King Solomon’s Mines

King Solomon's Mines

It has a sort of majesty… a feeling of forever.

So, King Solomon’s Mines is starting off with a couple strikes against it, principally that the film is advertised on the poster as having been filmed “entirely in the wilds of Africa”, which to me elicits recollections of 1931’s Trader Horn, which wrangled a Best Picture nom for basically identical reasons despite the fact that it was a piss poor film in its bones. Top it off with a wild elephant getting shot and killed in the opening minutes, and you’ve got enough to send away a good half of the meager audience that would probably be giving this a shot for any reason. Frankly, I’m not blaming any of those people in the slightest; as an exhibition of Africa, King Solomon’s Mines might be sufficient, but as a film, it is little more than that, and it seems to not care about it.

Allan Quatermain has just returned from leading a safari in the wilds of Kenya circa the turn of the 20th century, and he’s just about fed up with doing such. Of course, he is then approached with an offer for one final expedition: the wife of a missing explorer named Henry Curtis wants to set out and find him, courtesy of a hand-drawn map she says her husband used to go into a large, uncharted territory nearby. Managing to entice the wannabe retiree with an exorbitant sum of money, Mrs. Curtis, her brother, and Quatermain set off with a small group of local tribesmen to go where none have ever been and lived to return… to follow the missing Mr. Curtis’ fantasy of finding the diamond mines of the lost King Solomon. Really, the background is only the barest pretense of narrative enough to prop up what the film really wants to be, and that is a whole bunch of nice Technicolor footage shot of the wilds of Africa, both human and otherwise. To say that this is little more than a theme park ride on the silver screen is to be patently blunt about it; the film itself is seemingly put together by the directors (two of them) shooting whatever wild footage of animals and scenery they could get, and then finding ways to incorporate as much of it into the final cut as they could via the excuse of the narrative. Even then, what narrative there is is simplistic and only there because the audience expects it; hell, even Deborah Kerr, the female lead, exists in the film only to provide a bunch of reaction shots to the actual footage of Africa. I’ll give props to Stewart Granger for looking very much his part as Quatermain, but the rest of the film wasn’t really worth the price of admission.

My opening jib at Trader Horn was far more on the mark than even I could’ve foreseen; this sort of thing should be nowhere near Best Picture. It’s not technically bad, I guess, but it absolutely pretends to be something it’s not to bring in more people than would’ve otherwise watched this. It’s kind of a shame, especially given how beloved and classic the original book and the character of Quatermain are in literature. I guess it’s no surprise that this won a couple Oscars for color cinematography and editing, but that this was also the second-highest grossing film of the year as well is a little sad to think about. And again, that this was also nominated for Best Picture is the biggest question mark one can have. If you want a bunch of footage of Africa circa 1950 or so, well, here you go; otherwise, there’s no reason to sit through this, even with the short running time that it’s cut down to.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Battleground

Battleground

Don’t ever let anybody tell you you were a sucker to fight in the war against fascism.

Seeing as this is still the very-near post-WWII years, war films are certainly not going away anytime soon. I’d previously had to sit through Twelve O’Clock High for this year, and I’d lamented how realistic it was at the expense of things like entertainment. Well, it looks like I’m eating my words a little sooner than I’d have cared for. Battleground is the other war film in the nominees this year, and while Twelve O’Clock High got by with being a much more documentary-style telling of a portion of the war effort, Battleground swings wholly in the other direction with a war tale told as campy as it possibly can be.

In terms of true events, Battleground is the story of the weary survivors of the siege of Bastogne in Belgium, part of the overarching Battle of the Bulge; specifically, how the men at Bastogne held out in a war of attrition against all German opposing efforts to make sure the Krauts didn’t lock up the coast at Antwerp to deny the Allies the offensive they wanted. In movie-form, Battleground is the story of the 101st Airborne Division members who wind up as infantry at Bastogne, and how they specifically get by during the siege. This would seem to be a harrowing and fraught tale ripe for cinematic adaptation (and only half a decade after the real events took place to boot), but this is Hollywood, and it seems even they can’t resist making this into a smarmy, slap-happy show piece to fit in with all the other such films it produces each year. The opening few minutes, for instance, features a regiment of men not so much marching drills as choreographed march-dances while a handful of them and others watching play off dialogue like they are very much actors very much playing instead of men at war. Literally every aspect of this film is a caricature of what it should be; all the dialogue and staging has so much of that fake, sing-songy, stagey quality to it that it became impossible to suspend disbelief to care about anything that was happening or might happen. Every character is either identical to all the others or only distinguishable by a single notable characteristic; the one constantly clicking his dentures, the one mixing his eggs in his helmet while they patrol, the one with a Southern dialect and accent so strong no reasonable moviegoer in any timeframe could plausibly believe he was an actual real person and not a song-and-dance man. Admittedly, the musical high-and-flighty mood does eventually grow more dour as the film goes on and the boys’ situation gets worse and worse, but by then the film is so committed to its snarky, wisecrack dialogue that it doesn’t feel like the film’s intention with this change of mood comes across in any way. At least the production itself is actually pretty thorough, and it’s rare to see a war film of this type spend so much time in the dead of winter, with the weather directly having a toll on the characters as well, so I appreciated that at least.

