Twelve O’Clock High

Twelve O'Clock High

How much can a man take?

Okay, now let’s see if I can keep the snowball rolling. It’s 1949, so now’s about the time we’re bound to get a handful of nominated war films about the glory of the Allies’ victory and the brave sacrifices those young boys made to ensure evil did not prevail and so on and blah blah etc. We’re not in the war anymore, so now instead of straight propaganda films, we’re going to get a trickle of nostalgic patriotism instead. Twelve O’Clock High, featuring Gregory Peck in one of his Oscar-nominated roles, somehow manages to be a quintessential nostalgic war film with only four years having passed since the end of the war itself. I can appreciate a film like this, and I can even appreciate that the Academy appreciated it, but the selection of this film for Best Picture doesn’t exactly age well with the nostalgic war films that would follow in the years to come.

It’s WWII, and the Allies are desperately trying to figure out a reliable and efficient way to undertake daylight bombing raids against Germany without their fleets getting ripped apart, and the brave men of the 918th air squadron are the primary subjects of the military’s endeavors. Well, brave may be a bit generous; the 918th is known as a “hard luck” squad, and they’re so broken down and demoralized from flying daily missions that nearly all of them have put in for sick leave. Their commanding officer, Colonel Davenport, can’t bear to see his men in their state, and one of his higher-ups and a personal friend, Brig. Gen. Frank Savage, thinks the men have such so-called hard luck because Davenport is so lenient and identifies with them too much. When Savage shows his commanding officer his theory is correct, Davenport is relieved of command, and Savage himself is given the position. It’s now up to Savage, in a deliberate attempt to not make Davenport’s mistakes, to act hard and whip the men into proper shape, so they can withstand the rigors of the job up to and past the point where Savage will be looking over them. First off, for a war film, there is decidedly little fighting or war action here; most of the film is the upkeep and training that takes place at the base in prep for the actual flying missions. I will add that the film does do well to lead up to the one actual aerial dogfighting scene near the end of the film; special mention is made in the film’s opening titles that the combat footage used is actual combat footage filmed by the Air Force and the German Luftwaffe, which is an interesting tidbit. Slight tangent aside, I bring up the lack of action to shine a light on this film’s pointed lack of what most people might come to this film looking for; so, what does this film have to bring people in to watch it? Honestly, not that much. The storytelling is rather stretched, and not very elaborate, making the film seem like one that could have a good half hour chopped from its running time to make it a little easier to get through; it’s a good 20 minutes into the film before Gregory Peck even appears on-screen, and up to then it’s difficult to know who’s who or even who we should be aware of with the film’s lack of proper character introductions. It even opens with a framing device that, by the end of the film, is rather easy to tell is extraneous and unnecessary (and not even affecting, either). The acting is okay, with Peck’s natural stern charisma providing much of his ‘character’, and the supporting players blending in so much that you can’t really tell anyone apart if they’re not directly named in whatever scene they’re in. All this, along with the total lack of a score, makes the film seem like one of those “smear of grey” films that is annoying to have to sit through and is so prevalent across Best Picture’s early years.

So, what I think the problem with Twelve O’Clock High is, is that it has its intentions not exactly in the right place. If I were to guess, I’d pose the theory that the film wants to inspire, or at the very least pay tribute to the men who actually did what the film depicts, and so the director and producers opted for a strong sense of realism in how they depicted life on these air bases. True enough, this is likely how living and working on these bases ultimately shaped up to be (for WWII), but the problem with this is that it is ultimately not that entertaining to watch. Past propaganda films knew they had to inflict emotions onto the audience to get them to support the war effort, and future war films would largely do the same to get people to feel how they needed to feel about the effort and sacrifice that went into winning the war. With Twelve O’Clock High, there is no emotion, and even a hastily contrived breakdown of one of the characters that serves as the film’s climax just doesn’t make us feel anything; this is a record of life in this job, instead of the pro-war-effort remembrance it should have been. I don’t know how many war films were released in 1949, but aside from the stark realism and production effort involved in this one, I’d be surprised if I couldn’t find at least one other war film from 1949 that wasn’t more worth the nomination, and certainly more entertaining, than this.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

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

Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1948

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

The Academy Awards for 1948 had plenty of gold to give away, and more than the usual amount of recipients to give it away to. Father and son Walter and John Huston would be the first such pair to be Oscar winners, for Supporting Actor and Director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; another Huston film this year, Key Largo, would also win Best Supporting Actress. The first Oscar for Best Costume Design was also awarded, to the historical epic Joan of Arc, which managed to break the record for most Oscar nominations without one for Best Picture. The Hollywood studios, however, were more than a little miffed that so many nominations went to overseas films, and ended up pulling their funding of the ceremony, requiring the Academy to find a new venue and fund it themselves. Their fears might’ve indeed been justified, as the award for Best Picture went to the British production of Hamlet, the first time Best Picture would be awarded to a non-Hollywood film.

