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Top 100 Films #72 – There Will Be Blood (2007)

 

there-will-be-blood-plainview-eli#72. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on Oil! By Upton Sinclair)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciaran Hinds, Dillon Freasier

The debate between the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has been raging for nearly a decade at this point.  Both incredible films released in 2007 and vying for that year’s Best Picture award, both camps have made some great points over the years about why their film is the superior one.  In my opinion, There Will Be Blood just barely edges out its competition, thanks in part to Paul Thomas Anderson’s meticulous eye for detail, the central performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, and the themes of greed and the deconstruction of American capitalism.  PTA’s film is about Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an aspiring oil baron in early 20th century America, and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young preacher looking to secure financing for his church.  We see Plainview’s rise to power, his strained relationship with his son HW (Dillon Freasier), their attempted acquisition of Eli Sunday’s land, and his eventual descent into apparent madness.  There Will Be Blood is another film on my list that comes in at well over two hours in length, and yet never meanders or overstays its welcome.  The pacing of PTA’s script (based on Oil! By Upton Sinclair) is perfect in every way, building Daniel Plainview as a man to be reckoned with, and establishing the world in which he exists in – where personal greed, religion, and the pursuit of the American dream all seem to clash.  The Academy Award winning cinematography from longtime PTA associate Robert Elswit is gorgeous, featuring sweeping landscapes, and profound visuals that push the film’s themes without having to say a single word. The towering achievement of There Will Be Blood is the Oscar-winning performance by veteran actor Daniel Day-Lewis, whose turn as Plainview is chilling.  No actor alive can match the intensity of Day-Lewis’ method acting technique – he embodies the spirit of Daniel Plainview in every frame of this picture.  Another performance that must be mentioned is that of Paul Dano, who plays something of an adversary to Plainview in Eli Sunday.  Dano’s occasional outbursts can be truly frightening, and his conniving nature is truly frustrating. It’s a shame that Dano didn’t get the admiration he truly deserved for the role, as it probably caused him to lose a nomination for Best Supporting Actor (though the deck was very much stacked against him).  There Will Be Blood is as perfect a film as you’ll find, telling an intricate, epic tale of greed in the booming days of the early oil industry.  It should really be considered required viewing at this point, as it’s a perfect example of how to create a compelling modern drama.

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Top 100 Films #77 – No Country for Old Men (2007)

 

nocountry_004#77. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (based on No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy)
Starring: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald

Widely regarded as the best movie of the 2000’s, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men is an undeniably powerful project.  It’s a story about circumstance, destiny, greed, and taking unnecessary risks – and is full of morally ambiguous characters and situations.  The film introduced the world to Javier Bardem’s terrifying Anton Chigurh, perhaps one of the most frightening villains of the modern era.   No Country for Old Men took home Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), and Best Adapted Screenplay, beating out one hell of a stiff competitor in the same year’s There Will Be Blood.  The plot of the movie is simple – Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds two million in cash at the site of a drug deal gone bad.  Moss is pursued by a dangerous and emotionless hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), hired to get the money back, and by Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a nearly-retired sheriff in pursuit of both men. What follows is a bloody, suspenseful, challenging thrill ride matched by few films before it, and one whose influence can be seen in many films that have followed it.  The screenplay by the Coen Brothers is perfectly paced, gripping the audience from start to finish.  It never panders to its viewing audience by imitating popular thrillers, but is instead more than happy to take its time in telling an intelligent, and at times frightening story.  Javier Bardem is unpredictable as Anton Chigurh, bringing an unrivaled sense of dread to the film. While Bardem is far and away the highlight of No Country, we also get impressive turns from Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Woody Harrelson, all of whom do their best to match Bardem’s iconic performance.  The awards and praise earned by No Country for Old Men are all deserved, as is its status as one of the great films of the 2000’s.  It’s just that damn good.

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Classic Musicals #2 – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Meet_Me_in_St._Louis_posterMeet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Written by: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe (based on Meet Me in St. Louis by Sally Benson)
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main

