Our Town

Our Town

It’s a nice town… Know what I mean?

I knew almost nothing about Our Town when I went into it, even after my usual bit of research, which is almost always a red flag for me; even the film’s Wikipedia page was devoid of the usual summary and production sections, opting for a few opening lines with a cast list and tiny Awards section, and nothing else. What I was able to find out was that this was a film adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning stage play, and so I made a mental note to be cognitive of the film’s dialogue and staging, which I expected to be above average. It was about a half hour into the film’s short running time that I began to wonder what the film was really doing, in just about every aspect of storytelling and filmmaking, as it seemed to be shirking every convention that was prevalent in Hollywood at the time, which would’ve been fine and perhaps even encouraging if the film really had anything to show for doing so. Instead, I ended the film truly wondering why one should even spend the scant hour-and-a-half with this film at all.

The film doesn’t have a traditional straight narrative, but is instead a picturesque view of life in Grover’s Corners, a small town in New England at the turn of the century. Where other films would take a premise like that and frame it as a slice-of-life spanning the years in the lives of several characters, Our Town takes it a step further, opting to make the film itself a cultural study of the town in question. The film even opens with what might as well have been a museum tour guide or curator giving a rundown of various facts about “our town”, as if this were a newsreel instead of a fictional film made for entertainment. The narrator-slash-tour-guide even stops the film at one point to bring in a historical professor to rattle off facts about the town’s past and demographics, which was more than an unusual move to see. I could see what the filmmakers were going for with why they opted to do the film this way, but the nagging thought in my head behind it all was: why should we really care that much about this town? It’s not important in the slightest; the narrator and historical guests even make that readily apparent at several points, which pretty much kills the angle they’re trying to achieve with why they made the film the way they did. Even so, the mood of the film was, to put it in a single word, swell, even if the technicals were a little off-putting in a few peculiar ways. The framing of some of the shots was odd, sorta like some of the shots were choosing to focus on something innocuous or unimportant instead of the person or people talking, and not in the Chekhov’s Gun kind of way. Not to mention the film’s strange framing of the actors, which outright broke several of the standard rules of framing shots without gaining anything in return for doing so, which bugged me a little more than often. I will say, though, the way the ending was handled does make up for a lot of the oddness the film had done up to then, even if it was changed from the original stage play and still feels like it was changed unnecessarily.

I’m really at a loss when it comes to trying to find nice things to say about this one; not because it was bad, but because it was weird, and there wasn’t any real reason for it to be. In film school, for instance, during one of the earlier classes on cinematography and camerawork, we had an exercise where we had to break down and figure out how to shoot a scene or two, and every time one of the students would try and do something in the shot without having a purpose behind it or because they “thought it would be cool or neat”, we had to stop and come up with something else, something more substantial. It taught us the lesson that doing things on the screen willy-nilly or for no actual reason other than self-indulgence was, well, self-indulgent, and didn’t actually serve the story being told or the film being made, which should always be priority number one. Our Town completely fails in this regard; I couldn’t ascertain why it did almost all of the things it did, or if I could, I could figure or reason out that it could have been done better if done differently, so then why indeed was it done the way it was? This was one of two films director Sam Wood helmed that ended up nominated for Best Picture for 1940, and thankfully, Wood got a nom for Best Director for the other film he put up instead of this one; if he had been nominated for this, I would’ve cried foul immediately. This isn’t really a bad picture, but it just flouts reasoning so much that I honestly can’t allow myself to call it a good one.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Advertisements

Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent

I don’t want correspondence; I want news!

Man, it’s been a while since my last Hitchcock; I was unsure if I’d remember what one of his films was like since it had been so long. Foreign Correspondent would be one of Hitch’s first American productions, as well as one of his first nominations for Best Picture, along with eventual winner Rebecca. While this one may not have had the particular might of David O. Selznick behind it, it still managed a nom for the big one, which now that I’ve seen the picture I guess I won’t argue with. I will say, though, that while this was a decent watch, I can’t see myself ever going out of my way to see it again, and seeing how rewatchability is a very big thing for me with films, Foreign Correspondent ends up only barely getting a passing grade from me.

