Anatomy of a Frame: “Brooklyn” (2015)

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The image above, as you may recognize from the movie, is one of the final shots of the terrific film Brooklyn. On its own, it’s quite a memorable, possibly iconic, image. From the context of the movie, it appears just as Eilis comes back home to Brooklyn after her brief return to native Ireland. As with any strong shot, the individual elements captured within the frame contribute to its power and magnitude:

  • Eilis is standing against a brick wall, facing us. She has come back to America from Ireland, possibly for good – leaving a difficult, confining situation into a freer, more open lifestyle; going from a literal “hard place” into freedom.
  • Her arms wrapped behind her back. Her arms are not folded in front of her, defensively, but are placed behind her, reflecting her openness to what life has to offer.
  • Her suitcase is set on the ground. Her suitcase, full of her few belongings, is there, accessible within arm’s reach, but she’s not holding onto it – just as her Irish roots are always with her, and she can always go home, but she’s not grounding herself by them.
  • The car on the bottom right. This could be taken as throwaway, but I think this has a more subtle meaning. In the course of the film, Eilis travels by boat, by foot, by bus, and as she emerges as a modern woman of the 1950s she will undoubtedly take on more independence, embodied by the iconic image of the American automobile. Even if she never steps behind the wheel, the journey the film takes her on is one of greater independence and control of her own life – “driving” herself into her future.

 

Brooklyn (2015)

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman, decides to immigrate to America. She lives in a picturesque, quaint small town where everybody knows each other’s business. She and her best friend attend social functions together – her friend quickly lands a man, as Eilis stands and waits for no one to ask her to dance.

On her voyage to America, she bunks with a more experienced Irish woman – who promptly leaves to find a man in first class. That night, Eilis is the only one eating the repulsive meal and gets food poisoning.

Brooklyn is full of these moments, setting us up to fall for the romantic ideal of immigrants in the 20th century, before breaking the glass with hard realism. It is a beautifully constructed, terrifically told film with believable characters in a richly authentic setting.

image-d796d7bb-b9e5-4140-8eb2-057b5fa5879a1The art direction is gorgeous, taking us back into 1950s Ireland and New York City. The eye-popping department store where her priest secures her a job is a highlight – further illuminated by her Rita Skeeter-esque nightmare of a boss (played to perfection by Mad Men‘s Jessica Pare – the midcentury modern goddess).

Away from the department store, where her Irish roots stick out among the elite New York society women who shop there, she is more at home in her boarding house, owned by a middle-aged Irish mum figure and filled with other young Irish women. Each night at dinner, they talk about work, school, boys, and social functions. In their circles, the only real fun they have is going out to their church parish for dances each Saturday night.

That’s where we meet the real heart and highlight of the film: Tony Fiorello (played with spectacular ease by newcomer Emory Cohen), an Italian boy who has a thing for Irish girls. He meets her one night at a dance, and soon begins walking her home from night school, takes her to Coney Island, even to meet his family.

As their romance takes shape, tragedy strikes and Eilis has to return home. Everything has changed since then; not only is Eilis now a modern woman of the world, but home is different too. This isn’t the bleak dead-end it was before she left home, and she finds job opportunities and a possible love interest – a long ways from the lonely girl nobody wanted to dance with. She finds herself torn between two worlds and again, having to make a choice.

Brooklyn is one of those movies that is so good it already feels like a classic. It never delves into excess, either through its vibrant imagery nor through its admittedly emotional heartstring-tugging. Everyone looks and behaves just like they should and would in this era, though the film nonetheless manages to surprise, entertain, and enthrall.

Even after the movie, my friend and I couldn’t stop talking about how much we loved it, and how it made us think of our own family’s immigration experiences. America is a country of immigrants, and Brooklyn is a film that tells all of our stories. Less than 48 hours later, my mind keeps wondering to Eilis’s terrifically satisfying closing monologue:

“You’ll feel so homesick that you’ll want to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from endure it. […] And one day the sun will come out, and you’ll realize that this is where your life is.”

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Weekly Round-Up: January 24-30, 2016

I’ve been making steady progress on this year’s Oscar nominees, and had an exciting week: I liked every movie I saw!

