Friday, April 25, 2014

Around The World in 80 Days (Best Picture 1956)

Attention, all you people out there who have ever seen a motion picture and thought, "THIS film won Best Picture!?" You know who you are, raise your hands. Okay, that's most of you. You should be on my side this week. For the rest of you who say you have never felt this way, direct your attention to March 1957 and Exhibit "A": the so-called "best" picture of 1956, an awful dog-and-pony show called Around The World in Eighty Days.

This year's other nominees were 1. one of Rodgers & Hammerstein's best musicals, The King and I; 2. a touching morality story about pacifists engulfed by the Civil War, Friendsly Persuasion; 3. Cecil B. DeMille's Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments; and 4. James Dean's last film, a 3-hour opus on Texas oilmen, Giant. The winner was a travelogue about an Englishman who attempts to circumnavigate the globe within three months. "And the Oscar goes to...." indeed!

Perhaps the biggest problem with this film is the sheer lack of drama.  If you think I'm "spoiling" anything by telling you that Phileas Fogg succeeds in his goal, you are either not up-to-date on your English literature (the book by Jules Verne was written at the turn of the century) or you're a hopeless pessimist. Yet the last section of the film would have us believe that he did, indeed fail...for the most inane reason imaginable. After more than two hours, you think the film is going to end with an, "Oops, can't be done"??

Part of the reason I dislike Around The World in Eighty Days must be the fact that it simply is not my cup of tea. Similarly to An American In Paris (1951) or The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), the "road show" film is simply not that entertaining to me. In addition, the story and characters are so absolutely artificial that I find them annoying rather than enduring. Let me try to give you a a few examples.
There was no balloon in the book.
While Phileas Fogg and his man-servant Passpatout are traveling through India, Passpatout scares away a cow wandering through the marketplace. This probably is supposed to elicit a laugh, but the locals scream bloody murder and begin to chase Passpatout with looks of demonic rage on their faces. So in a film that purports to showcase the world, its scenery, and its people, here is a nearly-racist caricature of a mob instead of characters. This isn't entertainment, it's condescension. 

Fogg leaves England on his dare soon after an infamous bank robbery is in the news. Later, at the Suez Canal, a police detective named Inspector Fix believes that Fogg's situation means he must be the escaping bank robber. Therefore, Fix chases after Fogg for the rest of the journey (and the film). Of course, we know that Fogg is innocent, so there is absolutely no drama to this conflict. This character is nothing more than an annoyance and a plot contrivance. The great character actor Robert Newton is wasted in the role.

Speaking of wasted roles, the great Shirley MacLaine has nothing to do in this film except stand around demurely and try to act like a Rajah Princess. That she was cast as an Indian at all is insulting in this day and age; that she has nothing to do is an insult to her skills as an  actress.

After the trio of Fogg, Passpatout, and the Princess get to Hong Kong they are separated and end up traveling to Yokohama (Japan) in different boats. However, in a city of millions, they happen to find each other at a Japanese circus. It was ridiculous, and worst of all it was obviously filmed on a sound-stage. I've been to Yokohama, and in fact got lost there, so I find this absolutely unbelievable.

The idea of having celebrity "cameo" roles in the film seems like a fun idea; however, pretty quickly it becomes tiresome. Am I supposed to recognize that actor? Was this character written in just so that Red Skelton could portray him? Yes, and yes.
The movie is not all bad, of course. David Niven as Fogg is absolutely the best part of the film. He portrays the ultimate Englishman from start to finish with not a single wrong note. Likewise, Cantinflas, the Mexican film star, does wonderfully as Passpatout. He handles the physical comedy perfectly, and his acting is where it needs to be for such a light-weight role.

The Academy Award obviously went to this film for the scale of the production. No actors were nominated, and the director, although nominated, did not win. Skip this film and watch any other David Niven film (Separate Tables?) and a National Geographic film instead.
Around The World in Eighty Days
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1956*
Produced by Michael Todd
Directed  by Michel Anderson
Screenplay by James Poe, John Farrow, and SJ Perelman 
Based on the book by Jules Verne
This is a perfect trailer for this movie....
watch it, and you won't have to watch the actual picture!
Seriously, this gives a great example of what must have
been this film's appeal to the Academy.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Friendly Persuasion
The King And I
The Ten Commandments
In my opinion, any of these films is a better choice as Best Picture than Around The World in Eighty Days. Rent them and watch them and tell me that you disagree with me. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

JL #20 "The Return of the Weather Wizard!'

