Father of the Bride

Father of the Bride

…You fathers will understand.

I know a lot of people, both back in the Golden Age and today, bank a lot of goodwill on the charms of Spencer Tracy to sell movies (or make them interesting to watch), but it begs the question of just how far Tracy’s amiable demeanor on the screen can get a film that otherwise wouldn’t get very far without him. Father of the Bride is a prime example, even with Joan Bennett as Tracy’s wife and Elizabeth Taylor as his daughter, the bride of the title; it seems like the producers of the film knew they needed Tracy to make what they wanted to do with the film into a viable picture. Not that the film wouldn’t have done it without him, but rather that what the film is trying to do probably wouldn’t sell as well or come across as watchable as it is (which is only barely is) if they had a different leading man.

Spencer Tracy is Stanley Banks, who finds out almost innocuously along with his wife Ellie that his only daughter Kay is engaged to be married. Right off the bat, he is concerned with the man his daughter is marrying, knowing nothing about the lad, but soon his initial concerns seem dwarfed by just how much effort and planning and considerations go into the upcoming nuptials, and seeing as the film is principally a comedy, of course everything soon unravels into an absolute tornado of circumstances that seemingly no marriage, current or upcoming, could possibly survive. That plot summary might seem thin on actual details, and that’s because the plot of the film is thin on actual details itself; namely, it satirizes the hectic nature of wedding planning and hammers on that one single note for basically the entire second half of the film. The name of the game is chaos, in every shape, form, and aspect of the wedding-to-be; indeed, I should’ve been more prepared for this, given the film’s opening scene finds Spencer Tracy sitting in the destruction and ruins of his house post-reception and waxing philosophical about weddings and what they mean to the daughters and the daughter’s fathers, with the quote under the poster up there summing the whole thing up quite succinctly. I guess, if anything, I wanted the film to be a little less one-note and smarter with its comedy than simply playing off all the stereotypes of wedding planning and all the different concerns of the bride-to-be’s paternal guardian and exaggerating them for elbow-ribbing effect, as if the film wants every father in the audience to nudge the one next to them in the theater and go “Oh, boy, ain’t THAT the truth!” At least Tracy is Tracy, and his charming personality and delivery haven’t waned, so that helped me get through the film where I otherwise would’ve checked out completely.

For a mere hour and a half, this really didn’t feel like it had enough meat on its bones to justify the running time it did contain. That the meat on its bones was the only dish being served at this particular dinner also didn’t help my palette very much. Who knows, maybe it’s because I’m not a father myself, let alone one with a daughter, but I couldn’t help but feel that this film was trading far too much on that feeling akin to nostalgia, and it was only my first time seeing the film. Even with that said, I also felt like I couldn’t really take it out on the film itself, hence the rating I’m giving it; it’s got a crowd and an audience squarely in mind with this, and I just wasn’t remotely anywhere in it. Perhaps my mind will change if I have kids, but I’m not totally sold on the merit of the film itself if that would indeed turn out to be the case.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Born Yesterday

Born Yesterday

He thinks I’m stupid, huh… He’s right; I’m stupid, and I like it!

So, with all the dramas in last year’s field, I guess it’s a good thing I’m starting off the 50’s with a light comedy; or, at least, a film with light-hearted and comedic undertones. I’ll admit, it took me several attempts to get through this one; it was only afterwards that I found out it was a stage play directed for the screen by George Cukor, which both things individually in hindsight would’ve made it tough for me to get through the film. Still, if I’m being as objective as I can be, it’s really not a knock on Born Yesterday that I had to try a few times to get through all of it, because the film really does do a good job at what it wants to be; it’s just what it wants to be that I personally found not as engaging as I tend to look for in films like these.