I’m actually a little disgruntled thinking about this film. If this is actually the style and type of Hollywood film I’ve been watching up to now, and I’ve been enjoying it this whole time… what changed about this, then? Or is this the aberration, the mainstream Hollywood-style flick that Best Picture has thankfully been largely free of until this year? I’m hoping it’s the latter, because I really don’t know what would have been different today during my watch of Battleground if it is indeed the former. If this is also an indicator of how potential future nominees like this are going to worm their way into this field, I’m not looking forward to it. In fairness, I’m probably making this film seem worse than it really is, but there were just so many moments during this that I actually cringed or rolled my eyes that it became a chore to make it through to the end instead of a surprise find or enjoyable experience. Battleground will probably strike a chord with a good number of moviegoers; it did somehow end up the year’s second-highest-grossing film, after all. I just can’t count myself among that particular crowd.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Wilson

Wilson

Three cheers for Old Nassau!

I know a lot of people, my dad in particular, that get a great deal of enjoyment out of watching movies and TV shows on historical topics, more than they get out of just about any other type of media. One of my former coworkers was also very much one of these, with dozens of books (mostly about the two World Wars) hidden on shelves in a few stockrooms that he’d read and reread while on break. Me, I can take it or leave it, especially in regard to films; if it’s good, it’s good, and if it’s not, then I’m likely not going to get a little more out of it just because the film is a historical account (or purports to be). I say this because I can’t imagine anyone but the former crowd really getting anything out of Wilson, a biopic of President Woodrow Wilson. As a historical hagiography of the man, I can see history nuts getting through this; as a film, however, this fails on almost every single level, the principal one of course being entertainment.

The film is essentially what it says on the tin: the life and political career of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. To speak a little further on it, it doesn’t show anything from his childhood or events prior to his running for Governor of New Jersey while he is currently the head of Princeton University; this is squarely about his career in public service, leading to and including the two terms he would serve in the White House. This is certainly typical of biopics in the past, but here, the decision not to have any insight into Wilson’s past or possible events that would lead him to being who he is is an unfortunate one, and one that is stretched to fit the entire picture to boot. This was producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s passion project, an implication that can be positive or negative, and with Wilson, it is squarely in the latter camp; Zanuck, for whatever reason, has such rose-tinted glasses for Woodrow Wilson that I’m frankly astonished he is aware of the existence of any other color, holding the man on such a high pedestal and throwing dump trucks of money and production value at this adaptation of his political career that it’s no real wonder (to anyone and everyone other than Zanuck) that this turned out to be a flop. You would think he’d know better, as a movie producer, but someone should’ve told him that some nice-looking color cinematography and all the production value in the universe will not and cannot hold up a film that never dares to be anything but a surface-level recounting of its plot details. The film went from Woodrow at Princeton right to him as Governor right on to him as President, and all of it was so glossed-over and shallowly depicted that it felt like Zanuck was happily throwing himself face-forward at this caricature of Wilson in order to drown himself to death in an inch of water. Every event in this film has such an air of gaiety and idyllic joie de vivre to it; even the downturns like the deaths of characters or the challenges Wilson faces in office are merely honorable adversities meant to be overcome to make one stronger instead of the film even daring to enact an ounce of actual conflict. I’d imagine anyone with any degree of experience with movies will struggle to hold back a snicker at how melodramatic and lightly-fluffed everything in the film is, and anyone with more experience than that will have to struggle not to cringe at multiple points throughout. At least Alexander Knox bears more than a passing resemblance to Wilson in the film, and acts resolute and stalwart, though without any knowledge of how the man was in real life, I can’t say whether or not his depiction is to any accuracy.

I was nervous to start this one, just based on all I’d heard about it; that it was exceedingly boring, superficial, and fully feels its two-and-a-half hour runtime. I can definitely see where these people are coming from; this was a struggle, not because it was overly boring (for me), but because it had nothing to it to warrant holding my attention on it. Wilson the film is exactly what you get when your approach to a biopic or to this type of material is as trite and shallow as can be; the film is basically a rock skipping over the water of the life of Woodrow Wilson, occasionally making glancing contact but never even bothering to explore the depths beneath the surface. If anything, I’m more perturbed with Zanuck than I am with the actual film; he really ought to have known better than to make this film what he made it. There’s some good things about Wilson the motion picture, but absolutely not more than there are bad things about it, and it’s really to what degree you like historical films or biopics that will decide if you as a viewer will be able to get anything out of this film at all.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Watch on the Rhine

Watch on the Rhine

I must make my stand. I can do nothing else.

