REVIEW: “Mildred Pierce” (1945)

Classic Movie SpotlightMildred PierceJoan Crawford had an interesting career to say the least. In 1937 she was called “The Queen of the Movies” by Life magazine but she would be called “Box Office Poison” only one year later. A few moderate successes would follow before her 18 year run with MGM studios was ended. Hungry for a new start, Crawford signed with Warner Brothers. One of her first pictures with her new studio was “Mildred Pierce”. The film was a huge success and Crawford would go on to win the Best Actress Oscar. Her performance was rightly recognized and her career was revived.

“Mildred Pierce” was directed by Michael Curtiz. The acclaimed director didn’t want Crawford as his lead but after his first choices bowed out (Bette Davis, Barabara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland), she got the job. The film was adapted from James Cain’s edgy 1941 hardboiled novel. Several plot lines from the book couldn’t be included in the picture due to the movie content code restrictions of the time. This allowed for the film’s introduction of the murder angle and several other creative differences.

Speaking of that, the movie opens with a murder. In a wonderful opening scene dripping with noir flavor, a man is shot several times by an unseen assailant who then flees the scene. The police bring in a successful restauranteur named Mildred Pierce (Crawford) for questioning. The murder victim turns out to be Mildred’s second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) and the cops believe they know who did it. The main plot structure is built around her interrogation. Through flashbacks we are introduced to the main players and we follow Mildred’s rise from a hard working single mother to an owner of multiple restaurants in the Southern California area.

But we are also introduced to a darker side of Mildred’s life. It’s a side featuring two failed marriages, an unthinkable tragedy, and a bitter, contentious relationship with her oldest daughter Veda. It’s Veda who may be Mildred’s biggest failing. We watch her become a selfish and materialistic young girl who is actually a product of Mildred’s own making. Her desire to shower upon her daughter the most lavish things creates a scheming young girl who looks down with great haughtiness on the ‘have-nots’. Ann Blyth plays Veda and she is sublime. Blyth was actually on loan from Universal Studios at the time. Her performance garnered well-deserved praise which culminated in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Blyth would make several more films but none as memorable as “Mildred Pierce”. She was only 17 at the time but this performance showed an astuteness and attention usually associated with the greats.

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There is an assortment of other great side characters that help tell Mildred’s story. Bruce Bennett plays her first husband Bert who subverts any good intentions he may have with his carousing and disrespect. Yet you end up wondering if he knows more about Mildred than we first do. Then there is Bert’s real estate partner Wally (Jack Carson) who is never beyond an occasional flirt or a shady business deal. He’s a rather slimy fellow who also has self-centered intentions. Eve Arden gets some wonderful lines as Mildred’s friend and restaurant manager. And Butterfly McQueen has some good moments as Mildred’s maid.

While the film revolves around the murder of Beragon, the life of Mildred Pierce is the centerpiece. Much of the movie’s brilliance is shown in its storytelling style and in the clever ways it depicts Mildred’s changes. She’s an entirely different person by the film’s end. She becomes a woman enslaved by the poisonous relationship she has with her daughter. Things become darker and more twisted as the film moves along which gives “Mildred Pierce” a unique sense. It slices up and mixes portions of film noir, mystery, and romance to form a sordid yet thoroughly compelling whole.

I’m a big fan of “Mildred Pierce” and it’s easily one of my favorite Joan Crawford pictures. She is exceptional here as is her supporting cast, particularly young Ann Blyth. Ranald MacDougall’s adaptation is smart and crafty and it works seamlessly with Michael Curtiz’s style of direction. The film takes a few unavoidable diversions from the novel but they nicely translate cinematically. It all resulted in a spirited film that showcased a still relevant Crawford. It’s also true classic that still packs a hefty punch today.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

K & M Commentary: The Many Reactions to Superman/Batman

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One of the biggest bits of news filtering out of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con was that Warner Brothers and DC Comics would be featuring Batman in the Man of Steel sequel slated for 2015. Now you can imagine the plethora of comments and opinions that immediately followed the announcement. They ranged from childlike jubilation to doomsday prophecies! But considering what little information we have so far isn’t it all just speculation at this point? But ya know, we bloggers love to speculate. That’s half the fun.

