Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann

I just don’t know if you’re always doing as well as you say you are.

I dunno; maybe I’m just a touch too cynical a person. I looked at the poster up there, with all the quotes all over it proclaiming that this would be a laugh riot, hilarious and moving as well, and so I went into the film expecting it to be… a laugh riot, hilarious and moving as well. Again, this is the cynic in me talking, but: I guess I should be shamed for going into a film expecting it to be what it says on the tin. I believe I only laughed once during the nearly three hour running time of Toni Erdmann, and thanks to my ability to infer everything this film was going to try and do with its story and characters once I’d gotten used to them, which took about fifteen minutes, the film became a nearly-three-hour exercise in seeing a film perfectly play out exactly as I’d inferred it would. Add to it that the film was trying to derive basically all of its humor from awkwardness and uncomfortable situations, a la Bridesmaids, and I was none too pleased to be forced to sit through this one.

Winfried Conradi is a retired music teacher with little to do, as well as a humor streak within him the length of his arm, which he exercises by pulling pranks and jokes on basically everyone who comes into contact with him. This includes his businesswoman daughter, Ines, who takes her life as seriously as you’d expect a business contractor to a major oil company would do, and thus her father’s constant joking when he’s around her is an incessant source of discomfort. When he surprises her by showing up at one of her assignments in Bucharest, their natural butting-heads comes to a small breaking point, and he leaves her apartment to head home. A few nights later, with Ines at a bar with her friends, in enters Toni Erdmann, with scraggy black hair and the weirdest set of teeth the women have ever seen; they and the hair are fake, of course, because the man is clearly Winfried, who seems intent on interrupting his daughter’s life to inject a little spontaneity and humor in whatever way Ines would least prefer him to do so. It’s after a few meetings that Ines realizes her father isn’t going to stop, and so she begins to play along and challenge his authenticity to the pseudo-role. I kinda wish there was more to talk about with Toni Erdmann than just the story and characters, but there really isn’t, since most of what I would otherwise talk about was minimal and basic in every regard. So, with that said, the two main characters of the film are well fleshed out in their own right, and the film does reach a humane moment in the end that feels earned, if only because the film spends so much time getting there. But, with the film being marketed as quite possibly the funniest films of the year, I couldn’t help but feel let down at how little amusement I got from the film. I even use the word amusement instead of laughs to try and broaden the category a tad, since the film’s actual content consists largely of the uncomfortable tete-a-tete between Ines and Winfried (often in his Erdmann persona), but even then, there was little amusement for me, mostly because I was able to infer what the film wanted me to get before it even began trying to get me there, as I said in the opener. Maybe I was a little too struck down by films like Bridesmaids that I can’t even enjoy a modestly-awkward film like this one, I don’t know.

I pretty much feel like I have to apologize to basically the rest of the cinematic community for how I ended up on this one, which makes me feel more than a little indignant. Everyone who’s anyone in the critical community loved this to high heaven, and I’m sitting here after sitting through the film, going: yeah, it’s got a nice moment at the end, with a nice lesson to impart, but was it really worth it? Was it really worth everything the film puts on the screen and goes through? Really? The fact that I ended up with that opinion of the film at all suggests to me that; no, it really isn’t, and that I feel like it’s being required of me to love this more than I do makes me really, really frustrated. Again, maybe I’m just more cynical than the average person. I actually felt pretty solid about tackling the running time of this one when I went into it today, and that I’ve come out of it on the other end feeling the way I feel… I just really don’t want to feel this way. I tried with Toni Erdmann, and maybe it’s that I’m not ending up with everyone else about it that’s making me the most frustrated of all.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Four Daughters

Four Daughters

What have I done to deserve such daughters?

Four Daughters would seem to be a part of one heck of a year for director Michael Curtiz; he wrapped up two of the five nominations for Best Director for this and Angels with Dirty Faces (and, amazingly, not for The Adventures of Robin Hood), in a feat that would cause the Academy to alter the rules for Best Director nominations for years to come (indeed, the only director to manage the same feat since the Academy’s rules were lessened in the category is Steven Soderbergh in 2000). It would seem indeed that Curtiz has the skills and the knack for presenting them to warrant his double nomination… until one actually sits down to watch Four Daughters – then it appears to be just that: seeming. This, as it has in the past, comes with one of my more common caveats: it’s not that Four Daughters is a bad film, because it technically isn’t. But, that’s the thing; the film knows that it is technically a good film, and instead of rolling with it and letting it flow a natural course, decides to take charge and show off exactly how good a film it’s been trying to be.