Broderick Crawford is Harry Brock, a junkyard tycoon who takes a trip to Washington, D.C. to try and use some of his vast wealth to… ‘influence’ a Congressman or two; why he wants to do this is intentionally vague, and may indeed just come around to “for funsies”. In order to sweeten his image in D.C., he’s brought along his current mistress, Billie Dawn, played by Judy Holliday, whose blond hair is as light and shiny as her voice is shrill and cartoonish. Billie has basically not known life outside of Harry’s shadow, being rather uneducated and generally not for lack of anything she needs as Harry’s girl, but Brock is still concerned her brashness and rough edges will turn away potential business, so he ropes in a D.C. reporter played by William Holden to smooth her out and teach her how to be proper enough in the city. Of course, reporter Paul Verrall takes it upon himself to educate Billie even further, and Billie soon is able to understand how much smarter and better she is as a person over Harry, as well as how she can be treated decently by a man like Paul; and if you’re hearing romantic undertones, you’re completely not off the mark at all. Being a stage play made for the silver screen, a lot of what we’ll be seeing in terms of action and driving narrative is the dialogue and characters themselves, and it’s this that I think made it such a tough watch for me to get into both at the start and when I kept trying to pick the film back up. There’s really nothing about Born Yesterday that grabs you as a picture, or would be a true selling point to people who wouldn’t basically be sold on it already; really, if you don’t have to watch it as an obligation to yourself for whatever reason (like going through a list of films it happens to be on, for instance), there’s no real reason to watch it at all. Still, if you do have to see it, it does manage its job fairly well, and I did find myself laughing a few times at the dialogue and comedic timing of the main trio. I did find it personally amusing that I’d end up seeing Broderick Crawford again so soon after his one-for-one Best Actor win the previous year, and his character here is pretty much a caricature of the character he played prior, amusingly enough. Crawford’s Harry Brock is intentionally the bombastic, screen-filling personality at the center of the film, but it’s amazing how Judy Holliday ends up stealing every scene she’s in with him so completely effortlessly that it becomes comic in and of itself. When Holliday first opens her mouth, her character’s voice threatens to turn you off the entire picture immediately, and it’s thanks to Holliday’s impeccable timing and effortless characterization that makes Billie something so much more than just an annoying voice. It may suck that she beat both Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson this year to Best Actress, but I can actually see how and why the Academy went the way it did, even if I’m not completely sure I’d go that way myself.

Honestly, even with how many times it took me to sit down and get through the entire running time (which was under two hours, mind you), I’m kinda glad I watched this. Really, if for no other reason, than to see the performance that did actually beat the leading ladies of All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. to the top acting honors at the Oscars. Again, I’m still not in a position to say for myself decisively if I would’ve voted for Holliday over the other two (or three, actually, with Anne Baxter included), but I can definitely say that the decision at least wasn’t a massive fluke. I’m still going to be a little annoyed going forward every time I have to sit through a George Cukor film, and I’m definitely not 100% on how this got nominated for the big one, but it’s actually not a disappointing watch, so it’s got that going for it, at least.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Twelve O’Clock High

Twelve O'Clock High

How much can a man take?

Okay, now let’s see if I can keep the snowball rolling. It’s 1949, so now’s about the time we’re bound to get a handful of nominated war films about the glory of the Allies’ victory and the brave sacrifices those young boys made to ensure evil did not prevail and so on and blah blah etc. We’re not in the war anymore, so now instead of straight propaganda films, we’re going to get a trickle of nostalgic patriotism instead. Twelve O’Clock High, featuring Gregory Peck in one of his Oscar-nominated roles, somehow manages to be a quintessential nostalgic war film with only four years having passed since the end of the war itself. I can appreciate a film like this, and I can even appreciate that the Academy appreciated it, but the selection of this film for Best Picture doesn’t exactly age well with the nostalgic war films that would follow in the years to come.

It’s WWII, and the Allies are desperately trying to figure out a reliable and efficient way to undertake daylight bombing raids against Germany without their fleets getting ripped apart, and the brave men of the 918th air squadron are the primary subjects of the military’s endeavors. Well, brave may be a bit generous; the 918th is known as a “hard luck” squad, and they’re so broken down and demoralized from flying daily missions that nearly all of them have put in for sick leave. Their commanding officer, Colonel Davenport, can’t bear to see his men in their state, and one of his higher-ups and a personal friend, Brig. Gen. Frank Savage, thinks the men have such so-called hard luck because Davenport is so lenient and identifies with them too much. When Savage shows his commanding officer his theory is correct, Davenport is relieved of command, and Savage himself is given the position. It’s now up to Savage, in a deliberate attempt to not make Davenport’s mistakes, to act hard and whip the men into proper shape, so they can withstand the rigors of the job up to and past the point where Savage will be looking over them. First off, for a war film, there is decidedly little fighting or war action here; most of the film is the upkeep and training that takes place at the base in prep for the actual flying missions. I will add that the film does do well to lead up to the one actual aerial dogfighting scene near the end of the film; special mention is made in the film’s opening titles that the combat footage used is actual combat footage filmed by the Air Force and the German Luftwaffe, which is an interesting tidbit. Slight tangent aside, I bring up the lack of action to shine a light on this film’s pointed lack of what most people might come to this film looking for; so, what does this film have to bring people in to watch it? Honestly, not that much. The storytelling is rather stretched, and not very elaborate, making the film seem like one that could have a good half hour chopped from its running time to make it a little easier to get through; it’s a good 20 minutes into the film before Gregory Peck even appears on-screen, and up to then it’s difficult to know who’s who or even who we should be aware of with the film’s lack of proper character introductions. It even opens with a framing device that, by the end of the film, is rather easy to tell is extraneous and unnecessary (and not even affecting, either). The acting is okay, with Peck’s natural stern charisma providing much of his ‘character’, and the supporting players blending in so much that you can’t really tell anyone apart if they’re not directly named in whatever scene they’re in. All this, along with the total lack of a score, makes the film seem like one of those “smear of grey” films that is annoying to have to sit through and is so prevalent across Best Picture’s early years.