It had admittedly been a few days since I’d made the time to sit down for one of these, but I had some time today to knock something out, and I figured there would be no better way to start up 1943 proper than with a Bette Davis film. As such, I went into Watch on the Rhine somewhat assured, knowing only the synopsis and that Paul Lukas won Best Actor for this film, and not much else. I’m not really sure why I felt so okay about diving into this one; it seemed like I had the notion that, now that 1942’s field was done with, that war propaganda films would basically be a thing of the past. Of course, the war didn’t end until 1945, and I really should’ve known better; still, I was not prepared for what kind of war propaganda film this would end up being. By that, I don’t mean that Watch on the Rhine is unique or different from other films of its kind; what I mean is that it was made as a war propaganda film, and absolutely no further thought or consideration was made towards the making of this picture.

Davis and Lukas are Sara and Kurt Muller, a married couple who make their way back to the States at the start of the film to meet back up with Sara’s American family after traveling across Europe for several years. It becomes known that Sara is not just married to a German man, but that Kurt is actively involved in anti-Fascist work that has necessitated his travels across the continent, work that has put him at odds with the Nazis and their sympathizers. Unfortunately, the Mullers arrive at Sara’s house at the same time that her mother is also housing another couple, Teck and Marthe de Brancovis; Teck being a Romanian aristocrat on the outs from his country, and frustrated with his marriage to Marthe, especially as she and Sara’s brother David get along a little too comfortably. Teck, who spends his time gambling with the members down at the German Embassy, finally sees a way to get back to his country once he finds out about Kurt’s work and sympathies, and the two men’s struggles, along with the rest of the family, will come to a head once something happens that convinces Kurt that he needs to return to Europe… with no one the wiser that he is returning. I was a little ambivalent toward the plot of this one when I started it, mostly because when I started it I was immediately taken aback by the acting in the opening scenes, particularly by the young actors playing Kurt and Sara’s three children. It’s often an issue in films, especially back then, when child actors need to actually be good, or at least believable, but good god was the acting from these three stilted; though the dialogue written for them that they deliver word-for-word with no omissions didn’t do them any favors. Neither did it help the adult actors either, though they at least did a better job of making it seem natural; even so, the scriptwriter must have been very proud of their ability to fit in a hundred words on the page when only ten would’ve sufficed, though I merely found it extraneous and mildly annoying to have to sit through. It was after the film was over that I looked into it and found the film was based on a stage play, which in hindsight makes complete sense, and unfortunately makes this yet another example of how not to adapt a stageplay for the screen. The pomposity of the writing is only matched by the overblown grandeur of the acting from everyone involved, which is seemingly compounded by the fact that the entire second half of the film takes place over a single night basically in real-time, so there’s no break for the audience to digest anything or come to terms with what is actually going on, making everything up to and including the film’s faults lumped on top of each other and made bigger for all to see. The presentation of the film came across so bluntly, like a make-up artist that opts rather than using a small applicator to finely apply layers of foundation and color to instead whap the subject on the face with a pillow covered in powder and consider their job done and over with. Such a style of film can and has been done well, but only if it’s right for the material and kind of film the material needs to be, and this was far and away the wrong approach to whatever this film tried to do.

Here’s how I guess my thoughts on Watch on the Rhine can be summed up: There can be two ways the phrase “on the nose” can be taken, either in a good way in that it doesn’t put on airs of falsity but instead opts for straightforwardness and brevity, or in a bad way, in that whatever is being described as thus is so blocky and rigid in its construction and presentation that it reaches uncanny valley territory; almost like a young child stepping on each individual brick as they walk along a sidewalk instead of walking in a normal, natural manner. Watch on the Rhine is the perfect cinematic representation of the bad way of being on-the-nose; every single thing involved in putting this film together is on complete display, in perfect stepping order, with no sense of presentation or blending of the seams to make anything in the film flow in a realistic manner, and it unfortunately was made worse by the bombastic delivery of the actual meat of the film. Not even Bette Davis emoting in every scene she’s in can save this from collapsing under its own weight, and I became rather miffed by the end of it all that this had somehow managed nominations not just for Best Picture, but for Best Screenplay as well. Propaganda films can work, if they have a good sense about them to be better or more than just being a film pumped out of the machine to fit a quota for the war effort, and unfortunately, Watch on the Rhine is very much a propaganda film that doesn’t want to bother with doing that at all.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Kings Row

Kings Row

My troubles are almost over, and his are just beginning.

