"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Monday, February 28, 2011

Oscar Hosts Franco and Hathaway? Big Mistake!

Just a short, personal opinion about the Oscar hosts tonight -- PU !!

There have been bad hosts before, wonderful comics who didn't come across, favorite personalities who couldn't hack it -- but James Franco and Anne Hathaway will remain in my memory as the worst to date.  I'm not going to try to speak to everyone who ever hosted, but I remember being particularly disappointed in Chevy Chase and David Letterman.  I like both of them very much, but they weren't at all successful in their attempts to host the Oscars.

Anne is cute, but she had to bring up her nude scenes.  Not classy.  Aside from that, she did an adequate job that might have been better if she had been partnered with a charismatic man who had some personality.  Franco looked like he had been smoking weed all day.  He made at least two rude and crude remarks, one that made me angry and one that made me wince.  I was really mad at his remark about the technical awards.  He said "Congratulations, nerds."  I guess he thought that was funny.  Other people seemed to think so too.  It struck me as insulting to the incredible people who make it possible to make movies at all, and contribute so much effort to make a smart-aleck like Franco into a movie actor.  I hope some of the technicians make a concerted effort to make him look bad in his next movie.  They easily could, you know.  Too bad Franco doesn't seem to know.

The supposedly humorous remarks that made me wince were about how offensive he thought the movie titles were this year.  Winter's Bone (tee hee),  How To Train Your Dragon (that's a reach), anything sexual he could come up with.  It was juvenile and gross to say such things to however many million people were watching, and it just made him offensive as far as I'm concerned.  Real loser material.

I thought back to hosts that I think were the best in the Oscar host business.  My very favorite was always Bob Hope.  He was simply perfect.  Johnny Carson was a wonderful host, and I always hoped that Billy Crystal would continue as a long-time host like Hope.  Hugh Jackman was good as host and I don't know why he was not asked back. These men were funny, dignified, able to make everyone laugh without being openly crude in any way, and to me they were the best.  I fervently hope the Academy learns something from this year's fiasco and starts showing some class.  I miss that.  I think many people do.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

1963 Best Actress Blogathon -- Patricia Neal in Hud

Patricia Neal was a woman whose career was marked by a diversity of movie roles as well as illness and tragedy in her personal life. As an actress, she was wonderful. As a person, she was strong and resilient. She is remembered for her beauty, her infamous affair with the married Gary Cooper, her marriage to author Roald Dahl, two beloved children who died under tragic circumstances, and the terrible series of strokes in a period of hours while she was pregnant. Pat Neal was left severely debilitated by these cerebral aneurysms, and had to fight her way back to learning to talk and walk. Her baby was born healthy, and Pat won her fight back to health.

Pat’s breakthrough role was in 1949’s The Fountainhead which starred Gary Cooper. She was 23 years old and Hollywood-gorgeous. She did many films, and is probably best remembered for The Fountainhead, the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, and her Academy Award winning performance in Hud.

Her role as Alma Brown, a cook and housekeeper for a rancher and his sons, was relatively small but powerful enough to bring her acclaim as Best Actress of 1963. She was 37 at the time, still strikingly attractive, but the role of the world-weary Alma, speaking in a Texas drawl, no make-up or hair styling, a woman who had been kicked around a lot by life and men, was played by her to perfection. Hud was supposed to be only Paul Newman’s movie, in which he was at his most handsome, playing a charming but brutal and callous man. He did so beautifully, and was nominated for Best Actor (but lost to Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field). However, Pat Neal stole every scene in which she appeared, not an easy task since she was also working with veteran actor Melvyn Douglas as Hud’s father, a role for which he won Best Supporting Actor.

Hud has many women in his little black book, but he is attracted to Alma, partly because she rejects his advances, and his ego cannot accept that. He is rude and crude to Alma, but she takes it in her stride. It’s very difficult to explain Pat Neal’s abilities in this role because so many of them are in her delivery, her reactions and body language, but a few scenes give a good example of the treatment she receives from Hud and her refusal to give in to him.

In one scene, Hud is getting ready to go out on the town and wants a clean shirt:
    “Alma, get me a clean white shirt!”
    “Boy, you’re really big with the please and thank you, aren’t you?”
    “Please get off your lazy butt and get me a clean white shirt, thank you!”