In 1944, young starlet Judy Garland could do no wrong.  Coming just five years after tremendous hits like The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms, the now adult Garland was on track for even more success.  Her collaboration with fresh-faced director Vincente Minnelli on Meet Me in St. Louis would result in a marriage between the two eventual icons, and the creation of one of Hollywood’s most revered musical films.  Based on a series of twelve autobiographical short stories called 5135 Kensington by author Sally Benson, which followed the Smith family over a period of twelve months, each story covering one month.  MGM acquired the rights to the stories, renaming the anthology Meet Me in St. Louis, and instead opted to follow the family over four seasons instead of the more ambitious twelve months.  The events of the film are roughly structured around the time of the Louisiana purchase, which author Sally Benson lived through.  Minnelli’s film was also one of the first musicals to naturally and seamlessly implement musical numbers into the story, never awkwardly digressing from the story to fulfill its obligated song and dance numbers.  The Smith’s are portrayed as being a delightful, wholesome, and musically-talented all-American family.  The cast is made up of Judy Garland as Esther, Lucille Bremer as her older sister Rose, Mary Astor and Leon Ames as the matriarch and patriarch of the family, respectively.  Rounding out the cast of family members is the breakout star Margaret O’Brien (who would win a Juvenile Oscar for her breakthrough in the film) as the young Tootie, and Joan Carroll as Agnes.  Meet Me in St. Louis was shot in brilliant technicolor by cinematographer George J. Folsey, who is notable for shooting a number of early Marx brothers comedies, as well as comedies Adam’s Rib and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Minnelli’s early film was a smash hit at the box office, being the fifth highest grossing movie of 1944, and proving to be MGM’s most profitable project since 1939’s Gone with the Wind.  Meet Me in St. Louis established Vincente Minnelli as a colorful and inventive director to watch, set Judy Garland on a path to stardom, earned four Academy Award nominations in the process, and put a number of iconic songs on the map including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “The Trolley Song”, and “Skip to My Lou”.  Though it left the Oscar ceremony without a single statue, Meet Me in St. Louis has stood the brutal test of time, especially in comparison to other musicals of the era.  The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry honored the film with preservation status in 1994, ensuring that it would be beloved by audiences for decades to come.

Meet Me in St. Louis covers one year in the lives of the Smith family, a wholesome upper-middle class bunch living St. Louis, Missouri in the summer of 1903.  Alonzo (Leon Ames) and Anna (Mary Astor) head the family, guiding their four daughters and young son to success in their comfortable American lives. Rose (Lucille Bremer), the oldest daughter, is expecting to be proposed to by the man she loves, and Esther (Judy Garland) has fallen in love with her neighbor John Truett (Tom Drake).  Their younger siblings Agnes (Joan Carroll), Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), and Lon (Henry H. Daniels Jr.) all lead relatively more carefree lives, enjoying the simplicities of childhood in the comfort of their family and home.  The film is split into four vignettes, each chronicling a single season in the year.  We begin with Summer 1903, where the love lives of young Esther and Rose are detailed, as well as the inner-workings of the Smith family. We see each member going about their usual routines, eating dinner together, hosting parties, singing, dancing, and generally having a lovely time together. Esther vies for John’s affections multiple times, to varying degrees of success, while Rose patiently waits for the call she’s been eagerly awaiting.  In the Fall 1903 vignette, we follow Tootie and Agnes as they go out for Halloween, trick or treating and causing general mischief in their neighborhood.  Tootie returns home injured, falsely claiming she has been struck by the charming John Truett. Esther reacts poorly to the revelation, confronting John before finding out the true story.  Once the air has been cleared, Esther dashes to John’s house and the two share their first kiss.  In Winter 1904, the Smith family are preparing for a move to New York, where Alonzo has found a work promotion.  Each member of the family is upset about the move, but willing to do whatever it takes to see that their family is successful.  Esther attends a Christmas ball, where after a series of misfortunes she finally gets to dance with John.  She returns home to find Tootsie distraught, not wanting to leave the only home she’s ever known.  Will the Smith family uproot and move to the bustling big city, or will they sacrifice the opportunity to stay in the place they love?  Find out in Vincente Minnelli’s iconic film Meet Me in St. Louis!

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The young Margaret O’Brien and Judy Garland performing one of the many iconic musical moments in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis.

My history with the grand musical films of Oscar-winning director Vincente Minnelli has been rocky to say the least.  His two most successful movies, Best Picture winning An American in Paris and Gigi, both have incredible and ambitious aspects to them, but have always failed to connect with me on any meaningful level.  Meet Me in St. Louis is the first Minnelli film that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with, let alone enjoyed fully and completely.  His direction is inventive and energetic, changing pace for each of the film’s four acts. The Summer 1903 segment is bright, colorful, and positive, Fall 1903 is dark and brooding, with the Halloween scenes being genuinely creepy and atmospheric. From there, Minnelli immediately changes his style for something a little more traditional, portraying a wholesome and somewhat tragic and mostly believable Missouri Christmas.  While it may never seem as grand as some of the bombastic musicals of the 1930’s, the family-friendly nature of Meet Me in St. Louis feels perfect for any movie viewer.  It’s constantly interesting to look at, well-acted with lovable characters to get behind, and incredibly well written, bringing with it relatable family tensions, comedy, and catchy music.  Judy Garland effortlessly holds the film together, taking advantage of her incredible singing voice and wholesome nature.  Garland’s Esther is hopelessly positive, helping to keep her family together even when nothing seems to be going right for the young woman. She’s charming, and the love story told between Esther and Tom Drake’s John Truett is believable and lovely.  Though I haven’t seen Garland’s entire catalog, Garland’s performance in Meet Me in St. Louis is the best I’ve seen from her. Backing up Garland is a great juvenile performance from Margaret O’Brien as the odd but lovable Tootie.  O’Brien’s Tootie goes from a clumsy and lovable little girl in one act, to a creepy and fairly complex character just twenty minutes later. Her performance is rare for somebody of her age, and it absolutely stands the test of time as far as child actors go.

