but here is the interesting part: Edward NEVER appears in the film. He ages and we know what is going on with him but no actor ever plays him and we never get a glimpse of him. I had no clue about this going in, so in the earlygoing, I figured they were just waiting until he grew up enough to have an actor take over his role, but eventually I realized what the conceit was — and it works brilliantly.
The script by Donald Ogden Stewart, adapted from the play by Robert Morley and Noel Langley, definitely shows its stage origins, but the subtle, snappy dialogue, solid acting and George Cukor's direction make it all worthwhile. There are so many lines I could toss out, but I'm only going to mention one, in case you see the film yourself. Tracy and his mistress discover that someone is stalking outside her flat, presumably a detective. The mistress asks him if he's committed any crimes lately to which Tracy replies, "No more than usual."
Tracy is the reason the film works as well as it does. Of course, he was great in lots of films, but this scoundrel Arnold Boult leaps near the top of my list of favorite Tracy performances. He's slimy, but you always like him, and Tracy adds some neat touches. I'm particularly fond of a scene he plays with a thermometer in his mouth.
Edward, My Son is by no means perfect and it wouldn't quite crack my top 5 for 1949, but for me it's quite a find. When you stumble upon a movie that's more than 50 years old that you've heard next to nothing about and find it to be a near gem, it reinvigorates your love for movies.
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Alright, who was she sleeping with?
Last night, I finally caught up with 1937's The Good Earth. Setting aside the fact that it is an overlong bore and is more evidence of old Hollywood's tendency to have non-Asian actors play Asians, I am more befuddled than ever by the fact that Luise Rainer is a two-time Oscar winner.
Few multiple Oscar winners have perfect records, i.e. they won each time they were nominated. Vivien Leigh deservingly did it. Hilary Swank has now joined their ranks. Helen Hayes also pulled off the same trick. (Any others escape me at the moment, but I'm sure Josh R will chime in if I've missed somebody). To see that Rainer is in this rarefied company for what was essentially a supporting role in The Great Ziegfeld and her less-than-stellar work in The Good Earth is bizarre — especially since she managed the feat in two straight years.
In 1936, her only competitor I haven't seen is Gladys George in Valiant Is the Word for Carrie, so I can't stack Rainer up against her — but look at the rest of the field she beat.
Irene Dunne in one of her very best performances in Theodora Goes Wild — and Dunne never won an Oscar.
The sublime Carole Lombard in the classic My Man Godfrey.
Norma Shearer in Romeo and Juliet. (OK — Shearer was way too old to be Juliet and I've always been lukewarm on her in general, but she's a damn sight better than Rainer).
Then, in 1937 the field she beat is even more stunning.
Dunne loses to her again, this time for The Awful Truth. (I guess this makes her the 1930s's Annette Bening to Rainer's Hilary Swank)
Greta Garbo coughs up one of her most famous performances in Camille. She never won an Oscar either.
Janet Gaynor excels in A Star Is Born, which is still my favorite version of the story. Gaynor at least already had an Oscar for best actress (the first one as a matter of fact).
The amazing Barbara Stanwyck — another Oscar shutout — in Stella Dallas. Though the movie is way too melodramatic and it's not among my favorite Stanwyck performances, it still was a helluva lot better than Rainer's Chinese peasant.
Oscar is and has always been a mysterious wench.
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Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Lead or supporting?
It's a debate that's been going on almost from the moment the Academy Awards instituted the supporting acting categories in 1936. Most often, people get put in the "wrong" category for marketing purposes. For example, the producers of Ordinary People had to know in 1980 that Timothy Hutton was a long shot to win lead in a year with Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, so they followed the old young performer conceit and stuck him in supporting actor where he won. Here are some examples through the history of the Oscars where I though people were in the wrong category. At the Tony Awards the use the criteria (though it can be overturned) that if you are above the title you are a lead, if you are below you are featured. This had led to cases where Joel Grey got left out of a nomination for the Broadway revival of Chicago and when the same role can be featured some years and leads others (such as the King in The King & I and the M.C. in Cabaret. Feel free to agree or disagree or add your own.