As weird as it is to say, I think this might be the first film I’ve seen that features Ronald Reagan. I haven’t had the inclination nor the opportunity to actually ignore basically his entire filmography, I should point out; it’s just circumstance that I’ve never seen one of his films until now. Apparently Reagan garnered a lot of star power from his supporting role in Kings Row, and was more than a little dismayed when he had to pretty much give it up upon being drafted for WWII; and, to be honest, I can see why he got the boost in popularity for this, because he was actually kinda good, especially for the material. That last part, though, is what sticks out the most to me about director Sam Wood’s glurge of a feature here; the material itself.

Parris Mitchell is a young boy living with his small group of friends in the little town of Kings Row, somewhere in the midwest (it’s never explicitly said which state) circa the turn of the century. His best friend is Drake McHugh, who’s known to hang around various girls in town, including daughter of the town doctor Louise Gordon and tomboy from the other side of the tracks Randy Monaghan; Parris, however, has only had his eyes for Cassandra Tower, which rubs everyone else the wrong way as the Towers are regarded by the rest of the town as weird. Indeed, it’s soon after the film starts that Cassandra’s father Alexander takes her out of school and sequesters Cassie in their house, away from everyone including Parris. Jump forward a decade or so, and Parris has decided to become a doctor, coincidentally opting to apprentice under the Tower patriarch, who soon takes to him and ignites his interest in the newly burgeoning field of psychiatry. If you think this is going down the route of Dr. Tower eventually giving in at the climax to Parris’ still-present affections for his daughter and consenting to their marriage, you are in for a rude awakening, and what happens at the midpoint of the film (along with what’s implied has been happening) send the characters spiraling down to the film’s actual conclusions, which also ties into the now-adult Drake McHugh (played by Reagan) and the consequences of his juggling the affections of the two girls from his past. If that plot synopsis doesn’t clue you in at least a little bit as to the kind of film Kings Row turns out to be, let me put it another way: think of the term melodrama, and especially how it can apply to a film. Now, with that definition in your head, try and exaggerate it to an almost comical degree, where the characters of a melodrama physically flail themselves into the arms of others upon each emotional moment, where every plot point and twist is accompanied by a bombastic swelling of the musical score, where every action and reaction of a character is either put forward or met in turn by blunt-faced, rapid-fire spewing of dialogue or horrified denial usually accompanied by a sense of manic repression. Well, that’s Kings Row almost down to every single frame. It’d be kinda hard to talk about further without going into spoiler territory, even despite my almost wanting to to spite just how melodramatic Kings Row really is, but I’ll be fair to anyone who may actually want to see this. Even outside the plot, though, there was a palpable and overblown sense of exaggeration to the film, and it extended to just about every aspect of the filmmaking. As the film started and we were introduced to the main players when they were kids, I was a little put-off by the stilted and poor acting from the child actors, and fairly soon wished for the film to move on to when they were grown up, which it did about fifteen minutes in; much to my chagrin, however, the ham-fisted acting continued even from the adult actors, and somehow managed to bleed into the scriptwriting and the direction and even down to the presentation of the film itself. That director Sam Wood was nominated for Best Director for this is almost a little laughable, especially when the Academy, if they really wanted to nominate him, could’ve chosen The Pride of the Yankees instead, even if there aren’t a lot of directorial flourishes to that one. I will give a slight tip of my hat to the black-and-white cinematography in Kings Row, though, which was also nominated that year.

Boy, oh boy, was this sappy. And, what’s more, it was so because every single turn of the plot was a crushing blow to one or several characters, making the sappiness in service to the incredibly depressing nature of the narrative. That, right there, is melodrama, as succinct a definition as I might possibly be able to give, and in that, Kings Row succeeds at being melodramatic as all hell. Imagine my surprise when, after watching it, I looked into the film a little more, and found its reception was largely very good, especially in the years since its release. Apparently, it’s regarded as one of the pre-eminent melodramas of its era; an opinion that I can only agree with due to the sheer amount of melodrama packed into this picture, and not because of any particularly developed tastes for the actual genre, of which I have always found rather sour, personally. If this is indeed one of the best melodramas of the 1940s, I guess it turns out not to matter too much to me; if it does to you, however, Kings Row might end up being right up your alley. I, on the other hand, seem to be “on the wrong side of the tracks” with this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Wake Island

Wake Island

I take back that toast I made to His Imperial Majesty.