Here's the Omnibus "reading copy" of this story, collected in one post for your reading pleasure.
This is one that I didn't much care for while I was doing it, but turned out to be one of my favorites.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

JL #19 "The Deadly Illusions of the Psycho Pirate!"

Here is your Omnibus "reading copy" version of another good one, the Justice League vs the Psycho Pirate!

JL #18 "The Coming of ECLIPSO!"

 Here's your Omnibus "reading edition" of Justice League 18. It's one of my favorites, based off the real JLA #109 by Len Wein.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

JL #17 "A Matter of Time!"

Here's your omnibus "reading" version of the Justice League's battle against Chronos the Time Thief! 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Marty (Best Picture 1955)

Marty is a change of pace from your usual Best Picture winner. Instead of being a sweeping epic or a huge production, the word that best describes Marty is "intitmate." There are less than a dozen speaking roles, of which only three or four could be considered "main." In fact, the word "character" is appropriate, as this film is nothing but a character study of a middle-aged man looking desperately for love.

Marty is a 31 year old butcher in a small Italian neighborhood in New York City. After all of his brothers and sisters are married, he is left to live with his widowed mother. His customers start to aggravate him with their good-natured "when are you gonna get married?" questions. After he gets off work he hangs out with his buddies, all of them bachelors heading towards middle-age without any serious prospects. Because it's Saturday night all of his friends want to go out, but he knows it will not end well for him. The pressure to find a woman and settle down makes him do things he doesn't want to do: calling a girl he knows doesn't remember him for a possible second date, going to a ballroom stag, putting on a happy face. In the most dramatic scene of the film he breaks down at his mother's newest suggestions to find a girl. He cries out to her, "I'm fat, and I'm ugly. I don't want to be hurt no more!" Still, he realizes that because all he has to look forward to if he doesn't go out is loneliness, he reluctantly agrees to throw himself back into the night.

At the ballroom Marty is approached by a cad to help him dump his unattractive blind date. Marty refuses, but sees the man dump her anyway. Marty watches the girl and recognizes a kindred spirit in Clara. He carefully approaches her. This is the most sentimental part of the film, as Marty and Clara tell each other off-hand compliments like, "You're not *that* ugly," which makes the other one smile. They end up spending their evening together, even going back to Marty's house for some coffee. When Marty tries to kiss Clara, she is afraid that the evening was just a ruse to take advantage of her (literally).  Marty convinces her that he is legitimately interested in her, and she tells him she wants to go slow but would love to go out with him again. Marty's mother comes home and meets Clara, and they have a short discussion. Marty enjoys it, but both women appear to be uncomfortable with the other. Marty takes Clara home, and he ends the evening by promising to call her the next day after church. Marty is on cloud nine.
His happiness is short-lived, however. While Marty has been out with Clara his mother has been spending time with her shrill sister, who was "kicked out" of her son and daughter-in-law's apartment for being too invasive and demanding. Aunt Catherine tells Ma that if Marty finds a girl, Ma will end up being kicked out, too. So Ma, after wanting for so long for Marty to find a girl, is suddenly against Clara, who obviously has a mind of her own. Likewise, Marty's buddies kid him because Clara is "a dog."

The last part of the film is a repeat of the first part: Marty wasting time with his buddies and family wishing for some type of happiness to strike him. In the most heart-breaking scene both Marty and Clara are shown (separately) staring at their telephones; Marty not sure he should call, and Clara gradually thinking that he never will. At the very end Marty realizes that he is wasting his life and calls Clara. When he calls her, both of their faces light up, and the film ends on a happy note.
I'm not embarrassed to admit that I teared up a few times watching this film. First of all, I'm a sucker for scenes in movies or plays where men cry; inevitably, I start to cry, too. To see such a big, strong guy like Ernest Borgnine show such emotion was just painful to watch (in a good way). His performance made me think of all the so-called "unattractive" people whose hearts break on a regular basis.  Borgnine is excellent. He is in nearly every scene and effortlessly carries the film. Right from the start you are rooting for Marty, and the whole film is pleasant to watch because Borgnine makes him so interesting. He won the Best Actor Oscar for this role, and he definitely earned it.