1936: In the very first year, they really sort of messed up by putting Luise Rainer up as lead in The Great Ziegfeld. She won anyway.
1937: Even though Roland Young was as much a lead as Cary Grant and Constance Bennett in Topper, he got relegated to supporting actor where he lost.
1939: An insanely strong years for movies and performances, somehow Greer Garson made the cut as lead in Goodbye Mr. Chips when she shows up late in the film and disappears soon after.
1940: Walter Brennan won his third supporting actor Oscar in five years for his great performance in The Westerner, but he was as much a lead as Judge Roy Bean in that film as Gary Cooper was.
1944: The Oscars themselves got screwy this year nominated Barry Fitzgerald's turn in Going My Way in both the lead and the supporting categories. He won supporting and they changed the rules after that so the same performance couldn't pop up in both. In the same year, they relegated the great Claude Rains to supporting actor for his title role in Mr. Skeffington, where he is barely off screen for most of the movie.
1947: Many people argue over this one but I think that Edmund Gwenn's Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street is a lead, but he won in supporting.
1950: Some people think that Anne Baxter was supporting in All About Eve, but I think they were right to put both her and Bette Davis in lead.
1956: I think the great James Dean was clearly supporting in Giant and who knows — if they'd stuck him there, he might have won.
1958: Really the entire cast of Separate Tables was supporting, which made David Niven's win all the more ridiculous. The same year, it can also be argued that Shirley MacLaine was really supporting in Some Came Running, though she snagged her first lead nomination for it.
1959: Practically the entire field of best actress contenders could have been considered supporting. Only Doris Day and Audrey Hepburn were true leads. Neither Katharine Hepburn nor Elizabeth Taylor can really be called a lead in Suddenly Last Summer and that year's winner, Simone Signoret in A Room at the Top, is definitely supporting — though she is great.
1962: One of the first instances of sticking the young in supporting. Mary Badham's Scout is really the lead of To Kill a Mockingbird, but she got stuck in supporting with another arguable young lead — Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker.
1963: Patricia Neal deserved an Oscar for her work in Hud — but it should have been in supporting actress. There really is no question here — she's not a lead.
1967: Both Anne Bancroft's turn in The Graduate and Katharine Hepburn's in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner are arguably supporting turns.
1968: Ron Moody's delightful Fagin in Oliver! is yet another supporting role that sneaked in the lead field. In the same year, Gene Wilder's Leo Bloom in The Producers was on screen nearly as much as Zero Mostel's Max Bialystock, though he got stuck in supporting. When the musical version hit Broadway decades later, both Max and Leo were nominated as leads. When the musical was turned into a lame movie, Matthew Broderick's Leo was campaigned as supporting, to no avail.
1970: Again, they were reaching to fill out the lead actress slate and that's how Glenda Jackson got nominated there for Women in Love and won.
1972: Many people believe that Marlon Brando and Al Pacino are in the wrong categories for The Godfather, that Pacino is the true lead and Brando supporting. I go back and forth on what I think and I've never settled on a decision. That same year, Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were both nominated as leads for Sounder when young Kevin Hooks is the real star. Winfield is especially out of place, since he spends much of the film off-screen in prison.
1984: Haing S. Ngor won supporting actor for The Killing Fields, but I say he is a co-lead with Waterston, since the second half of the movie focuses on his character almost exclusively.
1988: Again, a young actor gets stuck in the supporting ghetto by virtue of his age. There can be no argument that Running on Empty was about River Phoenix's character, but he didn't get a shot at lead.
1989: To my eyes, Dead Poets Society is an ensemble about the kids and Robin Williams' teacher was supporting. The same year, I think a case can be made that Martin Landau was the lead of Crimes and Misdemeanors.
1991: We get to probably the most obvious of all cases of mistaken categorization: Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter is in the 2-hour film for less than 30 minutes, he doesn't enter right away and once he escapes, he's never heard from again until the film's coda. There is no doubt in my mind — Hopkins is supporting here and he should have won supporting.
