Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

A pity I never had any children… But you’re wrong; I have! Thousands of them!

If what readers I do have will allow me the slight plug for one of my contemporaries, Steve of 1001 Plus has a certain type of film that he’s experienced countless times through his movie-watching endeavors that he has grown to loathe; a type of film, almost a genre, that he has coined the ‘misery parfait’, where the film is essentially absolutely nothing but bad situations and horrible events thrown at a main character who tries to endure it all. The resulting films, of which there are more than a few on the 1001 list, are often miserable to sit through, and perhaps just as pointless to try and find real worth in, especially when one sees more than one such film. Well, here we have a film that might very well lie on the exact opposite side of the spectrum from those films; a film that is basically nothing but good things and joyous mood regarding the main character. Here’s the thing, though; Goodbye, Mr. Chips may be the opposite of a misery parfait for its main character, played by Robert Donat (though that’s not to say that a bad thing or two doesn’t happen in the film), but it ends up being very nearly as pointless a film to sit through as if it had been one, for oddly similar reasons.

Mr. Chipping is a retired English schoolteacher from Brookfield School, who thanks to a cold is forced to miss opening day for the first time at the school where he still keeps up with the students. As he relaxes by the fireside, he reminisces back on his nearly-60-year teaching career, meaning of course the actual film is told in flashback, from his inauspicious arrival at Brookfield to his marriage to Katherine Ellis, played by Greer Garson, to the many years he spends becoming an integral aspect of the school, often teaching several generations of young lads in the same families. There’s really nothing more to it than that; the film recounts how Chipping, who garners the nickname Chips from his wife, starts out having little to no respect from the boys, who play practical jokes on him, but who slowly grows into a much-beloved teacher, all the way through the turn of the century and into the rough years of World War I London. For those looking for a bit more substance or depth to their films, you might want to give Goodbye, Mr. Chips a pass; aside from one or two events that can fairly clearly be placed in the negative column, this is all about how swell a guy Mr. Chips is and how everyone likes him, which while I wouldn’t normally have a problem with given how many of the other kind of film I’ve had to sit through, essentially means that this film has zero conflict, and as any screenwriting (or, presumably, writing) book will tell you, conflict is what makes drama, and with no drama, you have no narrative, and with no narrative, you have no story. As for Donat, who won Best Actor over the likes of Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind and James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I can kinda see why the Academy picked Donat, even if I don’t personally agree; the makeup and styling alone that cover Donat’s Chipping in all his adult ages probably would’ve won it for him, but it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if Donat weren’t able to sell the character no matter what age he is on the screen, and Donat does that with room to spare.

I can see why people like this film; it’s all about how likable the main character is, and how because he’s a good a guy as he is, people will stand up for him even through what might be construed as the rougher patches of his life. Basically, it’s a wish fulfillment, especially in today’s day and age where such people are nigh-impossible to come by, and even less so when the people we’re looking at that we wish were up to that standard are ourselves. But, the thing is; it doesn’t make for a film that is all that honestly worth watching. Even if we take an expanded definition of conflict, to not mean two opposing forces butting heads but instead to merely be the struggles the protagonist must overcome to achieve a goal of some sort, Goodbye, Mr. Chips fails in that regard as well; Mr. Chipping doesn’t have any goals to achieve in this, aside from the persistence of being a good teacher, and if there were goals for him to achieve, which I won’t spoil for whatever reason, there are points in the film where his character even deliberately says that such goals are flights of fancy for him at best, and even if they weren’t, they basically just happen to him anyways instead of being achieved through the overcoming of obstacles. In short, this is a film that, because it flies in the face of basic storytelling constructs and conventions, should not work at all, and it’s only thanks to actors like Donat and the production itself that this is even worth sitting through in any way. It is a feel-good of the utmost feel-goodiest kind, though, so there is that at least.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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Jackie

Jackie

Let them see what they’ve done.

Pablo Larrain’s Jackie seemed a slightly incongruous addition when I first saw that it had been added; it didn’t seem like enough of a picture to warrant inclusion in the Book, as negative as that comes across. Having seen it now, I get the decision to pick this over other fare a lot more; it’s not just that Jackie is a fine film, but how it goes about telling its story is extremely unconventional, which must have of course been exceptionally appealing to the editors of the list. Now, one can certainly argue either for or against this indeed being a fine film, and I’m absolutely not going to be the one to settle that argument. But, for what it’s worth, while the point of the film may have been slightly hard to ascertain at first, the exceptional effort put into this by everyone involved is certainly worth making the argument for this film.