Betsy Blair as Clara is equally good, even though she doesn't have as much to do as Borgnine. When she realizes at the ball room that she has been ditched, it is amazing to watch her try to control herself as she faces another night of loneliness. We don't get to see her back-story, but watching her face during their interactions you can totally imagine that she had similar fights with her father that Marty had with his mother. Her role in the film is to realize what we already know: that Marty is a good guy. We watch her as she takes tentative steps in that direction, only to meet accidental set backs such as his awkward attempt at a kiss. At the end we feel she is starting to fall in love with him, and we hope that they can be happy together.

As I wrote at the top of this review, Marty is not your typical Best Picture. At times it does feel a bit too much like the television special on which it was based. However, for a great "slice of life" drama, you could do a heck of a lot worse than spend an evening with Marty Piletti.

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1955*
Produced by Harold Hecht
Directed  by Delbert Mann
Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

Financial backer Burt Lancaster introduces this film, with some of
the great scenes I mention above. Makes a good trailer for the film.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing
Mister Roberts
The Rose Tattoo
Love is a drama about inter-racial dating starring two Caucasians (Jennifer Jones and William Holden). When I saw it I truthfully did not understand what was going on because I didn't realize that Jones was supposed to be Chinese. Give it a pass. Mister Roberts is the wonderful play about a small ship in the middle of the Pacific War with Henry Fonda as an officer who wants to do more with his Navy career. I can't begin to explain how great this film is. Fonda shares the screen with James Cagney and William Powell; Jack Lemmon won Best Supporting Actor as Ensign Pulver. Picnic is a story of small-town morality starring William Holden and Kim Novak. And I had never heard of The Rose Tattoo, written by Tennessee Williams. It stars Burt Lancaster and this year's Best Actress, Anna Magnani. I've never heard of her, either, so I watched it. It was another intimate character study, this time of a passionate Sicilian trying to hold her life together after the death of her husband. It's interesting and she's very good, but I didn't believe Burt Lancaster was Italian!

Friday, April 11, 2014

On The Waterfront (Best Picture 1954)

I had no real interest in watching On The Waterfront when I borrowed it from the library. I am not a big fan of Marlon Brando or of his "method" acting. Also, I had a vague idea that the film had something to do with McCarthyism, which did not appeal to me. So I went in with low expectations....

I was blown away by how good this film is.

Not only are all of the performances absolutely top-notch, but the story is riveting in both "big" ways (social injustice) and "small" ways (personal morality). I heartily recommend this movie.
Brando portrays Terry, a young man who had once been a semi-professional boxer with dreams of success. Now he meanders through life with no passion or purpose for anything. He is being used as a tool of Johnny (the slick union boss played to the hilt by Lee J. Cobb), whose accountant is Terry's brother, Charley (Rod Steiger). Johnny likes Terry, who thinks is "good for a few laughs."

In the first scene a naive Terry is sent to call on his buddy Joey; when he does this, Joey is thrown from the roof by Johnny's thugs. The rest of the story revolves around various characters trying to find justice for Joey and others trying to keep the murder quiet. Father Barry, the local priest, leads the charge after Joey's sister Edie (a stunning Eva Marie Saint) challenges him to help.  One of the most dramatic scenes in the film comes when Edie is talking to Terry about Joey; she tells him that she knows Terry's heart is in the right place and that he would help if he could. We, of course, know Terry *could* help if he wanted to. The anguish is plain on his face.