1996: A less-argued case here, but one I feel strongly about. Frances McDormand should have been in supporting for Fargo. She doesn't enter the movie for 30 minutes and then she disappears for significant stretches. William H. Macy who was nominated for supporting actor actually has more screen time than McDormand. When you time it, the film is almost equally divided between McDormand, Macy and Steve Buscemi, so they are either all lead or all supporting in my book and I say supporting. Also in 1996, Geoffrey Rush's work in Shine is really more limited than you'd think for a lead performance. I've never timed it (because I didn't want to sit through it again) but I bet Noah Taylor has almost as much screen time as the younger David Helfgott.
2001: Another case where marketing trumpeted facts and Ethan Hawke got put in supporting actor for Training Day when he's in the movie before Denzel Washington and after him as well with no significant absences.
2002: A mess of issues involving The Hours, where there again is really no lead and it sure seems like the supporting-nominated Julianne Moore and the non-nominated Meryl Streep have as much if not more screen time than lead winner Nicole Kidman.
2004: One of the biggest miscategorizations and unnecessary nominations of all time: Jamie Foxx in Collateral. He's so clearly the lead in that movie, in it before and after Tom Cruise shows up. It's not like Foxx wasn't going to win lead for Ray, so this nomination boggles my mind.
2005: This year has one glaring questionable categorizations Is Jake Gyllenhaal any less a lead in Brokeback Mountain than Heath Ledger? I don't think so. Of course, I also think Gyllenhaal's work is noticeably weaker than Ledger's, but that's not part of this discussion.
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Friday, February 10, 2006
It's not the size of the role...
With William Hurt's much-deserved (in my opinion) nomination for A History of Violence this year, my thoughts have turned to some of the great single-scene or particularly small roles that were able to grab the viewer's attention in unprecedented ways.
Hurt's brief bit is by no means the Oscar's only instance of short scene-stealers — Beatrice Straight won for basically one monologue in Network and Judi Dench won with very limited screen time in Shakespeare in Love.
Geraldine Page also snagged a nomination for essentially one scene in The Pope of Greenwich Village. Network also produced a great monologue for Ned Beatty that earned him an Oscar nomination. All those nominees were fine by me except for Dench, who was really just getting makeup Oscar love for losing for Mrs. Brown the year before to the wandering accent of Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets. Then there were also some brief nominations that were a complete puzzlement like Ethel Barrymore's nomination for The Paradine Case, one of Alfred Hitchcock's worst films.
So, as they come to me, some of my favorite brief roles.
Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights. When you get right down to it, the scene is completely extraneous to the movie — the climax of a film about the evolution of the porn industry well into the 1980s should have involved AIDS, not a standard drug deal. Still, Molina is masterful with his drug-addled dialogue set to the tune of Night Ranger's "Sister Christian."
One of my favorite single sequence tour-de-forces is Bill Murray in Little Shop of Horrors. His masochist wouldn't come off as great without Steve Martin's sadistic dentist to play off, but he's great.
Christopher Walken is a master of the monologue, but his one scene telling a child-size version of Bruce Willis about the journey of a gold watch in Pulp Fiction is priceless.
Another role that is essentially a single monologue, Jack Lemmon in Short Cuts. A brief but great role that few besides me remember is Swoosie Kurtz in Against All Odds where she is delightfully flaky as the secretary of a crooked lawyer who decides to help Jeff Bridges.
The year Frances McDormand won lead actress (for what in my opinion was a supporting role, but that's an argument for another time) for Fargo, she also gave a great single scene performance in Lone Star. Throughout the film, Chris Cooper's character's unstable ex-wife is referred to and when the situation requires Cooper to visit her late in the film, McDormand nails the character in a way that brings earlier references to vivid life.
Michael Mann's Collateral offered two great one scene performances: Barry Shabaka Henley as a jazz musician targeted for elimination and Javier Bardem as a crime lord. In another Tom Cruise vehicle, Lois Smith had a memorable one-scene turn in a greenhouse in Minority Report.
