Saint Maud

Saint Maud

Never waste your pain.

Man, what is it with these first-time directors, coming out of relatively nowhere, to helm solid indie features with good casts that, despite it being their debut feature, seems like they’ve been directing for years? We’ve had plenty the past few years to reap the benefits from, especially from indie-arthouse darling studio A24, and for 2019 they’ve given us Saint Maud, the debut of English writer/director Rose Glass. Now granted, A24 only picked up the American distribution rights, but I still like to think they know what they’re doing; not that they had much to worry about (pandemic aside), as Saint Maud showcases Rose Glass as one of the most self-assured directors to spring out of the woodwork in the past few years.

Welsh actress Morfydd Clark owns the screen as Maud, a private care nurse and devout Catholic who gets sent to the home of Amanda Kohl, an American former dancer who is now locked up in her home with terminal cancer, basically awaiting her death. Seeing a chance to save the embittered Amanda’s eternal soul, Maud tries her best to convert her ward by sharing the grace of God with her, including cutting Amanda off from the few personal pleasures she does keep up with. It’s only after a birthday party Amanda holds that hints about Maud begin to coalesce, like her faith being a relatively new decision and a passerby in town one night referring to her by another name. Soon, a much more tragic portrait of Maud is painted for us of who she is and used to be, and Maud’s sanity begins to fray in her increasingly obsessive endeavors to both save Amanda’s soul and prove to herself that her own is worth saving as well. Much of what makes Saint Maud what it is is not apparent when the film first begins; this is another slow-burner film, opening with nary an introduction or explanation of the characters or the world they’re in, instead hopping directly into their lives and moving forward, leaving us to wonder about them and their pasts, which gradually are revealed to us as the film moves along. Normally, I’m not for a film starting off assuming we already know who everyone is and what things will be about, but with Saint Maud, I appreciated it because of Glass’ storytelling ability and the framing of the core aspects of the film; we’re not meant to already know Maud right from the get-go, and part of the film’s effect is learning about her past and what happened to her before she became the person we started out knowing her to be, so we can then gain a growing understanding of why she begins to slip off the edge of the cliff she is barely walking astride. The two main factors in making this film work are director Rose Glass, who has such a command of her story and world-building that you never once feel a single second of the film is not deliberate or by-the-book, and star Morfydd Clark, who is pulled along by Glass’ direction and her own knowledge of the character until Maud’s descent into the depths truly begins to pick up speed, and Clark portrays every ounce of this perfectly. Not to say the others involved in the production don’t bring their absolute best, but it is the anchor of Clark and the total grasp of Glass’ direction that brings everything together into the finely-honed machine this is, starting off slow and steady until you don’t even realize you’re barely holding on as you’re careening headlong into the abyss.

Slow-burners can be a bit taxing to start off with, but the understanding is that it will pay off on the back end, and boy does Saint Maud ever pay off; the last two scenes of the film are what makes the ride up to then absolutely worth the price of admission, and I already have the feeling the film’s ending will remain seared into my memory for quite a while to come. This is exactly what psychological horror ought to be; not a piece of this is not right where it should be, to where it becomes extremely difficult to think of ways the film could be better or things you might do differently to try and improve it. Honestly, if it wasn’t for my grading films principally on their general entertainment value, the rating of this one would likely be higher than it is; from a general audience standpoint, I’m not sure all too many people will get what they want from this one, but from a filmmaking standpoint, I can’t think of any real notes to give, and I will hopefully be looking forward to whatever Rose Glass has cooking up for her next meal.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Nomadland

Nomadland

I’ll see you down the road.

It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Nomadland was going to win Best Picture, especially after it won both the Golden Lion at Venice and the People’s Choice Award at Toronto while the two festivals were happening simultaneously. Of course, the film also picked up Oscars for director Chloe Zhao and actress/producer Frances McDormand, making Zhao only the second woman ever to win Best Director and McDormand the second-ever woman to win three Best Actress Oscars. These are not standard-level plaudits, so it stands to reason that Nomadland as a film (it is originally based on a non-fiction book) is not your standard-level film. Honestly, however, I’m not sure if I would go that far with it. It’s good, well-made, and very pensive (which is its goal), but it’s not the sort of amazing that makes me think I would ever desire to watch it again.

