Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

A pity I never had any children… But you’re wrong; I have! Thousands of them!

If what readers I do have will allow me the slight plug for one of my contemporaries, Steve of 1001 Plus has a certain type of film that he’s experienced countless times through his movie-watching endeavors that he has grown to loathe; a type of film, almost a genre, that he has coined the ‘misery parfait’, where the film is essentially absolutely nothing but bad situations and horrible events thrown at a main character who tries to endure it all. The resulting films, of which there are more than a few on the 1001 list, are often miserable to sit through, and perhaps just as pointless to try and find real worth in, especially when one sees more than one such film. Well, here we have a film that might very well lie on the exact opposite side of the spectrum from those films; a film that is basically nothing but good things and joyous mood regarding the main character. Here’s the thing, though; Goodbye, Mr. Chips may be the opposite of a misery parfait for its main character, played by Robert Donat (though that’s not to say that a bad thing or two doesn’t happen in the film), but it ends up being very nearly as pointless a film to sit through as if it had been one, for oddly similar reasons.

Mr. Chipping is a retired English schoolteacher from Brookfield School, who thanks to a cold is forced to miss opening day for the first time at the school where he still keeps up with the students. As he relaxes by the fireside, he reminisces back on his nearly-60-year teaching career, meaning of course the actual film is told in flashback, from his inauspicious arrival at Brookfield to his marriage to Katherine Ellis, played by Greer Garson, to the many years he spends becoming an integral aspect of the school, often teaching several generations of young lads in the same families. There’s really nothing more to it than that; the film recounts how Chipping, who garners the nickname Chips from his wife, starts out having little to no respect from the boys, who play practical jokes on him, but who slowly grows into a much-beloved teacher, all the way through the turn of the century and into the rough years of World War I London. For those looking for a bit more substance or depth to their films, you might want to give Goodbye, Mr. Chips a pass; aside from one or two events that can fairly clearly be placed in the negative column, this is all about how swell a guy Mr. Chips is and how everyone likes him, which while I wouldn’t normally have a problem with given how many of the other kind of film I’ve had to sit through, essentially means that this film has zero conflict, and as any screenwriting (or, presumably, writing) book will tell you, conflict is what makes drama, and with no drama, you have no narrative, and with no narrative, you have no story. As for Donat, who won Best Actor over the likes of Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind and James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I can kinda see why the Academy picked Donat, even if I don’t personally agree; the makeup and styling alone that cover Donat’s Chipping in all his adult ages probably would’ve won it for him, but it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if Donat weren’t able to sell the character no matter what age he is on the screen, and Donat does that with room to spare.

I can see why people like this film; it’s all about how likable the main character is, and how because he’s a good a guy as he is, people will stand up for him even through what might be construed as the rougher patches of his life. Basically, it’s a wish fulfillment, especially in today’s day and age where such people are nigh-impossible to come by, and even less so when the people we’re looking at that we wish were up to that standard are ourselves. But, the thing is; it doesn’t make for a film that is all that honestly worth watching. Even if we take an expanded definition of conflict, to not mean two opposing forces butting heads but instead to merely be the struggles the protagonist must overcome to achieve a goal of some sort, Goodbye, Mr. Chips fails in that regard as well; Mr. Chipping doesn’t have any goals to achieve in this, aside from the persistence of being a good teacher, and if there were goals for him to achieve, which I won’t spoil for whatever reason, there are points in the film where his character even deliberately says that such goals are flights of fancy for him at best, and even if they weren’t, they basically just happen to him anyways instead of being achieved through the overcoming of obstacles. In short, this is a film that, because it flies in the face of basic storytelling constructs and conventions, should not work at all, and it’s only thanks to actors like Donat and the production itself that this is even worth sitting through in any way. It is a feel-good of the utmost feel-goodiest kind, though, so there is that at least.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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Dark Victory

Dark Victory

The great thing, Anne, is for her never to know.

Oscar has a storied history, especially in Best Picture, with films that are largely a vehicle for a single performance, especially it seems in these still-early years. To the credit of today’s film, Dark Victory, the decision was made to center it around Bette Davis, which is a decision that few of the time or even perhaps today would find too much fault with. Davis, one of my now favorite classic actresses, had just come off a Best Actress win for Jezebel, and evidently she was hungry for more, given how much she puts into her role in Dark Victory. Thankfully, everybody else involved with the film seemed to pick up on this, as they also put everything they have into making this not just a star vehicle for Davis, but a damn fine film in its own right.