-Ranking the Nominees-

Hamlet

-Among this era of five Best Picture nominees, it should probably be something more than it is that I’m putting Hamlet, the winner of the award, in last place (indeed, upon revisiting my past segments, this is the first time I’ve ranked the Best Picture winner last in my rankings). But, honestly, it’s not really a surprise to me; while Hamlet isn’t really bad, it does nothing more with the material it’s given than it could’ve, and this is made even more egregiously obvious by Laurence Olivier’s production of Henry V a few years before doing exactly that. Olivier is fine as a director and an actor here (indeed, becoming the first of only two people to direct themselves to an acting Oscar), and I can see this being in the nominee fields for both awards, but I really struggle a lot trying to justify this winning those Oscars. It’s nice that Olivier won Best Actor, and that a Shakespeare film won Best Picture, but if I’m being honest, this really shouldn’t have been the film to hold up those two particular honors.

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda really threw me in terms of trying to write about it, mostly because everything about it works so well together that it’s hard to pick it apart and find individual aspects to laud. Perhaps the one major one, the lead performance by Jane Wyman, is the obvious exception, and her win for Best Actress is absolutely deserved, but the rest of the film is just overall a really good film and that’s about it. It is easy, however, to discount Johnny Belinda from potentially being in this field because of how nondescript it is, when really the fact that the film is as good as it is along with how well everything blends together is itself more of an indicator of this film’s quality than may be apparent at first glance. As I said in my review, I’m peachy that this did manage this nomination, but it’s ending up where it is basically because of the film it is, especially in comparison to the other films in the field, and really no higher than that.

The Snake Pit

-I didn’t think much of The Snake Pit when I first went into it years ago, but by the end I had become a staunch advocate. There’s plenty of films dealing with mentally-ill people, but very few that deal directly with the system that treats them, and how said system can be both beneficial and detrimental to their recovery; The Snake Pit is one of, if not, the best examples of a film that does just that, examining the psychoanalysis treatments of the era with both a stern and hopeful eye, while also encompassing a sort-of mystery-thriller about Olivia de Havilland’s character and what happened that got her to be institutionalized in the first place. Even with my rewatch, I’d been prepared to count The Snake Pit as making this field of nominees mostly for de Havilland’s powerhouse performance, but once again the film threw me for a loop with how well done it is overall, both in production and in how it tackles the subject it does. I’m pleased as hell that this is here, even if I wouldn’t ultimately vote it the top of its field.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

-This is where this gets hard. There’s going to be a great deal of confoundedness over my putting The Treasure of the Sierra Madre not at the top of this list, and honestly, part of the reason it took so long for me to complete 1948 was due to my indecision between these two top films and my struggle to ultimately resolve that indecision. So, here’s how I ended up where I did; Sierra Madre is an excellent story, both as an entertaining tale and a moral lesson, and is put to the screen by excellent performances from its main trio (Bogart, in particular, should’ve outright won Best Actor for this, and it still amazes me he wasn’t even on the ballot). Anything past that, though, and you’re reaching for things to say; the location filming does help the story, and the cinematography gets the job done, but aside from these two aspects, this could’ve just as easily been a stage play for the theater as it is a film. It is absolutely not a bad film, by almost any reckoning, and it may very well have deserved to win Best Picture if it were up against plenty of other nominees.

The Red Shoes

-But this… this is cinema in its most absolute and finest form. The Red Shoes could’ve just been a very pretty film about a very aesthetically pleasing subject like ballet dancing, but it is so much more than that. For me, this gets the nod over Sierra Madre not because it is an objectively better film (if one can even decisively conclude between the two), but because where Sierra Madre gets the job done being a really great story packaged inside a basically good filmmaking wrapper, The Red Shoes is a great story (simple, yes, but surprisingly multi-layered if one digs underneath the surface) that is realized on the screen in all the ways that cinema can take a really good story and elevate it to something so much more than words and actions and characters. And yes, it is also sumptuous to the eyes and ears, to an almost extreme level. Huston’s picture is probably the better story, and it tells that story about as well as it can, but The Red Shoes makes of what it has so much more than it otherwise would’ve had it not been a film, and that, if anything, is what the Best Picture of the year should be.

