Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men

Go on, George. Tell how it’s gonna be.

Everybody and anybody who’s gone through the American school system knows Of Mice and Men, the novella by John Steinbeck. A staple of the literature curriculum, as well as one of the most challenged and censored books of the same, you pretty much couldn’t get through middle or high school without having read it. For me, that was some time ago, so when it came time to sit down and watch the original film adaptation of the book, I went into it pretty much with a clear head and few expectations. Directed by Lewis Milestone, and starring a young Burgess Meredith alongside Lon Chaney, Jr., this finally managed to snap the streak of extremely poor literary adaptations that have plagued me since I started the Best Picture odyssey; not only was this watchable, it was pretty damn effective to boot.

Burgess Meredith is George Milton, the ‘straight guy’ to Lon Chaney, Jr’s mentally-challenged lug of a man, Lennie Small. Making their way around the landscape and hopping from job to job, the two look out for each other, though this mostly takes the form of George looking out for Lennie, as Lennie has an unfortunate habit of unintentionally getting into serious trouble where and when the men find work. Eventually, they wind up on a ranch in California, overseen by the sadistically cranky Curley, who buts heads with anyone who so much as looks at his neglected wife Mae, and who immediately takes a disliking to the much-larger-than-him Lennie. Now its only a matter of time before one of two things happens; George can manage to keep Lennie sedate and reeled in enough to where the two men can finally save enough money to fulfill their dream of owning their own ranch, or George cannot, and Lennie can somehow manage to get them run off yet another place of work, or perhaps something even worse. The print I saw of this one was unfortunately quite weathered, so I can’t say too much about the production aspects of this one, which seemed fairly standard either way. What I can talk about, or at least mention, are the creative aspects, which much to my surprise were quite exceptional, from the musical score to the writing. Especially so are the two leads; Burgess Meredith knows enough about the character he’s playing to keep George on the level enough to get the audience behind him, and Lon Chaney, Jr. is absolutely a consistent scene-stealer as the simple-minded Lennie. That the two men are as good as they are is probably why the film, and especially the ending, is as effective as it is.

This took me longer than I would’ve liked to get to, and admittedly it is likely because the film is based on literature and thus I was very nervous that I’d be extremely bored through it, especially because it has been well over a decade since I’ve even thought about let alone read the original novella in school. Thankfully, this managed to assuage most if not all of my doubts and hesitations; this is absolutely one of the better literary adaptations I’ve had to watch for this Best Picture odyssey so far. I don’t know if I would say it was good enough to get me fully back on the wagon of moviewatching that I seem to be fighting to stay on, but it was definitely a nice refresher of a picture, and a reminder that even among the non-1001 movies scattered across Best Picture, there can still be some pretty worthwhile viewings to be had.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

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Love Affair

Love Affair

We’re heading into a rough sea, Michel.

So, after my excursion back into modern cinema for some time, I was hesitant to delve back into classic cinema, to say the least; mostly, I was afraid that I would be bored by the different sensibility and style of moviemaking once I had become accustomed to films of the modern era once more. What didn’t help was that I technically had only four films from 1939’s Best Pictures to see for the first time, and I was also nervous that they would end up being the four lesser of the flock, fit only to survive a viewing through and little more, and thus I wasn’t sure which of the four would be a good point to get back into the classical style of films at all. Pretty much at random, I ended up on Love Affair, a Leo McCarey film that would be known more for its being remade into An Affair to Remember by McCarey himself. I can’t be certain whether or not this was a good jumping-back-into point, not without having seen the other three films I still need to see from this category, but for what it’s worth, I feel pretty good about starting my Best Picture odyssey back up with how this one went down with me.

Michel Marnet is a Frenchman on a cruise liner set for America; a well-known figure, he is currently engaged to an heiress and enjoys a lot of popularity on the ship. Through happenstance, he has a number of encounters with an American woman, Terry McKay, who is also engaged and on her way to New York to meet with her husband-to-be. Despite his notoriety and both of their engagements, they find themselves drawn to one another, and when the ship finally docks in New York, they make a promise: in six months, if they both want their brief affair to continue, they will meet at the top of the Empire State building and be together forever. Naturally, the path to the top of the tower is not as simple as they both might secretly wish it was, or there wouldn’t be a film or narrative otherwise. It seems a simple concoction for a good and complex enough Hollywood film of the era, and it seems McCarey knows this, and especially how to make good of the material; the film, especially in the beginning section aboard the cruise ship, swims with emotion, so much that it almost makes it impossible for the two leads not to be drawn together. Really, there’s almost too much that’s done very well with this film; the humor, always in the right spots, is effective, as is the writing, the performances, and heck, even the few musical numbers that do appear seem just as fit for the picture as everything else.