Joel McCrea is Johnny Jones, a reporter with the New York Globe, who gets appointed as a foreign correspondent with the peculiar pen name of Huntley Haverstock and is shipped off to London to get a fresh take on the burgeoning war in Europe. Jones/Haverstock is directed to a shindig thrown for the Universal Peace Party, headed by Stephen Fisher, in honor of a foreign diplomat named Van Meer. At the party, after schmoozing with Fisher’s daughter Carol, Jones discovers Van Meer is missing, and ends up on the trail of a conspiracy to undermine a secret peace treaty Van Meer was a part of; not to mention a potential romance with Carol, if he manages to survive the events that are unfolding all around him. After the first half hour or so, I was a little unenthused with how by-the-numbers the film had been up to then. It was roughly around that point that the film tried to up my interest by throwing a few of the standard Hitch curveballs into the plot, which succeeded if only mildly; I was interested in how the film would end up at its conclusion, but I still wasn’t able to skirt past the notion that the film was tossing its pitches at me for lack of anything else to do or say. It was a mystery with plenty of twists and turns before we get to the ending we get to, but as is often the case with mysteries, once the actual truth behind the twists and turns is made apparent and resolved, there’s no reason to ever take this particular ride a second time. Everything else about the film was serviceable enough, and the production value takes a noticeable upswing near the end with a plane crash sequence, but with everything being merely serviceable, the focus is put even more on the actual twists and turns of the mystery, which (again) only hold up on a first viewing, when we’re not aware of the actual truth behind everything that’s transpiring.

I said in the opener that it was due to the complete lack of rewatchability that this was barely getting a passing grade from me. I might have misspoken slightly; this is a good enough picture in its own right, but it’s unfortunately the kind of picture that, while plenty of effort and value were put into the film (and it shows), doesn’t warrant more than a single viewing. Viewed and judged as a stand-alone experience though, this was pretty good, and that’s at least more than I can say about a lot of the Best Picture filler of years past. I don’t know if I’d nominate this in an open field, or with a reduced category, but it was a nice little piece of entertainment to sit through. Ask me to sit through it a few more times, however, and I might have something less nice to say about it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Force of Evil

Force of Evil

Lawyers are not protected from the law.

I could go for a good film noir right about now. Good thing Force of Evil came up, since it fits the ticket almost exactly. Directed by Abraham Polonsky, in what the Book touts as one of his few worthwhile directorial efforts before his career was snuffed out by the Hollywood Blacklist, this is as typical a noir as I think a film can get. It’s not absolutely drowning in it like some other films on the list, but rather this toes the line right down the middle of the road, and is happy to do so. Thankfully, there was plenty with this one that was firing on all cylinders that clearly made up whatever difference there may have been.

Contrary to the films I’ve watched as of late, this one had a lot of plot, so I’ll try to be succinct. Joe Morse is a lawyer in New York City, when actually he helps run the illegal numbers racket, a progenitor to the lottery. Indeed, Joe’s boss wants to consolidate all the different rackets into one and make it a legal lottery, despite the fact that Joe’s older brother Leo, who suffers from a heart condition, runs one of the smaller ones himself. Joe thus plays both sides, trying to help his older brother and fulfill the wants of his boss, all while finding himself falling for Leo’s demure ingĂ©nue of a secretary, Doris. Noirs seem to come and go in the 1940s, but Force of Evil stands out for several reasons. For one, this film seemed incredibly proud of its script, so much so that it has the actors spit their dialogue out in such a rapid-fire fashion that you’d all too easily miss an entire line if your ears could blink. A little bit of looking around got me to a review that made the observation that all of the dialogue was written in iambic pentameter, which pretty much blows me away and elevates the film to the levels of poetry. It wouldn’t be half of what it is without the actors and their delivery, particularly John Garfield in the lead role, as well as Thomas Gomez as his brother Leo. I was also especially thankful that this purported film noir was actually a pretty standard noir, even despite the fact that it either didn’t have or deliberately ignored many of the regular noir tropes. There was particular use of light and shadow to shape the scenery and the characters, and the main character, even with being a lawyer, was as hard-boiled as you can get. There isn’t a traditional femme fatale (or rather, the one the film has is only hinted at and plays a minor role), and really the only significant female part is the innocent waif. Still, even though this tried at times to be different, it was far too reverential of the noir genre to escape becoming one itself; all the better, though, as the film works very well with what it has.