-What Should’ve Been Here-

Despite generally liking this field of five (even if I thought Hamlet could’ve been so much more than what it was), more than a few films ended up on the outside looking in that could’ve possibly broken through. The 1001 List gives us potential contenders in Rope, Red River, and The Lady from Shanghai; The Paleface took in a hefty box office, but I wouldn’t consider it good enough for Best Picture. As said in the opener, for as much as Joan of Arc got in terms of Oscar noms, it surprisingly missed Best Picture, despite producer Walter Wanger getting an Honorary Oscar for making the film; similarly Oscar-loved films like The Search and I Remember Mama would also miss out. The foreign front saw the release of Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, arguably the peak of Italian neorealism, but the film would have to settle for a special award for Foreign Language films in the following year’s Oscars.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

With nothing else coming close to my top two, and as much as I want to have Sierra Madre win it so I potentially don’t lose face, I gotta give it to The Red Shoes. Very few films accomplish that special something akin to magic, and this is absolutely one of them.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

I’m pretty pleased with this field; of what other films from 1948 that I have seen, I don’t think I can really say any of them deserve one of these slots over the five that we have. The only real slip-up is Oscar picking quite possibly the least of the bunch to give the award to; aside from just wanting to stick it to the studios for dropping their funding over petty xenophobia, I really can’t fathom why they gave it to the film they did. Even still, that the decision was down to these five is at least something to be proud of, Oscar. Let’s see how things shape up from here.

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

Hamlet

Hamlet

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

It’s been quite a while since my last Shakespeare film. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I don’t normally take to Shakespeare very well; I’ve said it numerous times in the past, and I will likely have to say it again. One giant exception to this so far has been Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, which was so engaging and brilliantly filmed that it became impossible for me to not both enjoy and appreciate it. As such, even though it would be in black-and-white as well as considerably longer in runtime, I was still looking forward to what Olivier would do with his version of Hamlet. Aside from the ubiquitous nature of the much-adapted Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet is quite possibly Shakespeare’s most venerated work, and I’ve seen it said many times over the years that Laurence Olivier is one of the best Shakespeare adaptors and actors of his generation. It puzzles me, then, to wonder why his version of Hamlet, in stark contrast to the life he breathed into his previous film, seems so cold and flat and bereft of any real depth to its facets.

The story of Hamlet, for those who don’t already know it, is a rather simple one, and falls squarely into his category of tragedies; Hamlet is the prince of Denmark, next in line to the throne after his father dies and his mother rather swiftly remarries his father’s brother Claudius. Hamlet is perturbed by his mother’s actions and his father’s death, and when some of the rooftop guardsmen come to him with claims they’ve seen the ghost of King Hamlet (the father) during their vigils, he stays the next watch with them to confirm it for himself. Sure enough, the ghost appears, and rather omnisciently tells Hamlet that he (the father) was murdered by the new king Claudius with poison, and to avenge his murder in turn. Hamlet is thus set up to first confirm that this vision of his dead father and the knowledge it has imparted are not just mere visions, and then to find a way to fulfill the task he is given; of course, the methods he uses to go about his mission have consequences of their own, which all in turn lead up to the climax of the narrative as everything is brought to light. Now, in regards to the original play, there’s a bit more to the narrative than I’ve disclosed, and I’ve done that specifically to keep to Olivier’s version of the play and to note that there are indeed differences between the two; differences that have since been argued over in the years since this film’s release, and which I basically have little stake in myself. Still, for the purists out there, this is not the unabridged Hamlet; Olivier takes a few whacks at the material with a cleaver (and a few are mighty big whacks at that) to, in his perception, get the film into a reasonable running time. He does so, sure enough, but what struck me the most about his Hamlet was how stark and lifeless everything was, which given the nature of the play as perhaps Shakespeare’s eminent tragedy, must’ve been his intention, but it seems he went a little too far with it. The black-and-white cinematography isn’t an issue itself, but the sets are all bare-stone with almost no dressing at all, and what musical score there is is often left aside in favor of the power of the speech and dialogue, which might be fine if the dialogue weren’t delivered with what I can only redundantly describe as Shakespearean flair. This is a film that plays to the balconies, both in the actors’ performances and the design of the film itself, and that Olivier as director decided to do it this way, rather than transcend the written theatrical word as Shakes put it down as he did with Henry V, seems incongruously backward and primitive.

