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

Tangerine

Tangerine

Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.

There’s always one or two additions to the list each year that make people go “wtf?”, as if the editors have to show that their knowledge of must see films extends beyond the obvious ones. This year gives us Tangerine, a film I’d heard of solely because of the filmmakers’ decision-making behind the production, which was trumpeted everywhere I looked on the various indie filmmaking sites I semi-regularly frequent. For those not in the know, director Sean Baker chose to shoot this film not on typical cameras, but on iPhones; not only this, the film is about transgender prostitutes, and actual transgender actors were cast in the lead roles. While I can certainly get behind the film’s progression of the cinematic art form (at least on a technical level), both in how it was shot and how it was cast, I’m not too sure I can get behind it as an actual film.

Sin-Dee is a transgender sex worker, currently on the way out of a 28-day prison sentence, when she meets up with her friend and fellow trans-worker Alexandra, who accidentally lets slip that Sin-Dee’s pimp and boyfriend Chester cheated on her while she was in prison. Needless to say, Sin-Dee gets riled up, and the film follows her as she tries to track down Chester, as well as the girl he was with, and confront them; all while an Armenian taxi driver also has a role to play when the events come to a climax. I hate to make a comparison to Carrie, just because it really seems out of place to do so, but Tangerine is a film that is all about getting to the climax, and once you’re there, you just let it ride until everything that you’ve been waiting to happen happens, and you’re left with the aftermath. I can see how it was a big deal that the film was entirely shot on iPhones, but aside from the novelty of it, it’s not really a worthwhile endeavor to shoot a real feature with iPhones; this film can get away with it mostly because it knows how lurid it wants to be, but the general look and feel of the film was too unprofessional to sell the idea of using cameraphones to shoot other viable feature films with. I assume this was part of the intention behind shooting this with cameraphones, so in that the film kinda shoots itself in the foot. Still, for a film about transgender sex workers fighting and reacting and thinking with their instincts, this has a heart to it, mostly thanks to the two leads, especially Mya Taylor, who plays Alexandra, and who was surprisingly effective pretty much all of the time.

Here’s the thing about Tangerine, and it’s kind of a disappointment that I’m left with this thought after watching it: I don’t really see the point in anyone going to see this. What Tangerine is, and what the entertainment value and lead-up to the climax ultimately amounts to, is akin to watching a trainwreck; in almost no real way should it be entertaining, but just the sheer carnage that’s on display… you just can’t take your eyes away from it. That’s the climax of Tangerine, and to say that nobody gets a happy ending here is to be so tongue-in-cheek that one risks puncturing the side of their face. Now, given that Jerry Springer is still on the air, there’s still an audience for this sort of trainwreck, but in all honesty, there really shouldn’t be. This has some moments, there are certainly some moments in here that may be worth the journey. But not enough, and not nearly enough to outweigh the general sliminess that the film seems to want you to bathe in for whatever reason it has for wanting so.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

David Copperfield

David Copperfield

Nothing attempted, nothing gained.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Charles Dickens’ famous novel, and thus I didn’t have much recollection of David Copperfield and the events contained herein. I think that might be the real reason I didn’t take to this cinematic adaptation all that well. David Copperfield (the film) is yet another Best Picture nominee adapted from a literary source, and yet another nominee directed by George Cukor, and these two things combined in the early years of the Academy threatened to turn me off of the film completely before I’d started it. When I did finally begin the film, I needn’t have worried about not being interested in it because of preconceptions; the film itself was merely standard and run-of-the-mill enough for me to end up not interested in it all that much anyways.

David Copperfield is ostensibly a biopic, albeit one for a fictional character, and thus the plot largely consists of young David having event after event happen to him, which he tries to take in stride or overcome, as he matures into adulthood. Now, the original novel is very likely part of the reason why this type of story is so littered throughout American writing, and cinema as a byproduct, so I can’t hold it against the book and the film too much, but what I could hold against it was how flat everything felt. This was a passion project for producer David O. Selznick, and as can generally happen with passion projects, they can either be stellar, infused with energy and drive for the material, or they can be entirely by-the-numbers, driven solely by the will of the single mind seeking the goal it wants, and David Copperfield fits squarely into the latter category. The film comes off as existing for its own sake and little else, and I really couldn’t have cared less about anything that happened in it, which was a shame considering how beloved Dickens’ original work has been over the years. The cast and their performances were able, though a bit overacted in more than a few sections, save for one standout example I never would have thought; W.C. Fields, who plays Mr. Micawber, and who is by and large the most memorable of the supporting players. As for the titular character and the young actor that plays him, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Freddie Bartholomew in a film, and I wasn’t expecting him to be so unlikable on the screen, though maybe it was just a circumstance of the British dialogue and the necessity of its deliverance. It had also been a while since I’ve seen a film of the 1930s with an actual musical score, so it seemed rather intrusive whenever it appeared, which was more often than I’ve been used to.

I really was expecting a little more than what I got with this; I went into it with only superficial expectations, and ended up bored and without care for the whole two hours of the film’s running time. Fields’ surprising semi-dramatic turn notwithstanding, there really isn’t a whole lot of reason to see this one, unless you’re a fan of Dickens or the novel in question, in which case this may indeed be one of the better adaptations of this work (not that I’ve seen too many versions to compare, mind you). I just felt listless watching this, not caring about the characters or anything that happened to them, letting the events of the film roll over me like rain off a rooftop and not even feeling damp after it happened. Your mileage may vary, but Cukor’s work has generally left me withdrawn, and this was no different.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10