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Movie Marathon Idea: Hollywood Rivals – Bette and Joan

May 29, 2012

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were two of the greatest actresses and icons to rise out of the early Hollywood studio system.  Bette Davis, long-considered the more classically trained, educated stage actress, was the queen of Warner Brothers in the 30s and 40s.  Joan Crawford was her polar opposite:  a hard-scrabble gal who rose up from poverty to become one of the most iconic flappers in the silent films of the 20s, and finally the star and grand dame of MGM in the 30s and 40s.  Their mutual disdain for each other is the stuff of Hollywood legend, with many of their fans taking sides and extolling  the virtues of each actress with passion.

Personally, I happen to be a huge fan of both women for very different reasons.  Bette is an absolute firecracker on film.  Her big, expressive eyes and unusual beauty are captivating.  She has an innate sense of dramatic timing and most biographies present her as a volatile genius who used her talent and her sharp wit to her best advantage.  Despite a series of failed marriages, Bette was always looking for love both on and off-screen.

Joan, on the other hand,  was a smooth power player who used her dark and seductive look and knowledge of lighting and camera angles to highlight her casual acting style.  She was known for being a the Hollywood legend few men could turn down (and she went through quite a few).  While not as classically trained as Bette, Crawford was every inch the movie star and her acting talents are in many ways equal to Davis’.  Contrary to the legacy left by the horrific portrayal of her in Mommie Dearest, most of her close friends and co-workers adored her; she knew the names of almost every crew member on every film she ever made, and was known for bestowing gifts and financial assistance to many of her nearest and “dearest” in their times of need.

Here are Bette and Joan’s finest performances.

BETTE:  Jezebel (1938)

A year before the release of Gone With the Wind, Bette starred in William Wyler’s tale of a Southern belle driven to the point of madness by the man who got away.  Davis stars as Julie Marsden, a sheltered maid of New Orleans who is engaged to the honest and attractive banker, Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda).   Full of her own importance, Julie tries to shock society by wearing a scarlet red dress to the debutante ball, where the young maidens are strictly forbidden to wear any color other than virginal white.  Pres escorts her nobly, but is dismayed by her whim and her disrespectful airs.  He breaks off the engagement, returning a year later with a Northern wife in tow.  Julie, devastated, attempts to lure Pres back with her now fading charms, but is foiled at every turn by her own arrogance.   In the end, Pres is quarantined on an island with a fatal case of yellow fever and Julie must decide whether she will make the ultimate sacrifice to be with the man she loves.  Bette gives a powerhouse of a performance, all eyes and spitfire.  Thanks to masterful direction by Wyler (it’s rumored the two were having a scandalous affair during filming), she shines in every scene, illustrating Julie’s intelligence and passion despite her obvious flaws.

JOAN:  Mildred Pierce (1945)

Joan’s great Oscar triumph would come at the end of a long struggle for Joan to regain her box office clout.  Recently dumped by MGM, the studio that groomed her and supported her throughout the 20s and 30s, Joan had to screen test and claw her way to winning the role that would end up being her most lucrative and her most lauded.   Joan stars as the title character, who in the beginning of the film ditches her unfaithful husband and the life of a housewife to work as a waitress to support her two girls, Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay.   The ungrateful Veda is dismayed to find her mother sinking to a working class job.  Veda has her eye on wealth and fame, although she lacks any moral compass or talent to make this a reality.    Out of love for her daughters, Mildred marries the feckless but charming Monty Beragon, who gives her the society status Veda craves.  Mildred also finds financial success by opening a chain of chicken dinner restaurants throughout California.   In the end, however, Mildred’s blindness regarding Veda’s true nature becomes her undoing.  Joan gives the best work of her career as Mildred, a woman who is calm and sophisticated on the surface, but bursting with passion and drive underneath.   Her scenes with Blyth are masterpieces to behold, with both going for broke.   Joan would win her one and only Oscar for the role.