For whatever reason, Wake Island was another film that I dived into with almost no preparation beforehand; I really wasn’t sure why I did this, given that I hadn’t heard of director John Farrow (who got a nom for Best Director for this), nor had I heard of anyone billed as the film’s stars, and not being too much of a history buff, I had no knowledge of exactly what the Wake Island attack during WWII had been. While I don’t know if the events in the film are any indication of the truth, it seems that most of what transpires in Wake Island the film is at the very least close to what happened, thanks to military communications and intel that made it off the island. Even with that, though, almost as soon as the film started, I was able to discern that this was going to be a propaganda film of the most propaganda-y kind (and not really in the good way), and I was absolutely right.

Wake Island is a small atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Midway Island and Guam, which in 1941 housed a garrison of U.S. Marines who spend most of their time doing (to them) rudimentary tasks and needless drills. Of course, this all changes when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, and it’s almost immediately after that Wake Island is besieged by the Japanese air and naval forces. As supplies and hopes run thin, it becomes increasingly apparent to the military leadership on the island, run by Major Geoffrey Caton, that it’s only a matter of time before the Japanese overrun their position, and so their mission becomes one to stall and delay the Japanese for as long as every single man on Wake Island can personally hold out. As the film started, I was introduced to most of the main characters, who with the exception of Caton and a civilian contractor named McClosky, all presented themselves as buffoons of the highest Hollywood order; even the “serious” military characters were Hollywood caricatures at best, and I was really struggling to even get through the opening sections of the film with how poor and put-on the script and the acting was. Once the Japanese attack starts up, the film gets somewhat better, though that’s admittedly mostly because a lot of the remaining running time is taken up with war action and explosions, leaving no room for the script to water things down with bad dialogue and general buffoonery; the film is also thankfully under an hour and a half long, which made the thriftiness of the film’s war action all the more agreeable. Still, that’s basically all I can say about Wake Island; there’s two different halves of the film, one which has the bad scriptwriting and barely-passable acting, and the other which has the admittedly good quality war scenes, and the film was only decent when it focused on the latter, and ended up downright cringeworthy when it flipped back to the former.

I know that America was in dire need of a good propaganda boost for the war effort in 1942, but that doesn’t mean that films that cater to that need like Wake Island need to be in automatic consideration for Best Picture. I can think of no other reason than that as to how this actually got nominated; aside from the extensive practical effects and some excellent aerial dogfighting footage, this was nothing more than a slapped-together effort to get people into the war effort, which apparently ended up working, as this was one of the highest box-office draws of 1942. This is getting an extra point from me for the aforementioned battle scenes, and that the rest of the film is as piddling in quality as it was necessitated my pointing that extra point out, almost as if I needed to explain myself. Even if you can enjoy the battle footage (which I did), and somehow manage to stomach the rest of the film (which I didn’t), I can’t imagine any universe where people could and would successfully argue that this deserves to be among the Best Picture field. If this is one of the ten best films of the year, then that does not bode well for the remainder of this field that I have yet to get to.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians

I mean, his parents can’t not like me, right?

Crazy Rich Asians was another one that took me a little bit to get to, thanks to a hesitancy about whether or not this was the type of film for me that, in the larger scheme of things, really shouldn’t matter… But it did, so this remained unwatched for a little while. Evidently, my hesitation was not shared by many; this became a runaway hit, both in the Asian community and out, and wound up becoming the highest-grossing romantic comedy in the past decade. Clearly my hesitation should be unfounded; plenty of people saw this, and loved it, and spread the word to others to see it. But it was still there; I couldn’t get over the notion that this would be a film that I just wouldn’t like. After having seen it, I understand a lot of why this was the success it was, especially as possibly the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast (or very nearly all), and why people generally liked the film and appreciated it even more. I, however, couldn’t find myself among that crowd; I didn’t really like it, I definitely didn’t appreciate it, and my intuition and hesitancy more than appeared to be right on the money.