McDormand here plays Fern, a 60-something worker in a mining town that ends up jobless after the mine closes shop and basically the whole town ends up folding as a result; her husband has also recently died to boot. With nothing left where she is, she puts all her belongings in a van, leaves her house behind, and proceeds to travel around, living life as a modern-day nomad; a lifestyle, she soon finds, that is not unique to her, and she soon falls into the familiar crowds of fellow wanderers, some of which help her personally and also to get better at the van life, all to see if she can find (or perhaps reclaim) some sense of purpose or value to her life. As aimless as that plot summary is, that’s exactly how the film itself comes off; there is really very little more to it than that. There’s a short subplot that develops about halfway through when one of Fern’s fellow nomads, Dave, takes a liking to her and invites her along with him back to his son’s place, who has recently had a child himself, and indeed the film seems to almost feel reluctant to include this aspect, almost as if the film is selling out a tad in order to fill itself out as a proper film. But this is literally the only actual narrative the film has; everything else is just about the life of these modern nomads and how they get by, the relationships they build (with each other and with the world around them), and the sense of fulfillment they have that was mostly or entirely lacking in their former lives. Indeed, almost every character in the film, save for Fern, Dave, and Dave’s family, is played by the actual nomads themselves, with almost every credit listed at the end being the nomad’s real name or nickname. There’s a good sense of authenticity this brings to the production, especially the couple or so nomads who have an actual supporting part in the film instead of just merely being featured, and that is really what Nomadland is about and for: for people to experience this lifestyle themselves, and what it means to the people who live it.

For as critically beloved as this film was going into the Oscars, I’m actually not surprised that it ended up winning as few as it did; indeed, Frances McDormand’s win here feels largely reputational and not because of the actual performance she gives. This has the overall feel of a minor film, that just happened to strike a chord with a good number of people in the cinephile sector; it’s a character piece that’s not about an actual character or archetype, but about a lifestyle, and as such, it’s not going to feel meaty or narratively dense, and neither should it. It’s well-directed, and I’m glad Zhao won her category, but that and the immersion into the life the film explores is about all I can say about it. It’s good, and a nice watch, but for me, anything more than that might be me forcing words out of my mouth when there’s otherwise no more to be had.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

A Letter to Three Wives

A Letter to Three Wives

Addie Ross never saw the day she could spoil my day.

Many Oscar stats geeks like myself know of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s back-to-back Best Director wins; what I didn’t know until now was that he also won back-to-back Screenplay awards for the same two films as well, and that he is the only one to ever do this. Of course, film fans are well aware of what a classic All About Eve is, but considering the uniqueness of his accomplishment, one should not discount the other film in this back-to-back double-whammy. I had to admit that I did not think too much of A Letter to Three Wives before I saw it, knowing it only as the other film in Mankiewicz’s Director sweep. Having seen it now, I can see why it won the awards it did, and I was more than surprised with how entertaining the film was overall.

The premise is one of those ingenious elevator-pitch premises that’s so self-contained and instantly intriguing that it’s a wonder it hadn’t been thought of and made into a film before this one. Three young wives (Deborah, Rita, and Lora Mae) are good friends with each other in a small suburban town, as are their husbands, and all frequently go out together as a group to various functions and parties. One function the ladies are doing alone is as chaperones to a group of children as they take a boat ride and riverside picnic. Moments before the boat leaves, a messenger arrives with a letter to the three, from local socialite and golden girl Addie Ross, who says that she is not only moving away from the town, but that she is also running away with one of the husbands of the three wives as well. Now stuck on their chaperone trip until the evening, the three each reflect and reminisce on their marriages and the various rocky aspects they’ve each had up to now, all in wondering which of the three will arrive home that night without a husband to greet them. I had previously bemoaned the framing device used in Twelve O’Clock High as unnecessary and gratuitous, so I’d like to start here by applauding how Letter’s use of its own framing story makes the flashbacks to each of the married lives of the three ladies that much more intriguing and thus engaging as a result. Basically, with the way the film is constructed, with its premise and the use of narrative devices, I can’t imagine any moviegoer who sits down to watch this one won’t be hooked into the film the whole way through on that alone. Thankfully, Mankiewicz is a smart enough writer to not lean entirely on the devices themselves, but also flesh out the film with natural, dry-witty dialogue and a believable set of circumstances for each marriage as to why it might have gone awry and how each of the three husbands may indeed be ‘the one’, so to speak. Incidentally, the story the film is adapted from originally featured five wives, but some trimming was done by Mankiewicz and 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck to keep the film from getting too discombobulated. The acting is also good, more believable than stand-out, though the optimism glowing from Kirk Douglas’ character does get infectious at times. Additional special shoutout to Thelma Ritter as Rita’s housemaid and friend of Lora Mae’s mother, who was a consistent scene-stealer.