So, what I think the problem with Twelve O’Clock High is, is that it has its intentions not exactly in the right place. If I were to guess, I’d pose the theory that the film wants to inspire, or at the very least pay tribute to the men who actually did what the film depicts, and so the director and producers opted for a strong sense of realism in how they depicted life on these air bases. True enough, this is likely how living and working on these bases ultimately shaped up to be (for WWII), but the problem with this is that it is ultimately not that entertaining to watch. Past propaganda films knew they had to inflict emotions onto the audience to get them to support the war effort, and future war films would largely do the same to get people to feel how they needed to feel about the effort and sacrifice that went into winning the war. With Twelve O’Clock High, there is no emotion, and even a hastily contrived breakdown of one of the characters that serves as the film’s climax just doesn’t make us feel anything; this is a record of life in this job, instead of the pro-war-effort remembrance it should have been. I don’t know how many war films were released in 1949, but aside from the stark realism and production effort involved in this one, I’d be surprised if I couldn’t find at least one other war film from 1949 that wasn’t more worth the nomination, and certainly more entertaining, than this.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Hamlet

Hamlet

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

It’s been quite a while since my last Shakespeare film. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I don’t normally take to Shakespeare very well; I’ve said it numerous times in the past, and I will likely have to say it again. One giant exception to this so far has been Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, which was so engaging and brilliantly filmed that it became impossible for me to not both enjoy and appreciate it. As such, even though it would be in black-and-white as well as considerably longer in runtime, I was still looking forward to what Olivier would do with his version of Hamlet. Aside from the ubiquitous nature of the much-adapted Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet is quite possibly Shakespeare’s most venerated work, and I’ve seen it said many times over the years that Laurence Olivier is one of the best Shakespeare adaptors and actors of his generation. It puzzles me, then, to wonder why his version of Hamlet, in stark contrast to the life he breathed into his previous film, seems so cold and flat and bereft of any real depth to its facets.

The story of Hamlet, for those who don’t already know it, is a rather simple one, and falls squarely into his category of tragedies; Hamlet is the prince of Denmark, next in line to the throne after his father dies and his mother rather swiftly remarries his father’s brother Claudius. Hamlet is perturbed by his mother’s actions and his father’s death, and when some of the rooftop guardsmen come to him with claims they’ve seen the ghost of King Hamlet (the father) during their vigils, he stays the next watch with them to confirm it for himself. Sure enough, the ghost appears, and rather omnisciently tells Hamlet that he (the father) was murdered by the new king Claudius with poison, and to avenge his murder in turn. Hamlet is thus set up to first confirm that this vision of his dead father and the knowledge it has imparted are not just mere visions, and then to find a way to fulfill the task he is given; of course, the methods he uses to go about his mission have consequences of their own, which all in turn lead up to the climax of the narrative as everything is brought to light. Now, in regards to the original play, there’s a bit more to the narrative than I’ve disclosed, and I’ve done that specifically to keep to Olivier’s version of the play and to note that there are indeed differences between the two; differences that have since been argued over in the years since this film’s release, and which I basically have little stake in myself. Still, for the purists out there, this is not the unabridged Hamlet; Olivier takes a few whacks at the material with a cleaver (and a few are mighty big whacks at that) to, in his perception, get the film into a reasonable running time. He does so, sure enough, but what struck me the most about his Hamlet was how stark and lifeless everything was, which given the nature of the play as perhaps Shakespeare’s eminent tragedy, must’ve been his intention, but it seems he went a little too far with it. The black-and-white cinematography isn’t an issue itself, but the sets are all bare-stone with almost no dressing at all, and what musical score there is is often left aside in favor of the power of the speech and dialogue, which might be fine if the dialogue weren’t delivered with what I can only redundantly describe as Shakespearean flair. This is a film that plays to the balconies, both in the actors’ performances and the design of the film itself, and that Olivier as director decided to do it this way, rather than transcend the written theatrical word as Shakes put it down as he did with Henry V, seems incongruously backward and primitive.

This is a tricky one to assess overall, for one main reason (that itself has two different perceptions to it); it’s basically the perfect version of Hamlet in terms of the visual and the dialogue (excluding, of course, Olivier’s omissions). The two perceptions of that statement, though, are polar opposites: that might be exactly what certain fans of Shakespeare are looking for in film adaptations of his work, or it might be a huge letdown that the film doesn’t make more of the material than just being a theatrical play put to celluloid. In terms of how I ended up on Olivier’s Hamlet, I am squarely in the latter camp; I expected a lot out of this, and to just see Olivier and his players putting on a basic, by-the-numbers rendition of the play was a great disappointment. It’s not bad, but neither is it a stunner, and to look at the other films up for Best Picture for 1948 and realizing this managed to beat some of them for the award, I’m left more than a little perturbed. Perhaps they wanted a Shakespeare film to win Best Picture for once, perhaps they wanted to honor Olivier himself (and considering he did win Best Actor, becoming the first of only two directors to direct themselves to an acting Oscar win, they basically did anyway); whatever reason they had for picking this, it was the wrong one. I’m not sure how this holds up to other Hamlet adaptations, or even other Shakespeare films, but in terms of Best Picture, this really very much isn’t.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Lamerica