Davis is Judith Traherne, a young socialite concerned with little more than living life at the absolute maximum, through parties and adventures and especially horseback riding, though her own body seems to be starting to break down from her hedonistic lifestyle, with intermittent headaches beginning to plague her. It’s when she suffers a spout of double vision and takes a tumble off her horse that her friends, especially her closest friend Ann, are convinced there’s something more wrong with her, even as Judith refuses to see it for herself. The family doctor brings in Dr. Frederick Steele, a specialist in the brain, who breaks through Judith’s hardened facade and manages a diagnosis. It’s only after surgery that things become even more complicated, both romantically between Judith and Dr. Steele, as well as medically when the prognosis of Judith’s condition post-operation becomes known. It was quite the pleasant surprise to find that the film, especially with Davis doing her thing, was up to the challenge of matching her skill level; while Davis is still by and large the best thing Dark Victory has going for it, the film is elevated through everyone else trying and largely succeeding at matching her. The plot is rather simple, when one stops to think about it, but that the film manages to make as much of it that it does without overstepping into melodrama or cramming in needless side narratives is to be congratulated. That’s not to say that the film isn’t a little melodramatic, given the story of course, but it works, mostly thanks to the cast really managing to sell it instead of cranking it up to eleven. The narrative itself is also perfectly structured, making the most of whatever shortness the story inherently has; there’s an excellent section in the middle of the film, for instance, where Judith has been told her surgery was a success, despite Dr. Steele admitting to Ann that the reality is almost precisely the opposite, and Judith goes about living her life anew while the people around her, namely Ann and Dr. Steele, are forced to wear a smile and act as if nothing is wrong. The one aspect of the story I unfortunately wasn’t too much a fan of was Humphrey Bogart’s role; while I saw what the film was trying to do with including him, I also saw that the film was basically married to the idea of including him despite the fact that he isn’t given much to do in the narrative, which given that it’s Humphrey Bogart playing him makes it that much more saddening.

Even with everything that this gets right, and it gets quite a bit right, I still couldn’t help but feel that if it weren’t for the presence of Bette Davis, this wouldn’t have gotten the nom for Best Picture. It is clearly her star power that got this noticed, and I suspect that it is almost entirely because of her star power that this managed a nom for the big one. And really, if that’s the case, that’s a shame, because there’s a sophistication about this one and how it discloses its narrative that frankly a lot of other films that wrangled a Best Picture nom in the past (and future) could look toward and learn from. I got distinct vibes of 1931’s Bad Girl; this doesn’t have much in terms of story, but what it does have is delivered beautifully, with nary a semblance of camp or putting on airs because Hollywood movies were expected to do that. In short, this impressed the hell out of me, and it wasn’t just because of Bette Davis that it did (though it goes without saying that she is excellent in the role regardless). If it was released in another year, I could see this making a heck of a push for a potential win for Best Picture, but given when it was released, it’ll have to settle for being a part of the best year in Hollywood history, and seeing how good a film it actually is, that’s not a bad thing to settle for.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men

Go on, George. Tell how it’s gonna be.

Everybody and anybody who’s gone through the American school system knows Of Mice and Men, the novella by John Steinbeck. A staple of the literature curriculum, as well as one of the most challenged and censored books of the same, you pretty much couldn’t get through middle or high school without having read it. For me, that was some time ago, so when it came time to sit down and watch the original film adaptation of the book, I went into it pretty much with a clear head and few expectations. Directed by Lewis Milestone, and starring a young Burgess Meredith alongside Lon Chaney, Jr., this finally managed to snap the streak of extremely poor literary adaptations that have plagued me since I started the Best Picture odyssey; not only was this watchable, it was pretty damn effective to boot.