This is another one that I really liked, but still found myself questioning whether it was really enough to make the list. Even if I had decided to make a go of watching a bunch of classic films that wasn’t the list, I have a feeling I’d have found myself at Force of Evil’s doorstep at some point either way. Still, I won’t complain; this reminded me a lot of The Big Sleep, and any film that draws numerous comparisons to that film can only be a winner for me. Check this out if you’re looking for a good noir to settle down and consume; it won’t be your favorite meal, but you’ll walk away feeling satisfied.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Ossessione

Ossessione

I tried to forget you. But I couldn’t.

My history with Italian neorealism has been a checkered one, to say the least. So too is my experience with Luchino Visconti, at least as far as I’ve seen of him. So now, to have the two combined in what many regard as the progenitor of the genre of Italian neorealism was not a welcoming prospect for me, even less so since the film was over two hours long. Ossessione is Italian for obsession, and the concept is explored thoroughly throughout Visconti’s film, in, naturally, the best and most effective method possible; through two people whose obsession with each other leads them both to tragic fates. Despite its length, and despite its neorealist undertones, I did find myself enjoying this one, though it was only thanks to me putting myself in the mindset that the film required.

The film is an adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, which would also be adapted in Hollywood three years later into a film that would also make the list, so the rough outline of the plot is a familiar one. A wanderer named Gino traipses into a roadside restaurant run by opera lover Bragana and his wife Giovanna. After making friends with Bragana to the point where he is hired on as a mechanic and worker, Gino and Giovanna begin an affair, one that leads them to plot to have Bragana meet an unfortunate end so that they may be together. But, as the title of Cain’s novel will tell you, justice is always a step behind every wrongdoer, and it’s only a matter of time for the both of them. For a film that would be marked as a precursor to the Italian neorealist movement, this was only barely neorealist, at least to me. The mood and production value of the film aside, this had a lot more melodrama than neorealism is normally known for, mostly through the music, which would swell up with emotion whenever something daring or shocking would happen in the film. I guess that’s why I ended up liking it a little more than pure neorealist works like Open City. This also had more of a plot than other films of the genre, which seem content to merely be rather than provide a narrative to follow. The film did seem to drag on a bit in the second half; there was about an hour left in the film when it felt like there should only be a half hour left, tops, and the film tries to get away with it by stretching the plot unnecessarily with explorations of Gino and Giovanna’s relationship after the “accident”, which only served to make me painfully aware of how much runtime there was left in the film. Needless to say, however, when the film was on point, it worked really well, mostly thanks to the incredible chemistry between the main couple. If anyone need wonder what true “animal magnetism” looks like on the screen, watch Ossessione. From the first moment Gino and Giovanna lay eyes on each other, it is immediately apparent that they are attracted to one another, and indeed it only takes a bike ride into town on Bragana’s part for the two to almost throw themselves into bed together. I don’t think I’ve seen a display of such romantic machismo since A Streetcar Named Desire, and that’s saying something.

This ended up being held from release in America until the 1970s due to copyright issues, and indeed the film may never even have seen the light of day; the fascist regime in Italy saw the film and destroyed every print they could find of it, and the film only survives thanks to a personal print Visconti kept hidden for years. For a film that foresaw the Italian neorealist movement to just barely toe the line toward being a lost film itself would seem to be an automatic in on the list, but this is also a pretty good film to boot; well made, with some interesting camera shots and dollies that up the production value a little higher than it would have been thanks to the neorealist underworkings. As I mentioned, the second half does drag quite a bit, and goes off on a slightly tangential story direction seemingly for no other reason than to pad the film’s length, but it doesn’t detract from the film as a whole too largely. If you can stand burgeoning neorealism for a little over two hours, this’ll be a pretty nice way to spend your time.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Ivan the Terrible, Parts 1 and 2 (Ivan groznyj, I i II)

Ivan the Terrible

For now and ever, and unto ages of ages.

Sergei Eisenstein, the godfather of Russian cinema, had one more major work left in him before his death, and even then death claimed him before he could completely finish it. Ivan the Terrible comes in two parts (and was intended to be a trilogy), the first released as usual upon completion in 1944, but the second was held back by Stalinist censors until both Stalin and Eisenstein had passed, finally being released in 1958. I include this fact mostly to stress why Ivan the Terrible is on the list, as opposed to being a truly great film from the twilight of Eisenstein’s career. It’s a good one, no doubt, but it was way too overly dramatic in its presentation for me to really say that it is worth it, especially to a modern audience.

