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

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force. The Jedi… All of it. It’s all true.

So. Star Wars. Again. Yep, it happened; we got a sequel trilogy, and the expectations and hype for this first installment of it were absolutely stratospheric. Of course, when it came out, I went to see it opening day; I really couldn’t avoid it, being a movie guy, and wanting to make sure I wouldn’t be spoiled as well as being able to keep up with the conversation as it happened instead of being days behind. Was I pleased? Yep; it was entertaining, all right. But there was absolutely a caveat to the entertainment I’d experienced, which I shared with quite a few other viewers and reviewers that I came across. So, let’s get the big question out of the way right off the bat: Does Star Wars: The Force Awakens deserve a spot on the fresh edition of the List? In my opinion, not particularly, and I’ll explain why.

It is some 30-odd years after the downfall of the Empire, and from its ashes has risen the First Order, which is basically the Empire in all but name. Countering them is the Resistance, led by Leia Organa, just like the old days. Missing from the equation this time, however, is Luke Skywalker, who has vanished after his fledgling New Jedi Order was eliminated by a rogue student of his… Sound slightly familiar? Well, the rogue student, now going by the name Kylo Ren, has made it his mission, and the First Order’s, to exterminate Skywalker, and to do that, he needs the only remaining map to Skywalker’s destination; information found inside a droid unit (named BB-8), who ends up on a desert planet, found by a wayward scavenger living in the desert, who becomes involved with the Resistance, and who also finds a new path to destiny through their latent ability to use the Force. In case you’re that one single individual who didn’t see The Force Awakens, I guess I should remind you: no, this isn’t Episode 4, this is Episode 7, but I’d easily forgive you if you read that plot synopsis and got confused as to which film this was. And there you have it; my main issue with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the issue I shared with a good percentage of other viewers I found – it’s Episode 4 all over again. Director J.J. Abrams basically did the same thing he did with the sequel to the Star Trek reboot; he made a love letter to the original, and called it a proper sequel. Now, that’s not exactly a bad thing, since the resulting film is certainly an entertaining one. But it just feels derivative, because it is exactly so, and that’s not what a good sequel, and especially a reintroduction to a franchise, should be. As one last note, and there will be mild spoilers to anyone who can’t infer the plot from the synopsis up there, but: I found it quite hilarious that Mark Hamill was billed second in the credits, when he is missing from literally the entire film until the last 40 seconds or so, and has exactly zero lines; I just got a kick out of that.

I have a feeling Abrams deliberately made this film as a handoff of Star Wars to the next generation, of fans and of characters. I’m not sure that sort of idea can support the beginning of the long-awaited and highly-anticipated Star Wars sequel trilogy, of all freaking things. It’s nice to watch, sure, but it absolutely did not live up to the expectations going into the film; though, I will admit, it would’ve been hard for any film to live up to the level of expectations that this film had to it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a perfect meld of a J.J. Abrams film and a love letter to the original Star Wars, and that should not have been what this film ultimately amounts to. It might get an extra point onto the rating just for being as entertaining as it is, but I was so let down by how derivative it was of Episode 4 that I ended up not giving it that point, and that I think says a lot more than I’ve actually been able to in this review. Did this deserve to get onto the list, just by virtue of being the Star Wars sequel we ultimately got? No, because it wasn’t the one we should’ve gotten.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

And I guess that’s all for 2015, at least for now. Now, back to my regularly scheduled programming.

San Francisco

San Francisco

I wonder what the end is going to be.

I pretty much thought I had San Francisco figured out before I even started the film; it was about the 1906 earthquake, so it was bound to be either a straight-laced drama or a progenitor of the action-disaster films of the 70s. Well, then I started it, and I was fairly soon not too sure of what exactly the film really was. I spent a good amount of time trying to figure this out as the film went on, as well as generally following along with the characters and the plot, but I just couldn’t pin this down to a few key words or labels. Then the earthquake happened, and everything kinda fell by the wayside, except for that which really mattered to the characters. Then, in a weird moment, it clicked in my head, and the film made a lot more sense than it had been making up to then.