Lamerica

I’m going home, I’m going home…

It feels like there’s a bit of explanation that needs to take place about Lamerica and its addition to the List before I delve into the film, for those who may have missed the discussions on Letterboxd or Reddit or the like. It is indeed strange when a film is added to the Book that is several years preceding the most recent year and its additions, and the person who found this in the new version surmised that the editors had corrected a film being in the incorrect year, and thus were left with an empty slot in the book’s formatting, which instead of reformatting the entire book after that slot to fill in the gap, they just decided to fill it with another film from that year. I’m inclined to believe this is exactly what happened, and perhaps Lamerica was on the shortlist of films that got cut in the narrowing of said list to the initial 1,001 that they decided to re-insert. Either way, the question now is: is Lamerica a good enough film to warrant this inclusion, especially under these strange circumstances? To that, I can only say: I get why the editors may have selected this to fill in their blank space, but I also get why this didn’t make the List to begin with.

The film starts out with Gino and Fiore, two Italians who travel to Albania to ostensibly set up a shoe company to benefit the local population. It becomes apparent soon enough that they are really just trying to scam the government incentives towards Albania, and they reach a hiccup when they need an Albanian local to be the head of their “company”. They manage to find one man, an old political prisoner who gives his name as Spiro, and Gino is tasked with getting the man to the Italian Embassy to sign off on their company, and the scheme as well. Of course, the trip to the embassy is not a forthright one, and Spiro is not the empty-headed Albanian they think he is, and soon Gino is forced into a pseudo-road trip/buddy movie situation where he comes to a better understanding of Spiro’s history, and that of the local Albanians as well. Normally, I’d try to go into depth with various factors of the film I found either above or below average, but with Lamerica, it all kind of smears together, to where if asked about one particular feature of the filmmaking process, one is hard-pressed to discern if Lamerica’s effort in that regard is good, bad, or even something worth picking out. It’s basically Italian neo-realism, but made and set fifty years after said movement had its heyday with cinema, and as such, it becomes hard to talk about. What I can talk about, which I took note of early on and was basically the one feature that did stick out, was the setting; the film is awash with the depth and extent of Albania’s poverty circa the fall of communism in the country, so much so that it becomes impossible to ignore (which I suspect is exactly what the film wants). Every shot of Gino and/or Spiro traveling anywhere is accompanied by groups of children swarming either their vehicle or the men themselves, tugging at their arms with their hands out, begging for money, or outright stealing things from them like their shoes or even the tires on their car. I picked up on this basically for lack of anything else to pick up on (and also for how overwhelming it was in every scene); the story of the men’s journey or Spiro’s past is really ancillary to the setting everything takes place in, and director Gianni Amelio seems way less concerned with having an actual narrative than he is simply opening a window to this area of the world in this time in its history. One other thing I liked was the newsreel-style intro over the opening credits, which gave some political context to the setting and the story that would’ve otherwise been missing for a foreign viewer like myself. Quite a few times I’ve mentioned having little personal context to a foreign film’s situation, so that was a nice little addition the film otherwise didn’t need to have.

The ultimate statement I have about Lamerica should be fairly easy to extrapolate, especially from the second paragraph, and it deals with the film’s overall aimlessness in both the story it tells and how the film ends up finishing it. Like, I got what the film was showing me with all the desperation and chaos in Albania, and how downtrodden the people there have been; what I didn’t get was the point or message behind why the film was showing this to me. Was it a commentary on how Italy has basically destroyed this country and left it to decompose on its own? Is it a cry to Italians to do something to ease the suffering of Albanian immigrants? I really have no idea, and that I’m left wondering, more than anything, is itself what I took from Lamerica the most. As an exploration of a period of history in a specific area of the world, Lamerica works; I had basically no knowledge of the Albanian exodus in the wake of communism’s fall, and now I at least have some idea. But was such a specific thing to cover really worth an addition to the List, especially with the other films from 1994 that could’ve seen an entry instead? My answer is basically no, though that’s not to discourage what Lamerica is or does; I just didn’t see why I had to go out of my way to see it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Monos

Monos

The Organization is our family.