Father Barry (an excellent Karl Malden) attempts to guilt Joey's friends and co-workers into helping an official Crime Commission investigate his death, and the overall role The Syndicate plays in the longshoreman's union. After an elderly union member decides to speak up, a case of whiskey falls on him while he's unloading it. Father Barry stands up and tries to bring the shame of God down on the men. Malden hits all the right notes about "ratting" versus "telling the truth" in a bravura scene as he is pelted by garbage. This sermon (as it were) guilts Terry into confessing to Father Barry, who realizes that even if Terry can't talk to the Commission, he *must* tell Edie.  When he does, she throws him out.
Johnny realizes something is going wrong and has Charley talk to Terry, to "take care of him." In the most famous scene of the film, Terry and Charley confront each other in the back seat of a taxi. When Charley tells Terry not to "squeal," Terry explodes with rage and disappointment. It turns out that Terry was well on his way to becoming a boxing champion when Johnny had Charley tell Terry to throw a fight. Terry did, but was never taken seriously again. In a performance that helped him win the Academy Award, Brando cries out, "I coulda been a contender!" It's a gut-wrenching scene of masculine love and disappointment.
In the end Johnny over-plays his hand, and Terry decides to testify before the Commission. Afterwards he goes back to the docks but is ignored by all of his so-called friends, who don't want any trouble. Fed-up, Terry pushes Johnny, and Johnny's thugs beat Terry up badly. Father Barry and Edie arrive, saving him from being murdered out-right. While all of that was happening a freighter has arrived and desperately needs to be unloaded. The men finally decide to side with Terry against Johnny. They follow his lead, so Terry, a bloody mess, staggers into the warehouse and his men follow.

See what I mean about the drama? It's easy to think, "what would I do in this situation?" Given the atmosphere of McCarthyism at the time, something should be said about "ratting." Is it okay to report a murderer and a cheat? I would say yes. Is it okay to report on a Communist, in a so-called "free" country? I would say no. Given that director Elia Kazan did, in fact, report to the House Un-American Activities Committee about Communists he knew in Hollywood, this film has a little bit of gravitas it might not otherwise have. My advice is for you to see this film for yourself and judge for yourself.

Besides Best Picture and Marlon Brando for Best Actor this film won Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Story/Screenplay. Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Rod Steiger were all nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Edmond O'Brien won for The Barefoot Contessa).
On The Waterfront
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1954*
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Directed  by Elia Kazan
Screenplay by Budd Schulberg

A lot of hyperbole, but a lot of good scenes in this trailer.
"One film you must see!" Indeed.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Caine Mutiny
The Country Girl
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers
Three Coins In A Fountain
The Caine Mutiny is a wonderful dramatic piece with Humphrey Bogart cast against type as a neurotic ship captain during World War II. The Country Girl is an absolute stunner starring William Holden, Bing Crosby, and Grace Kelly. Crosby is an alcoholic has-been and Kelly is his no-nonsense wife, tempted into infidelity by Holden. She is absolutely cast against type yet holds her own. She showed the world that she was a serious actress; she won Best Actress in this role. If you have only ever seen her in Rear Window or Dial M For Murder or High Noon, watch this film. You won't believe how great she is. Seven Brides is a fun MGM musical that doesn't compare to these other films whatsoever, but at the very least has more appeal than the standard romance Three Coins In the Fountain. Listen to the song by The Four Aces and call it a day. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

From Here To Eternity (Best Picture 1953)

From Here To Eternity is one of the most famous Hollywood movies ever made. Have you ever seen the scene of the two lovers embracing on the beach while they are engulfed by waves? That's this. Have you ever heard of Frank Sinatra, and how he transitioned from pop singer to serious actor? That was because of this film. And somewhat more obscurely (and sadly), this was George Reeve's last film. Reeve was starring on television as SUPERMAN, but wanted to be considered a serious actor. He got a supporting role in this film, but according to Hollywood Kryptonite by Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger, when Reeve appeared on screen many in the preview audience yelled, "It's Superman!" So director Fred Zinnemann ended up cutting most of Reeve's scenes out.  So there is a lot of history in this film, besides it being a heck of a good movie.
The story revolves around the men at Schofield Barracks in Honolulu in the autumn of 1941. Burt Lancaster is Sgt Warden, who runs a platoon under Captain Holmes (Philip Ober). Montgomery Clift is Private Prewitt, a new transfer to the base. He is well-known in the Army as a boxer, but refuses to get in the ring any more because of a boxing injury he caused his partner. Capt Holmes thinks more of himself and the prestige a boxing championship would bring him, so orders Prewitt to fight. Prewitt refuses, angering both Holmes (selfishly) and Warden (who wants things to run smoothly). Holmes orders the other boxers to give Prewitt "they business" until he agrees to join the team. When Warden calls Prewitt out on it, Prewitt tells him, "A man don't go his own way, he's nothing." From then on, Warden respects Prewitt and begins to warm up to him.