Clark Gable is Blackie Norton, a nightclub owner in San Fran who stumbles upon a young and nearly penniless singer named Mary Blake, played by Jeanette MacDonald, and hires her for his club. She soon becomes popular, particularly with opera house owner Jack Burley, who happens into Norton’s club and recognizes the classical training in Blake’s voice. Ms. Blake soon becomes torn between affections for both Norton and Burley, and her indecision between which man to be with and which place of employment to sing with comes to a head when the earthquake finally arrives. Now, all I knew about this going into it was that it was about the earthquake, and Wikipedia’s labeling the film as a musical-drama, which seemed incongruous at first, but really, Wikipedia’s label is probably the closest thing that comes to describing San Francisco the film; there’s music and songs, but the film isn’t really a musical, and the dramatic scenes are really the heart and soul of the picture. It was actually so much about the plot and the characters that I actually forgot about the earthquake being in the film until it finally did happen, which I believe says more about how well the film does work with what it has, mostly thanks to W.S. Van Dyke and the screenwriters. Make no mistake, the earthquake sequence is absolutely spectacular, mostly because of how practical the effects are, but the film isn’t really about the earthquake; it instead merely uses the quake as a backdrop for the events transpiring between the characters, which I thought was a very smart decision, and makes both halves of the film work equally well.

Here’s what I really liked about the film, and it took me until the end of the picture for this to make itself known to me; I’d been struggling with trying to figure out what the film was about, and I’d been following along with the characters and their interactions well enough, and then the earthquake hit, and everything I’d been trying to figure out just kinda disappeared. The quake is such a massive event, almost a literal deus ex machina, that when it comes, all the drama between the characters, and about who wants to end up with who, all of a sudden didn’t matter anymore; everybody just wanted everybody to be okay, and safe, and everyone came together in the wake of the disaster, literally singing together and expressing wishes to build an even greater San Francisco than existed before. All that mattered was that those that each character loved were all right, which is exactly how I’d imagine it really was in San Francisco on that fateful morning in 1906, and that I think is why this film works as well as it does. Van Dyke has himself another winner here, and it’s a very inconspicuous winner, not seeming like much until it’s all over and done with, and that’s exactly the way the film should be.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Revenant

The Revenant

I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I done it already.

After Alejandro Inarritu won Best Picture and Best Director for Birdman, it seemed the world was his oyster; whatever he wanted to do next, he would be able to do it. Well, he wanted to do The Revenant, a film he’d been wanting to do for some time, but was a project deemed too ambitious to really succeed. Now, however, that he had some clout behind his name, Inarritu was given the go-ahead, and he forged forward on his next film to an almost reckless degree. Crew members quit on him, the budget he’d been allotted ended up more than doubling, and word began to spread that this might be Inarritu’s Heaven’s Gate. Well, then the film came out, and everyone who was concerned or wanted Inarritu to fail shut their mouths real quick; this was a monster of a film in almost every way. However, it should be noted that, just because this was a mammoth production, both in its construction and in the end product, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a totally worthwhile one. It’s worth your while, absolutely, but for me, it wasn’t the unprecedented masterpiece I’d been led to believe it was going to be.