Remakes and their earlier versions can be a tricky tightrope to cross, especially when one tries to consider the value of each film in its own right. An Affair to Remember, for instance, in addition to making the 1001 list, is regarded as one of the most romantic films ever made; this did not make the list, and indeed I had not given it much consideration aside from its being nominated for Best Picture in the greatest year of Hollywood. Well, after seeing this one now, I definitely can say that, even with its much more well-known and regarded remake, this is absolutely still worth the watch, should one be inclined to see it. There’s not all that much to the film, which is probably why it’s not getting a higher rating from me, but for what it does do, it does wonderfully, and indeed it’s rare for me to finish a film and not be able to think of much of anything that would make it better or that I would do differently. That’s not to say that this is a perfect film, but it’s absolutely a very good one, and one that’s worth the brief hour-and-a-half it takes to see it.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Under the Shadow

Under the Shadow

People can convince themselves anything’s real if they want to.

This is my reaction to another horror film being added to the list, and thus my being forced to watch another horror film: Hoo boy. Another horror film to sit through. To be honest, such a reaction isn’t entirely fair to Under the Shadow, the newest horror film on the list; it hasn’t done anything to me personally to warrant an immediate dismissal. Still, it took me a bit longer than I would’ve preferred to actually get to the film, purely because of my general disdain for the horror genre, stemming from my participation in several no-budget horror productions in film school which turned me off the genre almost entirely. Thankfully, it’s films like Under the Shadow that exist to show me that, yes, horror can still be a viable genre of cinema; when they’re done right, of course, and Under the Shadow is absolutely a film done right.

Shideh is a mother to a single daughter, Dorsa, in Tehran circa 1980 or so, right after the Iranian Revolution; elements of which are still in the process of being ‘resolved’, hence the air raid sirens and Xs of tape covering the windows of the apartment she shares with her husband. At the beginning, her husband, a doctor, is called into service near the frontlines, leaving Shideh and Dorsa alone with a handful of neighbors in the same building; this is right after Shideh is informed her own doctoral studies cannot continue due to political activities she undertook while in university years earlier. One of the neighbor families has recently taken in a cousin of theirs, a young boy, who shows concern for Dorsa and gives her a charm to ward off evil spirits called djinn, which are said to take personal belongings of humans so they can haunt them without impunity. Naturally, small items of both Dorsa and later Shideh start to go missing, Dorsa comes down with a fever, and both women start having odd and increasingly scary nightmares, and Shideh, skeptical at first, is slowly convinced that the stories of the djinn may not be as ethereal and fanciful a folklore as they’d been led to believe. What Under the Shadow really gets right about being a horror film, aside from the actual tension and mounting sense of dread that slowly overcomes the main characters and us the audience by proxy, is using the horror setting to juxtapose against real world elements; specifically the post-revolution Iran setting the film takes place in. What did end up surprising me, though, was how generally effective this was as a straight-up horror film, juxtaposition either included or not. Another aspect I really enjoyed was how certain things, almost throwaway lines or events in the film, were later brought up again in ways that underscored how disturbing and out-of-place the horror elements of the film were intruding upon the lives of the main characters; items go missing and are of little consequence until they show up later in the wrong place, actions taken by or imparted onto characters have no meaning until they later rear their head in the worst way and in the worst possible moment. It’s the little touches like these that really cement the universe of the film, while simultaneously upping the ante as to what is going on with the two leads and what they may or may not be up against. Also, heads up; the film, on Netflix at least, defaults to English dialogue, dubbed over the actors’ original Persian, which gets distracting very quickly, so you might want to switch the audio and turn on subtitles if you head there to watch this one.