Everything in the film involves either Prewitt or Warden. Warden sees Holmes' wife Karen (a stunning Deborah Kerr) and goes after her, probably initially as an object of lust (he had heard she was "loose"). Then they end up making an emotional connection, staying together as two lonely halves of a whole. Their relationship is the heart of the film, literally. It is wonderful to watch two great actors moving from cynical loneliness to some type of minor happiness. The famous beach scene is not just representative of sex but also of happiness. Unfortunately, as Warden's star ascends, Prewitt's star nose-dives. He meets a "nice girl" (Donna Reed) who turns out to be a prostitute. His best friend (Frank Sinatra) gets into a grudge match with a supply sergeant (Ernest Borgnine) who ends up killing him; Prewitt then kills him in an act of vengeance. To top it all off, the Japanese attack (come on, you knew they would, right?). Prewitt is shot accidentally, and the two women meet each other on the ship taking them back to the mainland.
There's a lot more worth watching in From Here To Eternity than this short summary can cover. Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, for example, earn their Best Supporting Academy Awards with their heart-breaking performances. Montgomery Clift brings a stoic "everyman" vibe to his role; when he's on screen you literally can not take your eyes off of him. Burt Lancaster's Sgt Warden takes longer to warm to; he only shows bits and pieces of the depths of his character. When he and Deborah Kerr first get  together, for example, you can't be sure if he is there for romance, or for lust, or if he is willing to rape her. Of course it becomes clear that he is a "good guy," but Kerr's fear at his intrusion is absolutely believable. This is a compliment to both of them. Clift and Lancaster were both nominated for Best Actor, but lost out to William Holden in Stalag 17 (an awesome performance, too). Kerr was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
Besides all five of the main actors being nominated, the film won Best Director and Best Screenplay besides Best Picture. Besides the overall drama of the character, we can't forget the backdrop of the film. The ending, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, is one of the best I have ever seen. When the fighter planes dive-bomb the barracks there is a real sense of tension and fear from the actors, and the planes come quite close to the roof of the barracks in several of the scenes. It was very well done.   

From Here To Eternity is a great movie, with enough comedy, drama, and pathos to fill the two hours to overflowing.If you have not seen this film and you enjoy well-acted and well-written movies, I heartily recommend From Here To Eternity.
From Here To Eternity
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1953*
Produced by Buddy Adler
Directed  by Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay by Daniel Taradash
Based on the Book by James Jones 

This looks like it is new, made for a re-release or DVD sales.
Still, it captures the important scenes and the video itself is crisp and clear.
It really gives you the feeling of the movie, although the music is awful! 

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Julius Caesar
The Robe
Roman Holiday
I was never a big fan of the Biblical epics that seemed so popular in the Fifties, so I guess it's not a surprise that I have never seen The Robe. It's about the last robe that Jesus wore immediately before he was crucified; it stars Richard Burton. Likewise, Julius Caesar is the Shakespeare play but in the same general era; it stars Marlon Brando, believe it or not. Roman Holiday sounds like it would be a Biblical comedy, too, but it's not. It's a wonderful romantic comedy drama about a Princess who doesn't want to be a Princess. It makes me cry every time I see it. Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert, and Audrey Hepburn are all fantastic. She earns her Best Actress award for sure, even though it cost Deborah Kerr. Shane was Alan Ladd's last great film (as well as Jean Arthur's); both should have been nominated for their roles. It is a tragic drama about a good man getting caught up in a bad situation. If you haven't ever seen either of these two films, you should. I'm sure you would enjoy them.