The music in Meet Me in St. Louis was written by the famous Arthur Freed, who worked with Vincente Minnelli on many of his musical pictures.  Freed’s songwriting combined with Garland’s beautiful voice makes for a breezy two hours, and often had me wishing that the movie featured more musical numbers. The singing and dancing sequences are perfectly written into the happenings of the film, never seeming out of place or unnecessary.  The lyrical content is surprisingly dark at times, and relentless optimistic at others.  Memorable songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Trolley Song” are absolute ear-worms, and will be stuck in your head for days.  The screenplay, written by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe, feels completely fluid and constantly does it’s best to feel fresh and inventive.  The four season vignettes ensure that we never linger for too long on any one part of the film, and helps to break up the tone from act to act.  Despite the constant change in scenery and events through the film, the themes of the importance of family and unity are never lost.  The most important thing in every scene of Meet Me in St. Louis is family, and no decision is made without considering the repercussions and effects it may have on the rest of the Smith household.  The family values portrayed in the film are relatable and affecting without being over-the-top or obnoxious, instead creating something magical that can be viewed by anybody.   The stand out scene takes place during the Fall 1903 portion of the film, specifically the Halloween sequence starring Tootie and Agnes.  The film’s tone is immediately changed from bright and cheery to dark and moody, with Minnelli’s camera shooting lower and from harsher angles, in order to portray the perspective of the trick or treating children.  Tootie’s true personality is revealed in this scene, and Minnelli’s direction is at its most interesting.  There’s no doubting that it’s slightly out of place in our otherwise fairly standard wholesome 1940’s musical, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

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A still from the Winter 1903/04 portion of Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-nominated Meet Me in St. Louis.

After three viewings of Meet Me in St. Louis, I feel confident in saying that this is quite possibly one of the greatest musicals I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.  It’s made me a huge fan of Judy Garland, and even has me wanting to revisit Vincente Minnelli’s later famous works and reassess how I feel about them.  Meet Me in St. Louis features incredible songs, a great performance from one of Hollywood’s most beloved actresses, a lovable cast of characters, beautiful cinematography, and daring direction from one of Hollywood’s most revered musical directors.  The themes of family and unity explored throughout are universally relatable and are every bit as relevant now as they were more than seventy years ago.  There’s no way anybody with a heart and a taste for musicals can sit through this film and not be beaming for two straight hours.  Meet Me in St. Louis gets my absolute highest recommendation.  

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50’s Sci-Fi Feature #4 – Forbidden Planet (1956)

ForbiddenplanetposterForbidden Planet (1956)
Directed by: Fred M. Wilcox
Written by: Cyril Hume (story by Irving Block, Allen Adler)
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Robby the Robot

Forbidden Planet’s oddball send-up to the likes of Sigmund Freud and William Shakespeare is far and away the most fantastic of the 50’s Sci-Fi features we’ve taken a look at thus far during our marathon.  Taking place light years away from the planet earth and featuring a very small cast of characters, the science fiction extravaganza paved the way for future massive franchises like Star Trek, Lost in Space, and Doctor Who.  Forbidden Planet was a trailblazer in a variety of ways, being one of the first motion pictures to take place outside of the planet Earth, showing humans travelling faster than light speed, featuring a believable talking robot as a fully-fledged supporting character, and scored entirely electronically for the first time in film history. These features may not seem like much in 2016, but they all had a part in making science fiction and fantasy film-making what it is today.  Director Fred M. Wilcox’s ambitious loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is without a doubt the most successful film in the filmmaker’s short filmography, elevating him from being a mere footnote in film history.  Forbidden Planet stars Academy Award nominee Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Edward Morbius, the lone human inhabitant of the planet Altair IV.  Alongside the veteran Pidgeon are television star Anne Francis as Dr. Morbius’ daughter Alta, eventual comedic legend Leslie Nielsen as Commander John Adams, leader of the expedition to Altair IV, and Robby the Robot, Dr. Morbius’ highly advanced robot.  Production of the film took place for a little over a month in the Spring of 1955, and believing that Forbidden Planet would have mass appeal, the filmmakers were given a budget of nearly $2 million to work with.  The “Robby the Robot” prop itself cost more than $100,000, and continued to be used for decades in television and films in various capacities.  Upon its initial release in March of 1956, Forbidden Planet was a modest box office success, earning more than $2.7 million from general audiences.  Though the film’s box office performance didn’t exactly change the game or set the film world ablaze, its success ultimately led to the mass production of space-set science fiction movies for decades to come.  Its critical success saw it nominated for an Oscar, and today Forbidden Planet sits in the prestigious National Film Registry.  It is remembered by audiences to this day for being a truly daring and visionary picture that dared to explore the outer reaches of the universe.