Really, the only problem I had with the film was a small hang-up on one aspect of the ending; other than that, this film really didn’t do anything wrong, from the excellent casting (including the decision to make the character of Addie a more mythical figure by not having her appear on screen, instead only through voiceover) to the production design (special kudos to the set dressers and designers of Lora Mae’s family home, which sits so close to a set of railroad tracks that trains passing by rattle the whole house for almost a minute on end). Again, I can definitely see why Mankiewicz won the two Oscars he did here, and that it is only the overshadowing of the following year’s film that he’d do the same with that prevents more people appreciating this one, I think. For what is ultimately the shortest of the nominees this year (with my only having one more to get to), I feel like I got more actual enjoyment out of this than any of the others so far. It’s light, amusing, and has a dynamite premise; you can’t get much more crowd-pleasing than that, and A Letter to Three Wives still manages it.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

All the King’s Men

All the King's Men

“…I learned somethin’.” “What?” “How to win.”

Aaaaallllright, let’s see if I can get back in this. Despite the rough past few months or so, a small part of me is still hoping that this won’t be particularly difficult to do… so let’s start with another literary adaptation! Cause those have gone so well before! Woooo! Ok, humor aside, at least the book that All the King’s Men is adapted from and shares its title with won a Pulitzer Prize, and the film won Best Picture to boot, so I’m hoping that the standard will be considerably raised enough with this that it won’t be torturous to sit through. Now, I said all that before actually getting to what All the King’s Men deals with in story and topic, that of a charismatic but moderately naive politician who rises in power as he simultaneously sheds his innocence to become just as ruthless and corrupt as those he used to fight against; truly, in today’s day and age, this film will and should likely be particularly timely and prescient, even with it being a good 70 years old. Of course, after the past decade or so, what this film hopes to impart as a worldly moral lesson comes across as rather meek and obvious in comparison, but it’s still a pretty good film regardless.

The film is told from the eyes of Jack Burden, who starts off as a reporter in a big city tasked with doing a piece on a small-town man running for a small-town treasury position named Willie Stark. Stark is said to be an honest man making a run in politics, so of course Burden is intrigued to see if this is the case, and comes back wholeheartedly believing Willie Stark is the real deal. Willie, however, loses his race after running up against the corrupt nature of politics, even at the local level, but he is proven right in the end when the concerns he was running his platform against come to pass, and in a roundabout way, he ends up as a candidate for governor (in reality, in order to split the vote and get another candidate into the office instead). Once Willie realizes the truth, and the real nature of the political machine, he throws up his hands, gets drunk, goes to one of his rallies… and delivers a blistering sermon about the truth of who he is, who his opponents are, and what they think of the people voting for them. Soon enough, he’s in office, and he has quickly learned from his unexpected success how to play the political game, and the once-stalwart advocate for truth and the everyman has become a back-dealing, dirt-smearing megalomaniac… and it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to stop him. For what I’m essentially hoping is my foray back into this odyssey, it seems I’ve opted for yet another of that type of film that blends so well together that it becomes difficult to talk about at any length. This is actually really amusing, since apparently the director and editor were having such a problem cutting this film down to a reasonable length that they gave it to an editing consultant with the instructions to take each scene, roll the footage a hundred feet from the middle in both directions, and chop off the rest, which got the film down to its release length. Such an editing hail-mary would not seem to lead to a film that is well blended together, and indeed I’m refusing to believe that further touch-ups were not done after the 110-minute cut was given back to the director, because the resulting film is cut to such detail that it hardly seems like there is any extraneous footage at all. The rest of the film is pretty standard, but good quality and entertaining; the cinematography is nothing to shout about, and the directing and performances are all solid. Even Broderick Crawford, who I was expecting to be impressed by since he won Best Actor for this, simply played a solid character, and indeed I suspect (without knowing too much of the other nominated performances) that he won for the character and not for his actual performance.

I knew that I’d wanted to come back to this with this film for 1949, even if I didn’t know when I’d actually manage to get back to this. That might’ve been a bit of a double-edged sword, though; while this is pretty good, and probably much more timely for its era than it would seem for us in today’s time, that this won Best Picture may be a poor indicator of the rest of the field, of which I’ve only seen one other previously. Then again, I should really remember that there’s been plenty of hidden gems in the past years of Oscar, and that my assumption that the quality of the overall nominations for this award will hopefully go up, albeit slowly, as the years go by, will likely hold true. Still, despite this paragraph up to this point, don’t take this as a non-recommendation for All the King’s Men; this is still a very solid picture all around, and really the only reason one might be let down by it is going into it with the expectation of being wowed by a Best Picture winner, and merely getting a pretty good film instead. This is probably what happened to me, so hopefully this review, if anything, will at least clear the tint off your glasses should you decide to try this one as well.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

There’s only one shame: failing a human being that needs you.