BETTE AND JOAN:  Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

The two great rivals would finally work together after years of trading barbs in 1962’s psychological horror film about two sisters who are both aging actresses.  Jane (Bette Davis) was at the peak of her career in the silent era of vaudeville films, when she was a pint size diva.  Blanche (Joan Crawford), rises to fame as Jane’s career is at an end, playing sophisticated adult beauties.   After a car accident robs Blanche of her mobility, Jane must become her sister’s caretaker.  Jane is an alcoholic basket case who resents her sister to the point of abuse.  Much of film shows Jane’s descent into jealousy-inspired dementia.  Blanche’s life hangs in the balance as Jane’s mind games become more and more fatalistic.  Although Bette would earn the most praise (and another Oscar nomination) as the showier Jane,  Crawford’s understated and mesmerizing portrayal of Blanche at times outshines her, especially in the final scene.

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Top 20 Film Adaptations of Classic Lit, Part IV

May 23, 2012

5.) Blade Runner -1982 (directed by Ridley Scott, based on the novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  by Philip K. Dick)

Scott’s vision of a bleak, technology-driven future brought up interesting questions about the value of human life, the power of what remains unseen and how far one man will go to prove himself.  For more details, see my Truly Great Movie write-up.

4.) The Age of Innocence – 1992 (directed by Martin Scorsese, based on the novel The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton)

Wharton’s masterpiece of mood and manipulation tells the story of two souls pulled apart by the machinations of society at large.  Scorsese’s departure from his usual genres is a brilliant ode to the Gilded Age and Wharton’s timeless wit.

For more, see my Truly Great Movie Entry.

3.)To Kill a Mockingbird -1962 (directed by Robert Mulligan, based on the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

Mulligan’s film hinges on the brilliant central performance by Gregory Peck as steady and honorable patriarch Atticus Finch, who teaches his children the meaning of courage and dignity in the face of ignorance.  Mulligan’s film focuses on the most moving of Lee’s scenes in the novel, including the incredible closing argument of  Tom Robinson’s divisive trial, delivered by Peck/Atticus with stalwart empathy and power.    There are so many things to love about the film, including Mary Badham’s unvarnished and innocent performance as the plucky narrator, Scout.   The ending of the film makes me shed tears no matter how often I view it.

2.) The Lord of the Rings trilogy – 20o1-03 (directed by Peter Jackson, based on the novels The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Jackson, like Ridley Scott, is a maker of worlds so grand and encompassing that they become reality for the viewer.  Middle Earth comes alive in the trilogy, full of wonders both graceful and frightening.  At the heart of the story is the struggle of good vs. evil, but along the way, it is the range of colorful characters that capture our imagination.  Jackson draws us into their stories as if we were making the journey alongside them. As film-goers, we revel in Aragorn’s transformation from dark loner to glorious king, marvel at Gandalf’s return from the dead, and cry in relief when the friendship between Frodo and Samwise delivers Middle Earth from Sauron’s grasp.

1.)The Godfather – 1972 (directed by Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo)

Here is an example of an adaptation that far surpasses its source material. The Godfather isn’t an action movie, although as generations pass, it seems that fewer folks remember how introverted and character-based the film really remains.  It is a portrait of a family, in all of its glory and its degradation.  Coppola’s masterpiece is at its most moving when focusing on individual characters and their reactions to life at its most inevitable crossroads.  From Sonny Corleone’s brilliantly off-kilter temper, to Tom’s loyal and steadfast honor, there’s not an off note performance in the film.  Still, the two most interesting characters to me will always be doomed lovers Michael and Kay, who eventually come to realize that even passion and fidelity can’t interfere with the needs of the family honor.  It is this blood price that finally seals both their fates in one of the most moving and chilling final scenes in film history.

REALLY Rapid Review: The Avengers

May 12, 2012

Sorry for the abbreviated review, but with teaching duties wrapping up for the year, I’ve been a bit on the lazy side on the weekends and want to focus more on fun than writing.  Anyway, here goes…

Joss Whedon is at the helm for this latest Marvel adventure, and he’s the perfect choice as a fearless leader.  A nerd who writes for nerds, Whedon has the wit, knowledge and understanding of superhero mythos to make The Avengers come alive on-screen.  It’s a difficult challenge, but Whedon is not only the director of the film, but also the head writer, and this ensures that all flows as is necessary for the success of the story.

