Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Supporting Actress 1952: The Movies

A funny thing about how I would rank the Supporting Actresses of 1952 is that it is wildly different from how I would rank the movies themselves.  So here are some quick thoughts (and rankings, from least favorite to most beloved) on the movies that the nominated actresses were in.

With a Song in My Heart
I didn't dislike this movie, not really, I just thought it was a little too forgettable.  It tells the life story of Jane Froman (or, at least, her life up until the movie was made) and it comes across as more of a 'Greatest Hits' biopic when a focus on one aspect of her life might have been a stronger choice.  The movie plays like it is building up to the plane crash she was in during World War II, but keeps getting sidelined by marital drama that is, quite frankly, terribly uninteresting.  In fact, the movie is at its very best while following Froman's recovery from the crash, but even there it has marital drama forced in where it isn't needed.  Susan Hayward and Thelma Ritter are both quite strong in their roles, often fighting against the glib performance of David Wayne and the personality-free performance of Rory Calhoun (although, to be fair, the movie asks Calhoun to do very little).  With a sharper focus, this movie could have been great, but instead must settle for being 'just alright.'   6.5 out of 10

Singin' in the Rain
As I mentioned back when I wrote my initial Revisited post, I feel like I should love this movie more than I actually do.  The technical skill of Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor's dancing is excellent, and Jean Hagen gives my favorite performance of the nominated supporting actresses that year, but the movie is lacking that special something to make me love it.  Structurally, I feel like the movie wanders off course far too often (most especially in the 'Gotta Dance!' sequence, which feels like it belongs in an entirely different film) and doesn't really make up for it with memorable songs.  The characters (sans O'Connor and Hagen) are inconsistently written, and the movie takes an awfully long time to figure out what story it wants to tell.  For me, watching the film is akin to looking at a celebrated piece of art and wondering what all the fuss is about.  I do give it a higher score than Come Back, Little Sheba, but I would much rather watch that film a second time than give this one a third go-around.  7.5 out of 10.

Come Back, Little Sheba
This movie was the hardest for me to find (I ended up buying a DVD online that has a case covered in Korean and a default setting of Korean subtitles, so that was fun), but well worth the effort.  Essentially a two-person movie with Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth (although Terry Moore is there to occasionally give them another person to talk to) delving into marital drama that is actually worth following (as opposed to With a Song in My Heart).  Shirley Booth, frankly, is pretty fucking phenomenal in the role of Lola.  The character comes across as slightly grating at first, but as the film goes on you see all the little things that led her to her current state, mainly her recovering alcoholic husband.  Lancaster is solid as Doc, although I wish he had given more for Booth to play off of instead of the more reserved performance we did get. The big scene towards the end when Doc falls off the wagon is built to beautifully by Booth, but Lancaster - although effective - doesn't really set up Doc for the fall.  The movie doesn't quite overcome its stage-ness, but does manage to get characters out of the house a few times at least.  Not a bad film at all.  7.0 out of 10.

Moulin Rouge
Now here is a movie I quite enjoyed.  Focusing on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's life, it makes the smart decision to focus on just the last few years instead of trying to sum everything up in a two hour movie.  Jose Ferrer plays Henri, and the performance is a study in subtle suffering.  Everything about the performance rings true, and I feel an immediate need to bump High Noon to the top of my Netflix queue so I can see the performance that somehow beat this one.  What's really nice is that all of the supporting performances (save the one that inexplicably got the actual Oscar nomination) are also strong, resulting in a movie that is a pleasure to watch almost from start to finish.  In particular, I enjoyed Suzanne Flon as Myriamme Hyam, a woman who falls in love with Henri late in life.  In fact, had she been nominated, she might have been my pick over Jean Hagen.  8.5 out of 10

The Bad and the Beautiful
Probably the best part of this project has been seeing movies I hadn't even heard of and discovering what might be a new favorite movie.  The Bad and the Beautiful hold the record for most Oscar wins without a Best Picture nomination, and it is rather shocking that it didn't make that particular shortlist.  This movie features great performances, an intriguing story, and a rather smart (if misordered) set-up:  An actress, a director, and a writer are all called by an associate of Jonathan Shields (played by Kirk Douglas) to help him make a movie since he no longer has the money or the clout to make it on his own.  All three feel that they have been wronged by him and the movie flashes back to each incident that caused the feeling.  None of the sections feel like they go on too long, and the 'in-betweens' are just as engaging as the flashbacks.  The only minor quibble is the order in which they tell the stories:  It goes Director-Actress-Writer when it probably would have been better to reverse it - especially as what ruins Jonathan is his taking over as director on a film and doing a terrible job of it.  But aside from that bit of 'story-smoothing,' I have no other critiques.  9.5 out of 10.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Supporting Actress 1952: The Performances

So, Nathaniel at The Film Experience is restarting Stinkylulu's Supporting Actress Smackdown series, which is great, because I loved it.  He picked the year 1952, and I dutifully watched the 5 nominated performances so that I may rank them and offer my thoughts.

And the nominees are...