I should probably start this off with an admission: though it’s been quite a while since my last review, I actually watched Johnny Belinda a couple weeks ago. Normally, I try and get down a review for a film basically right after I’ve watched it, usually using notes I’ve written during my watching of it, but after I watched Johnny Belinda, I found myself with very little to actually say about it. Now, that alone isn’t the entirety of why it took me so long to get to this, but it did make the prospect of carving out some time to write down a review a rather daunting one, and I probably ended up making it much harder in my head than it really would be going at it. Timeliness aside, my statement that I had basically nothing to say about Johnny Belinda comes with its usual one of two possible disclaimers: just because I had no notes about it after I watched it does not mean that it is a bad film. Actually, I quite enjoyed it, and really the reason why my note-taking ended up empty is because the film blends all its components so well together that there’s basically no features that stand out enough to make note of. It’s just a very good film, and I should probably remind myself that that in and of itself is really all that some films need to be.

Robert Richardson, a doctor, moves to a small fishing town in eastern Canada with his secretary Stella, who is sweet on the doctor. He makes friends with most of the townsfolk, including Black MacDonald, the local flour miller, who gets most of his work accomplished with the help of his daughter Belinda, who Black has found to be deaf, mute, and dumb. Richardson, however, after interacting with Belinda a little, realizes that while she is indeed deaf, she is far from dumb, and offers to begin teaching Belinda sign language as well as other subjects. Belinda takes to her learning with zeal, impressing both Black and his housekeeping sister Aggie, who begin to treat Belinda more like a regular person, dressing her up for town visits and taking her to church. Of course, with new attention her way comes new dangers, including catching the eye of local rabble-rouser Locky McCormick, and Locky ends up forcing himself on her in a night of drunkenness, getting Belinda pregnant. The series of actions and consequences continues to build from there, as Locky marries Stella, Belinda gives birth to a boy she names Johnny, and Locky, who no one suspects is the actual father, eventually comes calling for his illegitimate child. This is apparently based on a stage play of the same name, and really, aside from the intricacies of the character-focused plot, I wouldn’t have noticed at all; it translates to the screen very well. This is also the first Hollywood film to tackle the subject of rape, which has usually been a no-go with the Hays Code, but an exception was made here, and the film handles its groundbreaking subject matter exactly the way it needs to. Almost all of the weight of the picture ends up on the shoulders of Jane Wyman, who plays Belinda, and who knocks it out of the park despite not speaking a single word. Everything else was pretty well done as well, but it was that kind of well done that never calls attention to itself, instead making way for the story and the film itself; while that means everyone on the crew has put in an excellent effort to make the film this seamless, it also leaves me with basically nothing to talk about. The story is well done and engaging, and Wyman absolutely deserved her Best Actress win, but nothing else really sticks out at me, which can make writing a review on this rather difficult (and it has).

I could try and go on to say more about Johnny Belinda, pretty much entirely in order to take up space, but there’s basically nothing more I can say. This is a very good film, with an excellent performance from Jane Wyman, and is certainly worth the watch should you decide to see it; ask me why it’s such a good film, though, and I’ll probably space out for a few seconds, before saying, “Just watch it; it’s good.” If anything, I can say that while I wouldn’t stump for this one to win Best Picture, especially against some of the films it’s up against, I’m more than pleased it’s in the field of nominees. Honestly, I kinda wish more people would actually see this, if for nothing else than to see how a classical film from Hollywood’s Golden Age can be a good, well-rounded film in spite of all the preconceptions those people might have about classical Hollywood films and the tropes and filmmaking devices they think of when they consider watching such films. Even in the 1940s, there were some films that just got it exactly right, and Johnny Belinda is a good example of just that.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Farewell

The Farewell

“It’s still a lie.” “…It’s a good lie.”

Expectations can be a fickle thing. They can either enhance the effect of what you’re expecting, or go the other way into basic confusion when something isn’t what you expected that it would be. If it does end up being the latter, you pretty much then have a choice, even if it’s a subconscious one: you can either further that confusion into anger or disappointment that your expectation was not met, or you can re-evaluate what it is you were expecting and try to see what actual, real worth is there instead of what your expectation told you would be there. I rather messily go into this as a reaction to my watching Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, and really because it is the only reaction I’ve had in regards to the film. I went into it expecting something, and it took basically the entire film for me to realize my expectations were not going to be met, and now I’m trying to figure out what there is in terms of value the film offers that I otherwise missed during my initial viewing. It’s there, I can tell there’s value there, but I’m still unsure if it has value to me as a viewer, or if I’m just not in the wheelhouse of what this is trying to do or say.