It’s hard to say who looks more uncomfortable in this photo…

There are so many protagonists and so many intertwining backstories in The Avengers that it is akin to trying to manage an air control tower when trying to make all these personalities intersect and meld into a cohesive whole.  Whedon wisely gives each major player the spotlight when necessary and the script plays to each lead’s talents.  Robert Downey, Jr.’s witty and sarcastic Iron Man is as wry and charming as ever, while Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is appropriately noble and often lumbering when dealing with modern social cues.

The best relationships in the film are those that play on each icon’s inevitable Achilles’ heels.  The banter between Downey’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ stalwart and vibrant Captain America is a prime example; paired together these two heroes exemplify the clash between the old and the new in terms of both technology and rapidly changing world views.  They have a sharp and interesting contrast that helps move the plot and the dynamic in new directions.

Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of the cursed yet brutally powerful Hulk/Bruce Banner is the best I’ve seen in the recent gamut of films.  He manages to make the character menacing and erudite at the same time, which is no small feat.  Iron Man also has some buddy time moments with the human version of the green giant, and Ruffalo and Downey work well together.  I think this basically proves that Tony Stark would be the Avenger most of us would want to hang out with, if only for one night (eventually, being constantly compared to a rich handsome dude with an unlimited supply of toys would probably get a little grating).

Nick Fury. Enough said.

The main villain is Thor’s wayward brother, the petulant and scheming Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who is determined to rule the world one green-eyed smirk at a time.  He’s planning on using the powers of the Tesseract (the elusive glowing cube from the Thor  and Captain America films) to harness an army, and all this planning and hinting boils down to the usual baddie plan of taking over the universe with super-powered minions.  This is all because daddy liked Thor better, of course.

The basic tenets of the plot are pretty generic superhero stuff (big bad guy, end of the world, banding together to save the planet), but the writing and the acting by all the leads makes the ride plenty interesting and worth the price of admission.

I admit, I probably need a second viewing of the film if only because much of the last 30 minutes was a little over-stimulating.  There was so much going on visually that I got a little lost regarding which blur of a superhero was accomplishing what.

As the sum of its parts, Whedon’s film is a worthy successor to the recent string of Marvel hits, taking all the characters and their various quirks/strengths and melding them into a fun and satisfying adventure.  As always, make sure that you stay through the credits for some hints as to what’s coming next in the Marvelverse.

Overall Grade:  A –

Best of the 80s – Flash Gordon (1980)

May 7, 2012

All hail Ming of Mongo and his arch-nemesis, Flash Gordon (he of the bulging muscles and minimal brain cells)!

Flash Gordon, made in 1980, has a soundtrack by Queen, who apparently were saving their best songwriting efforts for Highlander six years later.  All they managed to produce for this film was a theme song that sounds like six guys hovered around a Wikipedia entry and said, “So…he’s a hero.  And he saves people.  So – ‘Flash – he’ll… save every one of us?’ and then repeat chorus?  Great. Done.”

The film stars Sam J. Jones, an actor so wonderful that 99% of his dialogue had to be dubbed in the final edit, Melody “no one will ever hear from me again” Anderson and Topol, otherwise known as the guy from Fiddler on the Roof who would spend much of the 90s trying to recapture his glory days in various dinner theaters throughout the country.  Sweet.  Let’s get started with the details…

aliens, weirdos and despots, oh my!

Flash Gordon, based on the original comic by Alex Raymond, was not the first feature film version of the iconic character, but is by far the most memorable one.  Flash’s adventures were born in the 1930s when pulp sci-fi adventure was at its height, and several early films and television shows were built around Flash’s attempts to bring down the evil powers trying to destroy Earth.

By the time we get the 1980 film, Flash has been around for 50 years, but still looks as buff and clueless as ever.  In this film incarnation, he’s played by Sam J. Jones as a New York Jets football player trapped on a puddle-jumper plane with the intrepid (she says trying not to chuckle) reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). Their small prop plane is brought down in the middle of nowhere by freak electrical storms. Dale Arden, despite having the coolest name ever, is not really a model of feminist power and spends much of the first half hour of the film latched on to Flash like the world’s most expensively coiffed parasite.

Upon leaving their crashed plane (perfectly intact with nary a hair or bronzed pec out-of-place), they stumble upon the workshop of disgraced scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol).  Zarkov has been discredited by his colleagues in the U.S. government because he believes that Earth is under attack by the deranged ruler of a distant planet.  Lo and behold, Zarkov is right (Hail, Ming!), and before you know it, the wily scientist has managed to trick the uber-intelligent Dale and Flash into helping him drive his jalopy of a rocket to find the mysterious planet that he believes holds Earth in its grasp.