Rachel Chu is an economics professor in New York currently dating Nick Young, a handsome emigrant from Singapore with an inexplicably British accent, and who wants to take Rachel with him back to his home to meet his family as his official date to a friend’s wedding there. Rachel is as on-board as any girl-or-boyfriend would be at the notion… until she gets there, and finds out not only is Nick’s family rich, they are basically the Rockefellers of Singapore; all information that Nick never told her. Thus it becomes a trial and challenge to not only appear and behave as if she fits in with the mega-rich lifestyle, but also to win over Nick’s mega-rich family; particularly his mother Eleanor, who Rachel correctly intuits doesn’t like her and feels she will never fit in and be enough for Nick. A typical rom-com narrative and elevator pitch, to be sure, and one that has been done over and over in cinema; so what’s the difference here? One major one, and it’s completely apparent given the film’s title: these people, the Young family, are LOADED, and thus the film itself has to display this opulence as much as it possibly can to sell the premise to the audience. And sell it it does; there’s an absolute ton of production value in almost every scene that features the Youngs, and in order to film it all and make it appear as glitzy and glamorous as they can to a modern audience, director Jon M. Chu chose to shoot the film basically in the manner of an MTV reality show, a decision I can understand even if I feel that it absolutely (and kinda ironically) cheapens the film as a whole. As befitting the image that many of us normals might have of the mega-rich, the film goes about things very aloof and almost vapidly, not really putting too much care in the basics of film construction like narrative and dialogue, or at least at making such things at the level to where the audience can relate to and imprint themselves upon it, and that turned out to be my biggest problem with the film as a whole: everything about the film spoke more that the film was posturing to be the rom-com it expected and wanted itself to be rather than making itself believable or real. To call back to a review I posted years ago, rom-coms in general all want to be When Harry Met Sally, and thus the genre of the rom-com has become almost entirely a wannabe; Crazy Rich Asians unfortunately falls into this trap, not necessarily trying to be When Harry Met Sally, but just trying to be something and coming across as, well, trying. When a film like this, which needs to (almost literally a necessity) make its core messages and values ones that the audience can identify with and nod their heads to, ends up coming across as so surface-level and a few song-and-dance numbers away from being a musical, then the audience isn’t going to see themselves in these situations, and the film will fail in its purpose, and Crazy Rich Asians unfortunately fails more than it succeeds. I will give a tip of my hat to Michelle Yeoh, though, who plays Nick’s mother Eleanor, and who seems to be the only one on the screen who is a real, believable person.

There’s more than a few complaints I’ve seen people have towards Crazy Rich Asians. One main one is that the film tries to glamorize the ultra-ultra-rich and put us viewers in their context (via the character of Rachel), in an attempt to (I can only assume) impart the message that the problems of the ultra-ultra-rich are just the same as those of the everyman. In this, the film fails spectacularly, as the rich people problems of the film are exactly that: rich people problems; set the film in a more accessible setting, with a more relatable interpretation of “trying to get your lover’s family to like you” (something that a lot of Eastern folk would easily understand, from what I know of the culture), and this would come across a lot better and more grounded. A lot has also been made about the casting for the film, particularly that some actors, despite being of Asian heritage, weren’t “Asian enough”, or not being from Southeast Asia or Singapore directly to be represented in the film; complaints that I, very frankly, have to shake my head at, and that seem to be people trying to find fault or something wrong to complain about instead of having actual legitimate complaints, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. I can see some of these issues, but they’re largely not what concerned me; what concerned me was that the film tries way, way too hard at being something that, extrapolating from the skill of the scriptwriting and the acting of the cast, it could never be. I appreciate that the Asian-American community latched onto this as their Black Panther of sorts; the film that finally puts the Asian community first and foremost on the screen. I just feel kinda sad that, if I’m being honest, I wished they’d grabbed a hold of a much better and more relatable film to hold aloft than this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman

This is where you want to be.

So. The Greatest Showman. Not to disparage this film and its inexplicable addition to the list too much, but when I saw that it had been added, I honestly hoped upon hopes that the people who updated the Book’s summary on Amazon had made a mistake, or the editors would change their minds before the new edition actually came out. Well, so much for that. I mean, I could imagine a pretty decent film could be made about the life of P.T. Barnum and the creation of his circus, but for whatever reason, the people behind The Greatest Showman decided to make it a musical, and a classical musical at that; what that ultimately means for the film we got is, while there might be a decent picture to be chipped from the marble of Barnum’s life story, The Greatest Showman is very clearly not it.

Hugh Jackman plays Barnum, in what must have felt like the role he was born to play, who at the start of the film is a child working with his father for the Hallett family, where he is close friends with their daughter Charity. While the elder Hallett disdains the two children being friends, Barnum eventually grows up and runs away with Charity, and the two move to New York City and start a family. Barnum is discontent, however, with the knowledge that his wife and daughters come from and could have so much more than what they do, and after a couple of odd business ventures, he starts up a museum for oddities and unusual acts, that quickly grows into his famous circus. Despite the monetary gains and the new family he’s thrown together, he still wants to feel like a legitimate upper-class man, and Barnum will go through several trials, including a country-wide tour he heads for a Swedish singer and the continuing discontent of some of the locals for his band of “freaks”, before he must find out what kind of man he really is, and wants to be. Awww… doesn’t it just warm the cockles of your heart to feel that Barnum will come out all right in the end… Though, if you’re worried about spoilers, I should probably remind you that this is a musical, of the feel-goodiest, classic-sensibiliest kind; you know how this is going to end before the 20th Century Fox fanfare even starts. So, what is there to watch this for? Well, I really can’t fault the production value of the film, which is impeccable right down to the choreography for the dance numbers matching every beat of the music, even with as elaborate as some of the numbers get to be. I’ll also stump for a couple of the songs; namely, This Is Me, which provides one of the rare instances of real, full emotion the songs do give in the film, as well as Rewrite the Stars, a number for singer/actor Zendaya to easily convert into a single for the pop charts, and which I can’t blame her for with how catchy and swooning the song ends up being. The rest of the music, though, was very incongruous for the material and setting the film covers; the film starts off, for instance, with a strangely hip-hop-ish number during the opening credits, and all the rest of the songs would have this modern-day audio production feel to them, even with the film taking place in the 19th century and hitting all the regular beats of classical musicals like a hammer on an anvil.