Burgess Meredith is George Milton, the ‘straight guy’ to Lon Chaney, Jr’s mentally-challenged lug of a man, Lennie Small. Making their way around the landscape and hopping from job to job, the two look out for each other, though this mostly takes the form of George looking out for Lennie, as Lennie has an unfortunate habit of unintentionally getting into serious trouble where and when the men find work. Eventually, they wind up on a ranch in California, overseen by the sadistically cranky Curley, who buts heads with anyone who so much as looks at his neglected wife Mae, and who immediately takes a disliking to the much-larger-than-him Lennie. Now its only a matter of time before one of two things happens; George can manage to keep Lennie sedate and reeled in enough to where the two men can finally save enough money to fulfill their dream of owning their own ranch, or George cannot, and Lennie can somehow manage to get them run off yet another place of work, or perhaps something even worse. The print I saw of this one was unfortunately quite weathered, so I can’t say too much about the production aspects of this one, which seemed fairly standard either way. What I can talk about, or at least mention, are the creative aspects, which much to my surprise were quite exceptional, from the musical score to the writing. Especially so are the two leads; Burgess Meredith knows enough about the character he’s playing to keep George on the level enough to get the audience behind him, and Lon Chaney, Jr. is absolutely a consistent scene-stealer as the simple-minded Lennie. That the two men are as good as they are is probably why the film, and especially the ending, is as effective as it is.

This took me longer than I would’ve liked to get to, and admittedly it is likely because the film is based on literature and thus I was very nervous that I’d be extremely bored through it, especially because it has been well over a decade since I’ve even thought about let alone read the original novella in school. Thankfully, this managed to assuage most if not all of my doubts and hesitations; this is absolutely one of the better literary adaptations I’ve had to watch for this Best Picture odyssey so far. I don’t know if I would say it was good enough to get me fully back on the wagon of moviewatching that I seem to be fighting to stay on, but it was definitely a nice refresher of a picture, and a reminder that even among the non-1001 movies scattered across Best Picture, there can still be some pretty worthwhile viewings to be had.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Love Affair

Love Affair

We’re heading into a rough sea, Michel.

So, after my excursion back into modern cinema for some time, I was hesitant to delve back into classic cinema, to say the least; mostly, I was afraid that I would be bored by the different sensibility and style of moviemaking once I had become accustomed to films of the modern era once more. What didn’t help was that I technically had only four films from 1939’s Best Pictures to see for the first time, and I was also nervous that they would end up being the four lesser of the flock, fit only to survive a viewing through and little more, and thus I wasn’t sure which of the four would be a good point to get back into the classical style of films at all. Pretty much at random, I ended up on Love Affair, a Leo McCarey film that would be known more for its being remade into An Affair to Remember by McCarey himself. I can’t be certain whether or not this was a good jumping-back-into point, not without having seen the other three films I still need to see from this category, but for what it’s worth, I feel pretty good about starting my Best Picture odyssey back up with how this one went down with me.

Michel Marnet is a Frenchman on a cruise liner set for America; a well-known figure, he is currently engaged to an heiress and enjoys a lot of popularity on the ship. Through happenstance, he has a number of encounters with an American woman, Terry McKay, who is also engaged and on her way to New York to meet with her husband-to-be. Despite his notoriety and both of their engagements, they find themselves drawn to one another, and when the ship finally docks in New York, they make a promise: in six months, if they both want their brief affair to continue, they will meet at the top of the Empire State building and be together forever. Naturally, the path to the top of the tower is not as simple as they both might secretly wish it was, or there wouldn’t be a film or narrative otherwise. It seems a simple concoction for a good and complex enough Hollywood film of the era, and it seems McCarey knows this, and especially how to make good of the material; the film, especially in the beginning section aboard the cruise ship, swims with emotion, so much that it almost makes it impossible for the two leads not to be drawn together. Really, there’s almost too much that’s done very well with this film; the humor, always in the right spots, is effective, as is the writing, the performances, and heck, even the few musical numbers that do appear seem just as fit for the picture as everything else.

Remakes and their earlier versions can be a tricky tightrope to cross, especially when one tries to consider the value of each film in its own right. An Affair to Remember, for instance, in addition to making the 1001 list, is regarded as one of the most romantic films ever made; this did not make the list, and indeed I had not given it much consideration aside from its being nominated for Best Picture in the greatest year of Hollywood. Well, after seeing this one now, I definitely can say that, even with its much more well-known and regarded remake, this is absolutely still worth the watch, should one be inclined to see it. There’s not all that much to the film, which is probably why it’s not getting a higher rating from me, but for what it does do, it does wonderfully, and indeed it’s rare for me to finish a film and not be able to think of much of anything that would make it better or that I would do differently. That’s not to say that this is a perfect film, but it’s absolutely a very good one, and one that’s worth the brief hour-and-a-half it takes to see it.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

La La Land

La La Land

Here’s to the fools who dream.