The titular four daughters are the Lemp sisters; Emma, Thea, Kay, and Ann, each a part of a musical family led by their father, and each with their own talent to bring to the group. Each, it would seem, also has a potential suitor in the mix, and it’s the inter-mingling of potential suitors and the potential wives that are the four daughters that forms what amounts to the plot of this film. If that doesn’t sound very interesting, I wouldn’t blame you, but for what it’s worth, Four Daughters does do an admirable job of trying to make it interesting, even for those who would otherwise not be interested. Four Daughters the film ends up being what would happen when you take a decent director, Curtiz, give him a script that could be best described as “yet another ‘blank'”, not bother to fill in that blank, and then Curtiz goes and gives you 110% into the resulting film… resulting in this film. Granted, the third act goes to some surprisingly affecting areas, mostly due to how unexpected it was compared to the first two-thirds of the film, but even with this, everything involved with the production of the film comes off as being better than what the film itself really deserved, from Curtiz to the titular four-some, and even some of the supporting players, from John Garfield to May Robson. The interplay involved in the dialogue was also another highlight, having the characters bounce off each other to a ridiculous degree, as if the script couldn’t help itself and decided to go all out with it for lack of a better way to show off its own talents.

Here’s the thing that bothered me the most about Four Daughters; it was clever, sure, but not only did it know how clever it was (or was supposed to be), it felt inclined to show off how clever it was every five seconds or so, if not through the script or dialogue then through the incessant camera moves and framing setups (I assume to show off what a skilled director Curtiz is), or certain actions of the characters, which I assumed was to fill in the spaces where the film felt that another instance of clever dialogue might be a bit too much or improperly placed. There’s a very fine line between being genuinely smart, fresh, and innovative, and trying to manufacture the concept of being smart, fresh, and innovative, and Four Daughters is so far beyond that line that it has lost sight of the line entirely. It reminded me a lot of Stage Door; way too self-indulgent in the first parts, and then inserting some darker material that is very nearly undeserved given the lead-up to it, all to get the film to the climax it ultimately wanted the whole time. I don’t know if I’d give this a recommendation, even with the general consensus of this one ending up a slight bit higher than what I ended up with, but I will say at least that it’s not an entirely unworthwhile endeavor to sit through the scant hour-and-a-half of this one, mostly thanks to everyone bringing their best to a film and a story that otherwise wouldn’t have merited the effort. I don’t know if that would count as a win, but it’s certainly not a loss.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

The Citadel

The Citadel

Thank God… I’m a doctor!

So, I was a bit hesitant to dive into The Citadel, to say the least; it’s based on another supposed classic novel, and proudly announces this by having the film’s title represented on the cover of a large book on several of the film’s posters, and seeing how well “classic” literary adaptations have gone over with me so far on this Best Picture odyssey, it really shouldn’t surprise me too much that I’ve been putting this one off as much as I have. Well, having finished it now, it wasn’t necessarily worth me putting it off the way I did, but neither is it really worth going out of your way to see. All in all, it has its positive qualities, but unfortunately it shares a few negative ones with prior literary Best Picture nominees, and even with King Vidor as director, it doesn’t manage to escape from under these influences.

The Citadel is the story of Andrew Manson, a newly minted doctor who is granted a position as an apprentice to a doctor in a Welsh mining town, where he quickly becomes interested in the recurring cough plaguing the miners for years and tries to use his idealism to solve the problem. The miners, however, take offense to Manson’s refusal to capitulate to them by not giving them the near-placebo medicines they want, and end up trashing the lab Manson had set up to try and figure out how to combat the illness. His idealism shattered, he moves to London and falls in with the crowd of doctors he had been trying his whole career not to be, until a tragedy comes to affect him and hopefully set him back on the proper course. I think the best way to look at The Citadel is to see what the film’s selling points are, and how well they hold up. First off is the star Robert Donat, who was nominated for this role (and, largely, I suspect solely for the closing speech his character gives at the end of the film), and who does an admirable job of, well, being admirable and charming, but it works, especially given the British setting of the film. Second is King Vidor and his steady hand at much of the proceedings of the film, and though I’ve definitely seen better work from Vidor, I still appreciated his managing to take another semi-obscure (for the modern era) literary source and make something salvageable from it. So, why does it seem that I’m so tepid in regards to trying to come up with things to praise about the film? Well, because I am; this film, even though it wasn’t technically bad, still managed to fall under the class of “nothing films” that plague the nomination fields of Best Picture from this era. There was no point to sit down and watch this for, other than it got nominated for Best Picture, and again, while it wasn’t really poor, there was nothing at all to make it stand out and get one to say ‘Wow, am I glad I saw that movie’.