The film is set in the distant 23rd century, and takes place entirely on the planet of Altair IV, where a mission is underway to discover the fate of an expedition from two decades earlier.  Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) is seemingly the only expedition member still in contact with the ship, and he warns the ship not to set down, as he cannot guarantee their safety.  Throwing caution to the wind, Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) decides to land on Altair IV to investigate the situation.  The crew is greeted by Robby the Robot (Marvin Miller), a technical marvel built by Morbius.  Robby the Robot has been programmed to never harm human beings, more or less following the Three Laws of Robotics established by famed sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.  The advanced robot leads the crew of the ship to Dr. Morbius, who shows tells them the fate of his crew from 20 years earlier, and shows off his technical prowess by explaining Robby the Robot’s programming to never harm human beings.  Morbius’ daughter Alta (Anne Francis) is soon introduced to the ship’s crew.  It is immediately apparent that there’s something very peculiar about the way Dr. Morbius and his young daughter have managed to survive and thrive on the apparently hostile Altair IV.  Overnight, the crew’s ship is sabotaged by an unknown force, and Dr. Morbius is confronted by Commander Adams.  He denies any involvement and shows Adams ancient technology discovered by the former inhabitants of Altair IV.  The next night, a crew member is killed by the unknown force, and further alarms are raised by Adams and his crew.  Can Commander Adams convince Dr. Morbius to let them take highly important ancient technology back to earth for study, or will the lone inhabitant of Altair IV do what he can to maintain his intergalactic paradise?  Find out in 1956’s game changing Forbidden Planet!

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Robby the Robot and Cook (Earl Holliman) in 1956’s Forbidden Planet.

Having heard little about Forbidden Planet before seeing it, I had always assumed it was an early ultra low budget, Roger Corman-esque production.  This assumption proved very wrong indeed, as I quickly found out that Forbidden Planet has a lot more to offer than just being a schlocky and disposable science fiction flick.  What it brings to the table is genuine intelligence and charm, more so than I ever could have expected from such an early Hollywood venture into outer space.  From the very first minute of the film, Forbidden Planet is colorful and visually interesting in almost every frame.  Though the planet of Altair IV feels very earth-like in many ways, the planet still manages to be different enough to be constantly intriguing.  Despite his relative lack of big budget experience, the film’s journeyman director (Fred M. Wilcox) manages to make the film visually interesting with tight framing and a wandering camera.  It helps that Wilcox is working with a solid screenplay by writer Cyril Hume, who effortlessly blends hard science fiction concepts with expository scenes.  Hume’s script never sacrifices its quality to explain concepts directly to the audience, instead going for a more subtle approach using elements of traditional sci-fi and horror films, mixed with dry wit and a Shakespeare inspired story structure.  Forbidden Planet’s script is partially inspired by The Tempest, following the same general story arc and hitting many of the same milestones along the way.  This inspiration helps to elevate Forbidden Planet’s story from silly science fiction fantasy to a legitimately unique and inspired tale.  The story never pauses long enough to become dull or overstay its welcome, instead constantly introducing new ideas to the audience.  As soon as you think you know a character like Dr. Morbius or Commander Adams, their characters are turned upside down and new elements of their personalities are uncovered.  I found myself actually caring about the three principle characters in Forbidden Planet, something that hasn’t happened during the course of our ongoing 50’s Sci-Fi marathon.  The pacing of the story alone is a sign of how strong Cyril Hume’s writing is, and helps the movie remain engaging even six decades after its release.  While I wouldn’t exactly call it the perfect science fiction film, I very much appreciated everything it was able to bring to the table, and the tremendous influence it had on the medium.  The introduction of Robby the Robot alone was very forward-thinking and progressive for the time, giving an artificial life-form a degree of autonomy, as well as a somewhat human personality.  By the end of Forbidden Planet, you can’t help but wonder what science fiction would look like today if the film had never been released.

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Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen in the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet laid the groundwork for the next sixty years of science fiction films, and captured the imaginations of generations of moviegoers.  The colorful and interesting visuals, solid direction, and excellent script form an incredibly engaging tale of interstellar exploration, thirst for power and knowledge, and the search for answers.  The film was far ahead of its time, and its influence on the genre simply cannot be underestimated by viewers.  While some elements don’t hold up to today’s standards, it remains an interesting case study for what science fiction films can be, and a reminder of how simple the genre was before the film’s release.  Forbidden Planet comes highly recommended.

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Women in Film Feature #8 – The Piano (1993)

The-piano-posterThe Piano (1993)
Directed by: Jane Campion
Written by: Jane Campion
Starring: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Niell, Anna Paquin

New Zealand born film director Jane Campion is one of only four women to ever be nominated for Best Director by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  With her incredibly successful film The Piano, she became the second woman ever nominated for the prize, nearly two decades after Lina Wertmuller’s nomination for her film Seven Beauties.  Campion also became the first female winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or – a record that stood for two decades.  Her films have been praised for their quiet beauty, their adherence to realism, and for their use of gender-central themes and ideas.  While her career has not again reached the highs of The Piano, Campion’s latest work on the television show Top of the Lake has highly acclaimed, with a second season currently in the works.  Jane Campion’s achievements in the early 1990’s cannot be understated, as her success helped propel female directors like Sophia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow to elite status in Hollywood, tremendous critical acclaim, and to their eventual Academy Award nominations.