There are several ways to look at the announcement and several legitimate points of view. Lets look at some of the prominent opinions coming from the news:

1. Some see this as nothing more than a desperate cash grab and an attempt to catch up to Marvel’s bustling movie universe. Now there’s no denying that there is an element of truth to that. Clearly Marvel has taken a huge lead in the comic book to big screen category. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and to a smaller degree the recent “Man of Steel” film, the DC Comics universe has failed to really flourish on the big screen. But that doesn’t automatically mean that this is desperation or a cash in. It’s not as if a Superman/Batman collaboration is completely unheard of. The two have shared a largely successful comic book with each other for years now. Therefore it wouldn’t be a stretch to see them together on the big screen. As for desperation, while I had never heard a confirmation, I had heard that the idea of bringing these two iconic superheroes together in a movie had been played around with before. With Nolan’s trilogy in the books, this would be as good a time as any to bring along the next vision of Batman.

2. Some have already written this idea off as a disaster. They believe this will ruin and undermine everything that Christopher Nolan accomplished in his Dark Knight trilogy. Many think that shoehorning Batman into the new Superman franchise does a disservice to the character and runs the risk of alienating fans of the one great property that their movie universe possesses. Again, these are some legitimate concerns but very premature ones. With such little information out there about how and how much Batman will be used, it’s really impossible to say anything with certainty. Again, there is a wealth if history between these two characters so it’s reasonable to believe that Batman’s inclusion could be done really well.

3. And then there are those that are bubbling with excitement. I must admit, when I first heard the news I fell into this category. As a long time comic book reader, the thought of these two phenomenal heroes meeting on film as thrilling. The possibilities are endless. This could be the launching point into the new Batman series. This could be the launching point of the Justice League film that has been talked about for years. In my eyes the potential for something great is off the scales. But optimistic fans have reason to be cautious. Again, we don’t know very much. Will Batman be utilized in a way that makes for a good movie AND keeps the character on the same firm footing where Nolan left him? Will his role be weighty enough to feel justified and warranted? These are real concerns but none are bigger than this: Who will play Batman? For me this is a crucial ingredient to making this whole thing work. There’s a lot of complexity and layers to the Bruce Wayne/Batman character and poor casting could derail every bit of potential. This is enough cause to be a little cautious.

So is there reason to be concerned? Absolutely. Is there reason to write it off? Absolutely not. In fact I think the sheer potential of the idea is enough to get fanboys and movie fans excited and curious. But whatever your position one thing is for sure, Warner Brothers has everyone talking about this and that’s a good thing. Now here’s hoping they deliver the goods. After all, in the end that’s all that matters.

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THE SHOWDOWN : “The Avengers” vs “The Dark Knight Rises”

Without a doubt the two biggest movies of the year in terms of box office results and expectations has been Disney/Marvel’s “The Avengers” and Warner Bros./DC Comics’ “The Dark Knight Rises”. Both films were two of the most highly anticipated and heavily promoted pictures leading up to their releases. Now both have hit the theaters, made millions of dollars, and have been talked about by critics, geeks, and movie fans from around the globe. But which is the better movie? I thought it would be fun to put the two side-by-side and see who comes out on top. They’ll face off in several categories and we will see who’s standing in the end.

SPECIAL EFFECTS

When judging the special effects, it’s hard to come up with a fair and conclusive winner. Both movies approach their action sequences in significantly different ways. “The Avengers” uses a lot more CGI and much of director Joss Whedon’s vision is dependant on it. What’s truly amazing is that the movie really pulls it off. The massive CGI set pieces are sights to behold and this is easily the best looking Hulk yet to hit the big screen. Director Christopher Nolan chose a more traditional approach to special effects and they are perfect for the movie he was making. While he did use CGI, he relied much more on intense stunt sequences and traditional set designs. Explosions, flipping cars, and large-scale battles make up the thrust of the action. So judging the two by the same standard is impossible. Therefore I’ll just go by the impressive scope of the vision that’s brought to life on-screen through the effects. WINNER – “The Avengers”