The film details, from his ascension to the throne, the rule of the titular Tsar of Russia, Ivan IV, and his continuous battle to keep the throne and a unified Russia in the face of opposing forces, as well as internal affairs courtesy of the boyars who would have the rule of Russia in his stead. The second part is even given a subtitle: The Boyars’ Plot, to emphasize the true threat to Ivan’s rule is within his country rather than outside of it. First off, the film is lavish to an absurd degree, with production value oozing out of every pore. Also, the lighting was very striking, creating bold images both on the screen and in the environment of the actors; clearly, Eisenstein has lost none of the skill at filmmaking he displayed in his silent-era films. However, he also retains a little too much of what made silent films look antiquated and corny in the wake of sound and the changes to the craft of acting and filmmaking that came with it. The acting is a little ham-handed (and by “a little” I mean laughably so), making very frequent uses of cutaways to people deliberately making expressions to reflect on what has just happened, and staging all the action with overblown gestures as if the film were a stage play or Shakespearean adaptation. It was a good deal into the first part that the exorbitant acting style became a little too much for me to take, and I pretty much disconnected from the film in favor of watching the proceedings impassively, which actually worked for me. Eisenstein has unfortunately opted to hold onto everything that made silent film silent film, but try and do it all in a talkie, and it is his resulting effort that shows how such a notion is ultimately a poor one. For what it was worth, it was very well done and very well put together, especially in how it connected the shots together through actions and stances of the characters. It was obvious that all the sound in the film has been added in post, from the dialogue to the foley work to whatever music, on-screen or not, was used in each scene, but it was actually pretty well done, so I didn’t begrudge it as much as I have in the past when it hasn’t been well done. Oh, special mention as well to the color scenes utilized in the second part; even though I knew they were there, I’d forgotten about them by the time they showed up, and were thus a nice surprise.

Boy, did I want to like this one. It had all the technical skill of a masterpiece, but held on too rigidly to the filmmaking techniques of old, and refused to move and evolve with the times, making the actual story itself come off as hokey and maudlin. Plus, while the name Eisenstein is basically synonymous with Russian propaganda, it was still a little disheartening to be able to tell that that’s essentially all this was, and considering the reaction to the second part by the Russian authorities, it wasn’t even the propaganda that the country wanted. It is masterfully done propaganda, but that’s to be expected out of Eisenstein, so I was looking for a little more from this later work of his, and I didn’t get what I wanted. That said, I can’t discount the importance or technical wizardry at play here, so I really shouldn’t give this any lower of a rating. Just be aware that this is basically a talking silent picture before you go into it, and you should be able to handle it a little better.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

My Darling Clementine

My Darling Clementine

Sure is a hard town to play a quiet game of poker in.

Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral; it’s not a unique story in the annals of film, to be sure. But this one is directed by John Ford, the man of all Westerns, and stars Henry Fonda, the most likable of likables, so what’s not to like? Sure, for a western that takes advantage of the beautiful vistas of Monument Valley, it does detract some that the film is in black and white, and for dealing with a real event, the film takes many notable liberties with the story, but come on; it’s a John Ford western – these detracting qualities don’t really matter… Or do they?

In this film, Wyatt and the Earp brothers are cattlemen, who head into Tombstone with their herd parked a ways back, only to have them rustled in the night and the youngest Earp, James, killed. Wyatt, now with a vendetta to keep, takes the vacant marshal position in Tombstone, which runs him up against gunslinger Doc Holliday (who he ends up befriending) and the Clanton family, who are the general lawless men who run the town from behind the scenes. I’d go a little bit more into the plot, but to be honest, if I did, I’d be essentially giving away the whole film, and I wouldn’t want to do that to those of you who haven’t seen this yet who might have a mind to. Also, the story ended up being my biggest quibble with the film. I know it wasn’t aiming for accuracy, but there were two major foibles I couldn’t help but be annoyed with. First, aside from setting up the characters in the beginning and the gunfight at the end of the film (which is over in all of two minutes), no running time whatsoever is served to advance the actual plot of the film, which should’ve been the Earps looking to find the cattle rustlers who killed their youngest and sparring with them until both sides eventually agree upon the eponymous gunfight. This only happens, like I said, at the beginning and at the end of the film. The middle is left to my other main annoyance with the story, that it was essentially left on the back-burner to try and shoehorn in an unnecessary romantic subplot and love quadrangle that had no business being there other than to satisfy what was expected of the Hollywood norm at the time. The character of Clementine, who the film is titled after, is on screen for no more than ten total minutes, and has essentially nothing to do but to exist as an item to be argued over by Holliday and his would-be lover Chihuahua (nice name, btw), with a little dash of a love triangle involving Clementine and Wyatt just for the sake of it. Really, there was more wrong with the film than there was right, but what the film did get right, such as the characters and the script and, of course, the production value of the western locales, it did pretty well with, so I gave it an extra point or two.

