The Good Earth

The Good Earth

The land is our life.

It’s nice to see that Paul Muni would eventually get the recognition I always felt he deserved, even if it did come a few years later than I would’ve liked. He won Best Actor for Louis Pasteur the previous year, and was nominated again for Best Picture winner Emile Zola in ’37. Not only that, he also starred in this, The Good Earth, another Best Picture nominee that year. I haven’t rewatched Zola yet (though I probably should fairly soon), so I can’t compare Muni’s performances between the two films all that much. But, for what it’s worth, I was fairly pleased that The Good Earth managed a nomination for the big one, even if it’s not too much of a surprise when you look at its credentials for the era it was made in.

Muni is Wang Lung, a farmer in the northern farmlands of China, sometime just before the Chinese Revolution. Scraping by enough on his own, he is thrilled when he is selected to be married to one of the servant girls of the Great House, the rich people’s abode in the nearby village. He and his new wife O-Lan soon make a family for themselves, and the film details their trials and hardships as they try and survive whatever life happens to throw at them. There’s really not much more to the narrative than that, though plenty does happen in the film for Wang and O-Lan to persevere through, or try to in some cases. What the film lacks in a standardized narrative, it more than makes up for in sheer production value, as well as the performances of the leads, and a few of the supporting players as well. Being a 1930s historical epic, so to say, the rustic and thorough production value is the main draw, used to fully realize the setting and era the film takes place in, and indeed the production value is very well utilized; cinematographer Karl Freund even won an Oscar for his work capturing it all. Even with the film using Western actors to play the lead roles of Chinese characters, Muni and Luise Rainer (who plays O-Lan) do exceptional work, especially for it being as reserved as it is. Rainer, indeed, would win her second Best Actress Oscar for this, becoming the first actor to win consecutive Oscars, which might be a bit much considering how low-key her performance is here, but as I said earlier, it’s still very good and certainly memorable.

This isn’t a typical Hollywood film, of the times or otherwise, and that I think is what makes this as easy to appreciate as it is. The stars underact instead of over, there’s no real formula or strict adherence to customary narrative, and there isn’t even really a bad guy or villain of the piece (though the uncle character is pushed close to this territory a few times); this is merely a simple tale about people trying to survive in the wake of a hard life that never lets up, both in human obstacles and natural ones. Normally, I’d probably appreciate the shift in difference between a film like this and a typical Hollywood picture of the 1930s, but with The Good Earth, I only felt a little bit of gratification at both the difference and the film’s inherent value. I definitely did not come out of this singing its praises, as should be evident, and for all that it does do well, I just couldn’t get all that invested in it. It’s a solid picture, but it’s not an altogether entertaining one, and it’s really a shame that it almost has to be this way for the picture to even work as well as it does manage to do. Still, while this wasn’t exactly one for the win column, it absolutely wasn’t a loss, and given the lesser fare of these Best Picture noms that I seem to be trudging through, I’ll take whatever I can get in terms of pictures like these.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Lost Horizon

Lost Horizon

I think I’m going to like it here.

Every director in Hollywood has that big, epic movie production they’ve always wanted to do, and in many cases eventually get the chance to do, and it seems not even hometown, quintessential Americana director Frank Capra is excluded from this conjecture. Capra evidently wanted Lost Horizon to be his grandest picture yet, and no expense was spared him, even when the production went over-budget and he turned in an initial cut of the film that was six hours long. Apparently, his producers finally said enough and cut the film down themselves, to its release running time of just over two hours, which is the version I watched, though some small sequences of film have been lost to time and replaced by still images to the still-existing audio. Even watching this version, though, I could not surmise to any extent why Capra had such a hard time cutting the film down; even at two hours, it feels like it doesn’t get enough done during the running time to justify its own length.