SCORE

Both films have booming, energetic scores but take two very different approaches. I’m a huge fan of Alan Silvestri and he certainly delivers a solid score in “The Avengers”. It works nicely alongside of the action sequences and it’s never overdone or out-of-place. But perhaps the one negative is that I don’t remember one detail about it. Scores that have really resonated with me have also stuck with me. Hans Zimmer’s powerful score in “The Dark Knight Rises” stuck with me on several occasions. His score is ever-present and some have had problems with that. But I found it gives a cinematic pop to so many of the action sequences and in other instances really builds the intensity. His use of familiar tunes from the earlier films are perfectly used and at times had me wanting to pump my fist. Nolan may overuse the score some, but for me it really made an impression. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

ACTING

One thing both movies were blessed with were remarkable casts. The fantastic collection of actors and actresses give both movies huge dramatic lifts and when combined provide one impressive list of talent. “The Avengers” is led by Robert Downey, Jr.’s razor-sharp, wise-cracking performance that only he could deliver. The movie also introduces Mark Ruffalo who undeniably gives us the best Bruce Banner yet and Jeremy Renner who is wonderful but underused. And then throw in Tom Hiddleston and his Oscar worthy performance as Loki. But while “The Avengers” has a great cast, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a much heavier and more dramatic picture which gives it’s equally phenomenal cast a broader range of material to work with. Christian Bale gives his best performance of the entire series. Gary Oldman is simply perfect as Gordon. Anne Hathaway makes her series debut and really surprises. Tom Hardy is wonderfully brutal. And of course there’s Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They’re given much more to do and they each shine. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

VILLAIN

Both movies have fantastic villains but also very different villains. “The Avengers” finds the heroes up against the mischievious meddler Loki. While he’s not that intimidating in stature, Loki manages all sorts of chaos through manipulation and trickery. But what really makes Loki so impressive is Tom Hiddleston. Without a doubt he is having a blast with the character and he carries over his great work in “Thor”. He makes Loki a viable threat and an incredibly fun villain to watch.

In “The Dark Knight Rises”, Bane is an entirely different creation. Tom Hardy stars as the intelligent but psychotic brute who intimidates more through violence and force than mischief. Bane is a vicious presence and he’s stands out in every scene he’s in. Hardy’s physicality helps give the fight scenes a gritty realism and his swagger shows his fearlessness. From the first scene he’s in, you know that Bane is a villain not to be messed with. So both movies feature villains that are very different yet equally menacing and ultimately engaging. WINNER – DRAW

STORY/WRITING

Both movies feature some outstanding writing. “The Avengers” is faced with the task of taking a handful of earlier films and bringing them and their characters together in a good, cohesive way. It’s a daunting task and Joss Whedon makes it work. He makes “The Avengers” a climax movie that all of the individual superhero pictures were building up to. He also manages his large cast wonderfully. Another strong point with Whedon is the fantastic injection of humor throughout the picture. There are some truly laugh-out-loud moments and Whedon is respectful of the material but never takes it too seriously. It’s really well done.

On the other hand, Christopher Nolan is an incredible storyteller with his own unique visual presentation. His movies are generally more complex and layered and often times he challenges his audience. “The Dark Knight Rises” is no different. The story twists and turns and Nolan injects it with just the right amount of action and intensity. He also does a fine job of connecting it with the previous film as well as wrapping up his trilogy with a near perfect ending. Nolan doesn’t dumb things down and gives us a glorious and rousing ending to what is arguably one of the greatest trilogies in film history. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

AMBITION

With “The Dark Knight Rises”, Christopher Nolan finishes his spectacular vision of Batman and his universe. It’s most certainly an ambitious film. Nolan introduces new characters, connects us to the previous film, gives us an evil and brutal new villain, tells another deep and satisfying story, and wraps the entire series up, all in one film. It’s quite a vision. For Joss Whedon the task was quite possibly tougher and more ambitious. As mentioned above, Marvel had created several individual superhero franchises and each pointed to the Avengers project. “The Avengers” movie was a culmination of all of those movies and characters and Whedon had to bring it all together – a tricky job. A movie that ambitious had so many things that could have gone wrong but instead we were given one of the best times at the theaters this year. WINNER – “The Avengers”