Before her incredible success with 1993’s The Piano, Jane Campion saw critical acclaim with two independent features, 1989’s Sweetie, and 1990’s An Angel at My Table.  The Piano saw Campion working with a higher budget than ever before, with the film costing $7 million.  The film was an enormous financial success upon its release and critical acclaim, bringing in an incredible $140 million at the box office and later with rentals.  The Piano stars Holly Hunter as its lead character Ada McGrath, Anna Paquin as her daughter Flora, and Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel as the men competing for Ada’s love and affection.  For the role of Ada, director Jane Campion wanted Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Isabelle Huppert.  Due to various scheduling conflicts with Weaver and Leigh, eventual star Holly Hunter was looked at and ended up fighting harder for the role than Huppert did.  The fighting paid off for Holly Hunter, as her incredible silent performance was rewarded with an Academy Award for Best Actress at the 1994 Oscars ceremony, earning her a great deal of acclaim and solidifying her as one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses of the period.  On top of Hunter’s Best Actress win, The Piano earned another acting award, this time a Best Supporting Actress award for Anna Paquin.  At just 11 years old, the win made Paquin the second youngest Oscar winner ever.  The film was nominated for 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design.  Campion herself picked up an award for Best Original Screenplay, but the film was beaten out in other major categories by Steven Spielberg’s seminal film Schindler’s List.  Jane Campion’s The Piano remains one of the most critically hailed films of the 1990’s, and stands as a modern triumph of what women can do with the medium when given equal opportunity to do so.

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Ada McGrath, her daughter Flora, and the titular piano in Jane Campion’s 1993 film.

The Piano opens by explaining that a young, mute Scottish woman named Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) has been sold by her father for marriage to a man in New Zealand by the name of Alisdair Stewart (Sam Niell).  Ada has not spoken a word since the age of six, and nobody knows exactly why.  Ada brings her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) with her to New Zealand, along with her prized hand-crafted piano.  The young woman is seemingly only to express herself through the playing of this piano, and she spends much of her time learning and playing.  Once in New Zealand, the mother and daughter duo are taken in by Alisdair, who instructs his crew of Maori men to leave the piano on the beach, as it is far too heavy to carry all the way back to their new home.  Alisdair turns out to be not quite the gentle and charming husband Ada would have preferred, instead quickly becoming quite jealous and controlling over his new wife and daughter.  Ada gradually grows closer to Alisdair’s friend Baines (Harvey Keitel), who in turn purchases the piano and brings it up from the beach so that Ada can play when they are together.  Baines soon falls in love with the mute woman, setting off a chain of events between himself, Ada, and Alisdair and ensuring that none of them will ever be the same again.  Will true love prevail, or will the bitter jealousy of one man ruin things for all parties?  Find out in Jane Campion’s acclaimed The Piano.

Jane Campion’s The Piano was my first experience with her works, and I came out of the experience pleasantly surprised.  I have always wanted to see both Sweetie and An Angel at My Table because of their status as independent hits, and now I have more motivation than ever before to do so.  The Piano is such an incredibly memorable experience in many ways, including some truly incredible performances, terrific direction from Campion, and breathtaking photography by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh.  The film manages to tell a truly powerful story without ever having its lead character speak, and without sinking into melodramatic territory, which happens too often in stories of love triangles and forbidden romance.  Jane Campion deserves a great deal of credit for her subtle but effective screenplay, which treats every character as a flawed human being, never romanticizing or villainizing any one character no matter how easy it may be to do so.  Campion’s writing never goes for the “easy” win, and instead she opts to take a much more treacherous path in making the audience feel for the character in The Piano.  Campion’s writing and direction can also be credited in aiding the entire cast in delivering highly memorable performances, even earning two Oscars in the process.  Holly Hunter’s silent and moody performance as Ada is one I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget, as she conveys so much without ever saying a word.  Hunter’s dark eyes do all of the speaking for her, telling the audience more in one glance than many actresses could in an entire monologue. Holly Hunter’s Ada is both passionate and reserved, and the audience can always feel the emotional tug-of-war that is trying to drag her into the mud.  The supporting cast of Anna Paquin, Sam Neill, and Harvey Keitel all give tremendous performances in their own right, but are all eclipsed by Hunter’s hauntingly beautiful portrayal of Ada McGrath.  While The Piano can seem slow and dreary at times, there don’t seem to be many wasted moments in the film’s run-time.  Every scene feels like it has a place in either setting the atmosphere of our New Zealand location, establishing the motivations and drives of our cast of characters, or moving the central story forward.  What starts as a relatively mundane costume drama eventually turns into a fiery, brooding story of one woman’s awakening.  Had Campion kept the script’s tragic original ending, the film would have received an even more positive reaction from me.  It’s a shame that it was released the same year as Schindler’s List, because Jane Campion’s The Piano would otherwise fall very neatly into the canon of terrific and important Best Picture winners.