For a while last year, there was buzz that Lynn Redgrave might get nominated for her great single-scene at the climax of Kinsey as a woman whose life was profoundly affected by the sex researcher, but when that film folded, only Laura Linney was left standing.
It's more than one scene, but Tony Shalhoub's cab driver of indeterminate origin in Quick Change is a riot. Another short one that cracked me up was Maximilian Schell in The Freshman. "Carmine said one boy, here are two."
The original version of Love Affair and its remake by Warren Beatty produced two great short turns by Maria Ouspenskaya and Katharine Hepburn, respectively. Ouspenskaya even managed an Oscar nomination for her performance. Another one scene wonder that earned an Oscar nomination was Sylvia Miles in Midnight Cowboy, though it's been a long time since I've seen that one.
Most of the ones that are springing to my mind right now are more recent ones, but I'm sure brief turns in older films will come to my mind once the conversation gets going. The ones that immediately occur to me are Leslie Howard, Anton Walbrook and Raymond Massey's brief bits in the Powell/Pressburger masterpiece 49th Parallel aka The Invaders.
I'll leave you with this one: while certainly not a nomination-worthy performance, Garry Marshall's turn as the manager of the Desert Inn in Lost in America always cracks me up. "We're through talking now."
He may be through, but I hope you aren't.
Labels: Archers, Bardem, Chris Cooper, Cruise, Dench, Geraldine Page, Hitchcock, Jeff Bridges, K. Hepburn, Laura Linney, Lemmon, McDormand, Michael Mann, Murray, N. Beatty, Steve Martin, W. Beatty, Walken, William Hurt, Willis
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Tuesday, February 07, 2006
The age-old argument: Which is better — the book or the movie?
Of course, the answer is that there is no set answer every situation is different. Sometimes movies completely blow the book, other times the movies are much better than the book. In rare instances, there seems to be a draw, where they seem to be perfect companions. I also wonder if the order one reads/sees them matter. If you read the book, then see the movie or vice versa, does that color your reactions? Of course, I've seen a lot more movies than I've read books, so I'm just choosing some where I've read the book and seen the movie and indicate which function came first. There is no set order. I'm also tossing in plays and/or musicals that became movies.
I read Larry McMurtry's Terms of Endearment after I had seen the movie and fallen in love with it. In this case, I think I would have preferred the movie to the book in either order. By creating Garrett Breedlove, James L. Brooks gives the character of Aurora Greenway a focus she lacks in the novel with her many suitors, even though they are still a minor presence in the movie.
I read the play Amadeus after the movie and once again, the movie to me seems much better. There is something wooden in some of the scenes in the play, at least for me, but perhaps that would have been different if I'd actually seen a performance of it.
In the case of On Golden Pond, I read the play second and, except for the scenes out on the lake when they are fishing, really both scripts are nearly identical. Again, I guess my preference leaned to the movie because I saw it fleshed out.
I have an interesting experience with Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. First, I saw the movie, then in junior high I read the play and performed a duet from it, shamelessly ripping off Walter Matthau. Finally, a few years ago, I saw a revival on Broadway with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. My final conclusion: It's all about the performers. No matter whether it's read or watched, it is rather thin.
One other case which I'm sure I'll get a lot of arguments about is Cabaret. I've never been a fan of Bob Fosse's movie, but when I got a chance to see the Broadway revival with Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson, it became all the clearer to me that the musical was stronger on stage than on screen. I had a similar reaction to Chicago, though I saw the revival first and still enjoyed the movie.
Short Cuts is an unusual case as well. I had read nearly all of Raymond Carver's short stories that inspired the film before seeing the movie, but Robert Altman's mixing and matching of them make it seem like an experience completely separate from its written source. Only "A Small, Good Thing," played out in the movie by Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison and Lyle Lovett, sticks fairly close to the story that inspired it.