So. This is… kinda good, I guess? I mean, it’s technically not bad; as objectively as one can look at the intricate production and the wow factor used at times, this is not poorly made at all. I guess what I’m left with after The Greatest Showman is a persistent, nagging thorn in my mind, and if I were to identify it, I’d end up with this: I don’t think this film really should’ve been made the way it was made. All the hallmarks of classical musicals are here, in a modern-day film with modern-day production value, to tell a story set in 19th-century New York, and a fairly fictionalized version of the story to boot, if I understand what I’ve heard correctly. All the influences and aspects brought together to make this picture are so clashing against each other that the final product, as snazzy as it looks and as feel-good as it feels, just feels wrong overall; it feels like a Frankenstein of a film. Make a straight biopic of P.T. Barnum with this production value, you’ll get an audience; make a classical musical with a tried-and-true story, nostalgia will give you some money; make a modern film with modern technicals, a modern audience will find something to like. That all of these working parts are in this one single film, unfortunately, makes it feel like the film just doesn’t work, and if there was ever a film that can feel like it is sounding the death knell for the musical as it once was in the cinema, it’s The Greatest Showman. And if this is what the musical as it once was can offer a modern audience, perhaps that’s for the better.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Mother!

Mother!

…Baby?

Well… I really don’t know where to begin with this. I guess I should start by saying that I’m a Darren Aronofsky fan, and had heard about his newest film for some time before, during, and after its release. I’d heard about the polarizing reception it had, and didn’t really have a real desire to see it myself, despite liking all of Aronofsky’s other films (I hadn’t seen Noah at that point). I think it was because as a fan of him, and his films, I knew that his films, especially on a first watch, could be somewhat… difficult. Despite my holding Requiem for a Dream as one of the best films circa the turn of the millennium, I can’t really say that I’m ever in the mood to sit down and watch it again; anyone who’s seen Requiem will understand that completely. I got the same distinct impression with Mother!, and now having seen it, I can say my impression was right on the dot; this is a film that, even with the percentage of fans who liked it, I can’t imagine people really having the desire to sit down and watch over and over.

The film starts off with a man, played by Javier Bardem and credited only as Him, placing a crystal into a display piece, around which a burnt out facade swiftly constructs itself back into a house. Here, the man lives with his wife, the titular character, who spends her time tending to the home while he, a writer, struggles to come up with his next work. Their somewhat idyllic life is disrupted by the arrival of another man, played by Ed Harris, and eventually his wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, and the couple are soon invited to stay, against mother’s unspoken wishes. From there, things progressively get more unsettling and way more allegorical, as the events and setting of the film devolve into just about every level of chaos that one could expect from a film of this nature, and even then the film will still gobsmack you with how far it is willing to go. Of course, there is a lot more to this than that surface-level synopsis, so much so that that synopsis almost feels like lying when one deciphers the truth behind the narrative of this film. I should also mention that I knew this truth that I speak of going into the film, so this, my initial viewing of it, was under the auspices of basically knowing what the film was really about and really doing the whole time. I say that mostly because I got the absolute impression that, had I gone into this knowing nothing or less than I did, I would have been immensely frustrated the entire time watching this film; something that I suspect is largely why people had such a harsh initial reaction to this, coupled with some other features I’ll go into. Now, I’m not going to be the one to lay out everything for anyone who reads this; a fairly simple Google search should turn up a lot more than I’d be able to cover, but I did want to give some warning to potential first-time viewers, especially those who go into this thinking it’s something that it very much isn’t. As for the film, I really can’t fault Aronofsky or the production itself, which is stand-out in just about every regard, especially when the film enters its third act and things get more than a little crazy; nor can I fault the actors, who all do an excellent job with what they’re given, with Jennifer Lawrence proving a solid anchor as the title character. I guess if I’m to fault anything, it would be the actual script, which seemed to want to be so allegorical and metaphorical that it didn’t really do enough work to make sure all the metaphors and allegories add up the way they should, especially in the context of the surface-level story that is framing everything.