For those who are unaware or somehow unable to discern the film’s plot merely from the title, this is a biopic of Jackie Kennedy, wife of John F. Kennedy, specifically about her in the days directly following President Kennedy’s assassination, as told through an interview she gives a reporter much later in her family home. As befitting the structure of the film (having the reporter’s interview as a framing device), the film is very unorthodox with how it presents its content to us; the narrative skips through time, almost wantonly, as if the memories of Jackie herself are jumbled around in her head, trying to make sense of themselves, and the film is merely printing them out in whatever order they happen to come up. For whatever reason they had in presenting the film this way, it did make everything very effective; you get into the headspace of our lead quite easily, mostly thanks to the very slight disconnect between Mrs. Kennedy and the events she is remembering, a disconnect that permeates almost every aspect of this picture. There’s a lot, for instance, in portions of the film of Natalie Portman merely walking around in a fugue state, and indeed we are reminded a few times that, the reporter scenes aside, most of the film is in the days (or sometimes even hours) directly following the assassination. Really, the goal is to get us into the same mindset as Jackie in that timeframe, and in that, the film is largely a success, mostly thanks to Larrain’s steady hand in directing and Natalie Portman’s work in fully embodying the presidential widow. The score was also very interesting; strange and off-setting, making sure you are never in a comfortable place, much like Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination. Looking it up afterwards for myself and finding it was done by Mica Levi, who also provided the score for Under the Skin, merely has it all make even more sense.

What is probably going to be troubling to most of the people that take the time to watch Jackie, is to try and decipher what the point of it all ultimately is. Jackie the character goes through much of the film upset and ravaged, wondering and struggling to make sure that her late husband’s place in history is assured and as perfect as she knew him to be. This, I think, is only ancillary to the point of Jackie the film; this, as redundant as it is to say, is about Jackie the person, what her place in history will be, and how she will be remembered, either by her hand or by the hands of those that write of her. This is the point of the film; sure, it may not exactly be a point that most people will need to have gotten, either by watching this or not, but this was still the point of making it, of making it possible for others to see it if they choose to. It’s up to each potential viewer, and their own cinematic palettes, to weigh that choice for themselves.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Jungle Book (2016)

The Jungle Book (2016)

How many lives is a man-cub worth?

With all the additions to the list this year, even with the innocuous ones, I don’t think I was more surprised by any one film being added more than this one. This past year’s version of The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, is one of the latest in Disney’s newest fad of taking their older animated features and remaking them in live action, and it’s a fad that I’ve never been one to get behind, but that isn’t going to go away anytime soon, what with the box office returns for this one and the recent Beauty and the Beast being what they were. That said, this one does have one major thing going for it, and it was that one thing that I figured was more than likely why it got added to the list at all: the visual effects used to bring the animals and the jungle to life.

You probably know the story to this one already, but still: Mowgli is a “man-cub” found in his infancy by a panther, Bagheera, after the tiger Shere Khan killed his father (getting burned in the process by the adult man’s fiery torch, or “red flower”). Raised by the jungle’s wolf pack into his childhood, Mowgli’s life is upended when Shere Khan returns for him, and he is sent off by Bagheera to find his true place in the man village where he can be protected, all while other jungle creatures meet and try to waylay him for their own purposes. Now, the story for this one isn’t exactly that of Disney’s original version, so it might be a little confusing to fans of the original (especially, for instance, when the film decides to end its story and start rolling the credits), but this is still The Jungle Book, so you pretty much know what you’re gonna get with it. The standard Disney conventions are put to new and interesting ways, from the talking animals to the musical numbers, and it’s thanks to the film being a 3D, live-action version of the story that these conventions have some form of new life breathed into them. Still, the conventions are such for a reason, and that this version holds to them as rigorously as it does is probably why the film, visual effects aside, feels as unnecessary a remake as it does. The visual effects have drawn a lot of comparison to films like Life of Pi and Avatar, which this really does feel like a combination of those two films visually, but it is still in service to a story that doesn’t feel like enough time was put into it. Make no mistake, in contrast to my previous review, this is almost certainly a film to see to be wowed by the visual splendor and technical prowess on display, instead of one to watch for the narrative itself.