DIRECTION

Both Joss Whedon and Christopher Nolan had the advantage of directing material that they were instrumental in creating. As writers, they had strong and distinct visions for their movies which carried over into their direction. Whedon wonderfully visualizes his wild superhero world, creates some astonishing action sequences, and nicely utilizes his great cast. Whedon draws everything together with an almost seamless result. Nolan is also a visual storyteller and his style is evident from the opening scene. Again, he is directing much weightier and more layered material and his ability to translate it on-screen so vividly is a testament to his rock solid direction. While “The Avengers” is sharply directed and a huge accomplishment, “The Dark Knight Rises” does go down more challenging roads, features a more hands-on approach to its action, and requires a more complex use of its characters. Nolan’s direction is spot-on. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

CONCLUSION

Both movies are exceptional examples of why the superhero genre is a legitimate form of cinematic entertainment. These are movies that aren’t just seeking box office numbers and millions of dollars. These are two strong movies with great storytelling, amazing special effects, phenomenal casts, and writers/directors that not only care for their projects, but put a great deal into making them the best movies they can be. But out of the two, “The Dark Knight Rises”…well…rises to the top. The deeper more layered story, the extremely high stakes, the more realistic grounding, and the wonderful way it wraps up Christopher Nolan’s Batman vision give it the edge over Joss Whedon’s fine film. Both films met some really high expectations, but for me “The Dark Knight Rises” was a better film that I will still be talking about for a long time.

THE OVERALL WINNER

Batman & Warner Bros. – What Comes Next?

I still remember anxiously waiting in line at the movie theater during June of 1989. It was the weekend for Tim Burton’s “Batman”, a movie I had been anxiously waiting for. Warner Bros. had done an excellent job building up the film in an era (unlike now) with no easy access to the internet and other modern methods of promotion. The film was a huge success and it ended up raking in over $400 million dollars. After it came “Batman Returns” in 1992 – a movie that had its moments but still fell terribly short of the first film both in quality and in money earned. Joel Schumacher took over the franchise with 1995’s “Batman Forever” and although the box office take went up, the quality went down even more. Schumacher then finished his execution of that Batman series with the hideous “Batman and Robin”, a movie that made considerably less money and remains completely unwatchable.

After a lengthy layoff, Warner Bros. brought Batman back in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, a series that has already been heavily discussed on this blog. The Warner approach was a good one – place the character in the hands of a capable visual and intellectual storyteller and let him share his own vision of the Dark Knight. It worked wonderfully both in terms of box office revenue and the quality of the films. For my money, the Nolan trilogy features the greatest superhero story ever told on film and it’s a rousing cinematic accomplishment.

But now Nolan is done. “The Dark Knight Rises” has hit the theaters and once again Warner Bros. has no strong chess piece on the superhero movie board. “The Man of Steel” is due out next year but we all know how their last attempt at bringing back Superman went. I was a fan of that picture up until the end where Bryan Singer and company completely blew the entire film. “Green Lantern” was the studio’s most recent attempt at getting another major superhero franchise going. And while I enjoyed parts of the movie, it was a cramped and poorly conceived story that both fanboys and casual moviegoers couldn’t latch on to.

So the question remains, what’s next? Warner Bros. and DC Comics are both desperate to tap into some of the success that Marvel Studios has had through a series of highly successful and genuinely good superhero flicks. And while “The Man of Steel” is on the horizon, questions certainly remain about it. Other DC Comics properties are in the works but let’s face it, now that Batman is gone, Warner Bros. doesn’t have a single heavy-hitting superhero film franchise to call their own. And when it comes down to it, Batman has been shown to be the studio’s anchor in the genre. So when Batman returns (and he most certainly will return), my advice would be to follow in the footsteps of the Dark Knight trilogy not in terms of the story but in how the studio approaches it. Find a creative visionary – someone with a unique but intelligent visual storytelling style – and let them share their vision. But (and this is a huge but) they had better choose wisely.