Category Archives: Movies

Craving Classic Hollywood: William Wyler

Last week I finished reading Mark Harris’s Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Naturally, I was left with the desire to watch some of the films discussed in the book. Director William Wyler is an interesting case because he made films about the war just before and after his own involvement. In Mrs. Miniver (1942), he tells the story of a British family’s struggles on the homefront, and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) takes an honest look at the experiences of returning American veterans.

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Returning home in The Best Years of Our Lives

Before the war, Wyler made mostly period dramas, including three films with Bette Davis. I had previously watched Jezebel (1938), one of the Davis collaborations, which fits my impression of his early films as emotionally engrossing but rather dreamy affairs. It seems clear that Wyler’s time as a war documentarian influenced him to strip some of the artifice from his films. Only four years elapsed between Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives, but there is a maturation in Wyler’s conception of war’s cost. Thankfully, he retained his desire to find beauty in the small human moments of a larger story.

Mrs. Miniver follows an English family from the onset of war and their eldest son’s enlistment through bombings of their village. Filmed several months before Pearl Harbor, the film portrays the stoicism and good humor in the face of hardship that are often used to characterize the British war effort. The opening sequence shows Mrs. Miniver, played by Greer Garson, agonizing over whether to buy an expensive hat. Of course, she will soon be cured of this prewar frivolity! Although the Minivers are clearly well-off themselves, we also see some old-fashioned classism when Mrs. Miniver encounters Lady Beldon, the local aristocrat who doesn’t approve of middle class ladies buying expensive clothes. Perhaps the war will make you change your attitudes, Lady Beldon.

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Waiting for the bombs in Mrs. Miniver

After enlisting with the Air Force and traveling to London, Wyler felt that he got some of the details wrong in Mrs. Miniver. The film certainly has a Hollywood gloss, and most of the actors speak with the ambiguous Transatlantic accent that was common in films. However, Wyler’s focus on the human side of warfare make it an effective story all the same. Greer Garson is a plucky homefront matriarch, but she fears for her son’s safety as he becomes an RAF pilot. One of the most moving scenes takes place in the family’s bomb shelter, where Mr. and Mrs. Miniver attempt to have a normal conversation as the bombs draw closer.

Four years later, The Best Years of Our Lives follows three veterans returning to their hometown at the end of the war. Although the men come from different walks of life, they meet on the journey home and continue a friendship as they adjust to their new lives. That is, their old lives that can never be quite the same. Al struggles to become reacquainted with his wife and nearly grown children, while Fred returns to the woman he married just weeks before shipping out. The biggest adjustment is for Homer, played by an actual disabled veteran, who lost his hands in the Navy. Working closely with the screenwriter, Wyler wove his own experiences into each storyline.

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Fred and his disillusioned wife in The Best Years of Our Lives

Dana Andrews, also the star of my beloved Laura (1944), plays Fred Derry. Although he was a decorated bombardier during the war, Fred comes from a poor family and an unglamorous job at the soda fountain. His wife is practically a stranger, and she comments disapprovingly that she’s never seen him out of uniform before. Of course, the central struggle for these men is to adapt to a life that is not defined by their military service. One quiet scene shows Homer’s father helping him change into pajamas while he smokes a cigarette. His face is the picture of youthful manliness, but in that moment his helplessness is also revealed. The characters in The Best Years of Our Lives reach a level of vulnerability that is never seen in Mrs. Miniver.

William Wyler made movies for another two decades after the war. His work includes my favorite Audrey Hepburn film, Roman Holiday (1953). Before and after the war, he knew how to find beauty in the world and in people. I could easily have written individual posts about these films, but pairing them felt like the ultimate crash course in Wyler. The man who showed the Minivers singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in a bomb-damaged church is certainly the same one who followed Fred Derry through a field of discarded fighter planes. Together these films portray bravery, sacrifice, and what comes after that.

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Five Came Back, Page and Screen

Five Came Back

Mark Harris’s first book, Pictures at a Revolution, captures the breakdown of the Hollywood studio system through the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967. In his second book, Five Came Back, he combines social and film history on a much grander scale. It follows five prominent Hollywood directors as they worked within various branches of the military to create propaganda and documentaries during World War II. The five directors are Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens.

In 2017, Netflix released a three-part documentary version of the book. The script was adapted by Mark Harris himself with Steven Spielberg as one of the producers. Although a three-hour documentary can’t include every detail of a 400-plus page book, the series has the advantage of showing film and interview clips, rather than just describing them. The series uses an additional narrative device of five contemporary directors—huge names like Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Guillermo del Toro—who each focus on one of the original five. This gives the viewer a deeper understanding of how the work of these men has influenced film today. I particularly appreciate the involvement of Spielberg since he has made some of the most iconic movies about World War II.