I’m not going to pretend I have all the knowledge in this, since I haven’t seen the other actual nominees, but it seems last year’s field for the Oscar for Foreign Language Film (or what is now International Feature Film) could’ve done with some extra looking-over, if the number of foreign language films added to the Book this year (which were not among the Oscar nominees) is any indication. Of course, Parasite was going to win that award in a walk, and it did, but even getting a nomination in the category can be a bit of a status symbol or laurel for certain countries and directors. Take for instance this film, Monos, directed by Alejandro Landes, which was the official submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar from Colombia; a country that has had only one successful nomination for the award, and no wins. On paper, and on the screen, this would seem to be right up the Academy’s alley when they’re considering foreign films; it’s moody, dramatic, visually arresting, and topical to a degree. Frankly, I’m surprised as hell it didn’t manage to make the ballot; though, I’ll say, after seeing the film myself, I don’t know how far a nomination for Monos would’ve paid off, even if Parasite hadn’t been in the race at all.

The Monos are a small group of teenage guerrilla fighters hiding out in the wilderness of their country; at first on a mountainside hideaway, and deep in the jungle later in the film. The conflict they’re fighting in is only barely hinted at; all we know is the Monos are a squad under the command of an unnamed organization, which routinely sends a messenger out to check on how the squad is keeping up. The group are all known by codenames, and their chain of command is rudimentary at best. Currently, they have one hostage, an American doctor, and at the beginning of the film are assigned by their messenger to also watch over an apparently valuable milk cow. Soon after, the group throws a small celebration, and in the roughhousing, the cow is shot and killed; their leader, Wolf, then taking his own life in recompense. The film thus follows the group as they try to get by in their duties to the squad, under the new leadership of Bigfoot, and keep a hold of their composure in the conflict, especially in regards to the doctor they are required to keep watch over. The film as it is is really light on plot, to be honest; things do happen, but they seem to be things that are almost inconsequential in terms of overall narrative, of which it’s very hard to discern what the film’s narrative really is. Really, aside from the production value of basically everyone involved, it’s hard to pin down what the overall gain from a viewing of Monos entails. The film is visually engaging, especially in the first setting when we get some glorious nighttime views and vistas from the mountains; the acting is basic from the main cast, who are all first-timers save one or two people, but it works with how fresh the teenagers are meant to be in their attempts to be commandos; the score, as fleeting and rare as it is when it pops up, is quite effective at emphasizing the mood of whichever scene it does end up behind (shout out once again to composer Mica Levi); and the editing was particularly well-done, making good use of brevity in certain scenes to tell several pages of story in a single minute, and usually wordless to boot. I can’t fault anything about the production itself; it’s just the lack of an overall objective in the story that is being told that is really what my qualms about Monos ultimately add up to.

I know this is a foreign film, and as such will likely have a cultural barrier that will be hard for Americans or English-speaking viewers to overcome, but I was left almost totally unsure as to what was the point of Monos. A story is told, things happen, characters do things, and… there seems to be no implication or indication as to what we are supposed to take away from it all. As good as the production is, the film itself is strangely unrewarding; there’s no arc for the group or the individual characters, save possibly the one we end up with at the very end of the film, and I couldn’t even really tell where that character was going to end up based on what had happened. This is ultimately a hair’s width away from one higher slot in my rating, and only because I’m not sure I’d be able to justify a viewing of this to a majority of moviegoers, even with as well-made a film as it is. Most people, I would imagine, go into a film expecting to get something out of the experience, whatever that might be based on what kind of film it is. Monos doesn’t satisfy that requirement of being a film, or at least one that viewers will want to seek out and watch, and though it was more slightly confusing than overall frustrating as a result, it still left me with too many unanswered questions about the basic structure of the film for me to really be able to recommend it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Joker

Joker

I used to think my life was a tragedy… But now I realize, it’s a comedy.

I have quite a few thoughts about Todd Phillips’ Joker. This is a statement that really goes without saying, though, given that just about everyone who watched movies in 2019 had thoughts about Joker, whether or not they’d seen it. While it was mostly critically acclaimed, and generally loved by audiences to boot, it was also divisive as all hell, with many concerned that releasing films like Joker, with what kind of film it is, would incite copycat or idolized violence akin to what the character does and promotes in this film. I can see how some may have these thoughts, what with how some people have reacted to and held aloft the cinema’s previous incarnation of the DC Comics villain (not just as an acting marvel but as a character to emulate in real life). Me, though, as should be rather obvious by now, I was merely concerned with the film itself, how good it was and whether or not it worked. To that, I’ll say this: the types of people some reviewers and opinionists worried would use this film as a springboard to enact their personal hatred on the world could’ve definitely picked a much more thorough and involved film than Joker in which to do it.