The journey to planet Mongo is full of strange Queen-composed elevator music and manages to make all the passengers look like they are one lava lamp away from a scene in That 70s Show.

Flash, you are so dreamy in that incompetent witless kind of way…

Once they land on Mongo, the Technicolor rainbow of cheese commences in full force.  We are introduced to Ming,  the despot ruler of this mongrel universe, who has some pretty impressive telekinetic powers and an even more impressive Fu Manchu that he pets constantly to show when he is contemplating something DASTARDLY.  Ming is played by Max von Sydow, who is one of three actors (all of whom are European, natch) who would survive the splendid catastrophe that is this film and go on to have successful careers.  Overall, Von Sydow admirably decided to go all Pacino as Tony Montana with his performance and it works pretty well.  He embraces the oily cheese of it all and is so over-the-top fabulous that he basically creates a souffle out of the darn thing.

As the heroes arrive on Mongo, Ming is holding his bi-weekly State of the Planet meeting, which basically boils down to demanding gold, crops and first children from the many tribes of his planet.  These tribes include a race of bird people, a group of white guys who love to wear green, some random small folks that sound like R2D2, and one of the lost tribes of Africa, who are up first.  Bad luck, dudes.

Ming, having completed an off-planet course sponsored by the Sith School of How to Win Friends and Successfully Torture Minions, can basically make a dude do whatever the heck he wants with his super-powered telekinetic ring.  It amazes me that none of the downtrodden tribes of Mongo have figured out how to snatch that darn ring off his nightstand, but I digress.

Ming and his mentally unbalanced progeny, Aura

After proving his awesomeness by forcing one of the tribe’s leaders to literally fall on his sword for not paying tribute, Ming turns his attentions to Flash and companions.  Flash tries unsuccessfully to escape by using the world’s lamest football long pass and Ming arches an eyebrow and discovers that Dale is kind of hot and he’d like to keep her as his current pet.  Zarkov, as a scientist, is also useful, so he’s sent off to be brainwashed to serve the empire.  Flash, however, lacks any observable use (showing once again that Ming, despite his murderous tendencies, is a practical guy) and is sent off to be tortured and killed.

Luckily for Flash, Ming’s slinky daughter, Princess Aura, has daddy issues (“I love him and want his approval!  I hate him and will work to destroy him!”) and sees Flash as a great opportunity to get even.  She kidnaps Flash and tries to hide him on her other boyfriend’s planet, the green and rainforesty Arboria (get it – “arbor”ia – like trees and stuff!).  Great plan.  The other boyfriend is Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton – his career survives!), who loves Aura despite her obvious psychological issues.  Barin says sure, he’ll watch her other love toy, then promptly proceeds to try to kill Flash by subjecting him to the planet’s rite of passage, which involves sticking a hand in a stump and hoping it is not the hole hiding the deadly scorpion.  Those wacky Arborians!  Flash pulls a classic fake out and pretends to be wounded, then escapes with Barin in pursuit.

Vultan

Now back to Dale and Zarkov.  Zarkov manages to overcome the Mongo brainwashing by saying the alphabet backwards while watching awkward home movies of himself.  He sets out to save Dale, but Dale is one step ahead of him.  Dale has been trapped inside the world’s tackiest motel room (complete with orange upholstered rotating circle bed) with Ming’s maidservants, who are trying to ply her with some kind of psychedelic Jamba Juice that will make Ming tolerable to sleep with.  Dale convinces one of the maids to drink the stuff with her, then steals her clothes, knocks out a nameless, faceless guard and steals his laser weapon.  Go, Dale! You are almost making up for the first half hour when you were totally useless!  Dale and Zarkov are captured by Vultan, leader of the Hawkmen, on their way to save Flash.

Flash and Barin are ALSO captured by Vultan (Brian Blessed – his career survives!), who is a busy guy despite all appearances to the contrary, and taken to their Sky City (not nearly as clever a name as Arboria, Hawkmen).  Because there is no such thing as television on Mongo, the Hawkmen subject Flash and Barin to yet ANOTHER form of gladiator-style torture on a rotating, suspended pit of spikes.  Flash gets his one brilliant idea and declares that fighting each other is pointless: the Arborians and Hawkmen should team up with Flash and defeat Ming.