This week’s slate included:

  • Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) – This essential classic about home and family gave us the standards “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and boasts gorgeous technicolor visuals. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Amy (2015) – Documentary looking back on the rise and fall of the jazz pop singer Amy Winehouse. While clocking in pretty long, I couldn’t help but be impressed at the quality and breadth of footage compiled for this film. RECOMMENDED.
  • Gilda (1946) – Still an excellent film noir, as mentioned last week. 🙂 I went through all the special features on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray, including the audio commentary by Richard Schickel. Commentary is good for repeat viewers, while the film is still REQUIRED.
  • The Revenant (2015) – Masterfully shot epic western about one man overcoming nature and the elements to seek revenge. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – First time watching the extended edition with audio commentary by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. Really illuminating insights into the film’s production – I was particularly surprised by how much scenery was miniature models (rather than CGI). The audio commentary is best left for the most hardcore fans, but the film is absolutely REQUIRED.
  • Brooklyn (2015) – Very moving romantic drama about a young Irish woman who immigrates to the United States in the early 1950s and falls in love with an Italian. This film is an instant classic, driven by its believable script and endearing characters. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • The Conjuring (2013) – Smart paranormal horror film, with parallel stories between a family terrorized by demonic spirits and the investigators who help them. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

The Revenant (2015)

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s prior film, Birdman (2014), was lauded by many for its innovative use of the single shot: the movie is designed to look like one continuous flow through the inner workings of show business. While initially interesting, I ultimately found this device to be irritating and distracting from the chaos transpiring around the camera.

In his next film, The Revenant (2015), Iñárritu employs many long shots as well, but in a more restrained and impactful way. This movie is not supposed to look like one endless take, but the moments that are singular shots hit much harder and enhance the narrative.

The Revenant tells the story of a party of fur trappers; one among their number, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is attacked by a bear and falls ill. His survival is a priority for nearly all of the party, except for John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who resents Glass and questions his leadership. As Glass’s apparent fate looms closer, the men leave him behind, under the care of Fitzgerald and a younger man, who kill Glass’s son Hawk and leave Glass for dead soon after. Having survived a bear attack, there’s pretty much nothing Glass can’t do, and the bulk of the film is him trudging through the wilderness to seek revenge on Fitzgerald.

This western revenge story might sound boring or cliche, but it’s anything but. The long shot is captivating in epic battle sequences, and following Glass into and out of the gravest of situations. In one memorable scene, Glass is at a river’s shore hiding from the Arikara Native Americans behind some rocks; the camera pans between Glass, the Arikara, back to Glass gliding backwards away, back to the Arikara, then to Glass plunging into the river dodging arrows.

I’m really nuts about the camera work in this film for two reasons:

  1. The wide takes illustrate a greater trust between the director and the audience. In James Ivory’s comments on A Room with a View, he remarks how he prefers to film wide takes as that allows viewers to take all the action in, and they can spot actions/movement transpiring – we don’t need a close-up to know what to pay attention to. This is illustrated best in the attacks between the fur party and Native Americans; we get wide shots of the forest or a river’s shore, as a flurry of activity gradually fills the screen. Iñárritu doesn’t need to zoom in to arrows flying into fur trappers or gun shots exploding – he knows we’re paying attention.
  2. The long shots heighten the intensity for key narrative moments. When Birdman used long shots for the entire film, they lost their momentum pretty fast; where The Revenant succeeds is how it uses them deliberately and more effectively. Each one is for a significant moment of change: Glass in the forest savagely attacked by a bear, Fitzgerald dragging Glass’s immobile body to be buried alive, Glass and Fitzgerald’s climactic battle. Each shot takes us to a vastly different place than when that shot began.

Now I almost think of Birdman as practice for The Revenant – Iñárritu’s chance to apply the technical skills he’s mastered with greater restraint and with a richer narrative. Similar to my reaction to Ex Machina, most of the excitement from this movie came from not knowing what was coming next. There are lots of survival movies, and lots of revenge movies, but The Revenant is told through a unique vision that heightens the impact and power of this oft-told tale.

The Girl Next Door: Garland & Minnelli in “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944)

The glorious technicolor MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis brought future husband-and-wife Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland together. This collaboration became a six-year-marriage and their daughter Liza, but it was a landmark for the film industry in general, as a key success for the MGM musical as a genre, and for their careers specifically.

Prior to St. Louis, Garland was known to audiences as a typical girl next door type, often paired up with Mickey Rooney as an “ugly duckling” who doesn’t win his heart til the last reel. With this film, Minnelli tasked his team with presenting Garland as a beauty, adjusting her typical makeup design as well as through camera staging. Liza Minnelli points out how often her mother is framed within the camera – in a window pane, in a mirror. This presents Garland to the audience as a work of art, allowing the memory of an “ugly duckling” to fade away and allow this new, more mature, beauty to sink in.