So, if the production is an altogether excellent-quality one, and Aronofsky’s work behind the camera is as thorough as always, along with the cast in front pulling their own, why the rating I’m giving it? If I have to narrow it down to one thing, it would be the actual content of the film itself, and I don’t just mean the parts in the third act (and possibly the second) that people reacted and took so much offense to. As should be apparent by now, the film operates on two levels; the surface-level story about the writer and his wife and the apparent home invasion, and the subtext/allegory level that everything is really about, and it would be at least somewhat acceptable if the two levels didn’t mesh with each other, but they don’t even really mesh together on their own. Taking either at face value, the film just doesn’t add up at all, and when you combine them to try and get to the film’s real message, or the one it thinks it’s imparting, well… there’s so much going on that the message is only really imparted because it’s the only constant connection amidst all the chaos. I’ve seen several reviews make mention of how the message of Mother! is so obvious that it is basically bludgeoned across the audience’s brains, and I can agree with that sentiment, if only because it’s the only message that the film really does have; the rest is just a jumble of plot threads and references, which is fine if that is Aronofsky’s intention, but I have to wonder if that is really worth spending the money to make a film out of, or worth it to an audience to sit through a two-hour version of. Evidently, it was, and is to a good amount of people; it’s just unfortunate that I can’t really count myself among that particular crowd.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Blossoms in the Dust

Blossoms in the Dust

You’re trying to mend a broken heart by hitting it with a hammer.

Blossoms in the Dust, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, was the only film among the nominees of 1941 that was in Technicolor, so I had some expectations going into my viewing of it. To the film’s credit, those expectations were largely ignored as the film went on, but more because the film itself had a few problems that became looming and hard to ignore the longer the film went on. Many other reviews of this one that I’ve read have made lots of mentions of how affecting this story is, mostly because it’s a true story of a real-life woman. That it is a true story, however, shouldn’t earn the film any undue favors, especially because the actual film doesn’t do nearly enough justice to the real-life story it presents, thanks to the numerous faults in the storytelling.

Greer Garson stars as Edna Gladney, who starts off the film as a well-to-do fiancee dreaming of a double wedding with her adopted sister Charlotte. Of course, things don’t turn out as planned; for one, she is almost irresponsibly swept off her feet by wheat farmer Sam Gladney, breaking off her engagement and marrying him instead, and for another, her sister’s engagement is called off when her future in-laws discover she was adopted and thus an illegitimate child, and she kills herself out of shame. Both of these events, coupled with an eventual accident that takes the life of her own young son, have a profound effect on Edna, and lead her to take in other foundlings and illegitimate children, forming her own adoption center to find them good homes, which eventually evolves into a legislative battle she wages to have illegitimate children not forever marked as such by their birth certificates. I can say a handful of good things about Blossoms in the Dust; the Technicolor cinematography was sumptuous, and Greer Garson does a good job being sentimental and an easy character to root for. Unfortunately, these are overshadowed by the more than numerous things I could say about the film that were not so good. For instance, the film had a very odd structure about it, which seemed exacerbated by the short running time; the story almost lurched along, meandering for a short while until punctuated by bursts of plot development, which are then largely ignored as the film moves along to the next bit of meandering. I caught on to this structuring of the story a little too early into the film, and it became a nagging persistence as the film went on, as more tragic happenings and downturns in the plot kept happening and then were just as swiftly swept along and not allowed to have the impact they needed to make them worthwhile. Add to it the decisions of the plot developments themselves, which seemed to have bad thing after bad thing happen to Edna Gladney solely to make her more sympathetic as a character and to get us to weep and say ‘you pull through this, girl!’, and I was almost to the level of being insulted by the manipulation the film takes part in. As I said, Greer Garson was good, but the acting from everyone else, from Walter Pidgeon as her husband to the children and black houseworkers, was caricatured at best, and not even the saving grace of the cinematography could stop me from wondering what the hell Mervyn LeRoy and the screenwriters were doing with this picture.

Films like this one make me more than a little disconcerted, for several reasons. The main one I alluded to in the opener, that the film has so many problems with it that it doesn’t do nearly enough justice to the true story as it and many reviewers think it does. Just because the true story of the film is a rosy one and one worthy of sentiment and praise does not automatically mean the film should receive similar sentiment and accolades, because the truth of it is that this isn’t a very well put together film at all. It’s maudlin, and tugs at the heartstrings to an unnecessary and manufactured degree, and what’s most upsetting to me is that the actual true story behind the film would’ve been more than adequate at doing that on its own, without the ‘helping hand’ of Hollywood going overboard with it and thus screwing it all up. Even with it being the sole color film among the nominees, I can’t say that this really deserved its spot in the Best Picture roster, and that a film a mere hour-and-a-half long could have so many elementary issues with it made me more than a little frustrated.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10