In another scene, Hud visits Alma in her little detached cabin and tries his alleged charm on her:
    “You’re a good cook, a good laundress, good housekeeper – what else you good at?”
    “Taking care of myself.”

Alma’s contemptuous reactions to Hud are tempered with her own reluctant attraction to him, which she does not allow him to see. She is a lonely woman, with needs that the ultra sexual Hud could satisfy, but Alma is well aware of his casual cruelty to women. The other members of the household are like family to Alma. The father, an old man of high principles, for whom she has great affection, and the young nephew (played by Brandon deWilde) who loves Alma with the confused feelings of a teenage boy becoming a man – with these, Alma is happy and contented. Hud can easily destroy this and Alma knows it.

I don’t like to reveal too much about a movie like Hud by telling the story beginning to end. It is easily accessible on cable, Netflix, rental outlets, even Youtube. Anyone who would like to see it deserves to see it for themselves without spoilers. It is of course much more than the story of Alma, and a truly great movie.

Because Pat's performance relies so much on delivery and reaction, I thought it would be a good idea to give you one of the best examples of Pat Neal’s portrayal of Alma in a short portion of the movie I found on Youtube. To see just the scene between Alma and Hud, fast forward to about 3:26. It is funny and sad, and shows much of the reason for Pat’s well-deserved award as Best Actress.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Return of the Firebird -- Blazing with Beauty

Movie musicals come in many forms -- Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, the great fun of the Golddigger musicals of the 1930's, the famed MGM musicals of the 1940's and 50's -- but there are other musical movies as well.  I would like to share one with three definite stories performed in ballet. Return of the Firebird presents, as separate movies, Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, and Stravinsky's Petrouchka.  In a review I wrote in May, 2010, I discussed the issue of watching movies about ballet vs. watching ballet itself. Some may believe ballet is something to be avoided or endured rather than a form of great entertainment.  However, Return of the Firebird, filmed at Russia's Mosfilm Studios, starring and directed by famed Mariinsky ballet star Andris Liepa, may just change your mind if you have never thought you would enjoy this art form. Liepa was determined to present the three ballets as movies, similar to silent movies in which the story is told in music, movement and gesture.  He did not want typical straight-view stage performances. As a result, the ballets are filled with beautiful special effects, camera work that focuses clearly and perfectly on the dancing, close-ups and designs, and even as a ballet lover, I have never seen anything close to this type of presentation, barring only the ballet sequence from The Red Shoes.

Return of the Firebird includes these three famous ballets in a tour-de-force movie production, all as re-creations of original Russian Ballet Russes seasons during the early years of the 20th century.  Costumes, scenery, choreography by Michael Fokine, are meticulously restored just as they were presented originally by the famous impresario Diaghilev and his Ballet Russe. These were the golden years of composers Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, famed dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the incredible talent of choreographer Fokine, and the unmatched designs of Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois and Alexander Golovin. These few years were to Russian Ballet as our year of 1939 is considered the Golden Year of Hollywood.

With all of those elements of incredible talent working at the same time, the three ballets of the Les Saisons Russes are lush with great music, eye-popping set designs, marvelous camera work, and costumes re-created in all of their glorious and bejeweled Russian splendor. Director and ballet star Andris Liepa performs in the three pieces. His wife Ekaterina Liepa and his sister Ilze Liepa complete the famous family of dancers in this production. In addition, the incredible talents of Nina Ananiashvili as the Firebird and Victor Yeremenko as the Golden Slave in Scheherazade raise the level of these performances to the Mount Everest of ballet

Petrushka is the story of a clown puppet who loves a beautiful girl puppet but is rejected. Stravinsky’s music is, as always, uniquely moving and the ballet is a popular part of any company's repertoire. It is beautifully presented, and well worth the watch. Liepa invited deaf and dumb actors from the Mimicry & Gesture Theatre and dancers from the Cossack Circle folk ensemble to bring their special talents to this unique rendering of Petrushka.