I read Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence knowing that Martin Scorsese was working on a film version. Once the movie opened, I was amazed — this may well be the most faithful adaptation of a novel I've ever seen. There are very few changes, the trimming seems minimal and he even keeps much of the wonderful prose through Joanne Woodward's narration. In contrast, I saw the movie Casino before I read the book. I was disappointed in the movie and the book was much stronger — and it showed that the movie was made before the book was finished.
In 1999, I fell in love with Fight Club, but it was years later before I actually read the novel it was based on. It is good, but even though the twist was spoiled for me before I saw the movie and didn't affect my enjoyment of it, it did seem to affect my opinion of the book.
Curtis Hanson's adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys is another example of a fairly faithful movie version. I had read the book first and loved it and the movie didn't disappoint, even allowing me to like a Michael Douglas performance — a rarity for me.
Ghost World was probably the first case of a movie I saw that had been based on a graphic novel I'd read. While Daniel Clowes' graphic novel is great and the movie follows pretty much the same story arc, the introduction of the Steve Buscemi character in the film functions much like Jack Nicholson's character in Terms of Endearment — it makes the movie a superior work.
Now for examples where I think it really made a notable difference.
I read Peter Benchley's Jaws after seeing Steven Spielberg's great film — and I don't think there can be any argument that Spielberg improved the material, taking a fairly trashy read and turning into so much more.
Much the same can be said of Mario Puzo's The Godfather. While in some respects, the novel isn't as bad as Jaws, in others, its tawdry nature borders on the juvenile. Francis Ford Coppola truly raised the film to a higher level.
When I saw The Prince of Tides, aside from Streisand's obvious massive ego, I thought the movie worked fairly well — then I read Pat Conroy's novel and realized what a mess had been made of his work.
Of course, the most notorious example of the destruction of a great novel by its movie version is Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. Anyone who read the novel before seeing the film would have to be appalled by the ludicrous changes made for Brian De Palma's movie version. From changing a Jewish judge to an African-American one (named Judge White of all things), to dropping the British heritage of the tabloid reporter to nearly every casting decision — nothing was changed for the better. I can't imagine anyone would want to read the novel if they saw this monstrosity first.
To wrap up, since I could go on and on and I want others to get involved here, I thought it would be worth going through the Stephen King adaptations that I'd read before seeing the movie versions. The only exception is Carrie, which I read after seeing the movie. I'm also leaving out TV versions.
VERDICT: Novel wins
BOOK: The Shining
VERDICT: Novel wins
BOOK: The Dead Zone
MOVIE: The Dead Zone
VERDICT: Novel wins
VERDICT: Novel — by far — and it's not that good
VERDICT: Both suck
BOOK: Pet Sematary
MOVIE: Pet Sematary
STORY: Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption
MOVIE: The Shawshank Redemption
STORY: The Body
MOVIE:Stand By Me
STORY: Apt Pupil
MOVIE: Apt Pupil
VERDICT: Draw — not a big fan of either
NOVELLA: The Running Man
MOVIE: The Running Man
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Monday, February 06, 2006
Now, THAT'S cold
I finally caught up with March of the Penguins this weekend. While it is a good documentary and its footage is amazing, I don't think it holds a candle to fellow Oscar nominees Murderball or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room or the non-nominated Grizzly Man or Tell Them Who You Are. One thing that puzzles me is its wide identification as a "family film" when much of the movie contains images and developments that I would think some younger children would find disturbing. Unborn penguin chicks die as their eggs crack in the cold or starve and freeze to death once they are born. Predators take out penguins of all ages and the climax of the film is the abandonment of the young chicks by both parents.
March of the Penguins is definitely educational and fascinating, but I have to wonder how it could affect some kids with its rampant deaths and family breakups.
It is worthwhile to see — but I don't think it deserves the Oscar, though I haven't seen Darwin's Nightmare or Street Fight.
One other note: I like Morgan Freeman a lot but I think I've reached my limit on seeing films that include his narration. I kept expecting him to wander off from tales of the emperor penguin to share stories of Andy Dufresne or friends who knew in the boxing industry.
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Saturday, February 04, 2006
Is predictability always a problem?