Barin is game, but then Ming’s mask-faced minion Klytus shows up.  It turns out that the fickle Aura ain’t so good at resisting torture, and has given up the location of both her boy toys to her daddy.  Klytus makes a threatening speech and basically the Hawkmen are SO out of there.  Barin and Flash kill Klytus Wicked Witch of the West style and it is officially on like Donkey Kong.

Dale and Zarkov

Ming shows up, wanting to reclaim his pet, Dale, and deal with this nuisance Flash once and for all.  He offers Flash rule over Earth as a fellow despot and Flash, noble to the core of his witless soul, says no way.  Ming grabs Zarkov and Dale and orders the city destroyed.  But, wait!  Flash manages to find a rocket cycle and escape before the whole thing implodes.

Flash runs into an apologetic Vultan, who’s all, “Let’s be friends now and sorry about that whole making you perform like a circus monkey and leaving you to your death thing”.  They make up and decide to attack the Imperial City, crashing Ming’s wedding to Dale.  Ming has decided he will take her as his “wife of the moment”, which once again makes him more hilarious and interesting than any other character in this film.

Here’s where the theme song blares continuously for the next 15 minutes, as Flash and the Hawkmen break through Ming’s defenses with much “pew-pewing” of laser weapons and equally annoying acting prowess.

In the end, Flash really does save every one of us, if only because with Ming’s death, the movie must finish its onslaught on all the senses and get to the credits.

Flash Gordon is a cult hit for the very reason that it is so incredibly awful that it is essentially brilliant. It  basically vomits in the face of good taste and keeps on smiling.    Who could ask for more?

Need some great Ming quotes?  Of COURSE you do!

 “Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would’ve hidden from it in terror. “

Amen to that.

“It’s what they call tears, it’s a sign of their weakness.”

“Klytus! Are your men on the right pills? Maybe you should execute their trainer!”

All hail Ming!

Truly Great Movies: Bull Durham (1988)

April 30, 2012

For me, the best sports movies are the ones that aren’t really about sports.  By far, my favorite film that fits this description to a tee (or in this case, a baseball diamond) is Bull Durham, a movie about the altars and household gods folks pray to for advice and guidance regarding the important deities of sports and true love.

Writer and director Ron Shelton here presents us with the story of the trials and tribulations of the minor league Durham Bulls.  There are two types of minor league players:  those on their way up to the big time, and those who are on their way out, soon to be lost to obscurity or to move on to other careers within the organization.    Kevin Costner plays “Crash” Davis, who was once in the big show, but is now hoping for one last record-breaking season in the minors.  Tim Robbins is “Nuke”  LaLoosh, and he is on the opposite side of the spectrum,  a dim-witted guy with a cannon for a pitching arm.

Still, the true narrator and center of the story is the Durham Bulls’  number one fan and self-appointed baseball goddess, Annie Savoy, a part-time English professor at the local junior college who is more invested in the mysteries and mythology of baseball than the merits of Keats and Byron.  Her continued attempts to (incorrectly) quote great poets in reference to her love of baseball provide some of the comedic highlights of the film.

Annie and Crash trade barbs

Annie “adopts” and “trains” one of the Bulls’ most promising players each season.  To the coaches and players, she’s a bit of a well-respected running joke.  To Annie, she sees this season-long mentorship as her calling and mission in life.  She teaches her chosen player how to finesse the less-technical ways of the game of baseball.  It’s a an equal partnership.  She gets the company and satisfaction of a relationship with a definite expiration date; the player gets a fun ride and some helpful tips.

Annie spots both Nuke and Crash as her most promising candidates of the season.  She sits them down for an interview.  Nuke is clueless and amused.  Crash is insulted and miffed. In one of the movie’s most memorable speeches, Crash lists his reasons why both relationships and baseball can’t be trivialized and categorized by Annie’s rules.  He walks out on the interview, saying, “ I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot… opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”    “Oh, my”, says Annie.  Oh, my, indeed.

