A Few Favorite Oscar-Winning Classics Sunday, Feb 26 2012 

As a movie fan, I thought in honor of tonight’s Academy Awards, I’d take a break from books and write about some of my favorite Oscar winning films. These are just a few of many, of course, but if there are any here that you haven’t seen, I hope you’re inspired to give them a try.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

The enormously successful film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone with the Wind tells the story of fiery Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and her many marriages and machinations in the years during and after the Civil War, including her passionate but difficult relationship with golden-hearted rogue Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). While I still believe the book is better, this movie features magnificent costumes, unprecedented cinematography, and all the romance and drama you could ask for in one film. The strong cast also includes Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award.

Casablanca (1943)

It has its logical flaws, but Casablanca also has a great and oft-quoted screenplay and a cast that does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. Former lovers Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund (Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) are reunited in the Moroccan city during World War II, bringing back painful memories for Rick and drawing him into involvement with the Resistance, something he never intended before seeing Ilsa again. The result is a moving tale of love and sacrifice, and one of the saddest and most beautiful romances ever to come out of Hollywood.

All About Eve (1950)

One evening after a performance, aging Broadway actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) meets young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who claims to be her biggest fan. Margo quickly takes Eve on as her new assistant. Little do she and her friends know at the time what Eve’s true ambitions are, and the lengths she will go to in order to achieve them. All About Eve features a wickedly clever screenplay and a fantastic cast that includes Davis and Baxter in career defining roles, as well as George Sanders as sharp-tongued theater critic Addison DeWitt, Celeste Holm as Margo’s sweet-natured but conflicted friend Karen Richards, and Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest prominent film roles. It’s easily one of the smartest and most entertaining films ever made about show business, and it only gets better every time I watch it.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Released the same year as All About Eve, this film takes an equally brilliant but much more tragic look at the entertainment industry. Down-and-out writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) accidentally finds himself at the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent film star convinced that the public is still in love with her. Gillis agrees to help Norma with the screenplay that she thinks will be her Hollywood comeback, in exchange for a luxurious life in her spacious mansion. The two use and abuse each other for months as Norma becomes more and more delusional about a return to Hollywood; you’ll probably find yourself wondering who the real villain of this film is, if there is one at all. Equally haunting and entertaining, Sunset Boulevard explores the fleeting nature of fame and the disastrous consequences of not being able to let it go.

On the Waterfront (1954)

This exploration of union corruption and violence on the Hoboken, New Jersey waterfront is a tense and powerful film, one that is inspirational without becoming sentimental. Marlon Brando gives a brilliant, influential performance as dockworker Terry Malloy, who initially accepts the depravity of the union leadership but with the support of “waterfront priest” Father Barry (Karl Malden) and love interest Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) decides to take action against it. Wonderfully acted and written, this film is an important meditation on the impact of silence and of speaking out, the role of religion in a troubled society, and what people can do when they choose to move beyond their failures.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Although largely fictional, The Lion in Winter does a great job portraying the tense relationship between King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn). Not only have Henry’s many affairs soured their marriage, but the two are also in conflict as to which of their sons should inherit the English throne. O’Toole and Hepburn are both at their very best here, giving James Goldman’s witty, brilliant script the treatment it deserves. Also noteworthy is the film debut of Anthony Hopkins, who plays Henry and Eleanor’s son Richard. Even if your knowledge of and interest in medieval history is limited, this is a must-see.

The Godfather (1972)

Marlon Brando won his second Oscar (which he famously declined) as Don Vito Corleone in this cinematic masterpiece, but The Godfather is primarily the story of Corleone’s youngest son Michael, played by then relatively unknown Al Pacino. Michael starts out with no intention of getting involved in the “family business,” but he gets drawn into Mafia operations and evolves from an idealistic young man into a ruthless, intimidating mob boss. The Godfather revolutionized the crime film genre by presenting mobsters as complicated characters and treating them (somewhat) sympathetically, rather than from the viewpoint of an outraged public. It’s a great story told through amazing actors, not to mention incredible artistic detail. No matter how many times I watch this film, I discover something new or think about it differently with each viewing. It may not be an imaginative answer, but when asked my favorite movie of all time, this is the film I name, with no hesitation. It simply never gets old.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: The Swedish and American Films Tuesday, Jan 10 2012 