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Flora (Anna Paquin) and Ada (Holly Hunter), the mother-daughter duo in Jane Campion’s The Piano.

While its slow-moving nature may turn off some potential viewers, there’s absolutely no denying the power and importance of Jane Campion’s 1993 romantic drama.  The Piano features too many incredible elements to be forgotten by critics or audiences, including a career-best performance by Holly Hunter, a solid cast of young and veteran supporting performers, tremendous writing and direction from Jane Campion, and rich, dark cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh.  While the idea of a forbidden love triangle may not immediately set your world on fire, the film’s tragic and triumphant story of an independent young woman finding strength and motivation to escape from a toxic situation should be more than enough to arouse your interest.  Jane Campion’s The Piano is easily one of the best films of the 1990’s, and a landmark moment for women in film.  It’s highly recommended.

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Women in Film Feature #7 – Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Sophie's_Choice1Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula
Written by: Alan J. Pakula (Based on Sophie’s Choice by William Styron)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol, Rita Karin

Since her early acting days in the 1970’s, American actress Meryl Streep has been widely regarded as being one of the best and most influential actresses of our time.  The incredibly prolific Streep has made a career of taking challenging and diverse roles, developing a wide variety of accents, eccentricities, and many personality traits.  These varied roles have led Meryl Streep to being one of the most decorated actresses in Hollywood history.  She currently holds three Academy Award wins (once for Best Supporting Actress, and twice for Best Actress), and was nominated for a further sixteen.  Her nineteen career Academy Award nominations makes Streep far and away the most nominated screen actor in history.  Streep’s most famous films include The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Silkwood, Out of Africa, A Cry in the Dark, The Devil Wears Prada, and Doubt.  The acclaimed actress has also been heavily involved with the National Women’s History Museum, serving as their spokesperson and even donating millions of dollars towards the cause.  She has served as a hero and role model to millions for nearly forty years, and continues to be a tremendous influence on and off the silver screen.

Sophie’s Choice marked the second career Academy Award win for lead actress Meryl Streep, and her first win for Best Actress in a Leading Role.  It’s one of the projects that propelled the actress into mainstream popularity, and furthered the acclaim she had already received for being a “chameleon”.  Based on the highly acclaimed novel of the same name by writer William Styron, Sophie’s Choice blends a coming-of-age story and romantic drama with tragic elements revolving around World War II and the survival of the Holocaust.  The film was directed by the famed Alan J. Pakula, who had produced the big screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and directed the critically acclaimed “paranoia trilogy” of Klute, The Parallax View, and Best Picture nominated All the President’s Men. Sophie’s Choice stars Meryl Streep as the titular Sophie, as well as Kevin Kline in his big screen debut, and Peter MacNicol.  The film was a tremendous box office success, more than tripling its budget of $9 million.  Pakula’s drama was also a critical hit, topping Roger Ebert’s 1982 year end list, and earning five Academy Award nominations including Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  Meryl Streep took home the movie’s only Oscar statuette, and officially cemented herself as one of the most successful performers in Hollywood.

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Peter MacNicol, Meryl Streep, and Kevin Kline in 1982’s Oscar-winning Sophie’s Choice.

The film is narrated by the character of Stingo (Peter MacNicol on screen, Josef Sommer in narrated scenes), a young writer who settles in Brooklyn after finishing his schooling.  Stingo befriends the explosive couple of Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep), a Polish immigrant, and Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline), a highly unstable pharmaceutical researcher.  It is revealed that Sophie is a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and that Nathan had helped to ease her post-war transition and nursed her back to good health upon meeting. Nathan grows increasingly jealous and paranoid towards Stingo and Sophie, despite having no evidence to prove that the two are carrying on an affair.  His paranoia causes him to lash out at her in abusive and harassing ways, and has him constantly coming into and leaving Sophie’s life.  Sophie’s past is shown through a series of flashbacks; her father sympathized with the Nazis, while her lover led the Resistance movement against the German’s.  Sophie fears that this knowledge will fall into the wrong hands, and fears for the lives of her young children. Eventually Sophie’s lover is murdered, and her and her children are taken away by the Gestapo.  She is soon made to make an impossible decision that will change her life forever.  Meanwhile in real time, Stingo makes startling revelations about Nathan that furthers his distrust of the wildly eccentric man. To find out whether Sophie’s Choice ends on a positive or a tragic note, you’ll have to watch the film for yourself.