When I saw that this had been added to the list, I was surprised at first, but I chalked the addition up to the editors wanting representation for the film’s groundbreaking and Oscar-winning visual effects. Now that I’ve seen it, I feel my original assessment is a lot more solidified, in both positive and negative ways; this was absolutely added for the visual effects, but I can’t really find any other reason for this to be on there. Even with the slight modifications to the story, it didn’t seem enough to warrant another whole spot in the Book to me, and really, it was only by the barest of margins that I was kept entertained through the entire picture. Stunning visual effects, and some good voiceover work as well, but other than that, if you did skip this one when it came out last year, I guess I can’t entirely blame you.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake

I am a citizen; nothing more and nothing less.

As far as I know, the only Ken Loach film I’d seen before this one was Kes, so I didn’t have much of a handle on Loach as a director. Thus, in my usual bit of research into these films before I see them, I looked into Loach himself, who is apparently quite the political hotrod as a director in the U.K., which I hadn’t been aware of. Watching a film like I, Daniel Blake, however, this becomes readily apparent, as the film itself deals with the unemployment system in England and how all the red tape and bureaucracy dehumanize the regular working man instead of treating them like people and managing to help them. Seeing as I am not in the exact same situation as the Daniel Blake of the film, but understanding and empathizing with his circumstances, I was able to view this film from both angles; as someone who would be outraged at the treatment of Blake as the film puts across, while also being aware that this is a film that is deliberately trying to put this sort of thing across. That might not be Loach’s intention with his making this; he would likely rather that I be squarely in the former camp, but the specificity of the circumstances in the film unfortunately limits that possibility from happening, with me and with the general cinematic public as well. Even so, I, Daniel Blake manages to work as a pretty decent film, despite the limited range of the film’s genesis as a cinematic cattle-prod.

Daniel Blake is a hard-headed, decent-working man in northern England who’s just survived a heart attack, and wants nothing more than to get healthy again and go back to work. Being an average man in the system, however, he’s put through the bureaucratic runaround, seeing as one government agency says he’s fit to work and thus ineligible for employment assistance, and his doctor and physician are saying he’s not yet healthy enough to return to his job. It’s through his running around in the system that he happens to meet Katie, a young single mother just moved to the area who’s also stuck in the system trying to get a job, and the two end up befriending one another and trying to help each other get by, especially as Daniel’s case leads him toward appeal court through the same system that’s been treating him like a statistic or a number instead of as a human being. The first thing that becomes very apparent watching I, Daniel Blake is that this isn’t a film with the purpose of wowing you with how well-made a film it is; the technicals are enough to get by and get the story told, and little more than that. No, this is a film that has something to say, with well-constructed characters put into positions to get the narrative point across through their actions and what happens as a result of their actions. Chief among these assets is the main character himself, Daniel Blake, played by Dave Johns, who manages to keep Blake humane and relatable even and sometimes because of his short temper regarding his bureaucratic situation. Secondary in the constellation of characters Blake interacts with is Katie, who provides a sympathetic foil for Blake as well as a backup for his endeavors, which proves essential when the film gets into its endgame. Also, heads up on the accents in the film; it’s not nearly as indecipherable as Kes, but it’ll take a few minutes or so to get used to.

There’s really very little to be said about this film, which makes it of course a struggle for someone like me to try and write a review about it. If you can take to what this film says about its world and what the characters go through, it will be very affecting; if not, then it will only be mildly so, if that. That’s unfortunately all I’m able to scrounge up in regards to I, Daniel Blake, which is a bit of a shame since the film itself really wants to be a lot more than that, and the only reason it’s not is because of how specific its drive is towards what it wants to say. I’m actually a little surprised this managed to win the Palme d’Or, as stripped-down as it is, but I guess it just hit the right note with the jury that year. It hit a hard note with me as well, but again, as I am not essentially the same man as Daniel Blake, it didn’t hit that note as hard as it otherwise would’ve. And, to repeat a recurring statement with my reviews towards films like this, I’m not convinced this is really a must-see film, but (again) neither is it a poor watch should you decide to see it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Victoria

Victoria

“Are you scared?” “I’m never scared.”

Victoria seemed to be one of this year’s incongruous additions to the list, just unknown enough to make me wonder why the editors decided to add it… Then I looked up the film, and found out the gimmick, and it suddenly made sense. Victoria is yet another single-take film, where the whole film was literally shot in one take, with no cuts or video editing at all; a feat that would be impressive and novel had it not been done by other films before, including one that already made the list. So, why is the single-take film that is Victoria special enough to warrant another spot in the Book? I watched it with this question in mind, and the more the film went on, the more I began to wonder if my question would actually get answered.