Commenting on my discussion of A History of Violence and Thumbsucker, Josh R. suggested that he always knew where both of the films basically were headed and that it lessened the experience for him. While I fully understand his point — I've criticized many a movie because I was way ahead of them in terms of story trajectory — it seemed to me that you can't expect every single film to be a new direction. What I liked about those two films were not that they surprised me, but that their paths were handled with such confidence by the writers and directors and fleshed out so superbly by the casts, it didn't matter. To me, it's when movies are deficient in the creative areas, that predictably becomes a detriment.
In an earlier discussion on movie plot twists, Dave wondered if critics place too high an emphasis on seeing something new because they've seen so many movies, they are more impatient than most. I think both types of movies can be great if done well enough. My two favorite fiction films of 2005 are a study in that contrast. A History of Violence seems fairly preordained in its direction, but the acting and taut storytelling more than made up for it for me. On the other hand, I was never certain where The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was taking me, but its confidence held me in such thrall that I relaxed and let the movie guide me to its final destination.
Of course, remakes inevitably are going to be predictable and aside from my bias against them when they are new versions of films that were great to begin with, you don't hear too many complaints when Peter Jackson remakes King Kong that it involves finding a big ape on an island, taking him to New York and having him plunge to his death off a tall building. The complaints come from other factors such as length.
There are so many films that could be discussed on these terms that I decided to start the conversation with the easiest way I know how: looking back at my top films from 1982-2004.
Tootsie, even after countless viewings, still has the ability to surprise me. I think it belongs in the category of films where you aren't quite certain what's going to happen and you don't care. Sure — you have to expect that Michael Dorsey's deception will eventually be discovered, but how and when is not clear.
If you had read the novel of Terms of Endearment before seeing it, you would have known where that film was heading — though Jack Nicholson's Garrett Breedlove would have been a surprise. I hadn't, though no one put too much effort into keeping the late-movie twist much of a secret — how many times did you see the clip of Shirley MacLaine demanding that nurses give her daughter her shot? I think it probably falls more into the category of a film whose writing and performances are so superior that it wouldn't matter if you knew where it was going or not.
Amadeus is another example where if you'd seen or read the original play, you'd have a good idea where the movie was going, but I hadn't done either and being only 15 at the time, was rather limited in my knowledge of Mozart's life. I'm not sure it really falls into either category — it's just a great moviegoing experience — period.
Going in, it's likely you would know that a movie character steps off the screen in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Still, all the things that happen after that are a delight right up until the bittersweet ending. Ahh — how I long for the day when Woody Allen didn't repeat himself.
Hannah and Her Sisters has so many characters and story strands going, that it is definitely a journey movie. I defy anyone seeing that for the first time to be able to guess every turn of the story or its denouement.
Broadcast News is also all about the journey for me. I remember at the time that my mom was upset that Holly Hunter's character didn't end up with Albert Brooks, but to have a film that ostensibly sets up a romantic triangle and then has the courage to have none of the characters hook up at the end — that was great.
1988 brings my first favorite film that clearly is pretty obvious where it's going to end — Die Hard. I mean, would anyone really think that Bruce Willis wasn't going to prevail by the end? The individual details aren't clear, but this is a movie as a great thrill ride. It's not remotely about surprises or unexpected turns — it's just flat-out great.
Do the Right Thing though is definitely about the journey. With its large ensemble cast and the way the story plays, it's clear there will be some kind of racial explosion by movie's end, but there really is no way of knowing exactly how that will play out. It builds a suspense that definitely places it in the journey category.
Goodfellas is another example of a film based on a book I hadn't read. For me, this was not only my top film of 1990 — it's on my 10 best list of all time. Watching this movie is like going to film school in less than three hours — it emphasizes nearly every aspect of filmmaking. It's so great that for me it soars above either category.
The animated Beauty and the Beast is most decidedly a movie that you know the ending of in advance, but it doesn't dilute the magic in the slightest. The animation was astounding (remember when non-CGI animation used to have the ability to amaze?), the songs were brilliant (for the most part) and it not only pleased kids, but adults as well.