Five Came Back Netflix

In both iterations, I find the stories of William Wyler and George Stevens to be the most compelling. Wyler was a Jewish immigrant from a town near the French-German border. His service involved filming bombing missions with the Air Force, repeatedly putting himself and other crew members in harm’s way. Stevens, who had been a respected comedy director before the war, was present at some of the most significant events in Europe: the D-Day invasion, the liberation of Paris, and the Battle of the Bulge. He and his unit were also at the liberation of Dachau. After that, Stevens turned his attention from documentary to evidence collection. He made two films about concentration camps and the Nazi plan that were used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials.

The final note of Five Came Back is how each man’s war experience affected the movies that he made thereafter. After witnessing the capacity of human cruelty, George Stevens never directed a comedy again, but he became a respected director of drama. Upon their return to civilian life, William Wyler made a film about the struggles of veterans, and Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life. Their personal journeys reflect how the world changed after World War II, a time that showed the best and worst of humanity. To me these connections signify a successful work of cultural history.

Both projects are epic and, in fact, complement each other. Through the inclusion of contemporary directors, who are also admirers of the five, the documentary takes a less critical stance about the men’s actions during and after the war. In his book, Mark Harris isn’t afraid to point out when the directors exaggerated or downright lied about their own contributions. I was left with mixed feelings toward Ford, Huston, and Capra, but am nonetheless interested in their films. Having already seen a few films by Stevens and Wyler, I hope to watch more with the context given by Mark Harris.

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Best of 2017: Movie Edition, Part 2

I’m loving the diversity in this batch of films: two dramas, one comedy, one animated, and one classic. Not to mention, three out of five star non-white characters. I hope this is a reflection of changes in the film industry, but for now, please consider these superb stories. Enjoy numbers 5 through 1!

5. The Big Sick

The Big Sick

I watched The Big Sick on the flight back from London to Boston. Having recently had a conversation about how there are no romantic comedies being made, it was a relief to see this unconventional love story. Although the romantic relationship is important, the film gives equal weight to familial relationships. Both sets of parents are hilariously cast, but I especially loved Kumail’s conversations with his brother. It was refreshing to see an honest story about people reconciling different cultures in modern America.

4. Moana

Moana

First and foremost, Moana is visually stunning, but that wouldn’t mean much if the story didn’t have heart. Thankfully this story of an adventurous girl trying to save her island has that as well. I love the playful animation of Maui and his tattoos with Dwayne Johnson’s voice providing the perfect cocky attitude. The songs are spine-tingling, particularly “How Far I’ll Go.” And if you’re in search of adorableness, look no further than baby Moana in the opening sequence.

3. Manchester by the Sea

Manchest by the Sea

Like so many things this year, Manchester by the Sea is tainted by the flood of accusations about sexual misconduct in Hollywood. However, I decided to include it because this is not Casey Affleck’s film. It was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, and the lead role was originally intended for another actor. It’s an effective story about how people in grief struggle to connect, and the cold beauty of the New England seaside reflects the isolation of the characters.

2. Laura

Laura

Laura (1944) is a quick, perfect example of film noir. Dana Andrews plays Detective McPherson, investigating the murder of the much-admired Laura. His obsession with her grows as he pieces together the details of her life. With only a handful of characters and sets, Laura creates drama simply through the strength of its storytelling. The snappy dialogue and moody score are exactly what you want from noir, and Dana Andrews is the ideal of a dry-humored detective.

1. Moonlight

Moonlight

Believe the hype, movie fans. Moonlight is an incomparable exploration of what it means to be a black man in America. The film is divided into three parts, each a vignette of the main character’s childhood, adolescence, and manhood, respectively. Superb performances from all three actors create seamless transitions and a rich understanding of the character. The cinematography is otherworldly with motifs like the colored light seen above. Two films in this post made me cry, but Moonlight is the one that make me think deeply and feel a connection to a world completely different from my own.

Stay tuned for the grand finale: my top 10 books of 2017!

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Best of 2017: Movie Edition, Part 1

As usual, I’m a little behind the times when it comes to movies. You may find yourself thinking, “I remember when everyone was talking about that movie…last year.” Well, these are the movies that crossed my path in 2017—the ones that most touched or excited me. Grab a seat for numbers 10 through 6!

10. Jackie

Jackie

Jackie is an impressionistic film filled with dreamy imagery. It follows the experience of Jackie Kennedy in the days following her husband’s assassination, as framed by a conversation with a journalist shortly after. The centerpiece of the film is Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie, which is an eerie embodiment of her famous accent and mannerisms. From the cinematography to the music, Jackie is a emotionally harrowing but worthwhile experience.

9. Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher

I consider it a mark of a good film when I feel invested in something that would normally hold no interest—in this case, wrestling. Of course, Foxcatcher is really about the relationship between two brothers and the man who becomes their patron. Steve Carell received the most attention for his performance and rightfully so. The comedian disappears into John du Pont, a millionaire so desperate for camaraderie that he funds his own wrestling team.