Honestly, I was expecting a little more from this. I don’t know if it would be fair to say I was expecting to be wowed right out of my socks, a la The Searchers or even to the level of Stagecoach, but this is a John Ford western; it should have had a lot more going for it than just the fact that it’s a western, with the typical western stuff, that just happens to be directed by John Ford (who, I should note, had already won three Oscars for Best Director at that time, and would go on to win a fourth). I wouldn’t say to avoid this one, but neither would I say to seek it out as a must see film. I wasn’t even expecting the film to be rigidly adherent to the real gunfight as it really took place, but this one just took half the jigsaw puzzle, removed it, and threw it out the window in favor of a few building blocks that have no business being in a jigsaw puzzle. That metaphor ended up kinda weird, but it puts my feelings about My Darling Clementine into pretty good perspective.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis)

Children of Paradise

I dreamed. I hoped. I waited. For you.

It’s been a while since I’ve used the landscape poster format for a film, but this one seemed to necessitate it. Billed in America as the French answer to Gone With the Wind, Children of Paradise lives up to its billing in the only way it knows how: production value. That’s not to say that there is nothing else to this film, but the value of the production is absolutely second to none, especially when considering how the film was made, and when and where. Children of Paradise was made right in the midst of the Nazi occupation of France, and this setting would impress a great deal into the film and the making of it. Several of the filmmakers were forced to flee or removed from the picture for being Jewish. One actor had to flee as well when the Allies liberated France for being a Nazi collaborator. The set designer and score composer had to work through intermediaries due to the Nazi stranglehold on the country and the cultural exports of it. That this film was made is an achievement; that it was made in the setting, and the time, and with the people it was made with, is nothing short of miraculous. So, what about the film itself? It was very nice, but that’s all I’d say about it.

The film is an epic tale of one woman, Garance, and the four (count ’em, four) men who each desire to be her suitor. The film jumps between the men as they have various interactions with Garance (and each other), all culminating in… well, nothing really. It’s not too big of a spoiler to say that the film’s ending essentially leaves most of the plot threads completely unresolved, but that’s what it does. The plot aside, though, this had production value out the wazoo. The film opens, for instance, on a massive boulevard populated with well over a thousand people, showing off the film’s production value with the very first shot. It’s even more amazing to consider that the entire location was a set, the largest ever constructed for a French film at the time. From there, the production was very well exercised, and never came off as opulent. The cinematography was quite good, especially thanks to the recent restoration done for the film. And the acting was also enjoyable, though I was not of the opinion that Arletty, the actress who plays Garance, had enough of a screen presence to warrant four men all falling over themselves to try and be with her, but to each their own.

The main problem I had with Children of Paradise was the fact that it seemed to know just how good it was. The beginning of the film simply opens into the setting, and starts the characters on their way, presuming that we will automatically care about the characters and what they do from square one. It was a little irksome, and as the film went on, while I found myself wondering how things would turn out and wanting the best for the central players, the idea that the film was intentionally disregarding the fleshing out of its characters and story simply because it did not deem it necessary to do so was not far from my mind. When this ended, I was left with a disconcerting taste of not having experienced the absolute masterpiece that I was led to believe that this was. It was very good, and indeed needs to be revered when the making of the film is taken into account, but the film itself seemed to only be acceptable, maybe even more than acceptable, but nothing more. I can see why this is on the list, and maybe in a few years I might even watch this one again. But not before then.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10