The Crying Game is about nothing if not surprise. With the countless twists — not just the big one — you are never quite sure where Neil Jordan is taking you, but he is so assured, that it doesn't matter. It's definitely a journey.
Schindler's List is more of an odd duck. You know going in that a movie about the Holocaust is going to include a lot of death. Really, this is more of a character study and not about the plot.
Then there is Pulp Fiction with its scrambled structure that makes it absolutely impossible to chart its course before it charts it for you. It's really a movie about both the journey and the destination.
Since Crumb is a documentary, I don't think it really needs to be considered in these terms.
Lone Star though is another large cast canvas that while ostensibly framed as a murder mystery, really cares more about character. It's all about the journey.
L.A. Confidential in its own way is similar to Lone Star in that respect, but it keeps you off balance. When one of the three major characters get killed and another character is revealed as the chief villain, it makes you question whether or not the other leads will survive until the last reel.
Gods and Monsters is another film that's more character study than either of the other.
American Beauty is a film that you can be way ahead of. It's also a movie that for me, has grown weaker on repeated viewings. At some point, I imagine I'll give in and drop it down a notch or two for 1999 and give the prize to Fight Club, which I really had no idea where it was headed even though the major twist had been spoiled before I saw it. My No. 3 film for 1999, The Straight Story, is another film that's definitely about the journey — and on a tractor no less.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon just enthralled me. I don't think I was ever concerned that much with its story — I was too busy watching with awe.
With Memento, I never knew where it was going — even though it was heading backward. That's quite an achievement.
Talk to Her also seems to be more about the journey — I'm seeing a pattern here. Maybe I am guilty of favoring the unexpected.
Lost in Translation is another film that seems more about character and journey than story.
2004 is one of the most disappointing years for me in quite some time. Back when I rated things on a 4-star scale, I failed to find any movie that year that I'd have bestowed a perfect score on. My top two films, Hotel Rwanda and Maria Full of Grace, were sort of a little bit of each. Rwanda was more of a Schindler's List-like character study while Maria, while certainly telling a story that I'd never seen before, also seemed sort to have a sort of predestined direction.
So what do you think? Is one type of film better than the other — or does predictability only become a factor when the rest of the movie has shortcomings?
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Thursday, February 02, 2006
Glinda the Good Ditz
In my neverending quest to try to see every film that scored a major Oscar nomination, I recently got around to seeing 1938's Merrily We Live, which garnered Billie Burke a nomination for best supporting actress. Two of the five nominees, Beulah Bondi in Of Human Hearts and Miliza Korjus in The Great Waltz, I have yet to see — but in my opinion Burke beats Spring Byington in You Can't Take It With You and the winner, Fay Bainter in Jezebel, hands down.
Burke is probably best known these days (and for decades really) as Glinda the Good Witch in 1939's classic The Wizard of Oz, but she also appeared in such notable films as Topper and Dinner at Eight and she was married to Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld until his death.
Merrily We Live is slight, but fun. It's a decided knockoff of 1936's My Man Godfrey, but it boasts a solid comic ensemble including Constance Bennett, Brian Aherne, Alan Mowbray, Patsy Kelly, Ann Dvorak, Bonita Granville and Clarence Kolb. It was directed by Norman Z. McLeod, who directed the early Marx Brothers classic Monkey Business.
While there is much to admire in the slight, breezy fun of Merrily We Live, Burke is really the standout. Her character of the wealthy wife of a rich businessman who likes to give hobos and tramps a try as chauffeurs may seem similar to others we've seen before and since, but Burke puts such a delightfully dizzy spin on Mrs. Emily Kilbourne that everything old seems new again. It's a corny phrase but nothing says it better than "She's a stitch."
While there are certainly oodles of better Hollywood films from the 1930s, Burke alone made this one worthwhile for me. I have to think that if Fay Bainter hadn't also been nominated that year for lead actress for White Banners (making the Academy feel like it had to give her a consolation prize), Burke would have won the prize hands down, even without having seen the last two nominees.
At least I think she should have anyway.
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