Annie takes the inexperienced and arrogant Nuke on as her protegé, but this begins a systematic game of sharp banter between her and the more interesting Crash.  Crash subtly sabotages her attempts at romancing and training Nuke, attempting to show Annie who the real man is in the equation. Annie sticks to her guns, saying “Despite my rejection of most Judeo-Christian ethics, I am, within the framework of the baseball season, monogamous.”

Nuke and Crash on the field

Crash also believes that Annie’s training methods go against the very fiber of all that makes baseball great.  There is a certain charm and luck involved, and superstitions and streaks are to be respected above all else.

When the Bulls finally hit a well-deserved winning streak, Crash implants the idea in Nuke’s mind that sleeping with Annie will curse his pitching arm.  This leads to a showdown between Annie and Crash that sets the course of the rest of the movie.  Annie is angry at Crash’s attempt to neutralize her dogma, but she’s also fascinated by his rugged charm.  Crash is scornful of Annie’s confident baseball voodoo, but overall he wants to show her that love and baseball are games with two completely different sets of rules.

Annie and Crash connect

After the Bulls’ winning streak comes to an end, Nuke arrives at Annie’s to claim his prize, but with a caveat: he’s moving up to the big show.  Annie is relieved that she doesn’t have to end the relationship, since she’s come to the realization that Crash is the man she loves.

At the film’s end, we see Crash at the end of a career, Nuke about to embark on one, and Annie at a crossroads.   Eventually, Crash and Annie realize that they have to throw the rule book out the window, quit keeping score, and accept each other’s quirks and superstitions in order to move forward.

Still, it all comes down to the altars and alter egos we worship, and as Annie states at the end of the film, ” Walt Whitman once said, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.”   

For Annie and Crash, moving forward, nothing could sum it up better.

Top Five Best and Worst Movie Sidekicks

April 23, 2012

They can be the Goose to your Maverick or the Short Round to your Dr. Jones. You’d better believe that is there a HUGE difference.  The movie sidekick has a long and somewhat noble history.  Here are the best and worst sidekicks in recent film memory…

WORST

5.) Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) – Flash Gordon:

Here’s a sidekick who is supposed to be a scientific genius, but in actuality can’t talk himself out of a paper bag.  For a guy who can build a functioning spaceship that travels across galaxies, he knows nothing about human-alien relations, preferring to comment on the social dynamics of the rainbow tribes of Mongo instead of grabbing a gun and going to town on the evil minions of Ming the Merciless.

4.) Will Scarlett (Christian Slater) – Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves:

Perhaps Slater was trying so hard to master his psuedo-Brit accent that he forgot to infuse anything interesting into his one-note character.  Traditionally Robin Hood’s loyal bard, in this movie Will Scarlett is a snarling hood rat with daddy issues. I’m assuming I wasn’t supposed to cheer when the dude gets an ARROW through his HAND.  The strange subplot about Will being Robin’s long- lost half-brother was one of MANY weird scripting choices in a movie that is so bad it almost verges on brilliant.

3.) Mutt Williams (Shia Le Beouf) – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull:

Speilberg and writer David Koepp should have dumped  the Indy’s son subplot and showcased Mutt’s mother, Marion, instead.  Le Beouf’s not a terrible actor, but he doesn’t have much to work with in this thankless role as the foil to Ford’s aging hero.  As Mutt, a hipster with a motorcycle who is obsessed with his 50s greaser haircut, he’s meant to emphasize the generation gap, but the jokes land with a thud.  Meanwhile, Karen Allen’s Marion steals every scene she’s in, reminding the audience how the chemistry between her and Ford in the original film was one of its best assets.

2.) Leo Getz (Joe Pesci) – Lethal Weapon 2:

Never mess with a great partnership.  In a franchise where the two leads are already polar opposites, why saddle them with a grating wise guy whose main purpose is to complain about the quality of the drive thru while in the midst of action sequences?  It’s a grating character in an otherwise entertaining franchise.

1.) Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) – Star Wars Episodes 1-3

Most people can’t even mention this character without squirming.  Episode One is a mess of bad acting and bad writing, but its most grievous error lies in trying to pander to the kiddie set by introducing a sidekick with neither the intelligence of C3PO nor the silent charm of Chewbacca.  Jar Jar is a misstep on many levels, but his stumbles are made all the more cringe-worthy in the dialogue that walks a fine line between harmless parody and racial stereotyping.

