The Letter

The Letter

Strange that a man can live with a woman for ten years… and not know the first thing about her.

I knew almost nothing about The Letter before I started it; all I knew was that it starred Bette Davis, and the genre meant it was likely to be a nice change of pace from all the straight melodramas I’d watched in the last few nominees. Well, I started it, eager to see another Bette Davis film… Then the opening happened, and if you’ll excuse the vernacular, it slapped me upside my fucking skull. From there, I was glued to the screen; I had to know what this whole thing was about. Well, from there, the film settled down a good deal, but it was still a damn good drama, and when you field a damn good drama from director William Wyler with an equally good performance from Bette Davis, you’re gonna get some plaudits from me.

There’s no sense going about a plot summary without talking about the opening, so let’s have at it. We open on a plantation in Malaysia, as the workers all set to go to sleep after a day’s work… when a shot rings out from the main house. And another. The workers all turn and get up, only to see a man stumble out of the front door, followed by Bette Davis, who holds a gun up to the man and fires again, emptying the revolver into his body as he flops to the ground. The man is Mr. Hammond, a well-regarded member of the British settlement nearby, and Davis is Leslie Crosbie, the wife of the plantation owner, and she soon admits to the man’s murder as self-defense when Hammond forced himself on her. Mr. Crosbie and defense attorney Howard Joyce seem ready to prove Mrs. Crosbie’s story in the inevitable trial to come, that is until it becomes known to Joyce that a portion of Leslie’s story of what occurred that night is not actually viable; a letter is discovered that not only proves Leslie’s assertion that Hammond and her had not seen or spoken to each other in some months is untrue, but threatens to paint the entire case in a much different light. Let’s start with the film’s elephant: This would seem to be a role that was written and embroidered for Bette Davis, and she handles such a gift as only she could. The only qualm I had with it was that it wasn’t an all-encompassing performance mostly due to the fact that Davis isn’t on the screen for virtually the entire running time; there are points where she is absent, and you notice that she is, but it would seem to be a necessity with how Wyler sets up all the characters as players, including James Stephenson as her lawyer as well as a very strange but effective turn from Gale Sondergaard as the Eurasian widow of the man Davis kills in the opener. I’ll give William Wyler some kudos as well, mostly for actually playing with light and shadow as well as some effective camera moves when he didn’t really have to, so there’s that as well.

I was surprised a heck of a lot by The Letter, and just as entertained by the whole ordeal to boot. The opening scene is iconic, and the rest of the film threatens to come down a little too far from where the film starts out at, but for me, it didn’t cross that particular line, mostly thanks to the good work with camera and production value from Wyler; plus, you have a killer performance from Bette Davis (ha; see what I did there?) to throw on the pile as well. Add to it that the film barely crosses the 90-minute mark, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome in the slightest, and you have a pretty good winner on your hands in my book. I’m not fully convinced it really did enough to see a Best Picture nomination through to a possible win, but that the Academy decided to put it there is more than a nice gesture, especially considering some of the other films the Oscars had to offer that year (and other years).

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

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Dark Victory

Dark Victory

The great thing, Anne, is for her never to know.

Oscar has a storied history, especially in Best Picture, with films that are largely a vehicle for a single performance, especially it seems in these still-early years. To the credit of today’s film, Dark Victory, the decision was made to center it around Bette Davis, which is a decision that few of the time or even perhaps today would find too much fault with. Davis, one of my now favorite classic actresses, had just come off a Best Actress win for Jezebel, and evidently she was hungry for more, given how much she puts into her role in Dark Victory. Thankfully, everybody else involved with the film seemed to pick up on this, as they also put everything they have into making this not just a star vehicle for Davis, but a damn fine film in its own right.

Davis is Judith Traherne, a young socialite concerned with little more than living life at the absolute maximum, through parties and adventures and especially horseback riding, though her own body seems to be starting to break down from her hedonistic lifestyle, with intermittent headaches beginning to plague her. It’s when she suffers a spout of double vision and takes a tumble off her horse that her friends, especially her closest friend Ann, are convinced there’s something more wrong with her, even as Judith refuses to see it for herself. The family doctor brings in Dr. Frederick Steele, a specialist in the brain, who breaks through Judith’s hardened facade and manages a diagnosis. It’s only after surgery that things become even more complicated, both romantically between Judith and Dr. Steele, as well as medically when the prognosis of Judith’s condition post-operation becomes known. It was quite the pleasant surprise to find that the film, especially with Davis doing her thing, was up to the challenge of matching her skill level; while Davis is still by and large the best thing Dark Victory has going for it, the film is elevated through everyone else trying and largely succeeding at matching her. The plot is rather simple, when one stops to think about it, but that the film manages to make as much of it that it does without overstepping into melodrama or cramming in needless side narratives is to be congratulated. That’s not to say that the film isn’t a little melodramatic, given the story of course, but it works, mostly thanks to the cast really managing to sell it instead of cranking it up to eleven. The narrative itself is also perfectly structured, making the most of whatever shortness the story inherently has; there’s an excellent section in the middle of the film, for instance, where Judith has been told her surgery was a success, despite Dr. Steele admitting to Ann that the reality is almost precisely the opposite, and Judith goes about living her life anew while the people around her, namely Ann and Dr. Steele, are forced to wear a smile and act as if nothing is wrong. The one aspect of the story I unfortunately wasn’t too much a fan of was Humphrey Bogart’s role; while I saw what the film was trying to do with including him, I also saw that the film was basically married to the idea of including him despite the fact that he isn’t given much to do in the narrative, which given that it’s Humphrey Bogart playing him makes it that much more saddening.

Even with everything that this gets right, and it gets quite a bit right, I still couldn’t help but feel that if it weren’t for the presence of Bette Davis, this wouldn’t have gotten the nom for Best Picture. It is clearly her star power that got this noticed, and I suspect that it is almost entirely because of her star power that this managed a nom for the big one. And really, if that’s the case, that’s a shame, because there’s a sophistication about this one and how it discloses its narrative that frankly a lot of other films that wrangled a Best Picture nom in the past (and future) could look toward and learn from. I got distinct vibes of 1931’s Bad Girl; this doesn’t have much in terms of story, but what it does have is delivered beautifully, with nary a semblance of camp or putting on airs because Hollywood movies were expected to do that. In short, this impressed the hell out of me, and it wasn’t just because of Bette Davis that it did (though it goes without saying that she is excellent in the role regardless). If it was released in another year, I could see this making a heck of a push for a potential win for Best Picture, but given when it was released, it’ll have to settle for being a part of the best year in Hollywood history, and seeing how good a film it actually is, that’s not a bad thing to settle for.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

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

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