The premise is simple enough to be an elevator pitch: Billi is a Chinese-American in New York, having moved to America when she was six; the rest of her extended family mostly still lives back in China. One in particular, the matriarch of the family, known as Nai Nai, is one Billi is particularly close with; so, of course, she is struck to find out from her parents that Nai Nai has terminal cancer and has only a few months to live. What’s more, the family, both Billi’s parents and the extended family, have decided not to tell Nai Nai she is dying, and have staged a wedding of one of Billi’s cousins as an excuse for the family to get together and basically have one last gathering with Nai Nai. Her parents don’t want her going to China and potentially spilling the secret, but of course Billi goes anyway, and now everyone has to get through the next week or so as a family without letting Nai Nai know what’s really up. What concerned me going into the film was mainly plot-related; was Billi going to eventually break down and tell Nai Nai, and if so how and when was it going to happen? Obviously, to explain the answer to this question is spoiler territory, so I won’t do so here (if asked, I’ll go more into it in the comments), but the film really isn’t about the answer to this question; it’s more about what it means to be family, especially an Eastern family as opposed to the Western sensibilities and values that Billi has largely grown up in and the contrast between the two. There’s a good scene about two-thirds through the film that lays this out for us; that not telling Nai Nai about her diagnosis means that the family is carrying the burden of it collectively, instead of just Nai Nai herself. It’s really a wonderful notion to consider, especially as a Westerner myself and thus one who wouldn’t normally hold such notions and values. It does mean, though, that there is a bit of a cultural divide with The Farewell, as not everyone in the Western world who sees this is going to fully appreciate and understand what this film is holding aloft and trying to pass on. I fell into this for most of the film, in addition to largely watching it while wondering when the hammer was finally going to drop, and as such it really feels like I missed or am missing out on a lot of what makes this film as good as I should’ve found it to be. It really is good, too; Awkwafina, largely known up to now as a comedian and rapper, absolutely nails this role, and that her and the film itself were entirely ignored come Oscar time is quite possibly the biggest snub of last year’s Oscars.

I’m still struggling with this film, to be honest; I can tell it’s better than how I’ve overall taken to it, but I can’t really get myself to take it that much better overall. It’s a weird conundrum, and really, I kinda wish I had more about it to explain than what I’ve written in the past two paragraphs, but I basically don’t. This is good, and depending on how much you take to it and the values it upholds and dramatizes, it could potentially be very good; but I still caution some people mostly to not go into it expecting it to be something it’s not. The Golden Globes, for instance, had this under their Musical/Comedy section, and the film is largely marketed as a comedy, albeit with some dramatic elements. For me, there were a few moments that were amusing, but other than that, this is a drama through and through, and though a lot of the runtime seemed to hang on the premise of whether or not Nai Nai will find out the truth, there’s quite a bit more going on underneath that should really be what viewers see and take away from this. This will probably be better upon a second viewing for me, but I’m not entirely certain on whether or not I’d want to see it again.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

For Sama

For Sama

What a life I’ve brought you into.

Documentaries can range across the entirety of the human experience in terms of topic and content; in terms of structure, though, there’s decidedly less variety. Probably the two most common are the typical interview/footage back-and-forth, followed by the fly-on-the-wall experience of what the documentary is covering. For Sama, a Syrian documentary-cum-love-letter by Waad al-Kateab (fake last name, for safety reasons), sits squarely in the latter camp, but for what the film doesn’t do in breaking any new ground in structure or even the topic it covers, it is more than adequate in single-minded purpose along with the raw horror of the events it depicts. Sure, there’s been war documentaries before, and even a few about the Syrian Civil War of this decade, but For Sama is in a field unto itself just by how it was filmed and the sheer unrelenting realism of what it’s like to live in a bombed-out Syria and trying to get by.

The title is the key to this: Waad al-Kateab starts filming pieces of her life living amidst the ruins of Aleppo among her friends for journalism purposes, ends up falling in love with a doctor at the hospital she covers, marrying him, and having a daughter; she then turns her growing footage into a visual letter to her future daughter, in order to explain to her why her parents did what they did, chose to live how they lived, and the world that young Sama was born into. There’s little overarching narrative, aside from the developing lives of the main subjects, and there doesn’t need to be; aside from the film’s ostensible purpose as an explanation to the journalist’s daughter, the content and purpose of For Sama is to show the world what living in war-torn Aleppo is really like for the people who chose not to flee when the civil war broke out. And, well… spoiler alert: it’s hell. Right from the first scene, one of the main messages of the film is horrifically apparent; the hospital is being bombed, and everyone inside is rushing to get downstairs to safety… but the entire time, everyone is markedly jovial, making light of the situation, not to defuse anxiety or fear, but just because that was life for them, every single day, almost to where they don’t know anything else. That thought alone is crushing enough; that the entire rest of the film is an exploration of this regular life seems almost like the continual ringing of a death knell after your ears have already gone numb to the pitch of it. Make no mistake, too, that’s exactly what this is; everything you could imagine as being the worst of a war-ravaged city and living in the midst of it is all here, and in large amounts. The daily shelling and bombings, the destroyed buildings and rubble lining the streets, the dead and injured bodies (we’re at a hospital, after all), along with the suffering of those close to the dead and injured; For Sama has it all in a scant hour-and-a-half or so of runtime. Where Idi i Smotri got by by being a fictional film on the horrors of war, For Sama pulls no punches because it is exactly what these people went through, and indeed the film would be incapable of pulling said punches because, again, this is just life for these people; even among all the dust and rubble and blood and bodies and explosions, life goes on as usual, with people cooking food and caring for each other, letting the children play in whatever ways they can, and generally getting along.

