Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Joan Fontaine & Teresa Wright – Cinema Legends – June 2015

Joan Fontaine and Teresa Wright are both actresses who made their best films in the 1940s. They both won Oscars. And, they both starred in great films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Are they Cinema Legends, as the header of this post might suggest? Probably not to the same degree as a few of their contemporaries, but they are two of my favorites from the time period, and I wanted to share a bit about them and their films.

Joan Fontaine

Joan Fontaine and her sister Olivia de Havilland, who she was bitter rivals with throughout her life, were born in Japan, but her family moved to California when the girls were still young. Fontaine started her career in Hollywood in 1935 when she signed a contract with RKO Pictures, shortly after debuting in the West Coast stage production of Call It a Day. RKO thought of her as a rising star, but she struggled to really make an impact in the 1930s, mostly featuring in supporting roles (most notably as Peggy Day in The Women and Emmy in Gunga Din).

Everything changed for her, however, when she was seated next to producer David O. Selznick at a dinner party. O. Selznick was in the process of developing Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca as Alfred Hitchcock’s American debut. They started discussing the film adaptation and O. Selznick suggested that Fontaine audition. She did, along with hundreds of other actresses. Laurence Olivier had been cast as Mr. de Winter and he hoped and lobbied for his wife Vivien Leigh to take the lead role; but, neither Hitchcock nor O. Selznick thought she was right for the part. After six months of auditioning and film tests, Fontaine finally emerged with the role. The film, a masterpiece, played to critical and commercial acclaim, winning the 1941 Best Picture Academy Award (it is the only Hitchcock film to win Best Picture). Fontaine’s performance as Mrs. de Winter was praised as well, garnering her a Best Actress nomination (though she did not win).

She would not have to wait long for another chance, however, as she next appeared opposite Cary Grant (with whom she has great chemistry) in the Hitchcock thriller Suspicion, this time winning the Best Actress Oscar (cementing her rivalry with her sister who was very jealous that Joan had won an Oscar first). Her win is also the only Oscar-winning performance in a Hitchcock film.

Fontaine excelled during the rest of the 1940s in romantic melodramas. Chief among them are The Constant Nymph, Jane Eyre, and Letter from and Unknown Woman. The Constant Nymph is Joan’s favorite among her own films and she received her third Oscar nomination for her work on the film, but for a long time it is was very hard to find a copy of it – thus, I have never seen it (although, it is now on Amazon, so I hope to remedy my having not seen it soon).

In Jane Eyre, she takes the title role opposite Orson Welles, who pretty much ran the production even though the film is directed by Robert Stevenson (who would later direct many films for Disney including Mary Poppins). The film is one of the best cinematic adaptations of the gothic novel and both Fontaine and Welles are very good. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, Fontaine plays a woman who is in love with a man who never quite realizes what he has with her, always chasing something else. It is directed by the great Max Ophuls and is considered to be among the best films ever made (number 154 on Sight & Sound’s 2012 Critics’ Top 250 Films list and number 71 on my list of the Top 100 Films of the 20th Century).

Fontaine’s career waned a bit in the 1950s, as she started to take on more television and stage roles. She continued to act until 1994.

Teresa Wright

Teresa Wright was born in Harlem, New York. She started her acting career in 1939 when she was discovered by Samuel Goldwyn on the stage in Life with Father. Goldwyn offered her a five-year contract, but she had some demands (here is an excerpt from her first Hollywood contract: “The aforementioned Teresa Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in the water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: In shorts, playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal; attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the Fourth of July; looking insinuatingly at a turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while a fan blows her scarf; assuming an athletic stance while pretending to hit something with a bow and arrow.”). She wanted to assert her seriousness as an actress from the jump.

In 1941, she won her first role opposite Bette Davis in the adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. She immediately won over critics and Hollywood, garnering a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work. The film was directed by William Wyler, the first of a many fruitful collaborations between the actress and director.

In 1942, she starred in two films, and received two more Academy Award nominations (I wonder if anyone else has ever received Oscar nominations for all three of their first three film appearances? Doubtful). She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver, a fantastic propaganda drama directed by Wyler. Her performance is touted as being a somewhat significant factor in winning over average Americans approval for entering the war in Europe to support Britain against the Nazis (which was unwelcome in the wake of the very unpopular WWI). She also received a Best Actress nomination for her role in Pride of the Yankees opposite Gary Cooper. It is a biopic of Yankee Legend Lou Gehrig. Her performance in the final scenes is heartbreaking (and a chief reason many cry at the end of the film). She also holds a special place with the New York Yankees organization, her name being remembered among the greats when she passed in 2005.