This is a tricky one to assess overall, for one main reason (that itself has two different perceptions to it); it’s basically the perfect version of Hamlet in terms of the visual and the dialogue (excluding, of course, Olivier’s omissions). The two perceptions of that statement, though, are polar opposites: that might be exactly what certain fans of Shakespeare are looking for in film adaptations of his work, or it might be a huge letdown that the film doesn’t make more of the material than just being a theatrical play put to celluloid. In terms of how I ended up on Olivier’s Hamlet, I am squarely in the latter camp; I expected a lot out of this, and to just see Olivier and his players putting on a basic, by-the-numbers rendition of the play was a great disappointment. It’s not bad, but neither is it a stunner, and to look at the other films up for Best Picture for 1948 and realizing this managed to beat some of them for the award, I’m left more than a little perturbed. Perhaps they wanted a Shakespeare film to win Best Picture for once, perhaps they wanted to honor Olivier himself (and considering he did win Best Actor, becoming the first of only two directors to direct themselves to an acting Oscar win, they basically did anyway); whatever reason they had for picking this, it was the wrong one. I’m not sure how this holds up to other Hamlet adaptations, or even other Shakespeare films, but in terms of Best Picture, this really very much isn’t.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

Part of the journey is the end.

Well, here it is. It did happen. I said in my review of the previous year’s Avengers: Infinity War that I was puzzled as to why the editors of the Book chose to include that film, instead of just waiting to include Endgame the following year. Well, it makes sense now; they combined the two into a single entry. It really should’ve been obvious, in hindsight. Still, that Avengers: Endgame was included will largely make this review a retread of Infinity War, since the two films share a lot in common, especially in terms of strengths and faults. There is a certain degree of difference, though; where Infinity War was the huge-spectacle, massive-space-battle, explosively-epic half of the conclusion of the franchise up to that point, Endgame’s half is more about actually wrapping up things (storylines, character arcs, etc), as well as serving as a love letter to the original six Avengers and a sendoff to what has largely been their story up to now. Sure, the MCU isn’t over, and there will be more films after this, but this is the end of the first major franchise-spanning narrative arc, and as such the filmmakers needed to make this work in exactly the way it needed to finish. And, excusing the vernacular, holy fuck did they ever wildly succeed.

Of course, going into this film will mean going into detail about previous films in the franchise up to and including Infinity War, which means mild spoilers will be here for anyone who hasn’t yet caught up to– oh, who am I kidding; everyone’s seen this.

The universe is reeling after the events of Infinity War, as the Mad Titan Thanos’ actions have left half the universe mourning the loss of the other half. No one is more in grief than the Avengers, those who survived the Snap at least, and everyone remaining is desperate to make an attempt to reverse what has been done. Fortune favors them in the return of Scott Lang from the Quantum Realm, who brings with him an idea of potentially using said realm’s properties outside the normal laws of the universe to travel back in time and stop the Snap from happening. Since time travel carries with it inevitable consequences, the plan eventually evolves into traveling back to specific points in time, stealing the Infinity Stones from those points, and bringing them back to the present to assemble a new Infinity Gauntlet and undo the Snap themselves. You can tell what this means; plans somewhat go awry, we revisit a lot of the past moments and events of the Avengers’ histories, and everything ends up in one massive battle for the future when Thanos rears his ugly head from the timeline once again. So, basically, going into Endgame, what this needed to be was a big love letter to the franchise so far, the characters we’ve come to know and love, a resolution to the storyline as we know it, and still contain a lot of fan-service moments that, hopefully, won’t come off as just fan-service moments. In all of this, all of these regards, Endgame functions absolutely perfectly; we go back and revisit some of the best moments and settings of the franchise, character arcs come to beautiful finishes, there is spectacle and amazing visuals abound, and every moment that fans have wanted to see (along with plenty they didn’t know they wanted) is here without sticking out as an obvious and jarring inclusion just for the sake of fan service. Really, that this film works the way it does, and how it is written, while still including everything it does include and then some, is absolutely mind-boggling; once again, first kudos have to go to the screenwriters for what they manage here. Even with the film being three hours, it completely needed to be, and it never feels like it just because there’s so much that has to go down for this to be the finish it needs to be. Even those who would want to watch a film like this for its character moments have plenty to enjoy, mostly in the first third of the film and a little in the second during the actual time heist itself; and then, of course, there’s the third part, which can’t be talked about without gushing over everything about it in terms of rewarding the fans of the franchise for being the fans they are. Marvel had the biggest bar to clear in the history of moviemaking with this, and that this isn’t just not a disappointment, but literally everything a fan could want this to be, is stunning to an uncountable degree.