It’s the incomprehensibility of it, that is at the heart of For Sama. That life is like this for these people, that they’ve accepted it and even refuse to leave because they believe so much in what the war is being fought for, and that the world at large just goes on without a care toward the people affected, hardly doing anything to help those who do survive; that’s what For Sama is doing for the world, and as has been said before about films like this, it’s what needs to be done for the world to really grasp what’s been happening. Of course, this is not going to be a pleasurable viewing; the comparison to Idi i Smotri is dead on in terms of how I felt while I was watching this. But it is a necessary one, even and especially if you don’t want to look at stuff like this. Turning away from documentaries like For Sama is about more than just making sure people are fully aware of the horrors going on, though; it’s also about seeing the people involved, and seeing them get by for all the reasons they have for doing so. For as much death and destruction the film contains, For Sama is ultimately about life, and what it can really mean to people to hold onto life and bring more of it into the world. There’s a lot to live for in this world of ours, and we can only hope future generations are able to experience this, and understand what we went through to try and make their lives better for them.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

You’re Rick fuckin’ Dalton. Don’t you forget it.

When the original cover art for the hardcover edition of this year’s Book came out (only later to be bumped to next year, as per the every-other-year hardcover edition pattern that’s been a thing for the Book for a while now), featuring Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the surprise factor of knowing that film made it into this year’s list additions should’ve been (and, for me, was) totally nonexistent. The editors seem to have a love-it-and-then-hate-it mentality towards Quentin Tarantino and his films; they’re eager to add whatever his next effort will be, and then when said effort comes out, if it is even marginally above the line of ‘very well received’ critically, it’s an automatic in for the List, and if not, or if critical opinion simmers down after a little bit, they skip it or remove said film two or three years later. I go into somewhat glib depth about the List’s on-again/off-again relationship with Tarantino to try and provide some justification as to why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did get added this year. While it’s a decent picture, and definitely one that works more on an indulgent level (for both Tarantino and the film’s viewers) than a narrative one, I really couldn’t find any real reason why this absolutely had to be here.

We’re taking a trip back to a semi-hypothetical, semi-nostalgic version of 1960’s Hollywood, with all the sunshine and good vibes that comes with the place and era. Here we find Rick Dalton, a former star of a Western TV series, who begins to feel his career is on the downslope. After a suggestion to star in spaghetti Westerns in Italy, which Dalton feels would be the death knell of his career, he ends up cast as the “heavy” in a new pilot, which he hopes will lead to bigger roles and bigger parties to be invited to and such. Part of this is due to the fact, which Rick finds out early in the film, that he lives next to up-and-coming star director Roman Polanski and his paramour Sharon Tate, something he hopes to parley into reviving his career. Meanwhile, Dalton’s best friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth, who lately has been working as Rick’s driver, winds up giving a ride to a young hitchhiker back to Spahn Ranch, where she lives rent-free with the other members of her… family, so to say, headed by a swingin’ dude named Charlie. If this hasn’t become apparent by now, we are definitely heading toward a retelling of Tate’s murder by the Manson Family… only, this isn’t a direct historical account; this is a what-if, a “Once Upon a Time…”, and really, that’s where the magic lies in Tarantino’s alternate history. Even with this film being basically a wish fulfillment, “what if this had happened instead of… what really happened” account, there’s still a hell of a lot more packed into this nearly-three-hour film than just the narrative arc, and that’s ultimately both the main selling point and the main detraction to Tarantino’s latest. For those that want to indulge in what it must’ve been like to live in 1960’s L.A., this is the film for you; there’s so much production value in every frame of the setting and the dressing of this to bring to life a bygone era of moviemaking and living, and the film succeeds even more as a nostalgia trip than it does with the actual story it tells. But, this is also the film’s biggest weakness; if you’re not here for the nostalgia factor, you have to sit through basically two whole hours of it in order to get to the conclusion of the narrative, and it’s not really stuff that adds to the experience of said narrative conclusion or enhances it – it’s superfluous material, and while it can still be enjoyable to people looking to (again) indulge, it makes the film unbelievably bloated as a result.