8. The Beguiled

The Beguiled

I don’t always feel a huge connection to Sofia Coppola’s films, but The Beguiled is an ideal showcase for her skills. In the story of a wounded Union soldier taken in by a Southern girls’ school during the Civil War, Coppola’s talents for visual mood and emotional anguish are put to perfect use. It’s engrossing to watch how the startling presense of a man disrupts these characters’ lives. Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst are fantastic as subtly dualing forces of femininity.

7. Their Finest

Their Finest

On many occasions, I heard my friend Jenny refer to this as “the movie about making the movie about Dunkirk.” Most confusingly of all, it has nothing to do with Dunkirk, the Christopher Nolan epic that also came out this year. Their Finest is a small movie about British filmmakers trying to make an uplifting war movie in the midst of the Blitz. Sam Claflin is positively charming as the cynical writer, as is Bill Nighy as a pompous aging actor. And if you adore 1940s fashion, my friend Katie dubbed it “a festival of excellent knitwear.”

6. The Martian

The Martian

Although science-fiction doesn’t always catch my attention, some films demand it. As with Gravity back in 2013, the focus on one astronaut’s survival made it easy to become invested in The Martian. Obviously the visuals are breathtaking, and the incorporation of other characters and locations keeps the story from ever feeling monotonous. Matt Damon had less success with his starring roles this year, but it’s easy to buy him as a square-jawed astronaut.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with my top 5 movies of the year!

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Best of 2016: Movie Edition, Part 2

Most of my top 5 movies have an element of magic, whether it be through talking animals or the unreality of musicals. I guess this year called for beautiful things with a bit of escapism. Enjoy the loveliness!

5. Zootopia

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I watched Zootopia with a few friends, and we were completely delighted by it. Judy Hopps is the Leslie Knope of animation, a bunny determined to be the first non-predator police officer in Zootopia. While fighting stereotypes, Judy teams up with Nick Wilde, a fox who embraces his sneaky reputation. The filmmakers were incredibly creative in designing a city for animals of all sizes with neighborhoods for different climates. Lastly, the voice talent is stacked with Jason Bateman as the wily fox and Idris Elba as the fed-up police chief.

4. Amélie

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You may ask, how had I never seen Amélie until this year? I have no excuse, except that my teenage self was preoccupied with the Brits over the French. In the end, I adored this story of a young woman creating miraculous occurrences in the lives of people around her. Amélie isn’t just quirky; she’s a lonely girl alienated by her own shyness. Everything about the movie made me smile, from the specificity of the characters’ interests to stealing her father’s gnome for a worldwide tour. And most of all: Nino, the discarded-photo-collecting man of Amélie’s dreams.

3. La La Land

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Set in an ambiguously timeless version of Los Angeles, La La Land is a movie to make you smile with Classic Hollywood nostalgia. Doesn’t hurt to cast two of the most beloved actors of our generation either. Ryan Gosling is at his adorable best, and Emma Stone brings the moxie and the pipes. It’s a film for and about dreamers, these two trying to make it in Los Angeles and also everyone watching. I was singing the haunting “City of Stars” for days after seeing it. Do you want humor, romance, lovely songs, and gorgeous costumes? La La Land has it all!

2. All About Eve

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This year I fell in love with Bette Davis, and All About Eve is her knockout role. I mean, no one can take a sassy bite of celery like her. It’s a film about the business of being female. As Margo Channing, Davis says, “That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not. Being a woman.” This film enacts the struggle of a successful woman who sees her value falling while a younger woman’s is on the rise. Instead of simply pitting the women against each other, it’s sensitive and self-aware. (You can read my full review here.)

1. Room

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Besides being one of the best novel adaptations I’ve ever seen, Room is an incredible film in its own right. Everything hinges on Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack, who are fiercely loving and imperfect. They both nail their characters, and the relationship between them feels natural. The set design and cinematography capture Jack’s magical feelings about Room, as well as the reality of their confinement. Although I saw Room early in the year, nothing could top it. It went straight to my heart. (You can read my full review here.)

Tomorrow we pick up the books!

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Best of 2016: Movie Edition, Part 1

This year I found myself interested in more new movies than usual. Aside from the blockbusters and awards flicks, I went the classic route with Bette Davis and Billy Wilder. Here are my best movies seen in 2016, numbers 10 through 6!

10. Arrival

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As a science-fiction movie, Arrival could have gone either way for me, but it had enough of an emotional undercurrent to keep me interested. The lead actors had a lot to do with that. I love Amy Adams in general, and I have a soft spot for Jeremy Renner because of his performance in The Town. The sparse set design lends the film more dignity than the average alien flick. Although the plot twist probably caused some eye rolls, I thought the artistry made it easier to accept.