Leo DiCaprio practically gives his life and soul to the role of Hugh Glass, a mountaineer part of a fur trapping expedition in the wilds of untamed Missouri circa the early 1800s. The party, after being set upon by hostile natives in a sequence that must’ve amounted to a good chunk of the film’s budget (and absolutely delivers on it), winds up fleeing back to their fort, leaving most of their pelts behind. Glass, their navigator, ends up alone to scout their path, and happens upon a couple of bear cubs and their mother. Mauled and beaten by the encounter, and barely clinging to life, the party’s captain sets three men to wait with Glass until he passes from his injuries, which includes his half-native son Hawk, and John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy. Fitzgerald, however, ends up killing Hawk and convincing the other man to leave Glass behind, haphazardly buried in an open grave, sure that he is soon to die regardless. Glass, however, survives, and sets about traversing the wilderness, healing, and trying to survive, so he can make it back to civilization and exact vengeance upon Fitzgerald for murdering his son and leaving him for dead. I honestly wish there was more about The Revenant to talk about besides the big three, but there pretty much isn’t, so I’ll get those three out of the way. First up is DiCaprio, whose performance is really only about half that; the other half is entirely enduring, surviving, and committing himself wholly to the role, even if it means swimming through a freezing river wearing bear skins or eating raw bison liver. I can see why he finally got his Oscar for this, but I’m in the camp of those who both feel that he’s done better work and that his performance is mostly an endurance match instead of actually acting, but what he puts himself through for this film is still absolutely extraordinary. Second is Inarritu, whose direction in this film rode the gamut of his crew and his cast, all to get his vision across on the screen in its most fully realized form, and he succeeds amazingly. Third, and most certainly not last, is Emmanuel Lubezki, and I really cannot say enough about this man and his accomplishments with light and camera. More than anything, this film is stunning to look at, and with Lubezki becoming the first cinematographer to win three consecutive Oscars, I am certainly not going to be the one to argue that he didn’t deserve this one. What also surprised me was that the score for the film was deemed ineligible for Academy contention, the second time in a row that this would happen for an Inarritu film, which I still don’t fully get, especially when the score for this film is so majestic and beautiful and absolutely helps solidify the vision and artistry of the film as a whole, and should’ve walked away with the prize.

Here’s the thing about The Revenant, though, and it’s this that is pretty much why I’m giving it the rating I’m giving it, even while generally loving the film even more than I originally thought I did when I first saw it. The Revenant does a lot of things right, but while the individual parts (as well as the whole) are absolutely sublime, the whole thing doesn’t amount to very much, and the experience isn’t completely worth the time invested into it. I can see why this was added to the list, as well as its nomination for Best Picture, but as for winning the award, I’m not 100% sold on why this should’ve won over some of the other nominees. It’s a hell of an experience, absolutely, but it’s not a wholly worthwhile one; I’d imagine that a good half of the people who’d see this one will feel like it wasn’t worth the two-and-a-half hours it takes to get through it. Still, exceptional work on display here, and if you’re one to take to art-minded, meditative, almost Tarkovsky-esque filmmaking, this will likely be a new favorite for you.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Look of Silence (Senyap)

The Look of Silence

It’s over. Everything is safe now. The past is past.

When the 11th edition of the list came out, which added Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing, it seemed like just another documentary the editors keep trying to add to the pantheon of the Book, even after I watched and reviewed it. So when this newest edition deemed fit to add Oppenheimer’s follow-up, The Look of Silence, and replace the original with it, it seemed a slightly incoherent decision, much akin to the swapping of the two Aileen Wuornos documentaries; what more could Oppenheimer’s follow-up add to the list that the original had missed? Eerily, now that I’ve seen it, that question already had an answer from my review of Oppenheimer’s original, which (aside from the conclusion) I had found purposeful but largely unaffective; the emotional impact to Oppenheimer’s investigation on the topic had been largely benign until the end. Not so here. The Look of Silence, for me, succeeded where The Act of Killing didn’t; it made me feel what these people were going through, these people whose relatives had been killed, and the impact of their confrontation with those responsible was absolutely there.

A man, left largely identity-less save for a brief few moments where he is called by the name Adi, was born two years after his brother was killed in the Indonesian purge of suspected communists covered in Oppenheimer’s first film. Here, instead of following the people who carried out the killings, we follow the other side; the victims, or rather their families, in the form of Adi, who meets with the people directly and indirectly responsible for his brother’s killing under the pretense of an eye exam. These people, which disturbingly includes his uncle, as well as a man whose interview also includes his daughter, show no remorse for the killings or their participation, offering only excuses and reasonings behind their actions, though the daughter of the one man is visibly shaken when she hears her father describe some of the killings in detail. Throughout, we also see Adi care for his elderly mother and father, whom he recounts his meetings with the killers periodically, and we also see him watch footage from presumably the first film that directly recounts from the killers’ own mouths the murder of his brother. The Look of Silence shares much in common with its predecessor, as almost anyone will easily infer. Both films meander a great deal, not seeming like a documentary at all, but more of a fictional account that happens to be shot with real-life footage. Both films offer a very frank look at their subject matter, mostly through merely presenting the footage and letting the events happening on the screen be all the power that need be there. But where the impact had been largely missing or relegated to superficial layers in The Act of Killing, here the power of Adi’s actions in meeting with these people palpably washes off the screen, mostly through Adi himself, who remains mostly stoic during his interviewing the men responsible for his brother’s death, save one interview near the end when he visibly tears up during his questioning. There were also a few sections of film shot of what appeared to be some interesting twitching stones or seeds, which I wasn’t entirely certain what the purpose was or why they were included, but was worth mentioning.