 Gloria Grahame in The Bad and the Beautiful

Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain

Colette Marchand in Moulin Rouge

Terry Moore in Come Back, Little Sheba

Thelma Ritter in With a Song in My Heart

The Rankings:

In fifth place:  Colette Marchand, Moulin Rouge
Good grief, this performance.  Marchand plays Marie Charlet, a street walker who becomes friends with and (maybe?) loves Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose Ferrer, in a phenomenal performance) after he rescues her from a policeman one night.  I can see what the role was supposed to be:  a volatile woman whose high and lows are quite trying on Henri, but has an air about her that nevertheless enthralls him.  However, in Marchand's performance, it is impossible to figure out why anyone would want to spend more than five minutes with the woman:  Marie comes across as genuinely spiteful, with no soft emotions whatsoever.  It's a paper-thin characterization where the quick changes in temperament come across more as 'The Script says I am ANGRY now' as opposed to 'Henri just offended me' and what is meant to being cloying sweetness comes across as fake and unnatural.  In a film filled with subtle, nuanced performances, she threatens to derail it with an aggressive attack on the character.  Easily outshone by the others in her own film (Zsa Zsa Gabor, Suzanne Flon, and Katherine Kath), its a wonder she got this nomination at all.

In fourth place:  Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful
Graham plays Rosemary Bartlow, the Southern belle wife of Dick Powell's James Lee Bartlow.  She convincingly plays the flaky but loving wife, but there is very little for her to do in the performance except interrupt her husband's working and be awestruck by the Big City and all of its magic.  It's not a bad performance, but hardly noteworthy and more of a cameo (which, if they are going to nominate a barely-there performance, why not Elaine Stewart, who gave a much more vivid and breathed-in performance?).  In fact, the role is so small and inconsequential, I'm not quite sure how it got noticed, much less won the trophy that year.  And maybe it's because I am from the South, but her accent grated.

In third place:  Terry Moore, Come Back, Little Sheba
Moore plays Marie Buckholder, a young college student who boards with married couple Doc and Lola Delaney (played by a solid Burt Lancaster and a fantastic Shirley Booth).  The character exists more as a plot device:  her sole purpose is to be fixated upon by Doc.  She has her own scenes of being courted and interacts with just Lola at parts, but this sketch of a character doesn't seem fully realized - and a tad self-absorbed.  Like Grahame, there isn't much for her to do, but Moore fills out the details of the character better, though this is an easier task given the amount of screen time she gets compared to the former.  However, she doesn't make the character interesting (or innocent) enough for Doc to fixate on her.  She doesn't overplay anything, and does create a few nice character moments, but ultimately it is an unfulfilling performance overshadowed by the two lead characters.

In second place:  Thelma Ritter, With a Song in My Heart
Ritter plays Clancy, the nurse who first takes care (and eventually travels with to take care of) Susan Hayward's Jane Froman.  Ritter fills the role with emotion, and - more importantly compared to Grahame and Moore - feels like a necessary and irreplaceable role/performance for the film.  Far too little of the film focuses on Froman's plane crash recovery, but Ritter and Hayward both play these meaty scenes as if the movie depended on it - Clancy's comic relief works against the seriousness of what Froman's going through, but Ritter convincingly makes a sudden shift to drama during the darkest moments of the film - her 'I guess you don't have the guts' speech is a clip-worthy moment where she hits all cylinders to zero in on the humanity of the character and sell the depth of the friendship that has developed between the two.  Sadly, this great work keeps getting interrupted by the marital drama that director Walter Lang apparently thought was more interesting, but is ultimately less satisfying to watch.  Given a sharper focus, Ritter could easily have fought for the win.

And the Angry Gay's favorite performance from 1952 is Jean Hagen, Singin' in the Rain
Has there ever been a performance that so believeably came across as both cunning and dumb at the same time?  Hagen plays Lina Lamont, the silent film actress whose real voice is so awful that Debbie Reynold's Kathy Selden is brought in to dub over the performance once they decide to make it a talking picture.  Hagen is mostly around for comedic relief (her delivery of 'I liked it!' after the disastrous premiere of The Dueling Cavalier cracks me up every single time) but she also provides the antagonism for the film's second half, and she walks the tightrope of keeping Lina dimwitted, but conniving enough to steal all credit from Kathy once the film is complete.  If at any point it came across as unbelievable, the film would start to fall apart, but Hagen nails it.  The performance is so far above everyone else in the category, it is hard to believe she didn't waltz away with the win.  A stellar turn.

Next:  A comparison of the movies represented in the categories.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Short Reviews: 2013 Horror (plus Pacific Rim)

Pacific Rim
This movie deserved to be a much bigger hit than it was.  I'm not sure if the Transformer movies and their extreme suckitude kept people away (though I doubt that, given their massive box office) or if the competition at the time was just too much (Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, The Heat, and Grown Ups 2 all came out either the weekend before, or the same weekend).  Either way, this movie is limping to $100 million at the domestic box office when it deserves way better.  The plot is fairly basic:  otherwordly monsters come out of a rift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (hence the title) and humanity builds giant robots to fight them.  It explains the technology well, the characters aren't cardboard cutouts, there is a sense of the toll taken on the populations around the Pacific Rim - it has everything that lesser movies that were box office triumphs didn't have.  Rinko Kikuchi is my personal pick for best in show, although it was nice to see Idris Elba get what is essentially a co-lead role.  I can't think of any one being a weak link in the film, the writing was good, and the action was a joy to watch.  The special effects were solid, with my favorite work being the underwater battle.  9.0 out of 10.