Ronald Colman stars as Robert Conway, a novelist and important British diplomat who is fighting to get a series of planes into China to export a group of Westerners in the midst of an armed conflict. Succeeding, he boards the last plane out, but unbeknownst to him, the plane is hijacked by an unknown pilot, and the plane ends up crashing in the mountains when it runs out of fuel. Facing certain death, the crash survivors are amazed when a small group of sherpas meet them and take them to their refuge, Shangri-La, a remote and isolated paradise secluded by mountains on all sides. Faced with a thriving, idyllic community the likes of which he’d always dreamed of, Conway and the others must now uncover the mysteries of the utopia that has taken them in, and figure out when, or indeed if, they’re going to be able to leave. For an epic, or at least a purported one, this had a surprisingly smaller, hometown mindset to most of it, though considering it’s Capra that is probably more to be expected than I initially thought. There’s no excessive production value to this one that is so typical of Hollywood epics, and indeed the scope of the story itself is rather confined, hopping from the plane to Shangri-La and then pretty much staying there for most of the rest of the picture. There are a few times, mostly during the beginning and ending sections, where the music swells up to seemingly offer a heightened sense of danger or conflict, but never when this happened did it feel genuine or accurate, instead feeling manufactured by the film to cover up the fact that there wasn’t as much to the plot as there could’ve been. Added to this is the actual ending of the film, which if you don’t mind some mild spoilers, opts to not dramatize what likely should’ve been the third act of the film and instead have a chance character regale what happens to a group of people, instead of actually showing us what happens. It felt particularly lazy of the film to do this, and spoiled a lot of what good will I’d had with the film up to then, but I didn’t take it too harshly, as if all of what this chance character describes had actually made it into the film, the picture likely would’ve indeed run six hours, and been justified in doing so.

There were some things to like about this picture, but there were just as many things to not like about it. The major one for me was that it didn’t feel like a complete picture, instead feeling like the released print is, say, parts one and three of a six part story smushed together, with the description at the end of the film filling in whatever blanks the film has by not actually having the plot in the film itself. This, more than anything, is why I felt, as I said in the opener, that the film hadn’t done enough to justify the length it was; oddly enough, it was because the film had too much material, didn’t film enough of it, and then tried to stretch what it had done out to 3 or 4 hours before the producers finally pulled it away from Capra’s hands and tried to make do with what Capra had done up to that point. It was extremely disjointed, and I absolutely was not expecting that from a Frank Capra film. Maybe he did let this one get away from him a little too much. Still, aside from once again not being taken by the supposed charms of Ronald Colman, there’s enough of Capra in here to make it a somewhat decent watch, though it definitely isn’t one you absolutely have to see, so for that, I’ll be nice and put it right in the middle of my ratings scale. It could’ve been worse, and it could’ve been better, but really, what it actually is is just… incomplete. That’s all.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Dead End

Dead End

You never brought nothin’ but trouble.

For a while now, I’ve been wondering how to frame my review of Dead End, a William Wyler picture starring the eponymous ‘Dead End Kids’, as well as the first appearance of Humphrey Bogart in this Best Picture odyssey for me. I didn’t have a lot to go on; the film itself is very unassuming, even as it does have quite a bit of selling points to it. I was mainly bugged by one main thing about the film, however, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that I’d ultimately focus on this as my framing device; the inevitability of it making an impact with me. That framing device is this: the difference, at least in film, between plot and narrative. I bring this up here because Dead End is only the latest example of a film that, while having plot, is rather short on narrative, and what kind of a film it ultimately amounts to as a result of this filmmaking decision.

The film focuses on the end of a dead end street (get it?) in a slummy block of New York City, where a high-rise apartment building towers literally and figuratively over the poor and destitute residents of the rest of the street, which ends at a dock on a river. Here, several stories take place; a small group of kids who live on the block cause rows and make trouble, aspiring to be greater than the block they grew up on, while a former such punk turned gangster named Baby Face Martin returns to seek out his mother and old flame, and one of Martin’s old friends (who still lives on the block doing odd jobs) tries to get out his own way with one of the girls from the high-rise he’s having an affair with. So, what’s the actual story being told here; the point of it all? Well, therein lies the main issue with Dead End; there really isn’t one. Things happen, characters do stuff, dialogue is said; that’s plot, what actually happens in a film, but Dead End has no real narrative, no overarching storyline that the plot serves to advance to a conclusion. In Dead End, things just happen; it’s slice-of-life, but under the pretense of having a story to tell, so a percentage of viewers (like myself) end up a little flummoxed that at the end of it all there wasn’t anything substantive to it. I suppose some could make an argument that the whole point is to tell the story of the people on the block, as a sort of cautionary tale to not be like the punk kids or the gangster in the film. Indeed, this might’ve even been the intention of the filmmakers. But, when it’s a point like this that almost doesn’t need to be made at all, then where’s the real narrative then?