The film starts out finding the titular Victoria, a Madrid-native uprooted and living in Germany, partying in a club in Berlin, in the early morning night-time hours. After leaving, she runs into a group of four guys, which includes Sonne, who takes a liking to Victoria and she to him. After they spend some time cavorting around Berlin, the group leaves Victoria to open the cafe where she works, implying that there is something the group has to do. Shortly after, however, they return, as one of their group is too drunk to help the others, and reluctantly, Sonne asks Victoria to step in and be the fourth in their group for whatever it is they have to do, and she agrees, sparking a wild and unforeseen series of events when the group finds out their mission. Obviously, the big selling point to this is the fact that the whole film is a single, unbroken take, and it is extremely impressive that the film manages to be so given everything that happens in the plot. But what’s probably most surprising is that the film still manages to tell a complete story even with its gimmick, though the point of the story might’ve been slightly lost the more the film decides to go on, as far as the ending is concerned in my opinion. Despite a large percentage of the dialogue being in English, there is still quite a bit of German spoken as well, and the version I watched did not have any subtitles for the German spoken in the film, which I was a little perturbed about in the beginning. The more the film went on, though, I actually started to appreciate the lack of translation; it got me more into the mindset of Victoria herself, as she spoke very little German herself and thus couldn’t understand the others when they spoke it, so we as the viewer can more readily put ourselves in her shoes as she goes through this wild experience for herself. One can always look up the full synopsis on Wikipedia afterwards to fill in the blanks as necessary, in case one decides to see this the same way I did.

Don’t get me wrong; Victoria is quite the experience, and that it is a one-take film certainly heightens the experience. But is this an experience one must have before they die? As I said in the opener, I viewed the film with this in mind, and even with the single-take nature of it, by the end I wasn’t convinced that it really needed to have been added to the list. I even reviewed the Book’s blurb about this one, which went on about how the eponymous character starts the film out one way and ends it entirely transformed, as if this big, massive character arc had taken place, and I was a little stymied as to how they arrived at such a conclusion, given how the film (to me) was largely about the actions performed and not really about why they were performed or what happens to the characters as a result of them. Mild spoilers aside, the drop-off nature of the ending in particular seemed to signal to me that the filmmakers, the more the film went on, were more and more amazed that the single take was actually working and less invested in what they actually wanted to say with the film in question instead of just getting the take on film and clapping their hands afterwards. This pretty much makes Victoria amount to a heck of a technical achievement, and little more than that. Still, it was watchable, if a little long in running time, so your mileage may vary with this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Boys Town

Boys Town

There’s no such thing as a bad boy, I’m sure of that.

Director Norman Taurog seems to have an affinity for working with young casts in his films; first he wins Best Director and is up for Best Picture with Skippy, and now he’s up for both awards once again with Boys Town, a film headed by Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney in as best a manner as they can. Now, knowing what Taurog had to accomplish to get the performances he needed in Skippy, I hesitate to give him too much credit for what does work in Boys Town, since I’m unaware of what he had to do to make it work. Most of it, I suspect, is due to Tracy and Rooney basically being Tracy and Rooney, especially since the rest of the film seemed to be so manipulative in getting you to feel just what it wants you to feel, but, like I implied, Boys Town does ultimately work. If only just.

Spencer Tracy is Father Flanagan, who finds a new life purpose call to him after he receives a confession from an inmate on death row. Troubled by the poor state of the reformatory in town for young delinquents, he elects to start his own, founded on proper principles and the notion that no boy is a bad boy if given the chance. His idea quickly expands to become Boys Town, a small autonomous town built, run, and governed by the formerly-delinquent boys who come to live in it. Enter Whitey Marsh, who is sent to Boys Town by his convict brother Joe so Whitey will hopefully not end up like him, despite Whitey’s general purpose seeming to be exactly like his brother. Now it’s up to Father Flanagan and the boys of Boys Town to make sure Whitey ends up on the straight path, especially in the face of Joe’s escape from custody. I do kinda wish I had more to say about Boys Town other than ‘it’s fairly good, if you’re interested in seeing it’, but that pretty much sums up Boys Town. The only other comments I had towards the film were for the music, which was particularly on-the-nose 100% of the time (which grew kinda annoying as the film went on), and for Rooney, whose acting style consisted of mugging as much as possible for the other players, but it added the necessary amount of energy to the film where it otherwise would’ve stagnated, so I guess I can look past it. I’d also echo the sentiments of others in wondering exactly how Spencer Tracy ended up winning Best Actor for this, when all the role called from him was to have a warm heart, demeanor, and voice, which was something Tracy could’ve managed if he were missing all four of his limbs, but I haven’t seen all the nominees for Best Actor for 1938, so I can’t say whether or not Tracy really deserved it or if it was just a particularly weak year in the category.