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In addition to his bride-to-be’s onscreen presentation, Vincente Minnelli also had to work on Garland’s on-set persona. While a more grown-up beautiful character than she typically portrayed, Garland’s role as Esther Smith was still that of a young woman, on the brink of adulthood – still playing a “girl next door,” albeit a mature one. The story goes, she would play her scenes with a wink, and ditch the lengthy rehearsals midway through – only to be intercepted by a phone call from Minnelli to the MGM studio gate. Venting about this to Mary Astor, an established star playing her onscreen mother, Astor turned the tables back on her, insisting Minnelli “knows what he’s doing. Just go along with it, because it means something.”

The trust paid off. Meet Me in St. Louis opened in November 1944 and earned over $6 million at the box office during its initial release. Even today, the film is a staple on classic movie channels, particularly during the holiday season, and has given us the immortal standards “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It connects to audiences so well for the genuine love the characters share for each other onscreen, while behind-the-scenes a new romance was just beginning.


Special thanks to the excellent audio commentary by John Fricke, available on the DVD, for providing much of the insight into this piece.

This post is part of the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon hosted by CineMaven. Check out the full roster to read other excellent posts on unforgettable director-star duos!

Weekly Round-Up: January 17-23, 2016

Oscar season is now in full swing, and I’m steadily working towards my goal of seeing all the Best Picture & Screenplay nominees by The Big Night. This week also saw the Blu-ray release of one of my most beloved classic films.

Last week, I saw:

  • Sunset Boulevard (1950) – The inimitable classic Hollywood nightmare about fame, redemption, and resignation. There’s a reason this appears on everybody’s list of best movies. REQUIRED.
  • The Big Short (2015) – Amateurish farce satirizing the evil banks who started the financial crisis and the good people who whine about it. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) – Thoughtful drama about a divorcing couple battling out custody for their son. Starts out very by-the-books and turns very compelling for its second half. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ex Machina (2015) – Sci-fi meets film noir in this spellbinding thriller. Once this triangle of power between a tech genius, his employee, and his Artificial Intelligence creation gets going, it never stops – fueled by a wicked script. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Joy (2015) – Not David O. Russell & Jennifer Lawrence’s best work, but an interesting and at times, very entertaining business drama about the life and struggles of Joy Mangano and the Miracle Mop. RECOMMENDED.
  • Gilda (1946) – Remarkably rich tale of a demented love triangle between two former flames and a Nazi, set in postwar Buenos Aires. Equal parts film noir and “woman’s picture,” not to mention one of the strongest films of the 1940s. REQUIRED.
  • Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – Oscar Isaac gives a knockout performance as a struggling folk musician: a victim of circumstance, the music industry, and mostly himself. Terrific soundtrack to boot! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Joy (2015)

I wouldn’t call Joy the best collaboration between writer/director David O. Russell and actress Jennifer Lawrence; I don’t even know if it’s their second-best. Not to blame them –  it’s no easy feat to follow up the superb Silver Linings Playbook and the pretty-good American Hustle.

Joy is the real-life story of a struggling divorced mother who’s put her dreams on hold. By chance, she has an epiphany on what becomes her big invention, the Miracle Mop, and plunges headfirst into the drama of manufacturing, advertising, and eventually her career legacy – all while balancing her dysfunctional family.

As it tackles such a breadth of topics, Joy as a whole feels uneven. It jumps around, and doesn’t feel quite focused – as if it were a lengthy novel being adapted for film, and the screenwriters couldn’t decide what source material to cut. Of course, as this was based on real-life events, there already was a narrative to chip away from.

In terms of tone, however, its lumpiness makes Joy the more endearing. Real life doesn’t start and end with the work day, and Russell’s integration of both the career and family worlds provide a broader (if unfocused) perspective of all the elements taking a toll on this young woman. Her family feels like a soap opera, running in parallel with the lousy daytime drama her mother watches on TV all day.

Her career, on the other hand, often pivots from nightmare to glorious dream. In a scene that reminded me of American Hustle at its best, QVC exec Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) shows Joy around their sets and what their sales flow is like. It’s the movie’s most sensual moment, as he whispers excitedly through each step of the operation and the climax of a successful sales run.