I think I expanded a little too much on my original point, since I didn’t really get to the technicals of the film itself; things like the very well utilized production design, and reserved but effective performances from the likes of Bogart and Joel McCrea, as well as some of the negatives, like the kids themselves, who seemed to have gotten all their acting skill by watching James Cagney and Edward Robinson and doing their most caricatured impressions of them. Still, though, this had more to it than it had detracting from it, in my eyes, so for me, it ends up in the win column, if only just. Not sure how it’ll end up falling in the ranking, though; while this was above the average for me, I can still see plenty of other films that stand a better chance at the big award than this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Stage Door

Stage Door

Maybe if you tried to do something for the theater, the theater would do something for you.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Stage Door, especially given how tepid the title of the film was. It stars Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, among a generally-sized cast of women, and doesn’t have all that much in terms of plot and the development of it. Still, it seemed to be relatively well-regarded, from what I was able to find, and it was short, so I started it hoping it wouldn’t be too troublesome. Well, it definitely wasn’t, that’s for sure. In fact, I was surprised at what this did have to offer, which started out one way and ended entirely differently. All told, the film was just about the opposite of tepid that a film like this could’ve gotten.

Stage Door is ostensibly the story of the Footlights Club, a boarding house in New York City for aspiring stage actresses. Katharine Hepburn’s character shows up at the beginning, looking for accommodations, and she is boarded with Ginger Rogers; the two don’t get along at their first meeting, because this is a Hollywood film, after all. The film basically tells the story of the young actresses living under the Footlights roof, focusing mainly on the two leads, but featuring a few other of the boarders as well, one in particular who is responsible for the film’s dramatic shift of genre in the third act. The first thing that jumped out at me during my viewing of Stage Door was the dialogue, and how inordinarily improvisational it all seemed. The opening scene, for example, has a bunch of the tenants arguing and talking over each other in the main gathering room, a squabble of women gabbing and cavorting and generally not caring who else is talking or who they have to out-volume, which seemed to be exactly the opposite of the precise and controlled screenwriting typical of the era. As the film went on, though, I got the distinct impression that not only was the improv-style script the film’s main selling point, but that the film sure as hell knew it, perhaps a little too well. That the film’s script was written improvisationally was impressive and novel at the beginning; that the film kept such a script dialed up to eleven through almost the entire running time grew rather annoying as it went on, even with the film being only an hour and a half long. Thankfully, for me at least, the film seemed to know that it couldn’t remain one-note literally the whole time, and something happens to shift the film’s center of gravity away from snarky comedy and into more dramatic territory, where the film seemed to really come into its own, thanks to all the world-building that had taken place up to then.

This was a surprise, absolutely, but it wasn’t as much of one as I really felt it could’ve been. For one, with the film’s script being what it was, it thus didn’t have all that much in terms of actual narrative, especially with the short running time; the film feels like 15-20 minutes worth of plot carried by a full hour and half of snarky, sarcastic, improvisational dialogue in between. Then the third act happens, and suddenly the film wants to be more than what it had been up to that point. I just so happened to welcome the change, mostly because the constant non-stop speed of the dialogue was getting tiresome, but the film is fairly uneven as a result of the decision to do things the way the film does them. Ginger Rogers was a definite surprise, considering I didn’t think much of her at all in prior films, as was supporting player Andrea Leeds, but aside from them, I’m not sure how to recommend this one; it seems like two films inordinately sewn together, and thus everything I could point to on one side to recommend it to someone would be offset by something else in the other portion of the film. Still, this was pretty enjoyable for me, so I won’t consider this one as a loss or fault, at least too much.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

So after some technical snafus, which delayed my watching films on my computer at all, I’m sorted out now (finally), so with that, let’s continue:

So, classical Hollywood; what’s the deal with Ronald Colman? I’d never heard of him before Arrowsmith, which bored me nearly to tears, but apparently, he was a big thing in the early-to-mid 30s, and his name is trumpeted at the start of this film like it’s the film’s biggest selling point. Never mind that this is a film adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel; no, this is all about Ronald Colman and his amazing star power, apparently. Well, as someone who’s never read Dickens’ original A Tale of Two Cities, but who’s had experience with Ronald Colman in the past, my expectations for this one were none too stellar, especially considering how high-falutin’ literary adaptations have been in the 30s so far. So, in that, A Tale of Two Cities (the film) exceeded my expectations; it was better than I thought it was going to be. But not by too much, though.