Is this film really as good as to warrant five Oscar noms, of which two were wins, including Tracy, who became the first to win consecutive Best Actor Oscars? No, not really. Is it still worth a watch if you think you’d like to see it? Yeah, probably. That’s pretty much the mindset that Boys Town left me with; yeah, it’s okay, but I can’t really get myself into a twist over the film enough to really recommend it. I can’t speak for the entirety of Norman Taurog’s filmography, but that the man has no films on the 1001 list seemed to be the right call, as far as the two films of his I’ve seen have gotten me. Boys Town might be one of the good films of the 1930’s, but one of the best of the year? I’m not particularly sold on that.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

You Can’t Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You

That family of yours… Boy, they knock me for a loop!

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a thorough history with theater. Even with this, though, I’d never seen You Can’t Take It With You, either in the theater or on the screen. It seemed to be quite popular, seeing as I found multiple high school productions of this one on YouTube, so I was expecting a smart comedy-esque picture, thick with dialogue and feel-good sensibilities, especially since this film version would be helmed by Frank Capra, the current king of feel-good sensibilities in this chronological era of Hollywood. I dunno; maybe it was because I’ve been through several Capra pictures in a row, and thus the film’s charms ended up being somewhat diluted; maybe it was because of the theatrical background of the script, that the film appeared to hit every note exactly as it should’ve, almost too exactly; or maybe it was just because the film seemed to try a little too hard, but this film… well, it was just a tad too much of whatever it was trying to do at any given time.

Tony Kirby, son of the illustrious banker Anthony Kirby, finds himself in love with one of his father’s company’s secretaries, Alice Sycamore, who unknown to Tony has quite the extensive and multifaceted family, full of quirks and eccentric talents. Also unbeknown to Tony is the fact that Alice’s family lives on the last unsold property in a 12-property block that his father needs to isolate a competing company and put them out of business. Naturally, when Tony wants to marry Alice, she insists their families should meet, and if you’ve seen any sort of comedies from basically any era of Hollywood, you know how well that’s going to end up going down. I will say, after the aimlessness of Lost Horizon, it was certainly nice to see Frank Capra back to form, though it might’ve been thanks to the theatrically-sourced screenplay. All the Capra touches of wholesomeness and Americana are here, with plenty of oddball moments with the Sycamores to make you chuckle and smile and gee-willikers aren’t they just a hoot of a family to watch. Comedy can be a really fickle beast if it isn’t handled right; what can make something genuine and funny can also, if the line is toed a little too far, end up being mildly insufferable for directly trying to be genuine and funny. You Can’t Take It With You, if it doesn’t cross that line fully, does have plenty of moments that absolutely toe that line, which means the film has unfortunately not aged as well as some of Capra’s other pictures. That being said, viewed from the perspective of an audience from 1938, it’s certainly enjoyable, probably and especially because of its theatrical background, and Capra does do a good job of translating the dialogue and event-based action of the theater to the screen. That, and the ensemble cast is excellent all around, I suspect thanks to their commitment to the material and making it work as well as they can.

This has its moments, the ones that work, but this also has plenty of those other kind of moments, the ones that make you wish they’d held off a little bit so the moment could’ve worked instead of being a tad too far. Most of the former kind comes in the resolution act of the film, as well it should, and most of the latter comes in the middle section, which means that most people will have to suffer through the middle section to get to the better portions of the ending, which is pretty much a foregone conclusion for a typical Hollywood film of this time. That You Can’t Take It With You falls into this category instead of avoiding it or transcending it, to me, doesn’t make it a Best Picture winner, or rather it shouldn’t, seeing as this did win the top prize as well as Best Director for Capra, his third in five years. This was fine, as almost all Capra pictures are, but “fine”, even a Capra fine, shouldn’t be enough to take home the big one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10