On the other end of the spectrum, most of the film’s drama comes from her business setbacks: struggling to get investment, not selling product, legal battles with patents and contracts. All the action seems to culminate into one core said conflict, but once it’s resolved the film’s tone, highlighted by cheery music and gliding camera motions, indicates that now all is well. The voice-over narration even points out additional troubles that arise, both in her career and in the family unit, but the bizarrely too-good-to-be-true feel of the finale apparently overrides that.

Should we take her later problems for granted? Was this last one we witnessed “it,” and the rest of them aren’t so bad? Given the incredibly spotty career track she’s had, it’s hard to buy that the story’s over; emotionally, we may have wrapped things up but certainly not on a narrative level.

Ex Machina (2015)

Somewhere between M.C. Escher sketches and Stanley Kubrick nightmares lies the contemporary classic sci-fi Ex Machina.

Caleb, a young programmer at a Google/Apple-esque tech powerhouse, is recruited by its CEO Nathan on a special assignment. He is flown by helicoptor to Nathan’s secluded home, a sleek labyrinth of glass and stone, to perform the Turing Test on Nathan’s new Artificial Intelligence creation: Ava. In a series of sessions, Caleb meets with Ava, a robot with a lean, white female appearance, to test whether she passes the test for Artificial Intelligence and thinking for “herself.” These discussions are recorded on video, and Caleb checks in regularly with Nathan to fill him in on his progress.

What Caleb doesn’t share is when the power goes out and the cameras cease to function, or so he is told by Nathan and later Ava. The Ava under surveillance of her creator is calm and complacent, while the off-camera Ava flirts with Caleb and warns him that Nathan is not to be trusted.

Ex Machina is a spellbinding power play not only between these three figures, but between the film and us, the audience. The three main players are never fully honest with each other, and we the audience feel somewhat in the dark on the action before us.

For some movies, this disconnect can seem frustrating, but for Ex Machina it becomes all the more thrilling. There is an exciting irony in a story concerning emotional manipulation between man and robot, told through a medium of fake, recorded images manipulating our senses. We fall for this story, as we do any piece of fiction, just as the characters fall for the others’ emotional trickery.

This film contains echoes of Kubrick in visual style and foreboding intensity, but Ex Machina‘s nomination for Best Original Screenplay is a highly deserved one. There isn’t really a film like this, and it was so exhilarating to watch a movie unfold and you have no idea where it’s going. I’m confident a second visit to Ex Machina will uncover even more layers than I’ve written here, but this initial viewing was a terrific experience with one of the most surprising and truly spellbinding thrillers I’ve seen in recent memory.

Barbara Stanwyck: Wife, Actress, Canteen Hostess

When she wasn’t bamboozling beaus in The Lady Eve, enlightening scholars in Ball of Fire, or murdering husbands in Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck paid her civic duty by volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen. The Canteen was a real-life establishment in the early 1940s as a club offering food and entertainment for service men & women; many stars, notably Bette Davis, volunteered their efforts in this admirable cause.

Ms. Stanwyck was among these volunteers, and her charity is immortalized in film within the same era as many of her most classic roles. Here is her brief, yet memorable, scene within Hollywood Canteen, a 1944 film inspired by the real-life Canteen:

The soldier is Slim Green, who during his leave in Los Angeles, wins a date with actress Joan Leslie. When he visits the Canteen, he is starstruck by everyone around him (and, to be fair, who wouldn’t be!). Jane Wyman (!) introduces him to Barbara, who is managing the food counter. She instantly has him wrapped around her finger:

“You’re Barbara Stanwyck!”

“How can you tell?”

“Because you look like you look, only more so than I thought.”

She plays up her charm and puts him on the defensive:

“Well, I’m sorry I’m such a disappointment.”

“Disappointment?! My gosh, I was more crazy about you than just about anybody until…”

“What came between us?”

“Joan Leslie.”

“Aw, darn!”

After this light teasing, she shows her genuine warmth and tenderness. He asks:

“How did you know my name was Slim?”

“We got word from the South Pacific that Slim was coming and to treat him right.”

In her comic roles, Ms. Stanwyck typically plays a similar function: initial assertions of power, ignited by sharp humor, before moving into softer affection and care. Her scene in Hollywood Canteen may be brief, but is a perfect snapshot as Ms. Stanwyck’s power as a comedienne, entertainer, and citizen.



This post is part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to check out the other entries!