Next, in 1943, Teresa won the lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (though, initially Hitchcock wanted Joan Fontaine for the role, but her schedule was incompatible) opposite Joseph Cotten. Wright is brilliant in the film, playing an innocent young girl who becomes suspicious that her beloved uncle is a serial murderer. Shadow of a Doubt is one of Hitchcock’s best and it is considered to be his first truly American film, taking place is small town America. Hitchcock thought Wright was one of the best and most intelligent actresses her worked with, bringing many qualities to her character not often found in his heroines.

 Wright made two films about war veterans returning from WWII. The first, again with Wyler, was The Best Years of Our Lives, which one Best Picture in 1947. It is a brave, profound and important drama. The other was 1950’s The Men, directed by Fred Zinnemann and it starred Marlon Brando (in his film debut). She also starred opposite Robert Mitchum in the Raoul Walsh directed western Pursued in 1947. The film is a much darker version of the West than audiences were typically used to in the genre.

Throughout her career Wright had been widely acclaimed by film critics; however, she also felt unfairly treated by the studio system. So, in 1948, she rebelled against that system, and fell out with the man who discovered her, losing her contract with Goldwyn. Years later, Wright regretted her choice saying, “I was going to be Joan of Arc, and all I proved was that I was an actress who would work for less money.” She worked throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s (her final appearance is in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker), but her career never saw the same heights as it had in the 1940s. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Underrated and Under Seen (So Far) in 2015 – Movies Spotlight – June 2015

A lot of great films have come out in 2015 so far. Blockbusters like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: FuryRoad and Pixar’s Inside Out, as well as a bunch of really good indie films like Ex Machina, Clouds of Sils Maria, It Follows, Love & Mercy, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Slow West, What We Do in the Shadows, Far from the Madding Crowd, Dope, While We’re Young, and ‘71. It is easy to say that all these independent films are under seen (because they are), but that is a function of availability and the economics of film distribution. One might also say that Mad Max: Fury Road is under seen relative to other big blockbusters like Jurassic World and Furious 7, both of which have greatly out-performed Mad Max at the box office but are not on the same level of critical praise (or even close – personally, I think Furious 7 is 2015’s most overrated film so far). Thus, I am going to look at two Hollywood films that had all the right elements to be hits but failed commercially and critically; when really, they are both very good films.

Film: Blackhat
Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tang, Viola Davis, Leehom Wang, Ritchie Coster, John Ortiz, and Yorick van Wageningen
Plot Summary: When a hacker’s malware triggers the meltdown of a Chinese power plant, the Chinese and American governments turn to their own computer experts to find and stop this new hacker threat.
Why You Should Give It a Chance: Writer-director Michael Mann makes dynamic dramas and sprawling crime epics. His films feature beautiful aesthetics and a gripping realism. For most of his career, his films were greeted with critical acclaim and strong box office numbers (films like Thief, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, and Collateral). His recent efforts, however, seem to have failed to reach their audiences (although, Miami Vice, Public Enemies and now Blackhat are all very good crime drama/thrillers that I think time and perspective will reinstate as canonized quality films). Blackhat benefits from good leading performances from Chris Hemsworth and Wei Tang, as well as Mann, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas’s wonderful and vital aesthetics. Blachhat is a topically relevant crime thriller, playing on the scary idea of the future (or present) of cyber terrorism, but more than that it is a captivating film, not just in terms of its use of tension, but in its ability to immerse its viewer in its world and vision.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Director: Brad Bird
Stars: Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Raffey Cassidy, and Hugh Laurie
Plot Summary: With ambitions to make tomorrow better than today, a bright teen with scientific talent and curiosity (Casey) teams up with a jaded former wunderkind inventor (Frank) to make those ambitions a reality by finding ‘Tomorrowland’.
Why You Should Give It a Chance: Let me start with the cast. Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy are fantastic in the film, delivering great and strong performances (continuing 2015’s seeming attempt to promote feminism in cinema, Mad Max: Fury Road’s Imperator Furiosa as the poster-woman). George Clooney is good as well. Writer-director Brad Bird’s films generally provide a good mix of comedy, resonating drama and brilliant action (his other work includes: The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol). Tomorrowland is no different; however, what I think sets it apart and makes it something special and worthwhile is its cinematic/dramatic aspiration. Not just to enthrall, excite and entertain, it does those things too, but to inspire its viewers to once again dream. Much like last year’s Interstellar, Tomorrowland is a call to its viewers to once again look ahead with wonder and hope and not just settle for the doom and gloom malaise that seems to have overcome us as a people. We do not like to think about the future, because now the future does not seem as bright as today. But our dreams, imagination, ingenuity, and work effort can change that. This is what is at the heart of Tomorrowland.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sequels, Reboots and Remakes – Movies Spotlight – June 2015