Sophie’s Choice is a film that I’ve been struggling with for more than a week now as I write this.  I have known of its legacy for years, but only brought myself to see it for the sake of the Women in Film marathon.  Its reputation for being incredibly sad and tragic is well-earned, but the amount of critical and audience acclaim for the movie that I’ve read seems pretty unbelievable.  My main gripe lays in the actually storytelling of the film, especially in its heavy reliance on flashbacks.  We learn a great deal about the character of Sophie through these flashbacks, and while they are often very moving and effective, they do little to actually move the plot or connect themselves with the actual narrative of the film. Sophie’s “choice” seems almost inconsequential by the end of the film, because it’s almost completely overshadowed between her struggle to choose between the two men who love her dearly (or worship her, in Stingo’s case).  The use of the Holocaust almost seems exploitative in many moments, especially towards the end of the flashback scenes.  We never spend any significant amount of time with Sophie’s wartime family, so none of it ever has any weight or gravity to it. Instead of caring about these heartbreaking events unfolding before my eyes, I was left scratching my head about why the scenes were even here in the first place.  Especially confusing is the emphasis on Stingo’s coming-of-age in the story, which clashes with the film’s tragic elements on every level and serves to further trivialize the film’s Holocaust subplot.  The writing and structure of Sophie’s Choice is unfortunately the worst element, and in a 2 ½ hour film, that most definitely matters a great deal.  All gripes aside, I have to admit that the acting in the film is incredible, and Meryl Streep’s performance as Sophie is absolutely phenomenal – quite possibly the best performance of the marathon up to this point.  Streep is almost unrecognizable at times, especially in flashbacks where Sophie is suffering from anemia after her liberation from the concentration camp.  She constantly seems meek and uncertain, especially when dealing with Nathan’s outbursts.  Meryl Streep’s Polish accent remains believable and consistent throughout, never mysteriously fading away as some “accents” tend to.  Complimenting Streep’s performance is the scene stealing Kevin Kline in his movie debut.  Though it’s only a supporting role, Kline does what he does best and chews the scenery in every scene he appears in.  His manic and unstable nature is completely believable, and you’re constantly wondering when his next outburst may come.  Sophie’s Choice is competently directed by a veteran of the game, who treats the film’s tragic subplot with a great deal of respect and level headedness.  While it’s not a flashy film, Pakula’s slow and steady direction mixed with rich and gorgeous cinematography by Nestor Almendros, helps to create a realistic atmosphere that is perfect for the time period the film takes place during.

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Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline) in Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice.

Unfortunately for all those involved in the making of Sophie’s Choice, great acting and solid direction can’t make up for a highly confused and aimless screenplay.  While the dialogue is never bad or wasted, the film’s melodramatic treatment of the Holocaust as a story element and its subsequent focus on a coming-of-age love story just feels insulting.  Any elements of the film that would affect viewers in any way seem superficial because of the lack of actual substance to the film’s seemingly important subplot.  Sophie’s Choice feels like two great films that were sloppily edited into one mediocre one.  Fortunately, when the film gets something right, it gets it very right. Sophie’s Choice features an absolutely incredible and award-winning performance by a young chameleon Meryl Streep, and a fun supporting turn from breakout actor Kevin Kline.  We can thank it for its furthering of Meryl Streep’s acting career, but I fail to see any other reason why we’re still talking about it more than thirty years later.  Much to my disappointment, I must urge readers to view at your own discretion.

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Women in Film Feature #4 – To Each His Own (1946)

apv6i8xcTo Each His Own (1946)
Directed by: Mitchell Leisen
Written by: Charles Brackett, Jacques Thery, Dodie Smith
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Mary Anderson, John Lund

The great Olivia de Havilland is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated actresses of her time, as her name is very rarely thrown around with contemporaries like Hepburn, Bergman, Davis, Stanwyck, and Bacall.  She was not somebody I was overly familiar with before selecting one of her most acclaimed roles as a feature, but I sure am glad I chose her over many of my other options.  Olivia de Havilland is a two-time Oscar winner, and currently stands as the oldest living actor to have won a prestigious Academy Award.  The younger sister of fellow actress Joan Fontaine, Olivia got her start in industry working side-by-side with Errol Flynn, one of the biggest male stars in the early days of sound films.  From there, she featured prominently in a supporting role in Gone with the Wind, being nominated for her very first Academy Award.  Though she is known best for her roles in romantic melodramas of the era, her range as an actress led her to be nominated for a total of five Oscars, as well as a host of other awards and honors. This is most evident in Anatole Litvak’s 1948 drama The Snake Pit, where de Havilland plays a woman in an insane asylum who can’t remember why and how she got there.  Her tumultuous relationship with sister Joan Fontaine would have fans debating for decades over which was the best of the siblings.  Whatever the answer may be, the talented sisters remain the only siblings in history to have both won Academy Awards for leading roles.

By the time Olivia de Havilland would star in the acclaimed To Each His Own in 1946, she was already a bonafide star in the industry and would be at the top of her game for the next decade.  Director Mitchell Leisen had worked with the stunning actress just five years before, in Hold Back the Dawn; which saw multiple Oscar nominations and would give the young de Havilland her first nod for the Leading Actress award. The prolific director had nearly fifty directing credits to his name by the end of his career, and had worked with great actresses like sister Joan Fontaine, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, and Claudette Colbert.  Despite working with some of the industry’s very best, his biggest successes seem to have come in early collaborations with Olivia de Havilland in the starring role.  Legendary screenwriter Charles Brackett (of Ninotchka, Ball of Fire, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard fame) both wrote and produced To Each His Own, adding his impressive reputation to melodrama.  As such, the picture was nominated for Best Writing at the Oscars, and Brackett’s screenplay helped Olivia de Havilland take home her first major acting award.  Today, To Each His Own is woefully ignored and overlooked among film enthusiasts, and is mostly relevant for being one of de Havilland’s greatest roles and performances.  The film’s highly melodramatic nature mixed with a very strong female lead character and a positive message at its core shows that the film is still highly relevant (if slightly dated and on the nose) today, and is ripe for potential of being rediscovered by a whole new generations of moviegoers.