The Look of Silence is a documentary, by definition, but at the same time, it is not. This is not merely the documenting of something that happened; this is the exploration of something that happened, and the lasting effects of what did happen, as well as a portent of potential things that may happen again. It doesn’t twist its viewpoint or try and make you think a certain way about what it covers, like most documentaries nowadays end up doing. Rather, it does what a documentary should do: it fills your head with thoughts, and then leaves your brain to try and make some sense of them. I felt a great deal during this viewing, and considering how aloof and removed I tend to be from documentaries, that is saying a lot. I’m not objectively sure which of Oppenheimer’s documentaries is more deserving of a spot on the list, but emotionally, I can certainly cast my vote for this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Spotlight

Spotlight

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.

I’ve made it a pseudo-tradition to start each new batch of 1001 films with the Best Picture winner, considering every winner of the award has made it onto the list for every revision so far, even if they haven’t lasted later revisions. I suspect that will likely be the case with Spotlight, which became the first film since the 1950s to win fewer than three Oscars while also winning Best Picture, snagging only the big one and Original Screenplay. Not that Spotlight is a poor film, because it’s actually very good, mostly thanks to being nearly perfectly made. But, and here’s the big kicker with Spotlight, just because it’s nearly perfectly made doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wildly entertaining. For all that Spotlight does, and does right, it fails in one of the more important redeeming qualities that, to me, a film should have: rewatchability.

Spotlight is so concise and so finely hewn that for once I won’t have to spend a third of this paragraph for the plot summary: the film deals with the real life reporting work done by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team on the child abuse scandals in the Catholic church system of the city; who knew what, who perpetrated what actions, and how far up the ladder the knowledge of everything really went to. A high concept film this most certainly is, and it’s helped along incredibly by an awesome script, deft and subtle direction and editing, a focus on its subject matter like a sniper scope, and probably the most solid cast of any of the Best Picture nominees that year. Let’s go over each of these; first off, the script, which is the bedrock for everything this film manages to get right, which is a hell of a lot, so kudos to the screenwriters right off the bat. One of the writers was director Tom McCarthy, whose direction is subtle and light-handed, often picking and setting up for shots that are only in the film for a single cut, and so finely cut together and edited that not a frame of the film is out of place. What I especially liked about Spotlight was that, despite the subject matter, nothing in this film is sensationalized for dramatic effect; it presents the film’s material to us as straight as it can, and lets that be all the film needs to do. This isn’t a film about the Catholic church’s cover-up of child abuse by a percentage of the priests of Boston, as compelling as that would be; this film is about journalism, and the film keeps its focus squarely on that as its defining principle, much to the film’s ultimate benefit. Of course, none of this would be much without a cast that knows what to do and how to do it for every second of the running time, and every single person in this cast impressed the hell out of me, so much so that I can’t name one person over any other for fear of diminishing the work of the cast as a whole.

So, with all the glowing praise I just gave for Spotlight and all the film does, why the rating I’m giving it? Why the somewhat tepid opening paragraph? One reason, and one reason only: as good as Spotlight is, it’s not really worthwhile; it’s not a necessary film. Sure, it’s a great viewing, but I honestly cannot say that you need to go out of your way to see this. Spotlight is a machine of a picture, tightly wound and well oiled, but that’s all that really can be said; it gets the job done, and it does it very well, but once the job is done and over with, you have no reason to ever use the machine a second time. That, more than anything, is why I think this Best Picture winner will likely go the route of Argo and get dropped from the 1001 list rather quickly for a winner of that award, maybe in the next two years, if not the next one. Great film, with all the elements of filmmaking at the peak of their craft, but it just wasn’t substantial enough to really make me stand up for it.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10