I still don’t think I’m going to come around to horror completely; not as long as low-to-no-budget horror films continue to be churned out that are of absolutely no value to the cinematic community, something that I don’t think will literally ever stop happening. But, as I said in the opener, it’s nice to be reminded that horror can actually be good and effective, and Under the Shadow is definitely one of those films. To those who might have similar misgivings about venturing into this one as I did, you really needn’t worry; for me personally, I counted exactly one jump scare in Under the Shadow, and the rest of the film still managed to unnerve and keep me on the edge of my metaphorical seat, especially during the last act when things ramp up considerably to near-unbearable levels. This is yet another one that I initially wasn’t sure why it got added to the list, but now that I’ve seen it, I’m glad it was if only for getting me to actually watch it, because this is definitely worth watching.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

I don’t know how you’re gonna survive without someone to outsmart.

I don’t really know what I was expecting with Hell or High Water; in all honesty, when I was making potshot guesses as to the other Best Picture nominees of this past year that stood a chance of making the 1001 list, I’d pegged Hacksaw Ridge over this one. I’d heard the good will towards this going into the Oscars last year, but didn’t really have any reason to want to see it, so to have it added to the list, essentially making me see it much earlier than I otherwise would’ve, I was nevertheless ambivalent when I actually sat down to start it. Now that it’s finished, I can understand my ambivalence a little better, as even though I’ve now seen the film, I still feel a slight bit of ‘nothing’ in regards to my desire towards watching the film. But, and here’s the key point for me, that is not to say that Hell or High Water isn’t a really solid film, all ambivalence aside.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are two Texan brothers who, at the beginning of the film, rob two branches of a Texas-based bank; Foster proving himself the wilder of the two, while Pine seems to be the cooler head, the brains behind what’s going on. It soon becomes apparent that there actually is something going on, a greater plan behind the brothers’ actions, especially as Pine’s character has no criminal record at all up to this point. To figure out what’s happening and to bring in the two brothers is Jeff Bridges as an old-hat, salt-of-the-earth Texas Ranger, who’s spending his last couple weeks or so on the job doing little but playfully belittling his Native American partner until the brothers’ case comes his way, and he and the brothers work their way in and around and toward each other as the boys try and get their plan wrapped down before Bridges’ ranger can work out where they’re headed next. If that plot summary sounds like I’m sorta fumbling around what actually happens in the film, I am; a lot of the film is poised such as to get us to wonder what’s going on, or what’s coming next, and there is a distinct air of mystery to the proceedings as we try and figure out along with the Rangers what the two brothers are really up to. I also tried to stress the Texas upbringing that the film is absolutely saturated in; this film is Texan in every which way, down to its very core. The whole experience comes across very much as a slightly watered version of No Country for Old Men; No Country’s eager if elementary little brother, so to speak, which, as a comparison, isn’t one a film like this wouldn’t necessarily want to strive towards, so to see Hell or High Water embrace this aspect of itself so fully is highly encouraging. The performances from the cast were also really solid, especially Ben Foster, who steals nearly every scene he’s in, but Pine and Bridges are up to the task of carrying the film themselves when they need to.

This film, for me, ended up being a good lesson in how to approach the worth or value of a film (provided the film itself has worth or value). A lot of films, especially on the list, are there because they are important in some way, or unique in some other way, or special in some third way, etc. That’s all well and good for something like the list, but it’s not really a good way of determining if a film, any film, is worth the time put into it. Hell or High Water is a great example of a film that is none of the above things, but still gets by on the fact that it’s just a really good film all around. Sometimes, a film doesn’t need to be important, or unique, or one-of-a-kind; all that really matters is that it be good – well-written, well-made, and well-performed, and Hell or High Water is absolutely all of those things. Now, I can’t say that a film like Hell or High Water is worth a spot on this list, or that it will survive future revisions, but I can be glad that it was added just for the fact that it got me to see the film; a film that may not seem like it at first, but ends up being worth your time in the end.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

13th

13th

We have to understand that, in order to escape from it.

13th, a documentary by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, takes its title from the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery and freed all those ensnared in it… but, argues the documentary, was slavery really ended? Or did it merely take a different form? It’s a little obvious to say that there’s a multitude of political issues at work with a subject like this; a multitude of political stances one can take in regards to this subject matter. I wasn’t concerned with that, at least not in my watching the documentary itself. For me, with 13th being a documentary, it really had one goal; not just to cover its subject thoroughly and invite discussion about it, but to get me to care about watching a documentary about the subject in the first place, which is something too few documentaries over the years have really tried to do. Well, coming out of my viewing of it now, I can say: I care. I absolutely do.