It’s the literary source, I suspect, that is where most of the problems with this film really lie. The Citadel comes across as some kind of strange mix of parts of Anthony Adverse, with the literary sources and focus on the main character as he tries to live his life, and Arrowsmith, with the film’s narrative focusing on the medical field and the main character’s desire to right the wrongs he finds present in the field as such. It’s thus a bit of a surprise that The Citadel manages to be better than both of those two films, if only slightly, but still, the weight of the source material’s shortcomings seemed, to me, to be too much for Donat, Vidor, and the film itself to overcome, try as they might. This is unfortunately just another box to be checked off the checklist, and it saddens me to put it that way, for all the film’s effort to actually be fairly good. Oh well; moving on, then.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

In Old Chicago

In Old Chicago

We O’Learys are a strange tribe…

It seems a running theme among these early Best Picture nominees is films that pretty much try and copy the critical or commercial success of an earlier nominee by very nearly ripping off from the earlier nominee, if only in idea at the least. Case in point: In Old Chicago, a fictional account of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and a film that almost surely wouldn’t exist were it not for the success of the prior year’s nominee San Francisco, of which this tries to be the newer version of. Not only that, this pretty much tries everything it can to be the quintessential picture, including just about everything a film of this era seemed to think it either needs or wants in order to be successful and popular. If that’s all it takes to automatically win accolades, then I guess I can’t blame the producers and filmmakers for doing so. But I can still call the film out for what it is; derivative and pandering in almost every way.

For those who don’t know about the Great Fire, it was allegedly started by a cow, owned by a Mrs. O’Leary, knocking over a lantern. I bring this up as probably the only historically accurate thing in the film, which is otherwise entirely fictional. In the film, the O’Learys arrive in Chicago without the father, who was killed during the trip, but they quickly recover and become a notable family in the city’s rougher area, known as the Patch. In particular, the two eldest O’Leary sons, Dion and Jack, respectively come to operate a saloon in the Patch and become a reform lawyer for the city. When Jack goes on to run for mayor, this brings him in conflict with Dion, when Jack wishes to reform the city by wiping out the crime-ridden Patch, including Dion’s power-hold in the area, and everything comes to a head, of course, when the fire breaks out and more pressing matters arise. I’ll say this first off; this tries to cash in on the success of San Francisco, and while the fire segment of the film is certainly a spectacle (like San Francisco’s earthquake sequence), everything else the film tries to copy its predecessor for, it does in much lesser quality, mostly because the film knows that it’s following up a previous film, and doesn’t even try to be a better film because of it. I really wish there was more to say about the film than that, but that basically sums up the entire thing: it’s like San Francisco, but not as well done, and it is so because it intentionally tries to do everything that previous film did and no more than that.

There’s some other weirdness in this one, especially with how Dion O’Leary is shown to woo his love interest in the first section of the film, which I had some problems with, but really, this is an unnecessary and redundant film made even more so by the film not being better than its spiritual predecessor in any way. I’ll give it a point for matching San Fran in its disaster sequence, if only barely, but that’d be it. I imagine this won’t get too high on my nominee ranking, and it really shouldn’t, unless the remaining films from this year are absolutely god-awful, and at this point, I can only hope that they’re not. Anyway, moving on.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

One Hundred Men and a Girl

One Hundred Men and a Girl

Fairy tales never come true, darling.