 Dark Skies
This review might as well be called Poli's Problems with Modern Horror, Part 1:  Someone took a great idea, some creepy sequences, and some solid acting and decided to just shit all over it.  This movie could have been so much better than it was, and I cannot decide if the problem was that writer/director Scott Stewart had too much producer influence, or not enough.  Either way, anything worthwhile in this movie is matched by and surpassed by something stupid or insulting that makes the whole endeavor not worth the time.  Keri Russell gives a fairly solid performance that deserved a better movie around it.  However, the teenage character (played by Dakota Goyo) is the blandest bland that ever blanded, the younger son (portrayed by Kadan Rockett) is everything bad about child actors, and poor Josh Hamilton (as the father) is given the full cliche for his part, so any worthwhile acting is going to be lost amongst the shitty, shitty script.  J.K. Simmons briefly appears as an alien expert, and he adds just enough to make the character interesting without going over the top, but since they felt they needed something 'quirky' about the General Exposition character, they made him a crazy cat man.  And they needed to end it about 5 minutes before they did.  Instead, we get a mini-epilogue of the family post-abduction (I won't say which of the family is gone) moving into a new place that defies any logic and should have had noticeable problems on the written page - well before the filming.  4.5 out of 10.

Or, Poli's Problems with Modern Horror, Part 2: More Ranting.  One of my biggest pet peeves with modern horror is that they make so many of the characters unlikeable (so you don't feel bad when they die) or just plain bland (for the same reason as above, plus they don't want the bad guy to be overshadowed).  Jessica Chastain (like Keri Russell in Dark Skies) gives this movie a much better performance than it deserves, but cannot save the overall film.  The basic premise itself has a huge plothole:  Have the girls eaten nothing but cherries for 5 years with no health problems upon returning to civilization?  Was there a period in between that was never referred to?  I probably shouldn't care (the scriptwriters obviously didn't), but it seems like a rather gaping plot hole to start the film with.  Later in the film, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's character has a dream from his dead brother (played by the same actor) where the brother asks him to save his children.  Which is nice and all, but at the start of the film, the titular Mama kills the brother just as he is about to shoot his older daughter in the face.  Why does he care about their lives now?  I might be able to forgive these gaping plot holes if the film had some legit scary sequences in it, but that is not to be.  The script itself is better (slightly) than the one for Dark Skies, but at least the other movie had some sequences that were creepy.  But the biggest problem was probably this:  the most interesting performance in the entire film was that of Pamela Farrauto - an unnamed, two-scene General Exposition character who disappears very early and is of little importance in the film entire.  4.5 out of 10

The Conjuring
Finally, at last, we have a good horror film.  Nothing groundbreaking, but it has a solid script, solid acting, and creepy sequences.  In fact, after the ranting of the prior two films, I kind of just want to say 'Go see/rent this one!' and leave it at that.  This is well-done horror that doesn't come along very much (especially of late) and is even rarer in that it made tons of money (it is one of 15 horror movies to gross over $100 million at the box office - not adjusted for inflation).  I will say that best in show (in my humble opinion) is Vera Farmiga as one of the Warrens, though Lili Taylor, Patrick Wilson, and Ron Livingston also give natural and authentic performances.  8.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Revisited: Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Confession Time:  I have never loved this musical as much as I am supposed to.  As far as Gene Kelly as concerned, I much preferred his performances in Anchors Aweigh and On the Town more.  So I will keep this brief to keep the stones from being thrown too much.  The only reason I re-screened it is because I have delusions of getting into the Supporting Actress Smackdown that The Film Experience is hosting at the end of the month.
  • Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor sure can dance, can't they?
  • While I don't dislike Debbie Reynolds in this role, I always forget about the performance.  Weakest of the principal players
  • I realize 'Singin' in the Rain' is supposed to be one of the greatest songs ever, but I don't really care for it.  In fact, the only song from the movie I would say I wholeheartedly love is 'Make 'Em Laugh' - which is much more of a performance piece than a song.
  • Every time I watch this movie, I develop a crush on Donald O'Connor.
  • Jean Hagen is hilarious as Lina Lamont.  While I am ambivalent about the movie, I am not about her performance.  Very deserving of the Oscar nomination.
  • Surprisingly, Hagen's Best Supporting Actress nomination is the only Oscar nomination that the filmed received.  I would have thought O'Connor's performance would also have been nominated in Supporting Actor at the very least.
  • Reading about the making of the movie is (in my opinion) far more interesting than the film itself.  Apparently Gene Kelly was a bit of a terror - even making Debbie Reynolds cry at one point.
Having said all that, I would give the film a 7.5 out of 10, despite my personal misgivings.  It is a must-watch for musical and movie lovers, and the skill displayed in the dance sequences is amazing.   But not my favorite movie.