BEST

5.) Cameron  Frye (Alan Ruck) – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

In my personal opinion, Cameron and Sloane are probably married by now and about to send their kids off to college.  You know she didn’t end up with Ferris, folks.  Cameron’s the guy that makes the perfect best friend and the perfect comedic foil.  Someone has to be the voice of reason, especially when your best friend wants to ditch school, steal your dad’s car and impersonate Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago.  Alan Ruck’s sly but believable performance anchors the film in reality, all the while showing that even the biggest stick in the mud can let loose when given the chance.
4.) Barry (Jack Black) – High Fidelity:

Everyone needs a friend that is nice enough to tell you when you are wearing a “Cosby sweater”.  Barry is one of those ubiquitous guys who seems to always appear when he is the least needed.  He is loud, obnoxious, and utterly hilarious.  Plus, Barry harbors some hidden talents.  After spending much of the movie trying to put together a band (favorite potential band name:  Kathleen Turner Overdrive), Barry busts out a shockingly incredible voice in the final scene as he belts out “Let’s Get It On” to a stunned (but impressed) audience.

3.) Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) –Harry Potter series

Hermione grows up dramatically, throughout the series, going from a frizzy-haired know it all to the smartest and most confident babe at Hogwarts.  Along the way, she is the friend Harry can always count on to know the answers to life’s myriad of questions, whether it be about how to destroy a horcrux or the best way to transform into a chubby Slytherin student.  The final two films showcase how the platonic partnership between Miss H and Harry becomes part of the emotional bedrock of  the series.   I’m still thrilled that J.K.  Rowling never made a messy love triangle out of that perfect triumvirate of friends who got to grow up battling evil for a living.   Hermione is one of the greatest gal pals a guy wizard could ever have on his side.

2.) Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) – The Lord of the Rings trilogy

Fantasy’s greatest bromance blooms under the shadow of the classic battle of good vs. evil, but its many nuances and strengths are bolstered by the steadfast and loyal Samwise Gamgee.  Sam puts up with all of Frodo’s quirks and bad decisions right up until the end, and the final climactic scene in Mordor proves just how worthy a sidekick he truly has become, as he brings Frodo literally back from the edge of madness.  His reward is what he wanted all along:  the girl of his dreams and a Happy Ever After safe in The Shire.

1.) Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) – Raiders of the Lost Ark

Sure, she’s also the love interest, but Marion is a gal who can more than hold her own against the challenging charms of Dr. Indiana Jones.  Literally the “one that got away”, Marion is a hard-living realist who can hang with the guys and most likely drink all of them under the table.  She’s not a tomboy, though, and her feminine wiles charm even the smarmy Belloq into submission.   Although occasionally appearing to be the damsel in distress, most of the time Marion rescues herself just fine.  The banter between her and Indy gives the film a human touch, and Marion’s presence would be greatly missed in the next two films in the series.

Top 20 Film Adaptations of Classic Lit, Part III

April 16, 2012

10.) Far from the Madding Crowd -1967  (directed by John Schlesinger, based on Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy)

Schlesinger’s 1967 film showcases the stunning beauty of actress Julie Christie and cool blond haughtiness of her character, the young and tempestuous Bathsheba Everdene.  Bathsheba is caught in a classic love quadrangle.  At the beginning of the novel, she is courted by the honest and hard-working farmer, Gabriel Oak (a handsome Alan Bates).  She rejects him out of pride and youth.  She suddenly comes to inherit her aunt’s farm, and discovers she has a head for management and business.  Here, she crosses paths with Gabriel again and hires him as her unofficial baliff.  Now a wealthy woman, she is determined that Gabriel understand she is above him in station.  She earns the admiration of a local landowner, Farmer Boldwood, who is older and becomes obsessed with Bathsheba’s beauty.  Determined to have her for a wife, he pursues her relentlessly, only to see her heart stolen by the faithless soldier, Frank Troy.  Troy marries Bathsheba, but when his destitute and pregnant fiancée shows up, he realizes his heart belonged somewhere else after all.   Much madness, murder and mayhem ensues until Bathsheba ends up with the loyal and faithful Gabriel Oak, the man whom she should have married in the beginning.  Christie gives a performance heavy on Bathsheba’s vanity but light on her other talents, but Alan Bates is a handsome and effective Gabriel Oak, and Terence Stamp, as the dim and tortured Frank Troy, gives the best performance of the character on film.  The movie itself is a love letter to the rolling hills of Hardy’s fictional Wessex (Salisbury and its surrounding plains in England), although it is colder and more distant than the novel itself, never quite catching the fire of Bathsheba’s inner turmoil.