Oh boy, another Deanna Durbin film; color me excited. Not that Three Smart Girls was bad, but it definitely wasn’t what I would call Best Picture material, so to see another Durbin vehicle nominated for the big one left me at an impasse as to how I should try and get through it. I guess I ended up putting it off more than I really would’ve preferred, since I’m only getting to it now. One Hundred Men and a Girl, despite the rather balky title, is a flighty film, coming in at just over 80 minutes of screentime, and again, seems to exist merely as another Deanna Durbin film to increase her star power and recognizability. That’s all well and good, and even with the film ending in a particularly positive way, it’s hard to dislike what the film tries to aspire to. But, and here’s the thing, it runs aground when one really takes a look at what the film is trying to accomplish in its own right; not in terms of story, but in terms of the producers and studio heads who said yes to the production.

Durbin is Patsy, who lives with her father, an unemployed musician behind on his rent payments. After trying unsuccessfully to get a contract playing for famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, he finds a woman’s purse dropped in the street, and quickly makes up a story to Patsy and his landlord about getting the job to explain where the money came from. After Patsy finds out the truth, she goes to return the purse and apologize, and through a surreptitious set of misunderstandings with its owner, a Mrs. Frost, she believes her father, and a group of 100 of his unemployed musician friends, are to be sponsored by Mr. Frost on a radio show, conducted by Stokowski himself. Now Patsy has quite the run-around to do to actually make it all happen, both for her father and all the other unemployed players she knows. Even with that plot summary, I was still left a little stymied as to what the point of this film was, even with the ending being what it is. It’s a heartwarming story, absolutely, but aside from providing another film vehicle for Deanna Durbin, I didn’t see any real reason for this film being needed to be made. I’d put it above Three Smart Girls, again pretty much solely for the ending of this one, but not by all that much. This would also be an interesting trivia tidbit in that Leopold Stokowski, a real-life famous conductor, played himself in a supporting role, in one of the very few films that he would ever do this. Stokowski, who may be better known for being the conductor in Fantasia, isn’t much of an actor, but thankfully, most of his role consists of him being himself and doing what he does best, and Durbin is more than capable of handling the rest of the heavy lifting in the film.

I can only hope we don’t have more Deanna-Durbin-starring ‘nothing’ films in the Best Picture pantheon from here on out, or this is going to get old even quicker than it already is getting. This was decent, and even likable in the ending act of the film, but I couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that if it weren’t for Durbin, as well as the additional novelty of getting Stokowski to star in the picture, this film wouldn’t have been made at all. Of course, the history of cinema is filled with films, both good and bad, that were made pretty much for the sake of themselves and nothing more, so I guess I shouldn’t hold it against this one too much. But, with the lack of other selling points to this one, it does come across as slightly irksome that the film, or rather the filmmakers, seems to insist to the audience that it be seen, as if it really were worth the effort put forth to make it. In my opinion, it’s not, and it’s largely this that is why I’m giving it the rating I’m giving it, but it didn’t end poorly, so I won’t look back on it with too much contempt.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

The Story of Louis Pasteur

The Story of Louis Pasteur

Benefits of science are not for scientists, Marie… They’re for humanity.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Paul Muni film; or, at least, one that I hadn’t seen before. I like Paul Muni, and the man, despite a few nominations, only won one Oscar in his career; for this, The Story of Louis Pasteur. While this won’t be fuel for a potential run of mine through the Best Actor nominees, I have seen all five of the nominees for that award for 1936, and while I don’t know outright whether I think Muni should’ve won over the others, I’m glad that he did; even with the still-short history of the Academy, Muni was overdue for actual recognition, and I’m okay with him getting it for this when he didn’t get it otherwise. That said, while Muni is far and away the biggest and best selling point this film has got, I do feel a little disappointed that he was honored for what ultimately amounts to a sub-par and far too on-the-nose biopic, and the flaws in this film seem to have only grown larger and more noticeable with age.