This is the part where I either figure out whether to recommend this to people (even just a small group of people), or I try and figure out where on the ratings scale it should go and for what reasons. For a film like this, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I could possibly say that some people just won’t be for this film, or I could say something to an effect for the people who wouldn’t have otherwise seen it. But, no. Screw that. This is Endgame; you’ve seen this, you know you have, and regardless of whether you liked it or not, this film is absolutely everything it had to be and what the fans wanted it to be. It is beyond mere recommendations or reasons to excuse certain groups from watching it, and really, anything I could say against having this be the rating I’m giving it is inconsequential to how successful this film is at what it does and for the people it’s doing it for. This film was a landmark event in the history of cinema, and seeing it in a packed theater is one of the precious moments of being a moviegoer that just can’t ever be duplicated. I spoke years ago about how incensed I was at the editors of the List not including the original Avengers film to represent the biggest genre in modern moviemaking. Well, they made up for it by including Endgame, and it was a decision I wouldn’t second-guess for the life of me.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

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

Little Women

Little Women

If I was a girl in a book, this would all be so easy.

For how ubiquitous the story of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is, both in English classes in America and across the annals of film, it can be a slight surprise to note that this is actually the first film adaptation of the novel to officially appear on the List. I’ve previously seen the 1933 version for the Best Picture Project, and I didn’t really care for it all that much; I did end up rereading my review of that one after I’d seen this version just to compare them, though, since a lot of what the ’33 version ended up getting wrong, this version somehow got so much more right. There is, of course, an obvious caveat to the praise I’m about to throw upon Greta Gerwig’s take on Little Women; that this sort of film, with its character focus and general lack of narrative arc, won’t be for everyone. Still, for all the filmed adaptations of this work, Gerwig’s version may quite possibly be as close to the perfect realization as is possible.

For those who skipped English classes or missed my previous review, the little women of the title are the four March sisters: Jo, Amy, Beth, and Meg, who are on the cusp of adulthood circa Civil War-era America. Their father has gone off to aid in the war, leaving their mother, Marmee, to take care of the family, and Jo takes it upon herself to help bring in some income as well through her writing. Each of the March girls has a particular passion or talent they wish to pursue, Jo being the most headstrong about hers; this, however, is 19th-century America, and it will be a challenge for any of the sisters to pursue and achieve their dreams instead of settling for marriage and a family – a discriminatory restriction that Jo is keenly aware of. Still, there may be something to be said even for love in such times, something that Jo is also trying hard to deny herself, and it takes several events happening in the lives of the March family over the years for Jo to come to terms with both her desire to be her own woman as well as her underlying need to be a part of a loving family. As I said in the opener, there’s a lot that happens in Little Women in terms of plot rather than narrative, and this most recent version takes it a little further by kind of assuming you have some knowledge of the story & setting going in, since the film pretty much drops right in on you and moves forward regardless of your disorientation. What I did enjoy a lot with the narrative here was the decision to cross-cut between the girls’ future and past, juxtaposing events that have happened earlier in their lives with events that happen later; it helped establish the idea that the story was mostly about Jo coming back to the core of what she needs as a person: a family around her, which is probably the film’s narrative if for lack of anything else. Everyone seems to be engaged with the story and bringing everything they have to their roles, to varying degrees of success; Emma Watson as Meg was the one sister that seemed to struggle a slight bit with the dialogue, and while Timothee Chalamet does great with his character, it did seem hard to think he wasn’t a little miscast. By far the best scenes in the film, though, are of the four March girls basically doing little more than gab with each other; the chemistry between all of the actors was top-notch, even to the smaller parts. Speaking of which, shout-out to Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep for letting themselves be cast a few rungs further down the character ladder than they otherwise might’ve done, though those kudos probably go to Gerwig more than anyone for managing that of them.

This is an inexplicable film; there’s really no real reason to seek it out if you’re not otherwise already interested in it, but the film itself is just so special a thing that having people pass it up just seems a waste. It’s so rare to be able to appreciate a film like this, one so perfectly put together that it carries that magical air about it that seems so effortless but at the same time hints at how well-crafted everything is and how much work was actually put into it. Really, there’s so much that this film does right that I don’t have the space to cover it all, so I’m left to just do what I can in congratulating Gerwig for everything she manages in only her second film as a solo director. I’ve only seen two versions of this adaptation, but I seriously can’t fathom how any other version can possibly do it better than this.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

If you look at me… who do I look at?