The story is quite complicated, but basically, this is a story of two gentlemen who are both in love with the same woman, all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. There’s a hell of a lot more to it than that, but I’d run the risk of this plot summary being as long as Wikipedia’s. Still, the film’s story is complicated enough that Ronald Colman, despite being billed as the star, doesn’t show up until a good twenty minutes or so into the film, and from then on he’s on screen for probably only half the remaining running time. Even so, Colman actually does a good job with what he’s given here, even if he isn’t given a whole lot; likely because this was a passion project of Colman’s, and he had a lot of personal investment in it. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that he impressed me, but he was one of the better parts of the film, so I’ll give him a check in the win column for that. All told, however, I didn’t find myself too invested in this film, probably because I hadn’t read the original Dickens novel; I definitely feel that I would’ve gotten a lot more out of this if I’d had history with the source material, but I didn’t, so that’s that.

This was fine, but never once during my watch of it did I feel that this was Best Picture material, which is mostly why I ended up where I ended up with it, just for lack of any other opinion being able to form. This, for me, ended up being another smear-of-grey type of film, the type to be fairly decent in production value and possibly even entertainment, but once it’s over, it quickly vanishes from one’s memory, with no lingering intent to ever watch it again, even if I had the opportunity to. That, I say once again, does not for me the best picture of the year make. If for whatever reason you are a fan of Ronald Colman, and haven’t seen this yet, I feel pretty confident that he’ll impress you with this one. Otherwise, unless you’re a fan of the original novel, there’s not much reason to watch this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Great Ziegfeld

The Great Ziegfeld

You’re workin’ for Mr. Ziegfeld now, and ya look like a million dollars!

I knew going into The Great Ziegfeld that it was going to be my first real marathon-level watch of this odyssey, clocking in at around three hours. I settled myself down, readying myself for an extravagant, opulent production, with budget galore and production value to warrant such a running time. Well, I got all that… for about twenty minutes in the middle portion of the film. The rest was a fairly simple biopic, and it actually disappointed me that the film wasn’t overly hedonistic with the money invested into it. I didn’t have much knowledge of the man known as Ziegfeld before this film, and knowing what I do about Hollywood biopics of the era (and today’s era, to be honest), I don’t think I have a good enough knowledge of the man now. What’s more, the only real reason I looked forward to this film, to see if it really was worth a three-hour running time, ended up being another failed proposition.

William Powell is Florence Ziegfeld, Jr., a wannabe showman promoting various low-key acts, including a strongman named Sandow, with whom he overcomes his barker rival Billings through savvy business marketing. His business relationships grow, even as his personal bank account doesn’t, and he somehow manages to put together enough contacts and reputation to put forth his own show, the Ziegfeld Follies; all the while, he juggles the affections of various women, all of which, along with his growing debts amid his constant frittering of his money, threaten to chip away at the man from the inside. There’s a bit more to the film than that, but that seemed to be the main issue with The Great Ziegfeld; there was always more to everything, and it didn’t seem like it was really worth all that the film offered us. The film started with an overture, and for the first time I was slightly irked by this, as since it’s a film and there is no live band covering the music while people get to their seats the whole purpose of having an overture felt cheapened and false, but I guess the film wanted to indulge itself with everything it possibly could, because holy cow do the musical numbers in the middle portion of this film scream Hollywood indulgence. It was actually a little incongruous, since the rest of the film was fairly rudimentary and basic in construction, but the Ziegfeld Follies numbers themselves must’ve amounted to a good half of the film’s budget, and considering the film was one of MGM’s most expensive at the time, that says a hell of a lot. The Follies themselves aside, however, this is a pretty standard biopic, which made me wonder why it was so universally lauded upon its initial release. Sure, it’s long, but I’ve always been of the opinion that just because a film is long, that it doesn’t automatically make it better, which is evidently something Hollywood and those who reviewed it back in the day didn’t learn until well after this film was past its heyday. William Powell is standard Powell, which is always enjoyable, but it’s the relatively new discovery of Luise Rainer who steals the show, particularly in one scene which was absolutely the reason she ended up winning Best Actress.