9.)Sense and Sensibility – 1995 (directed by Ang Lee, based on Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen)

Ang Lee has never made sheep look more gorgeous.  The real star of the film is its cinematography, which manages to make the green and lush hills of England, along with the region’s  rapid weather changes, a metaphor for the personality of sensitive sister Marianne (Kate Winslet).  Sense and Sensibility, as Austen’s first complete novel, is the tale of two sisters, Elinor (Emma Thompson), the practical and solemn one, who tolerates even the most ridiculous members of early 19th century society, and Marianne, the poetic and vibrant one, who cannot fathom why one shouldn’t shout one’s feelings to the rooftops.  Except for Winslet, all the leads in the film are about 15 years too old, but that doesn’t detract from the magic of the movie’s appeal.  Emma Thompson brings a wise and tired look to Elinor that changes when she is in the company of her soul mate,  the retiring future parson Edward (Hugh Grant).  Meanwhile, Marianne spends much of the movie fawning over the dashing but volatile Willoughby (Emma Thompson’s real-life partner, Greg Wise) before realizing that the steadfast Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) is the man who deserves her heart.   Sense and Sensibility isn’t the deepest or the most intriguing Austen novel, but it is still one of my favorites thanks to its core ideas about staying true to one’s own sense of self, regardless of what the mucky mucks say.  Thompson’s screenplay brightens up the dialogue and adds more of a feminist coda to the story (Marianne isn’t as “tamed” by Brandon as she is in the novel), but she keeps the essence of that Austen charm intact.

8.) Clueless -1995 (directed by Amy Heckerling, based on Emma by Jane Austen)

More Austen, this time in the guise of 1990s parody.  Heckerling takes the pages of heroine Emma Woodhouse’s tale and sets them in early 90s L.A., a land so fraught with peril that only the strong will survive.  Here, the Emma figure is Cher (Alicia Silverstone), who, much like the original heroine, goes from self-centered society grand dame to enlightened queen bee thanks to the help of her friends and love interest Josh (Paul Rudd).  Clueless is a sharp satire on the material girl attitudes of the late 80s and early 90s, but it makes even the most ruthless characters likable and easy to relate to as an audience.  It’s fun and its breezy attitude is still watchable today, although audiences twenty years from now may wonder what the heck those crazy teenagers were even saying.  As if.

7.) The Wings of the Dove1997 (directed by Iain Softley, based on The Wings of the Dove by Henry James)

Softley’s adaptation of one of James’ most polarizing novels makes the book’s villain, the scheming Kate (Helena Bonham Carter), into much more of a sympathetic central focus.  The story centers around Kate, a girl with an alcoholic father raised in obscurity, who is adopted by a wealthy aunt.  Kate falls for the middle-class journalist Merton Densher(Linus Roach), but will be disinherited by her aunt unless she marries a more appropriate aristocrat.  At a dinner party, Kate meets and is drawn to an American heiress, the kind and beautiful Millie (Allison Elliot), who is suffering from a terminal illness.  Millie and Kate set off for a grand trip to Venice, and Kate hatches an ungodly plan that would ensure her and Merton’s future together, all the while knowing that Millie has fallen in love with Merton, as well.  Softley’s Kate is a much more complex creature than in the novel; you feel her torn between her love for Merton and her friendship with Millie.  The choices each character makes are all centered around that elusive idea of sacrifice.  The final scene of the film shows the horrific, middle-class tragedy that Kate’s plan has wrought, and Roach and Bonham Cater pull it off to perfection.

6.) Howards End -1992 (directed by James Ivory, based on the novella Howards End by E.M. Forster)

Rather than pen a lengthy ode to one of my favorite films, I’ll direct you instead to its Truly Great Movie entry, which pretty much sums up why Howards End is a masterpiece of mood and design.