Call me superficial, but I like to end each new batch of 1001 additions on a particularly good or significant note. That said, I knew that La La Land was gonna be my final 1001 film of this year before it even got added, and indeed before I’d even seen it. Having loved Whiplash to a ridiculous degree, I was more than eager for whatever director Damien Chazelle was gunning to do next, so I followed the pre-production of La La Land closely, and I figured that, even with it being a musical, I would enjoy it enough to want to pick it up on Blu-Ray anyways, so I even passed on initially seeing it in theaters. When I finally did pick it up, I tried to go into it with as little ceremony as I could, just in case the film actually let me down and didn’t meet the expectations that a film that had just tied the record for most Oscar nominations for a single film would generate. Well, I learned something that day, and here’s the best way I can put it into words: Sometimes, some films, even the critically beloved ones, just aren’t for everyone. La La Land is entertaining, a hell of a production, and certainly one of the best films of the past year. But it’s not the best, and that ended up being the period at the end of the sentence that was my experience with it.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are Mia and Sebastian, two individuals living in Los Angeles with their own individual dreams of stardom and making things happen based on what the town can offer them. Being in a musical, the two naturally meet up on a few occasions and end up together… but ending up together doesn’t necessarily mean ending up together, especially when individual dreams are involved, and both Mia and Sebastian must try and come to terms with the inevitable clashing of their dream versions of making it in L.A. and the reality of being dreamers in a town that’s ultimately just another real-life town. For what it’s worth, almost everything involved in this production is the top of its respective game; from director Chazelle’s handling of the material, both dream and reality, to the Oscar-winning work with color and camera of Linus Sandgren, to the score and songs by Justin Hurwitz. And let’s absolutely not forget Gosling and Stone, both of which are very nearly note for note perfect, even if their performances in the song-and-dance aspects of the film aren’t exactly Astaire-Rogers level, but it’s enough to get you through the film; Stone’s rendition of the audition song in the third act being what very likely won her the Oscar. The one thing I will say, though, is that I don’t really know why City of Stars was picked out as the choicest song of the film, or why it won the Oscar for Original Song; aside from the actual melody of it, I didn’t really find it to be the centerpiece of the film the way the film so clearly wanted it to be, and from a quality standpoint, I would’ve put my weight behind Audition for Oscar recognition if I were one of the producers.

Here’s the thing, though, about this one: it’s good, it’s actually very good. But that’s it. And what’s more, it’s not the type of very good that compels you to want to watch it several times over, at least for me personally; I picked it up for home viewing and watched it the first time, and since then I actually haven’t had any desire to see it again, and I haven’t until just now to write notes for this review. Whereas Whiplash is endlessly watchable for me, and I still get every ounce of entertainment out of that one that I did the first time I saw it, La La Land is just… there, and I feel fairly bad about thinking that way about what was Chazelle’s passion project. I can see why people love this, and I can see why Oscar admired it as much as they did, and I might even agree with a lot of what’s been said about it, especially with the rating I’m choosing to give it. But, even with all that’s been said, that personal validation, that internal gong that certain films just strike within me, wasn’t hit by the efforts of La La Land. This is still a really good film, and who knows; you might get a lot more from it than I did. From all that I’ve seen, though, across the realm of cinema, and from all the cinematic knowledge that I’ve accumulated; to me, this isn’t the cinematic second-coming that it thinks it is.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

And that’s 2016’s additions in the books. Now then, I think I hear Best Picture calling my name once more.

Jackie

Jackie

Let them see what they’ve done.

Pablo Larrain’s Jackie seemed a slightly incongruous addition when I first saw that it had been added; it didn’t seem like enough of a picture to warrant inclusion in the Book, as negative as that comes across. Having seen it now, I get the decision to pick this over other fare a lot more; it’s not just that Jackie is a fine film, but how it goes about telling its story is extremely unconventional, which must have of course been exceptionally appealing to the editors of the list. Now, one can certainly argue either for or against this indeed being a fine film, and I’m absolutely not going to be the one to settle that argument. But, for what it’s worth, while the point of the film may have been slightly hard to ascertain at first, the exceptional effort put into this by everyone involved is certainly worth making the argument for this film.