I gave this an extra point pretty much for the sheer volume of effort put into the three-hour running time, and that I think is exactly the reason this doesn’t work as well as it really thinks it does; the film thinks that by including everything it possibly can, that it will make up for its own shortcomings, not understanding that including absolutely everything is in itself a shortcoming as well, and there’s really no better example of this I can come up with right now than The Great Ziegfeld. It’s enjoyable, sure, but it’s ultimately not worth the running time, even with the ridiculously overproduced Follies numbers in the middle portion. Did this deserve a nomination for Best Picture? I guess I can’t really fault the Academy for giving it one. Should it have won Best Picture? No, not really. If you can withstand the running time, this might be a nice watch, but you really need to cut out a healthy section of time for yourself to get through it, and you may not be all that glad that you did.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies

Jim. You should be careful.

Okay, editors of the list, we get it: you really, really like Steven Spielberg. That pithy dismissal of Bridge of Spies being added to the list was all that went through my head when I found that it had been added, as well as when I went to actually start watching it. I’ve posited the argument before that Spielberg’s films tend to fall into two genres; the feel-good uplifting childlike wonderment type of film that E.T. basically personifies, and the ultra-serious historical epics he does to be seen as a serious director like Lincoln and Schindler’s List. Then there’s the films he makes that seem to want to be both of these two types of Spielberg, such as War Horse, and Bridge of Spies absolutely falls into this latter combo-category. In doing so, however, much like War Horse, the film itself comes across as very perfunctory, an unnecessary watch, and just as unnecessary a production undertaken by the filmmakers.

Bridge of Spies is the story of Jim Donovan, played here by Tom Hanks, an insurance lawyer who is called upon by the U.S. government to be the legal counsel for Rudolf Abel, a Russian citizen in Brooklyn arrested and charged with espionage for the Soviet Union. Knowing the farcical nature of the defense he is meant to put up, Donovan nevertheless does his duty; Abel is still found guilty, but through Donovan’s persistence he is kept from the death penalty in case he may be needed for a future prisoner exchange with the Soviets, should the opportunity arise. Well, the opportunity does, in the form of Gary Powers, a pilot flying a secret surveillance plane shot down in Soviet territory. Donovan, feeling responsible for Abel, is put in charge of the negotiations to secure Powers’ release for Abel’s, which are compounded when Donovan also learns of Frederic Pryor, a U.S. grad student caught on the wrong side of the newly-built Berlin Wall, and Donovan sets out to secure the release of two American prisoners instead of just one. I wanted to go into notable aspects of Bridge of Spies, that could be seen as selling points, but to be honest, the whole thing smears together so well that nothing in particular stands out, with the exception of Mark Rylance, who plays Abel, and who somehow steals the screen every time he’s on it without saying much more than a few words per his even fewer sentences, and who notably won Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars despite no actual campaign run for him to win the award by studios, producers, or Rylance himself. Hanks is typical Hanks, the cinematography, score, and production design are typical Spielberg; this is just really, really typical filmmaking, but since it’s Spielberg, the level of typical is elevated somewhat above what would otherwise be a typical film. It’s good, but nothing about it is so good as to get in a twist about it, which has been my problem with Spielberg’s perennial releases as of late.

I was left feeling mightily okay by Bridge of Spies; it’s a fine picture, with plenty of positive attributes, but when it’s all mixed together, the final combined result is… well, just okay. I went to check this as watched on Letterboxd, and I skimmed some of the other reviews there to see how my opinion fit into the general opinion, and I found one review that so epitomized Bridge of Spies and Spielberg as a filmmaker that I’m going to steal the key phrase the reviewer on that site used to describe both: Spielberg is the ultimate “dad” director, making “dad films”, i.e. films that you can watch with your dad in a family movie night and not have anybody feeling uncomfortable or left unsatisfied at the end. That’s Spielberg in a nutshell, and that’s also Bridge of Spies in a single phrase: it’s the ultimate dad film, or at least the most so that Spielberg has made up to this point. This won’t survive future editions’ culling of the list’s entries, and really, it shouldn’t, but it was nice to watch, I guess, so no real harm done.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10