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sequel/Reboot/Remake

We all know that Hollywood is overrun with sequels, reboots and remakes. Just look at the films we are most excited to see this year: Avengers: Age of Ultron (sequel), Mad Max: Fury Road (sequel/reboot), Jurassic World (sequel/reboot), Terminator: Genisys (sequel/reboot), Ant-Man (sequel of sorts), Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (sequel) Fantastic Four (reboot), Spectre (James Bond sequel), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (sequel), Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (sequel). Why all the sequels and reboots? Plainly, if a Hollywood studio is going to spend a bunch of money on a film, they would like it to be as secure a bet as possible, so why not bet on established properties. Original blockbusters are often based on successful books, comics, video games, television series, or something that came prior. There are very few truly original blockbusters. And when Hollywood does give us a good one, like Disney’s Tomorrowland, which came out in May to mixed reviews and mild box office returns (not reaching its audience – I genuinely think it is great film), no one goes to see it. Or worse, Jupiter Ascending, an original blockbuster from the Wachowskis that bombed in every way. This only increases the likeliness of Hollywood to stay away from original ideas, as there is much more risk.

So, we are likely stuck in a world of constant sequels and rehashes of the same established characters, stories and properties.

At first, I was annoyed by the very idea of someone making a new film based on an old film or character that I loved. A good example is Steve Martin’s The Pink Panther. Steve Martin is a very funny comedian and a good actor, but why would he ever want to attempt Inspector Clouseau – a losing proposition at best? A character made famous in the 1960s by Peter Sellers (probably film’s greatest comedic actor to this day). Martin could never approach what Sellers brought to the character, all this new film could do is soil the reputation of the character (is what I initially thought).

This is an overreaction. At worst, the new Pink Panther films scar younger viewers, preventing them from seeing the Peter Sellers’ films (but let us be honest, they were not going to watch them anyway). At best, the new viewers would love the character of Inspector Clouseau and seek him out in other films, finding their way to Sellers’ genius. Also, do not forget that the Clouseau character has been played by other actors before Martin took over in 2006 (Alan Arkin in the 60s and Roger Moore in the 80s, as well as Roberti Benigni, in spirit, in 1993’s Son of the Pink Panther). Martin was in no way tarnishing a character that was not already grinded up and spit out in many other subpar forms.

I came to understand that remaking or reboot a beloved character/series/film really has no effect on the original (or the version I love most). If I do not like the new vision for the character then I still have the original, and if the actors and filmmakers bring something new or different to the story/character then all the better. I take more of a wait and see approach now than one that finds me immediately upset before seeing how the new film even turns out (and if it does turn out to be terrible, I do not have to see it or even acknowledge its existence – like the Star Wars Prequels or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I just live my life as if they do not exist). I will always have the version I love.

Now on to sequels. So many sequels. They crowd our summers and holiday seasons. Yet, many of them are films I love. I love The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I love the Harry Potter film series. I love Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. I love Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. I love what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become during Phase II (especially Joss Whedon’s brilliant Avengers films) and cannot wait for Phase III. Of course I love these big adventure/action/fantasy films. I grew up on Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters. When these big films are done well, they capture all that film can be.

So why is there such a stigma? Well, I think it is twofold. First, and chiefly, for each sequel, reboot or remake there is money not going to an original idea film, blockbuster or otherwise, which has led many of our great auteurs today to work solely in indie film (for better or worse). Secondly, many of these tent pole blockbuster sequels, reboot and remakes are just not good. For every great film like The Dark Knight, there many more films like Catwoman or Batman and Robin. Or forgetting the downright terrible, most of these blockbusters are just the same old thing, nothing special and bland. Even Jurassic World, which just opened to the biggest box office weekend ever, is painfully banal and uninteresting. It is entertainment for the moment but not good enough to be lasting (like Jurassic Park).

We are just tired of the endless parade of these boring action films that try to thrill us by being massive, but offer little in the important areas of character and emotional resonance. They may grab us in the moment, but they fail to stay with us, inspire us or capture our imaginations.

How does this change? The answer is easy. If we do not give our money to these films, Hollywood will stop making them; but as Jurassic World proves, audiences are just fine with thrills over substance. Thus, I say take a similar approach to blockbuster sequels as you do with reboots and remakes. Revel in the films that are great and ignore and move past the ones that are marginal or bad.

Because honestly, who is not passionately eager to see the new James Bond film, the new Star Wars, the next Marvel Cinematic Universe film (Captain America: Civil War), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Warner Bros.’s new Harry Potter prequel series), Disney’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, Pixar’s Finding Dory, the conclusion of The Hunger Games series, or the third iteration of Spider-Man (now a part of the MCU)? I know I cannot wait to see all of these.