For those who are unaware or somehow unable to discern the film’s plot merely from the title, this is a biopic of Jackie Kennedy, wife of John F. Kennedy, specifically about her in the days directly following President Kennedy’s assassination, as told through an interview she gives a reporter much later in her family home. As befitting the structure of the film (having the reporter’s interview as a framing device), the film is very unorthodox with how it presents its content to us; the narrative skips through time, almost wantonly, as if the memories of Jackie herself are jumbled around in her head, trying to make sense of themselves, and the film is merely printing them out in whatever order they happen to come up. For whatever reason they had in presenting the film this way, it did make everything very effective; you get into the headspace of our lead quite easily, mostly thanks to the very slight disconnect between Mrs. Kennedy and the events she is remembering, a disconnect that permeates almost every aspect of this picture. There’s a lot, for instance, in portions of the film of Natalie Portman merely walking around in a fugue state, and indeed we are reminded a few times that, the reporter scenes aside, most of the film is in the days (or sometimes even hours) directly following the assassination. Really, the goal is to get us into the same mindset as Jackie in that timeframe, and in that, the film is largely a success, mostly thanks to Larrain’s steady hand in directing and Natalie Portman’s work in fully embodying the presidential widow. The score was also very interesting; strange and off-setting, making sure you are never in a comfortable place, much like Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination. Looking it up afterwards for myself and finding it was done by Mica Levi, who also provided the score for Under the Skin, merely has it all make even more sense.

What is probably going to be troubling to most of the people that take the time to watch Jackie, is to try and decipher what the point of it all ultimately is. Jackie the character goes through much of the film upset and ravaged, wondering and struggling to make sure that her late husband’s place in history is assured and as perfect as she knew him to be. This, I think, is only ancillary to the point of Jackie the film; this, as redundant as it is to say, is about Jackie the person, what her place in history will be, and how she will be remembered, either by her hand or by the hands of those that write of her. This is the point of the film; sure, it may not exactly be a point that most people will need to have gotten, either by watching this or not, but this was still the point of making it, of making it possible for others to see it if they choose to. It’s up to each potential viewer, and their own cinematic palettes, to weigh that choice for themselves.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Arrival

Arrival

So… what happens now?

I honestly don’t know what to say. I went into my viewing of Arrival only knowing just enough to know that I would be uncertain as to how to approach the film; I deliberately left most of the particulars unknown to me, because I’d known from what I’d read that the best way to see the film was knowing as little as possible. How could I have possibly known what this film was going to manage to do, how it somehow transcends linear storytelling and still manages to do it in a film that one watches from the beginning to the end? If it sounds like I’m unable to put into words what the experience of watching Arrival is like, that is precisely the case; I have personally not encountered a film that one must truly see for themselves like this in quite a long time, and I am unbelievably thankful for the experience I’ve had in watching it in this way for myself.

Amy Adams shows why she is one of the best in the business as linguistics professor Louise Banks, who is brought in by military colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to make first contact with one of 12 alien crafts that have spontaneously appeared in 12 locations across the globe. As Louise and Ian try to make contact with the aliens inside and struggle with how to get the two species to understand each other’s languages, the nations surrounding the other crafts have their own potential conflicts with an alien intelligence to deal with, and it’s when agents of several nations end up crossing lines that Louise and Ian’s timetable is shortened, forcing everyone involved to try and crack the code before certain irrevocable actions are taken. As should be apparent by now, I’m being deliberately coy about the plot of Arrival, and really about the film in general; as I said in the opener, this is a film that demands one experience it for themselves. So what can I talk about? The stunning cinematography by Bradford Young? The beautiful score by Johann Johannsson? Denis Villeneuve’s assured and confident direction? Perhaps the script by Eric Heisserer, which I would happily read a book about how either he or the writer of the original novella he adapted this from came up with this story and managed to successfully write it? I could talk about any of these elements, some of which at great length. But I won’t. Again, I say; it simply must be experienced on your own.

What this film manages to accomplish in its short, almost-two-hour running time is nothing short of standard-shattering, and unfortunately, to try and explain why is to give away the film’s very essence, its gift to the cinematic audience. I try and think about it, try and put it into words, and it truly seems that my efforts in doing so almost seem to undermine what the film itself tries and succeeds in doing in terms of redefining the very language and linearity of cinema. This film could have been so much less than what it is and still succeeded as a damn good sci-fi, and that it doesn’t, that it not only manages to raise that bar for itself but still clear it with plenty of space to spare, makes me incomprehensibly grateful. This film is a boon, both to those that watch it and to cinema as a whole; it’s a monumentally rewarding experience, one that introduces a new way of thinking about storytelling and filmmaking, and that I honestly feel, at least to my fellow writers and filmmakers, makes us better for having seen and experienced it.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10