I’ve been a big proponent in the past (and the present) of a writing device or trope known as Chekhov’s Gun, which basically states that if something is included in a story, it must be relevant to the narrative; otherwise, it should be excised. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood looks at Chekhov’s Gun and the principle of thriftiness it tries to champion, and openly laughs out loud at it, opting instead to include everything it wants to include in its running time, regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with what’s going on, and then thinks it’s a better film because of it. I’m being a little more terse about this toward Once Upon a Time than it probably deserves; there are indeed plenty of films that don’t adhere strictly to Chekhov’s Gun, either for production value or worldbuilding purposes, and that are better for it. Once Upon a Time, for whatever spell it is trying to weave, for me, it didn’t fully succeed; I got plenty of enjoyment out of the 60s setting and the indulgence of classic films and filmmaking, but that was largely because of who I am as a lover of cinema and its storied history (much like Tarantino), and I’d imagine people who aren’t like me will find this an exercise in watching the clock, wondering when the film will get to it already. It’s for that reason that I can’t fully recommend this, and also why it seems like a self-indulgent choice to add to the List; there’s plenty of this sort of thing on there already, and plenty of Tarantino to boot, so adding this feels a little more like redundancy than it should. It’s got production value out of every end, and the efforts by all involved are top-notch, but unless this is a film that has already sold you on itself before it even begins, I have a feeling you’ll be wondering when the hell it’s going to end.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4

There are plenty of kids out there.

Let’s get the elephant in the room for anyone who’s reviewing Toy Story 4 out of the way right off the bat: Yes, going into the film’s release, there didn’t seem to be any reason for it to exist in the first place. The third installment capped what could legitimately be viewed as one of cinema’s greatest trilogies, and ended on the perfect note per the story of Andy and his toys, to where when a fourth was announced, I’d imagine every single fan of the trilogy, even for a brief moment, had a groaning inside their heads; is this going to be another great Toy Story/Pixar film, or is this new one going to basically be a stain on what made the original films so good? I was worried it was going to be hard to get through this first viewing of mine without that thought hanging densely over my head, as I did want to try to just watch this as unencumbered as I could, to enjoy it and determine its quality on its own merits. Thankfully, Pixar still knows what they’re doing, especially with these characters, and while it still may be somewhat of a superfluous addition to the series, it does manage to fit right in and be exactly what it should be from the title: another Story about Toys.

The gang has been spending the time playing with Bonnie just like the old days with Andy; all except Woody, who’s been relegated to the closet a lot more often lately. Feeling bereft of purpose, Woody finds a new one in a new toy Bonnie made out of arts & crafts supplies and bits of trash in kindergarten named Forky, who continues to think he is trash and not a toy and needs to be thrown away. Woody takes it upon himself to teach Forky about being a toy and the importance of being there for a kid, and when Forky throws himself out the window of the family’s RV during a road trip, Woody embarks upon a journey of his own not just to return Forky to Bonnie, but after serendipitously reuniting with now-lost toy Bo Peep, to also find a new place for himself in the world, and what it really means to be a toy either with or without a kid. Obviously, there’s a lot more I could expand upon in that plot summary, but despite the film knowing exactly the story it wants to tell and doing a perfect job of telling exactly that story, I don’t really want to delve particularly into that. What Toy Story 4 is, to me (and likely a lot more people as well), is an almost wholly self-aware examination on both the nature of the characters in the story and the nature of the film itself in the animated canon it takes place in. Taken on its surface, this is yet another escapade featuring Woody, Buzz, and all the toys we’ve come to know and love, with a few new endearing additions, taking on a narrative challenge and overcoming it with all the warmth and heart we’ve come to expect from a Toy Story film; and, really, if one approaches and exits this film with only the surface level in mind, this will be a nice way to spend 100 mins or so and basically little more. What I took from this, however, is that the makers of this installment knew that there was going to be a lot of wondering about what this had to offer the series, and decided to invest that question itself into the film as the moral quandary Woody deals with: what else does he have to offer Bonnie, or really the world? Taken as such, the film is incredibly self-aware that it is a Toy Story sequel that many people didn’t think was needed, and decides to explore that concept with Woody, his reuniting with Bo Peep, how he handles Forky’s existential crisis, and almost every other aspect of his journey in the film. Make no mistake; even with Forky’s creation itself posing amusingly open-ended questions on toyhood and what it means to be one, Woody is the central figure in this film, and the ending is as much a resolution of the arcs he’s undertaken throughout the series as it is a general way to conclude this film. This does mean, in a sentiment that I’ve seen other reviewers express and that I share, that a lot of the other characters end up sidelined in this as a result, mostly to focus on the new additions (including a sewn-together stuffed animal duo voiced by Key and Peele, a bonkers daredevil stunt-toy voiced by a perfectly-cast Keanu Reeves, and Christina Hendricks as, in my opinion, the most fleshed-out and sympathetic “antagonist” of the series), but also to keep the spotlight on Woody and Bo, which ends up as sort of a necessary evil given the narrative the film wants (and needs) to tell.