Scheherazade is one of my favorite pieces of music, heartbreakingly beautiful and dramatic. The storyline is set in a Sultan’s harem, full of sex, betrayal, adultery, rage and slaughter. What more could you ask for? Ilze Liepa, who plays the Sultan’s courtesan, is a marvel of sensuality and prima ballerina perfection. Victor Yeremenko as her forbidden love, the Golden Slave, is one of the best male dancers I have seen. Besides the obvious leaps and twirls expected of them, one mark of a great male dancer is his ability to come out of those incredible moves and be able to stop on a dime, no wobbling, completely still. Yeremenko is one of the best at all of these aspects.

The Firebird is to me Stravinsky’s greatest music, eerie, passionate, and thrilling. The story as presented here is mysterious, romantic, includes a hideous monster and his hellish minions, a ghastly-looking castle, kidnapped princesses, the handsome hunter, men turned to stone – just my kind of story. This is without doubt the best presentation of this ballet you will ever see. Nina Ananiashvili is just luminescent as the Firebird. Her costume and makeup are gorgeous, and her dancing transcendent. I have rarely seen a prima ballerina who can stand on toe, without support, as long as this lady can. It is really hard to find words to describe her performance that are not flamboyant or cliché, but I can’t help that – it’s all true.

I was lucky enough to find the entire Firebird ballet from this DVD on Youtube. I am posting it here in its 5 parts. Those who are interested will be able to watch the ballet in full. If you don’t have time, or don’t think you’d like it, I would urge you to at least watch Nos. 2 and 3 to get the idea of something very special.  You will see the Firebird, the maidens and the monster!  The whole ballet is only about 38 minutes, about the same amount of time as an old Seinfeld episode -- take a chance!

In summary, the story of The Firebird begins with a young hunter in the woods who stumbles across a dark and frightening castle, surrounded by men turned to stone.  A golden apple tree nearby shakes in the wind, and a fiery bird is seen approaching the tree.  The hunter tries to shoot her, then capture her.  She fights to be free, then offers the hunter a blazing feather for her freedom.  She then joyfully flies free.  The hunter sees a group of maidens come out of the castle and play around the tree.  He falls in love with the princess, but she must return to the castle after a certain time.  They are prisoners of the monster Kashchey (an ugly monster if ever there was one).  The hunter decides to try to free them, he is captured by Kashchey and his minions, and is about to be turned to stone.  He pulls the Firebird's blazing feather from his shirt, and she appears instantly.  The monster and his demons are powerless against her.  While the Firebird keeps everyone at bay, the hunter finds a luminous egg which contains Kashchey's soul and power.  He destroys the egg, the monster and friends go up in a puff of smoke, and the evil spell is broken.  The unfortunate men are returned to life, the maidens are reunited with them, the hunter and princess are together, and the story ends in fire and light and the most incredible climax of music Stravinsky ever wrote.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Trapped In A Frozen Tundra -- Movie Time!!

Have the poles reversed?  Are we moving away from the sun?  So many places in the country are battling snow and ice, sleet and hail -- Indianapolis had all that this week, and we are now a city of ice.  The streets, walks, alleys, every surface in my neighborhood are skating rinks, perfectly smooth, thick sheets of ice.  There are a few footprints on the yards, but they don't break through the surface.  My sister's neighbor has been working on his driveway with a big sledgehammer.  After 3 hours, he was about 1/3 way done and probably half dead. To get into my house, you have to climb steps up a hill in front, or come up a small hill to the back alley.  In other words, I can't get out.  Oh, I suppose I could get out -- but I couldn't get back in.

**Home Sweet Home**

My sons were able to get to the grocery for me -- I was running out of the essentials.  No, not milk and bread.  Coffee and cigarettes.  They love their mother and would like to see her keep her sanity.  They didn't have too much trouble -- they are young and strong.

Losing power wasn't very inconvenient.  It was a balmy 2 degrees above 0, and I think my living room looks very chic this way.

So what does a lady do in a situation like this?  Watch  movies, of course (well, at least after the power came back on).  I picked out cold movies, Dr. Zhivago, Ice Station Zebra, The Shining -- and a favorite cold classic TV series, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. Maybe others would pick warm movies to fight the climate, but I'm afraid any Beach Blanket movies would make me cry and pull all four comforters over my head.

There are advantages to being iced in, though.  Dear old Maxine says it best:

Punksitawny Phil did not see his shadow on Groundhog Day -- could the big thaw be in sight?  I hope so!