Joaquin Phoenix gives his latest mad grasp at the Oscar as Arthur Fleck, a basic nobody merely getting by on the streets of Gotham, taking care of his ailing mother, and scraping by as a clown-for-hire and wannabe stand-up comic. Of course, since we know the character this guy will ultimately become, nothing will go Arthur’s way over the course of the film, which might be enough to warrant said downfall, but add on top several revelations about Arthur and his mother, along with her past relationship with mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, an attempted relationship Arthur has with a neighbor down the hall, and a half-self-defense murder Arthur commits that seems to ignite the spark of Gotham’s downtrodden and stoke the fires of class revolution in the city, and you’ve got a hell of a cocktail of flammable substances brewing, which finally comes to a head on the night of Arthur’s appearance on a late-night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin. Even if one disregards that plot synopsis and just goes into the film with only knowledge of the look and feel (possibly from the trailer), one can immediately (almost prophetically) note the influences Joker the film wears on its sleeves; namely Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, the latter seeing through mostly due to the casting of Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin. Seriously, the film doesn’t even try to hide this, and while that in and of itself isn’t really a bad thing, it becomes one in Joker because the film doesn’t actually use its influences to improve upon or construct anything better from them: this film is literally Taxi Driver mixed with The King of Comedy starring DC characters, and that’s it, nothing more. It seems the film knows this as well, which makes it even more of a frustration that the film chooses to be the way it is instead of choosing to make something more of itself; hell, the whole structure of the plot is basically just a lead-up to the climactic scene, in a much more subtle variant of how Carrie did the same, which marks another film that Joker takes from and gives nothing back. Joaquin Phoenix has, in my opinion, been better than he is here, but he is still very good, though despite Phoenix’s commitment to the role, it does beg the question of what kind of Joker he is crafting; particularly, that this variant of the character is the DC Comics character in name only. Basically, one could take this film and its depiction of the title role, remove any and all references to Joker, the Waynes, and Gotham, and have exactly the same film. As mentally disturbed as Arthur is, and despite the depths he goes down to by the end of the film, one could not see this guy tangling with Batman in the future; it’s just not the same character. I’ll also add a final note for the violin score, which was well done and haunting when it needed to be, particularly during Arthur’s post-murder dance in the bathroom, which was one of the scenes I felt really did work.

Here’s what I think Joker ultimately ended up amounting to me, and it’s a little disappointing that it did amount to this and only this: everything that Joker has as selling points, like the performances and the production design and the readily apparent influences, should be in service to something, some deeper meaning or message that basically makes a movie like this worth the effort not just to make, but for people to watch. Joker doesn’t have this; despite what it very clearly wants for itself, Joker is ultimately, to possibly misuse a quote from Billy Shakes, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Every potential deeper meaning or ultimate moral that I’ve seen people tout as what Joker is all about or underneath all the grime and social ennui has been extrapolated or imprinted upon the film by those people itself, and not from the actual film that Joker is and what it gives us; all the plot, the setting up of scenes to follow other scenes, all the dialogue that leads to character decisions that leads to events, is in service to no deeper message, despite the film acting like there’s one there. It strings all these elements of filmmaking and storytelling into a linear film, and then when it’s all over and done with and the credits roll, it calls it a day, and doesn’t seem to care that it leaves no lingering after-effect, save possibly some shock or awe at what has materially transpired in the film, instead of feeling something about the world or humanity or morality has been said. I left my initial theater screening of Joker very nonplussed, and it took a little while for me to really figure out why I had that reaction, and I can only hope that I’ve managed to nail it down in this review. Despite the overall winning aspects of the filmmaking efforts, and especially a wholly realized performance by Phoenix, I can’t say that this is a film that is really worth seeing, or is really worth the watch should you see it. And really, that that’s the conclusion I ended up with in spite of the filmmakers, the film, and most of those who’ve seen the film doing their best to tout the narrative that this is a generation-defining masterpiece seems to be the biggest tragedy, or comedy, of all.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Booksmart

Booksmart

“You guys don’t even care about school.” “No… we just don’t only care about school.”

So, I kinda wish I could just write down the elevator pitch of Booksmart as my actual review and call it a day, but I do have something of a set of standards that I like to hold myself to when it comes to writing one of these. Still, if asked what the appeal of Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is, or the premise of the film in a few words or less, to say the sentence “Superbad with female leads” would honestly be enough; no more need be said. Seriously, that’s the film, and the review right there; if that sounds like your thing, you’ll love Booksmart, and if not, this will feel like a carbon copy that is admittedly doing its best to not look entirely like a carbon copy, and kind of partially succeeding. Now, to try and not be completely dismissive of this, there is a lot about Booksmart that works, and specifically works for the generation the film was made in and released to; a generation that I am basically one iteration behind. Still, I can see the appeal, and why this film was as well-received as it was; what sorta bothers me is the reasoning behind why said appeal is so effective and works so well, and really the final statement on why the generation after mine took so well to Booksmart as they did.