Muni is the titular Pasteur, who many know for the process of pasteurization, which is incidentally not covered in this film. Here, instead, we follow Pasteur’s attempts to combat diseases caused by what he calls microbes, in particular anthrax in sheep and rabies (or hydrophobia) in dogs and men. Since Pasteur is such a forward-thinking individual, his efforts at finding the causes of disease and fighting them, as well as his efforts to change how doctors and surgeons operate, are met with derision from the established medical community, and this is the prime conflict found in the film itself. First off, fans of Muni will no doubt recognize his face under that thick facial hair, even as he is particularly metamorphosed into the role of Pasteur, hence why I indicated in the opener that I was fine with him winning for this role; it’s certainly not an undeserved award, with what Muni accomplishes here. My problem with this film, and I guess with biopics of the era in general it would seem, is the deification of the subject that they feel they need to do in order to seemingly justify making a biopic of the person in question. Here, Louis Pasteur is not only a man who did great things and should be looked up to, but the film pushes it way beyond this and makes it so Pasteur is always right and everyone around him is hideously, ignorantly wrong; all of the time. There were more than enough scenes in this of Pasteur’s so-called foes in the academic world scoffing to his face and blindly refusing to open their minds even the slightest bit to his claims, or groups of these people literally laughing at the personally-absent Pasteur and how ‘impossible’ the things he’s been saying seem to be. I don’t know how historically accurate this film is, but having everyone against Pasteur literally getting together and laughing at the man and anyone who supports him seems… overdone, to put it nicely, and the film as a result has not aged all that well.

There was one thing to like about this film, and everything else was either par for the course, or had aged very poorly. This is pretty much why I’m ending up on the particular side, rating-wise, that I am. To add to that, aside from Muni’s performance, this was nowhere near what a Best Picture nominee ought to be; of course, that one or two exemplary features alone should net a film a Best Picture nomination is not an uncommon occurrence in the history of the Oscars, but the continued happening of it doesn’t mean that it’s justified or not incorrect for doing so. The Story of Louis Pasteur is but one of these many films; watch it for Muni, and pretty much for no other reason.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Three Smart Girls

Three Smart Girls

I’m not a gentleman. I’m a father!

It seems I’m starting to get to the beginning of the era of musical nominees for Best Picture, where every other nominee it seemed had song and/or dance to it. I’m pretty much made to think that way when I watch a film like Three Smart Girls, which somehow manages the feat of trying to be a musical and not really succeeding at it. Oh sure, there’s songs, and people sing them, but there might as well not be for how much good they do the film… Then again, maybe this does succeed as a musical after all. Three Smart Girls is touted all over as the big screen debut of Deanna Durbin, and I can see why Universal wanted to make her their newest star, considering how operatic her voice was in this film (if indeed it was actually her voice). Unfortunately, the film as a whole is so hokey and unoriginal that I’m actually a little amazed that it kickstarted Durbin’s career the way it did.

The three girls of the title are the Craig sisters; Joan, Kay, and Penny, who live rather happily with their mother, despite their parents having been divorced some time earlier. When the sisters catch wind that their father is going to remarry, they have their suspicions about the bride-to-be, and so they head off to New York City to break off the new marriage and get their mother and father back together again. A simpler plot would be hard to find, and thus I’m forced to conclude that the film isn’t about the plot, or that it doesn’t boast it among its selling points, which was an easy conclusion to make in the face of how basic the film’s story was constructed. So what is there to watch this for, then? Well, if you were to say the singing, maybe in the 1930s this would count, but I couldn’t help but get the distinct impression that Durbin wasn’t actually singing the songs in the film, but lip-synching to either her own singing or the voice of someone else; which, I happen to know, is how they did film most musicals back in the day, and it unfortunately shows a little too much here. So, if it’s not the singing, is it Durbin, as well as her on-screen sisters, the titular trio themselves? Possibly; the film knows it has to center on the charms of the three young girls, but it seemed to overdo it for fear that underdoing it might have caused the film to fail even more, not understanding the adage that too much of anything is never a good thing. So, then; what is there to tout as this film’s selling points? Well… I really don’t know, and that’s basically Three Smart Girls in a nutshell; not enough (or too much) of any real positive attributes to really cause the film to shine, but instead being merely content to pander in hopes that it will be enough to succeed.

I really don’t want to hate on this film too much, because for all its lack of good attributes, I didn’t really hate the film, and really I can’t say I disliked it to an extended degree either. What I found about it, though, was that it was derivative, hackneyed, and overbearing in whatever it thought it needed to do correctly to succeed as a still-early-sound-era musical, and when such a product ends up not being as entertaining as it ought to be, being instead only tangentially so, then I can’t really give it a good rating as a result. Is this worth seeing? Not particularly, though I won’t rule out a possibility of some enjoyment should you decide to watch this one regardless. Just don’t go into it expecting a real contender for best picture of the year, because this really isn’t.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10