Honestly, I was expecting this to be fairly decent, and really, it kinda was just that, as I alluded to with my ‘surface level’ comments above; but, thinking back on it after my viewing was over, there’s a lot more to this than just being a fourth Toy Story film. It may make this installment a little more meta than the series has been in the past, for better and for worse, but it really seems like the folks at Pixar were between a rock and a hard place when it came to doing another one of these, and as such this film is basically exactly what it had to be, whether that’s seen as unfortunate or not. Me, I’m choosing to see it as Pixar making the absolute best out of the situation they had; even with the film polishing the fourth-wall to crystal clarity the way it does, it is also just as heart-warming, endearing, and amusing as every other Toy Story film has been. As I said, Pixar still knows what the heck they’re doing, and while this may not be the overwhelmingly necessary sequel we all almost had in the back of our heads that this had to be, it’s still a more than welcome addition to the canon. Really, that this is ending up a couple points behind how I’ve graded the rest of the trilogy should in no way dissuade you from giving this a go; once you have, it’ll be just as simple and easy to accept as the other films have been.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street

Christmas isn’t just a day… It’s a frame of mind.

Now, in terms of Christmas films, it’d be fairly difficult to find a more ubiquitous one in the Golden Age of Hollywood than this next film. Many people, myself included, know of Miracle on 34th Street as that charming little 90s film with the girl from Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda in it, but it is actually a remake; this, the original, was also a holiday classic in its day, and a multiple-Oscar-nominee to boot. Interestingly enough, despite the film set during the lead-up to Christmas and dealing with Santa Claus as an actual character, the producers insisted on releasing the film in May, as more people went to the theaters in the summer; hence why the poster up there has Edmund Gwenn’s Kringle character almost hidden in the background, since the release date meant the producers wanted to downplay the film’s holiday themes. Despite that, though, this is a holiday picture through and through, and has more than enough of the charm and magic the season is known for to warm the heart of any moviegoer.

Doris Walker, head planner of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, is indignant to find the Santa Claus she hired for the parade is heavily drunk. In a fine coincidence, the matter is brought to her attention by a man who looks a lot like Santa himself, and he is switched into the parade at the last minute, doing so well he gets hired on as the Santa at Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street. After the man brings Macy’s a ton of great publicity and responses, including even sending customers to other stores for gifts, Doris becomes concerned the man might be mentally unstable, especially as he and the employee card he filled out make the insistence that he is actually the real Santa Claus. Soon enough, after an incident with the staff psychiatrist, it falls upon the court system of New York, and particularly Doris’ would-be paramour Fred Gailey (a lawyer), to prove that the man is in fact the one and only Santa Claus, lest he be found insane and committed to an asylum, against the wishes of all the people (and the children) the man has affected. First off, as iconic a Christmas film as this and its remake are, it’s easy to take for granted what a great premise this film comes up with, and thankfully, it knows how to tell the story it wants to tell, and doesn’t overstay its welcome in the process (the film being a smidge over an hour and a half). The technicals are fine enough, but this isn’t a film about the technicals; they are merely there to present the story in its most believable and engaging manner, and in that the film succeeds incredibly. It’s actually really rewarding to see a film from this era of moviemaking that’s at-once so unlike a regular film of this time and also manages to fit in with those other films as well, that Miracle comes off as pretty much exactly that; something uniquely special and magical. Much of this is the spirit the film cultivates, and that spirit is literally personified by Edmund Gwenn, who is absolutely perfect in every scene as Kris Kringle, and it’s actually an even greater joy to find that he actually won Best Supporting Actor for this; he has truly created one of the cinema’s best renditions of Santa, and that the Academy saw fit to stretch its reputation to award him for it is even more encouraging.

I might be able to see some of the criticisms some may have against this, that it can be rather hokey and perhaps unrealistic with how everything is resolved in the end… But really, such criticisms are against the point. The sentimentality and cheerful disposition with the film’s mood and especially its plot is itself exactly what Miracle on 34th Street aims for, and to hold it to standards attributed to other more “serious” pictures only shows how rigid and cold-hearted one might be themselves. This film does a heck of a lot more to embody the spirit of the holidays than so many other so-called Christmas films, and I couldn’t help but be appreciative of it for also succeeding at this endeavor. It may be a little humorous that it managed to get nominated for Best Picture, but I’m actually really thankful that it did, and it quite possibly fully deserved to be here.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10