The film purports to be about how the criminal justice system has been and is abusing the black population of America, mostly by having the prison population be so disproportionately African-American, but where DuVernay really succeeds is making what this film is about a lot more than that. The film is actually about a number of topics, all covered with a heaping helping of style coupled with plenty of hip-hop and rap music to underline the film’s main points. And when I say style, I mean it; when I first started the film, I was actually a little bit in danger of writing it off almost entirely just based on DuVernay’s sense of presentation, which seemed to overshadow whatever point she was only on the cusp of making. The rap music, for instance, is used as an inter-topic transition, with the key words of the music appearing in giant letters on the screen a la Jean-Luc Godard; not to mention each time the word ‘criminal’ is spoken by an interviewee, DuVernay interposes a giant title card bearing the word in all-caps, bludgeoning you with what it seemed she wants you to feel about what she’s talking about. The more the film went on, though, the more it became apparent what she was really doing; DuVernay explores a bunch of seemingly barely-related topics, but, while doing so, still manages a tangentially-perceptible insidiousness underlying everything she covers that serves to make her actual point: that everything she is covering is, in reality, all about holding down and keeping down the post-13th-Amendment black population, which then evolved into the concept of finding a way to exploit them both for financial gain and for gain of additional power – hence how blacks are so commonly arrested, or even killed, all by the for-profit prison system.

This is effective, almost evilly so; it worms its way into your trust, so that at the end of it, you don’t even realize that you’ve been made to think about the whole situation the way DuVernay wants you to think about it. It’s to DuVernay’s, and the producers’, credit that this inception, this sense of manipulation is being used as a force for good, for positive cultural change; quite the opposite of what’s been happening and being used against the African-American population since the aftermath of the Civil War by all the powers that be, on both sides of the aisle. It’s pretty ingenious, if indeed it is intentional, and I’d like to think that it is. I’m really glad to have seen this, even if I felt mildly ill after my viewing of it; this is the sort of thing that really does need to be seen, as basically a cultural responsibility in today’s day and age. You may not want to, and you may even feel disgruntled if made to, but it is a point that needs to be hammered in, or bludgeoned with, if we are to better ourselves as a community, as a culture, and as a species. Not just a race, but as a people.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Test Pilot

Test Pilot

It was a thrill to see you come out of the sky. It’ll be a greater one to see you disappear in it.

After my rewatch of Captains Courageous turned out as well as it did, I got a little excited when I found out that Test Pilot was also directed by Victor Fleming, just one short year before he’d go on to have one of the best directorial years in Hollywood history. It also stars Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy, so goddang by golly does this one have some heavy hitters in all aspects of it. In my usual bit of research, I got the impression that this one would have some of the best aerial sequences put to film since Wings, which I was looking forward to even without Test Pilot being set in a war (which, to mention, was something to be thankful for). While the flying sequences were certainly well done, if a little transparent with how they managed to film most of them, where the film really succeeds is by taking its own high-flying premise and seeing what happens when you look at it with your feet planted squarely on the ground.

Clark Gable is Jim Lane, a renowned test pilot for plane prototypes, where his job is to push the planes he flies as far as they can reasonably be handled, and then further than that. In one instance, he is poised to set a new coast-to-coast flying record, but his plane begins to dump oil and he’s forced to land it somewhere in Kansas. Here lives Myrna Loy, who houses Gable until his crew, chiefly his main mechanic and devoted best friend Spencer Tracy, can make it there to fix the plane, and as things are wont to happen, the two fall in love over the course of a single day. However, Loy’s young farmgirl soon comes to realize: the only thing that may be more stressful and harrowing than being a test pilot, pushing yourself and the high-flying machines you operate to and past their limits, is being married to a test pilot. After the film got going, a lot of things surprised me about it. For one, for a film called Test Pilot, I was surprised at how much of the film didn’t deal with planes and flying, opting to give us the aerial sequences in sustained bursts spaced quite a bit apart instead of all together or throughout the two-hour running time. I was also surprised at how much of the script consisted of the main trio cracking wise at each other (which they did as well as any other), which made me feel that films like His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep, both done by Test Pilot screenwriter Howard Hawks, were absolutely only a few years away. What surprised me the most, however, was somewhere in the middle, during one scene with Loy and Tracy talking to each other about Gable, when the film dropped the cracks and got pretty damned serious, and alarmingly affecting as a result. This film isn’t about the dangers of being a test pilot, or the thrill of adventure that calls to pilots like Gable’s Jim Lane; it is about how the dangers of being a pilot and the call to adventure that Lane answers to an almost reckless degree affect the people who truly care about him – best friend Tracy and partner Loy. All three stars have rarely been better in a script that really knows how each character affects the others, in both good ways and very negative ways, and by the end, I was impressed as hell with the overall film.