Amy and Molly are two teenagers on the cusp of high school graduation, having mostly forsaken being wild children in favor of good grades and a healthy academic resume to get into good colleges (though the typical teen snarkiness is still alive and well within them). Molly in particular is proud of this, and equally disdainful of her party-lifestyle peers; so, naturally, her world comes crashing down completely when she finds out all her fellow students, who spent most of high school being wild and partying and doing crazy teenager things, are still getting into the same-level schools that she got into. Basically, she feels she has wasted her adolescent years having half a childhood to no further future benefit, and thus she half-convinces, half-drags-along Amy to romp the town on the night before graduation, trying to get into ‘THE’ graduation party so they can cut loose, go wild, and make up for all their lost time. Now, this premise isn’t exactly original, but frankly, it doesn’t need to be; to expand upon my elevator pitch in the opener, take Superbad, add a healthy portion of Ferris Bueller, a pinch of Lady Bird, and hang it within the frame of a Gen-Z Instagram filter, and you’ve got Booksmart. So what does this have that the other films that make up the amalgamation of this film’s narrative generally don’t? Honestly, nothing; this is literally those films combined, hence my initial wanting to be dismissive in my reviewing of it. Still, the film is effective at what it does; the MTV-style rapid-pace editing, cutting lines down to exactly the lines and criss-crossing between delivery and reaction shots is exactly the attitude that works for Gen Z and Millennial viewers, as evident by the success of this film’s peers, and first-time director Olivia Wilde knows exactly what the film needs to be to get it to work and does exactly that, to her credit. Also, big props to the casting and performances of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, without whom the film would have floundered in its delivery and not worked half as well as it does.

So, if this film does largely work, why do I seem kinda miffed about it? Me, I think it’s because of what the success of this film represents, at least in my mind. It’s rare for me to directly reference other reviews for a film I am reviewing myself (not unknown entirely, but rare nonetheless), but I feel I have to point out one particular response to this film that I came across in my general after-viewing perusal of other reviews of said film. Steve of 1001 Plus reviewed this a while back, and had almost the same reaction to it (and even made some of the same comparisons) that I had, saying that while the film largely works, it only works for generations after his, and that that coupled with the general asshole-ish nature of every character is why it didn’t work for him. I think it’s this that has me sorta nonplussed about Booksmart; I can recognize that it is funny, smart, well-written and acted, and overall a good representation of high school life for L.A. teens post-2000, but it’s that this is indeed a representation of post-2000 teens that is mildly concerning to someone like me, that teens today seem to be this snarky, put-off, cynical, and fickle about almost everything that matters or doesn’t matter to them, and that not only is this what Booksmart seems to be saying that its generation actually is, but that this is appealing to said generation, that makes me concerned about the future of people even after this current generation has grown. I dunno, maybe it’s just the overall concern the recent election has made me keenly aware of, or maybe it’s me taking my first steps to becoming an old fogey complaining about the young’uns and wanting them off my lawn. Either way, while I could see that Booksmart worked for what it was, that it did work even with it being what it was was itself my biggest problem with it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Crossfire

Crossfire

Hating is always the same… always senseless.

It’s kind of an amusing thought that I’d watch Crossfire right after Gentleman’s Agreement, since both deal with anti-Semitism to differing degrees. Where the latter wanted to impart a message to the audience through being a straight drama, with Crossfire we instead have basically a murder-mystery-slash-film-noir that’s using anti-Semitism as the motive behind the crime that’s been committed. Quite a bit has been said about Crossfire being technically the first ‘B-movie’ nominated for Best Picture (though the definition of the term is still kind of a hazy area), and indeed right from the get go you can tell that this is fairly distanced from the high-budget prestige pictures normally up for this award. As such, it became a little confusing both during my watch and after it when I tried to figure out why this had indeed been nominated for the big one; it’s certainly not bad, but it definitely feels like a ‘movie of the week’ instead of one of the best pictures of the year.

A man named Joseph Samuels is found beaten to death in his apartment, and police inspector Finlay quickly surmises the murderer is among a group of military officers on partial leave in the area. After informing one of their superiors, Sgt. Keeley, of his suspicions, and interviewing the men, he comes to suspect an officer named Mitchell, one of Keeley’s buddies. Both men then set out to figure out what really happened the night of the murder, from the perspective of all parties involved, until both Keeley and Finlay decide to set up a sting operation to unmask who really did it. I almost wish there were more to this than just that summary, and I embellished it a little more than I really could’ve just for that reason, but there basically isn’t; this is a whodunit that starts out with us not knowing who did it, then we find out who did it, and we watch as the police try and get their man, and the film ends. That’s that. Besides the plot, the production of the picture is actually pretty well done for a B movie; the cinematography is moody and deliberate, the acting from everyone is strong and believable, and director Edward Dmytryk knows enough to stand back and let the script and the actors do their thing, while also adding to the film through camerawork and a sense of brevity toward its length. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that, even with the level the crew brings to the film, it was in service to a picture that didn’t feel like it weighed anything; it’s absolutely a film that one can watch once and then never need to watch again. Truly, it’s a B movie, and that it is among this field of nominees, to me, says more about the potential field this year than anything else.