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in 2009's Män som hatar kvinnor, Rooney Mara as Salander in 2011's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I have noticed that many reviews of the U.S. film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo questioned whether the film was necessary, considering there was already a very good Swedish adaptation of the book released in 2009. Even reviewers who enjoyed the movie raised this question, and some fans of the Swedish film were already criticizing the U.S. film before it was released, simply because the movie had been made. Because this argument was such a huge part of the discussion surrounding the new movie, I’d like to offer my own opinion.

One could argue that no film adaptation of a book is ever “necessary.” The story has already been told, and readers have already formed in their minds a picture of what the characters look like, how they say the things they say, what the setting is like, and so forth. However, I see nothing wrong with filmmakers offering their take on the story and bringing it to life on the screen—or with more than one filmmaker doing so. Many famous books have been adapted for the TV or the movies more than once without anyone arguing that the adaptations that came after the first one were “unnecessary.”

Considering that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an international bestseller, it’s not at all surprising that more than one director would want to present their take on it, or that more than one studio would want to profit from the book’s success. It’s also not surprising that anyone would see an opportunity in making a movie of the book in English; such a movie would be more accessible to English-speaking audiences, especially in America, who may have difficulty enjoying a movie with subtitles and enjoy seeing (somewhat) familiar faces as the book’s characters. Necessary or not, the English-language version of the film isn’t a remake of the Swedish film, as some have called it, but another adaptation of the book. To say that it shouldn’t have been made or didn’t need to be made is, in my mind, rather narrow-minded and unfair.

Now, with that out of the way, I’ll let you know what I thought of the movies themselves.

I saw the U.S. film this past Friday, and while I’d say the book is better (as the book usually is in these cases), the movie was very good. I can’t say it was terribly exciting since I already knew what was going to happen, but I enjoyed the opportunity to see the story brought to life. The movie plays more like a bleak yet sophisticated mystery story rather than an edge-of-your-seat thriller—though, really, you could argue that the original book is both. I was especially impressed with Rooney Mara’s portrayal of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, which I’d say is the movie’s strongest point. She portrays Salander as a haunted and haunting figure; she remains fairly steady and calm throughout most of the film, yet it’s a sort of unsettling calm that lets you know there are things troubling her beneath the surface. Mara does a surprisingly good Swedish accent and totally inhabits the clothing and physical appearance of her character, despite how different it is from her own. I expect more than a few award nominations for her in the upcoming awards season, and maybe even a few wins.

I watched the Swedish movie, with the book’s original title of Män som hatar kvinnor (“Men Who Hate Women”) on Sunday. The differences between the two movies aren’t huge, but I thought that the Swedish movie felt like more of a tense thriller than the American one did. Again, the book is better, but I thought Män som hatar kvinnor maintained more of the original book’s feel than the American movie did.  Both are violent and graphic, but the Swedish movie is somewhat more so. While Rooney Mara’s Salander is thin and almost frail looking, Noomi Rapace has a stronger build and looks tougher in the role. Rapace’s take on Salander was also very good, but I found her more openly angry and volatile. This may have been a result of what the Swedish filmmakers chose to include about Salander in the movie more than anything else. Either way, Rapace is very haunting as Salander and has incredibly strong presence on screen. While the men portraying Mikael Blomkvist in both films do respectable jobs, when either Mara or Rapace is onscreen, that’s who you notice, and certainly who you’ll remember afterward.

Each of these films is a very good adaptation of a very good book. Language aside, I didn’t find them overwhelming different from one another. Each is bleak and troublingly violent, yet captivating, and features a very talented lead actress. In both cases, the filmmakers and editors did an excellent job of deciding what details, relationships and so forth were most important to included or emphasize, and which ones could be set aside somewhat or even excluded entirely. Nothing is done in either film to change the story or its point drastically. Necessary or not, these movies are both worth watching if you enjoyed Larsson’s novel.