You might think you know where the film is headed only twenty or thirty minutes into it. You would be right; the film does end up pretty much how you’d expect a film like this to end up. What you absolutely will not expect is how the film manages to get to the end, and for a film made near the end of the 1930s, I was amazed at how mature and forward-thinking the screenwriting was, and equally amazed that it all came across the screen so well, thanks to the main stars. This picture will wallop you, mostly because a picture like this, for when it was made and released, really comes out of nowhere with how effective, and affecting, it actually is. Kudos to Victor Fleming, writer Howard Hawks, and the stars of the film; I was expecting this to be particularly thrilling and with maybe half as much backbone in-between the flying sequences, but man was I not expecting what I actually got with this.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

A Star is Born

A Star is Born

I’m going out and have a real life! I’m gonna be somebody!

It’s a little disorienting to look at groundbreaking films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind and realize that they aren’t as much the groundbreakers you thought they were. Two years before those two films changed the canvas and introduced color to the public, it had already been done by 1937’s A Star is Born, which incidentally was also produced by David O. Selznick, and which became the first all-color film to be nominated for Best Picture, even winning a special Oscar essentially for being so. Now, you’d be forgiven if you heard the title A Star is Born and thought immediately of the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason, since I’d absolutely be one of the people who would do just that, but I gotta say; this original screen version, with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, does have a lot going for it.

Esther Blodgett moves to Hollywood to chase her dream of becoming an actress, despite discouragements from her family (save for her appreciative grandmother). Starting with nothing, Esther winds up serving at a party and meets Norman Maine, one of her favorite actors, who’s entering a downslope in his career thanks to his persistent drinking. Immediately taken with the young wannabe, Norman wrangles her a screen test, and later persuades his producer friend to give Esther the lead opposite him in a picture, which (after some rebranding of her farmgirl roots and a new stage name: Vicki Lester) catapults her to stardom. Of course, with every shining star comes a cloud to darken its light, and after she and Norman are married, that cloud threatens to be Norman himself, who can’t kick his drinking habit, nor his indignation at his own career coming up in shambles in comparison to Esther’s. Then again, if you know Hollywood and Hollywood pictures, you know this story already, either from this one or one of the remakes. So, what does this have that the other versions of this story don’t? To be honest, not all that much, but for once, it really didn’t matter; this was not only enjoyable, but it was a damn sight better than most of the riff-raff that’s been nominated for Best Picture in the past few years of my odyssey or so. Both Janet Gaynor and Fredric March earned nominations for this film, and they are both well deserved; March in particular was overall better and more grounded than I’ve seen him in a few films of his, which considering he’s made his name for being pretty good and grounded as an actor, is saying something about this film and his work in it. Of course, the film is in color, and the color photography is very nice, but it doesn’t punch you in the face with the fact that it’s in color, which I was even more appreciative of.

Now, just because this film does have a lot going for it, as I said in the opener, doesn’t mean that it’s better than the ’54 remake, and in my opinion, I don’t think it is. But, thankfully (given the lesser Best Picture fare thus far), it’s not by much. This is a really solid picture, and the fact that it was in color just made the overall solidity of its quality even easier to admire and appreciate. This isn’t a fine picture because it’s in color; it’s a fine picture first, and the color merely adds to it. That’s some damn fine praise from me for an early color picture, outside of the absolute pinnacles of the genre like the two supposed groundbreakers I mentioned in the first line of this review. This isn’t one of those, an absolute pinnacle of the genre, but it’s still pretty darn good, and I was thankful as hell for that, and just as entertained by this.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10