I can’t really say that there’s anything wrong with Crossfire, but neither is there anything to get in a stir over; this is that unassuming of a film, and it seems to know it. The dialogue is basic, there’s nothing showy about any of the technicals, there’s virtually no music until the climactic scene of the film; this knows that it’s not going to be among the A crowd, so it does its job and calls it a day. And again, that this did actually manage to get nominated for Best Picture (as well as a few other categories) seems to be just as much a surprise for the film as it is for us, and speaks a great deal toward what the Academy had to consider for 1947. I can’t really go on any further, except to repeat what I’ve already said; this isn’t a poor film, but it is absolutely one that, once you’ve seen it, you won’t ever have to see again.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Yearling

The Yearling

“Boy, life goes back on you.” “Yes’sir… I reckon.”

Not much about The Yearling seemed all that appealing to me; a film about a young boy adopting a baby deer and raising it in the wilds of Southern USA circa the 1800s would appear to be schmaltzy at best. Good God in Heaven on a pogo stick was I not at all prepared for just how schmaltzy this film would aim for, and largely achieve for itself. The selling points of The Yearling are basically a young Gregory Peck starring with Jane Wyman, that the film is based on a beloved novel, and that it is filmed in glorious Technicolor. Truth be told, the film has all that and more; what the “more” is, however, is a sense of sweetness and happiness that seemed to go on without end or limit.

Peck and Wyman are Ezra and Orry Baxter, two parents trying to live whatever lives they can in the mostly untamed wilderness that is post-Civil War Florida. While Ezra, or Penny as he goes by, is the consummate working farmer, tending to his property and providing for his family, Orry is noted to be somewhat reserved and hardened, mostly because three of her four children are already dead. The surviving son, Jody, is his father’s little helper in every way, from hunting and farming to trading in town and even in scraps that his father might end up in. It’s when his father gets bitten by a rattlesnake and has to shoot a nearby deer to use its liver and heart to draw out the venom that Jody’s long-expressed dream of having a pet comes true when he convinces his father and mother to let him care for the doe’s now-orphaned youngling. From there, it’s a coming-of-age story with Jody alternately caring for the fawn and trying to make sure it doesn’t do, well, deer things like eating his family’s crops, until the inevitable rears its head and Jody is forced to become a man a little swifter than he might’ve wanted. So, about those selling points I mentioned: The Yearling seems to think the best way to go about using them is to have all of them in the film in ridiculous amounts. By that, I largely mean the cinematography and the setting of the film; very nearly all of the picture is shot on-location in the thick wilds of Florida, adding a degree of production value that is frankly enough to gag on compared to the regular studio pictures of its contemporaries, and it’s all captured in color as well, so the film is, if nothing else, an absolute feast for the eyes. The film, however, is more concerned with its story and the characters populating it, which would be more than fine if the characters were portrayed with any decent amount of acting skill. The film takes place in the thickest of the thick part of the South, and as such has all the characters drawling their speech with Southern dialects, or at least what Hollywood guesses is a Southern dialect in the 1800s. This goes beyond mere “yes’m” and “I reckon”; damn near every actor in the film, I can only imagine, figured the best way to portray an 1800s-era Southerner is to deliver their lines as stilted as possible, as if every character were trying to learn how to speak by reading aloud text from a book despite not quite knowing how to read either. Of course, the worst offender of this ‘style’ of acting are the child actors, and considering we have a child actor as the main character of the film, we get a LOT of this type of diction thrown at us; though, that’s not to take some of the blame off even the adults like Peck and Wyman, who while able to emote a bit more than the kids, do still deliver their lines the same way. I’ll also throw some additional shade at the film being so wrapped up in its setting that it hardly knows how to tell the story it wants to tell; it is actually over a full hour into this two-hour film that Jody finally finds his young deer, with the film up to then just having the characters meander around the wilds doing various things, though there’s not very much that really happens after Jody gets his pet anyways.

I couldn’t help but feel that the film, in its efforts to be as saccharine and uplifting as possible, ended up shooting off its own foot by going that much more overboard with it than was necessary. There’s a sequence in the middle, for instance, where Jody goes frolicking with his new pet fawn, and by frolicking I mean full-on running with the young deer and mimicking its every hop, skip, and jump, until a whole herd of deer end up joining in, and I just felt that we were one musical number away from a cinematic sense of joie de vivre unrivaled in the entire history of the silver screen. Some people can enjoy something like that, but for a viewer like me, whose scale of cinematic happiness is roughly from 1 to 100, to be bombarded with scenes like that felt like the film was aiming for over 1,000 with no regard as to whether it would be actually palatable. You can like sugar, sure, and you can even like sugar in your drink and your food, but when you’re made to eat nothing but pure sugar, poured down your throat like someone were trying to waterboard you with it, there’s some point at which sugar loses its appeal. Even with the life lesson it tries to hammer home with the way the film and its story ends, The Yearling was absolutely one of those kinds of films, and even with its excellent production value and color cinematography, it’d be a struggle for me to find an audience that would fully be able to digest this much sugar in one sitting.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10