Foreign language films had a hell of a 2019, that’s for sure. Of course, there’s the obvious one, the one that became the first ever to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and indeed Parasite seemed like a gravitational singularity, sucking all the awards in that dared to glimpse its event horizon. This does mean, though, that while all the organizations and festivals and groups were focused on Parasite and giving it everything, a lot of other really good world cinema unfortunately fell by the wayside. Take, for example, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a French film by Celine Sciamma, which is currently sitting pretty at #14 on Letterboxd’s rankings of the Top 250 Narrative Films of All Time. Now, considering the film only came out last year, and that there’s been a who-the-hell-knows amount of films made over the last century-and-a-half, that’s quite an impressive number to be at. Many would look at that list and take blatant note that Parasite is #1, though, which is the unfortunate shadow being cast on all the other films of world cinema released in 2019. Shame, too, since if Parasite hadn’t been around, Portrait might well have won just about everything that the Korean film ended up taking, and for damn good reason too.

It is around the end of the 18th century, in France. A young painter named Marianne is brought to an island in order to paint a portrait of the young heiress who lives at the estate there, who is set to be married to a Milanese nobleman after her elder sister, who was the one originally betrothed, committed suicide. The heiress, Heloise, does not want to be married, and as such has refused to sit for previous commissioned portraits; thus, Heloise’s mother has hired Marianne ostensibly as her daughter’s companion, to study Heloise in secret and paint her portrait without her knowing. Naturally, the two women become close, and the truth is wont to come out at some point, but the real story of the film isn’t about the painting; it’s about the two women, and how their relationship grows and evolves as they spend precious time with each other before Heloise’s mother returns from a trip and the painting is nearing completion, meaning that Marianne’s job will be done and she will be sent home. I’ll admit, it took me a slightly longer amount of time to sink into this one than I would’ve preferred, and indeed I spent most of the first act or so wondering where the film was taking me and what mood it was trying to present. It was during a key scene of dialogue between Marianne and Heloise, though, that finally got the film’s intentions to click in my head, and I began noticing all the little details of both the composition of the narrative and the performances of the two leads that, from the point-of-view of either Marianne or Heloise, draw attention to the other woman, and how the pair become increasingly drawn to each other as the few remaining days they have together go by. Stealing furtive glances at each other, analyzing the other woman’s ticks and expressions, reading fables together and figuring out what they mean and how it relates to them; this is basically an expression of an ill-fated romance, a romance that the two want to have happen, and do have happen, but due to fate, is never really meant to be. There’s a hushed and secretive fog hovering over the whole thing, especially the dialogue, which isn’t so much said or spoken rather than half-whispered, as if someone, anyone, might come barging in through a door or around a corner and put a stop to the desires and wishes of both women before they become reality. A great deal of this comes from the performances, but an equal part of it feels totally thought and sketched out by Sciamma; she knows exactly what kind of film she wants to make, and damn if she doesn’t get there. The only thing that seemed a little odd was a subplot involving the maid of the estate, who realizes she is pregnant and the two women aid her in her attempts to terminate the pregnancy; I wasn’t 100% on how it related to the main plot of the two women or why it was there, and the scenes involving it came off to me as an obvious subplot introduced in order to have a subplot. It does feel, though, that that might be on my end, and I may just need further clarification on it, but maybe I’m not alone in wondering, so I feel it warrants mention.

I’m frankly surprised as all hell that this didn’t make the list of nominees for International Feature at the Oscars. Apparently, it was one of three films shortlisted as France’s entry, and they went with a different film instead (that had tied for the Jury Prize, or third place, at Cannes). I have yet to see the film they did pick, but I’d be bowled over if it was really better than this. Portrait isn’t obtusely amazing; it’s subtle, and intricately designed, and it definitely comes across as one of those films that separates the casual moviegoer from the real cinephile, the ones that can enjoy just about any film versus the ones with enough perception and experience to be able to appreciate this film and how well it’s made. It’s basically to that end that led me to end up on the score I did; I’ve said a few times in the past for some films that there will be a percentage of viewers who just won’t take to it no matter what, and Portrait is unquestionably one of those films. It’s just a matter of seeing if that percentage is larger than I hope it is, and if so, that’ll be a fairly disappointing thought on the state of movie viewership today; this is the kind of film that I honestly wish more people than I secretly think will be able to appreciate, and that those who can do so will appreciate this probably even more than I’ve been able to myself.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10