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Olivia de Havilland as Judy Norris tending her father’s hometown shop in 1946’s To Each His Own.

To Each His Own begins with Judy Norris (Olivia de Havilland), an aging fire warden in World War II era London, recounting her life story to her colleague Lord Desham (Roland Culver) during a down period for the two.  Through a series of flashbacks, we see young Judy as she lives her life in her small hometown of Piersen Falls.  She is very popular among the locals because of her idealistic and kind-mannered nature, and has the eye of multiple bachelors in town.  Uninterested in any of the townspeople, Judy falls in love with a pilot named Captain Bart Cosgrove (John Lund) who flies into Piersen Falls to promote the purchase of war bonds.  The two share a single night together, and Captain Cosgrove flies off to another town.  Soon, Judy finds out that she is pregnant with Cosgrove’s child, and that she may require a life-saving operation that would result in her losing the child.  After hearing of the untimely death of Captain Cosgrove, Judy changes her mind about the operation and decides to have the baby on her own, without the knowledge of the townspeople.  In order to keep her reputation as a stand up citizen in her hometown, Judy decides to leave her baby on the doorstep of a friend with multiple, who would “find” the baby and offer it to Judy because another child would just be too much. Unfortunately for Judy, the baby is given up for adoption after a series of unfortunate events to a couple who have just lost their own young child.  Judy pledges her entire life to reuniting with her young child, now known as Gregory or “Griggsy”.  She does this by aiding Griggsy’s adoptive mother with the young child, and constantly checking in on the family.  After some tension between the women, Judy is forbidden from seeing the young boy and moves out of Piersen Falls to start anew.  Will Judy Norris ever reunite with her son, or will the boy grow up and never recognize that he in fact has two loving mothers in his life? Find out in Mitchell Leisen’s Academy Award winning To Each His Own!

Being able to discover great new films is my absolute favourite part of doing these spotlights, especially since I always make a point of only seeking out unseen films. To Each His Own might be one of my favourite discoveries yet, especially since it’s something I went into with literally no expectations at all.  Olivia de Havilland was an absolute revelation, and I can’t believe I hadn’t seen her in a starring role until this film.  She brings so much power and grace to the character of Judy Norris, who is quite possibly one of the all-time great mothers in film. Her performance never feels cheap or too melodramatic, and instead oozes hope and idealism.  She never bows down to a male character who isn’t her own son, which is another thing I absolutely loved to see in a film from this time.  The direction by Mitchell Leisen isn’t anything to phone home about, but he obviously knew how to command one hell of a performance out of Olivia de Havilland and the rest of the supporting cast, most of whom give good or at least passable performances.  The other shining light of To Each His Own is its Charles Brackett-penned screenplay, which packs tremendous emotional punches over and over again, but also isn’t afraid to insert some clever humor here and there. These comedic moments come mostly from small supporting players (often children) throughout, and helps to ease the tension the audience feels by watching a loving mother come so close to her own child, yet never manage to get the necessary words out to him.  The film moves at a great pace, not getting to Judy’s brief romance with Captain Cosgrove until more than twenty minutes in. We get a feeling for the town of Piersen Falls and the people who live within, and best of all get to spend some quality time really getting to know Judy Norris and her motivations as a character.  Things really speed up when Judy leaves her hometown for greener pastures, seeing her run her own small business empire with the help of a friend wonderfully played by Bill Goodwin.  To Each His Own never lingers for too long, yet always manages to remind you as a viewer what is really at stake with all of Judy’s successes.

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Olivia de Havilland accepting her Oscar for Best Actress from presenter Ray Milland at the 1947 Academy Awards.

It’s really too bad that To Each His Own has been so overlooked for such a long time now.  While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way, there’s a lot about it to really admire and fall in love with.  Its melodrama feels realistic and mostly deserved, feeling more like the more subtle work of the great Douglas Sirk than your typical Oscar fare of the time.  It features a truly incredible performance by Olivia de Havilland, who plays a strong and loving mother who never lets anybody get in the way of her relationship with her son.  It’s incredibly progressive and despite aging quite a lot in some ways, still feels pretty relevant today.  It allowed de Havilland to really show off her skills as a leading lady, and led to her taking far more interesting and successful roles in the coming years. The film features a sharp screenplay with little to no wasted time, and the two hour run-time goes by almost too quickly.  To Each His Own had me in tears when the credits rolled, something I can’t say for many of the movies I’ve reviewed here on my blog.  While it’s certainly not perfect, it managed to easily worm its way into my heart.  To Each His Own is highly recommended.  

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