9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Given the nostalgia factor, I’m biased in favor of all things Harry Potter, and that probably makes me the target audience for this film. Fantastic Beasts has the added advantage of being set in 1920s New York, a goldmine for beautiful sets and costumes. My mom and I loved the new characters, who definitely had that Rowling flair to them. In particular, Eddie Redmayne’s off-kilter looks and mannerisms fit wonderfully into the wizarding world. If there were more magical creature action sequences than I would like, I’m prepared to overlook that.

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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I’m a very casual Star Wars fan, and because of that, it was easy to enjoy the new movie without worrying too much about changes made. I loved the new trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe. This installment brings back a sense of playfulness and a gritty backdrop, both of which (I propose) are a big part of what people love about the original trilogy—and glaringly absent from the prequels. This pick is made bittersweet with the passing of Carrie Fisher, who was a totally badass lady.

7. The Apartment

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I never thought Jack Lemmon could break my heart, but as Bud Baxter in The Apartment, he does just that. A darkly comedic script by Billy Wilder is performed to perfection by Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. I also love Fred MacMurray playing against type as a callous business executive. For anyone who enjoys the intertwining of comedy and drama, this film is essential viewing. (You can read a longer discussion of Billy Wilder and The Apartment here.)

6. Brooklyn

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A period drama set in 1950s New York and the Irish countryside? If the filmmakers were trying to bait me, they could have hardly done any better. Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish girl working in Brooklyn who finds herself torn between home and the possibilities of her new life. Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson give adorably understated performances as her love interests. Seriously—my heart! I also spent the entire movie swooning over Ronan’s wardrobe.

Come back tomorrow for the top 5!

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Craving Classic Hollywood: Billy Wilder

the-apartment-baxter

Very few directors have as many iconic films to their name as Billy Wilder. When the American Film Institute named its 100 Greatest American Movies in 1998, four of Wilder’s films made the cut, three in the top 50. Over the past few years I’ve seen those four movies, plus a fifth. In fact, Double Indemnity (1944) was the subject of my very first Craving Classic Hollywood post and continues to be my idea of film noir perfection. Most recently I watched The Apartment (1960).

I always had the impression that The Apartment was a rather zany comedy, perhaps associating it with Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). And yes, the premise has zany written all over it. C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon, is a low-level businessman who hopes to advance his career by letting executives use his apartment for trysts. Scheduling conflicts and awkward encounters with the neighbors naturally ensue. Baxter also hopes to woo spunky elevator operator Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine. While both are fantastic comedians, there’s a deep sadness to each of their characters. Baxter is profoundly isolated, waiting in the cold for married men and their mistresses to vacate his apartment, and Fran happens to be in love with one of those married men.

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The dark side of The Apartment is actually mentioned in the first season of Mad Men. Joan is upset with Roger after seeing it because of the way Shirley MacLaine is “passed around” by the men. Watching the movie myself, I could easily imagine how it would feel a little too realistic for Joan’s character. Not only is Fran deceived by both of the men in her life, but the affair distresses her to the point that she tries to commit suicide. Looking back at the Wilder movies that I’ve seen, there are two other occasions when women attempt suicide over men. That’s what we in the world of feminist critique would call problematic.

Wilder often wrote about women wreaking havoc on the lives of men, such as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity or Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond is former silent-film star who is clearly mentally ill, so her attempted suicide is at least quite plausible. Fran Kubelik, on the other hand, seems self-possessed, if a bit glum. The most perplexing example is found in Sabrina (1954), which involves a suicide note played for laughs. None of the women succeed, and with the exception of Sabrina, the attempts are treated seriously. However, the fact that none of them succeed also frames it as an attention-seeking act. Not a particularly enlightened view of women, Billy.

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Underneath the veneer of comedy or glamour, there’s a cynicism to much of Wilder’s work. He takes on the Hollywood star machine in Sunset Boulevard and acknowledges the ugliness behind the womanizing businessman in The Apartment. Actors deliver great performances in his movies, and some credit must be given to his writing and direction. Setting aside the aforementioned problematic elements, Shirley MacLaine brings depth to a character who could have become a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In one monologue she describes kidding herself about dating a married man until “it all begins to look so ugly.” Lemmon’s performance has the physical comedy and nervous energy you would expect, but he also taps into Baxter’s loneliness in subtle and heartbreaking ways.

Although I’ve now seen the Billy Wilder Greatest Hits, there are many lesser classics if I really wanted to delve into his career. The Apartment fit perfectly into my 1960s reading and viewing theme of late. Despite his shortcomings, I would have to say that Wilder is among my favorite Classic Hollywood directors, perhaps second only to Hitchcock. It might be because he writes as well as directs, or because women wreaking havoc is not my least favorite thing to watch.

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