It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

One of the essential Christmas movies, It’s a Wonderful Life has been entertaining, moving, and inspiring audiences for generations. Although not embraced by critics or the public in its initial 1946 release, it has since become one of the most beloved American films, both during the holidays and any season. Christmas films have come and gone, but It’s a Wonderful Life continues to strike a particular chord with audiences who can relate to, and cheer on, the Bailey family time and time again.

Throughout his life in the small town of Bedford Falls, George Bailey is constantly forced to put his dreams on hold and settle for (what he perceives as) less. After saving up four years to go to college, his father suffers a stroke and George has to stay put and run the family business, the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan. When George and his wife Mary wed, their honeymoon trip around the world is canceled as the Great Depression hits Bedford Falls and their gift money is needed to keep the doors of the Building & Loan open. As World War II hits, a childhood injury prevents George from enlisting, so all he can do is volunteer in smaller, local war efforts. Each step of life brings with it another setback, another factor entrenching George Bailey in the small-town life he’s trying to escape.

This theme works through the perfect casting of James Stewart, the embodiment of the “all-American” lead. Consider the other stars of the era: the dashing Clark Gable, the suave and sophisticated Cary Grant, the “tough guy” Humphrey Bogart. And then there’s the plucky, down-to-earth James Stewart, a small-town hero turned congressman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the slow-witted, mismatched lover for Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. Unlike the other male leads in the 1940s, aspirational figures with a key mystique and way with the ladies, Stewart is none of these. He’s no Greek God, just a regular guy who could be the “boy next door.”

Stewart as George Bailey is so essential for how we as an audience engage with the film. He could be any one of us, or our fathers, our husbands. We aren’t watching a romanticized, stylized take on the American man – Stewart is as American as they get. In the film’s final act, when Stewart’s character George Bailey considers suicide as his best option (after his rival Mr. Potter tells him he’s “worth more dead than alive”), it’s not just the Bailey family at risk – it’s the American family.

This makes George Bailey’s breakdown, and redemption, on Christmas Eve all the more powerful. The family gathered downstairs like a Norman Rockwell picture of Americana: sons wearing Santa hats, daughter practicing Christmas carols on the piano. George comes home after suffering a devastating blow at work, and lashes out at his children and wife Mary; in shame, he flees to take his own life by jumping off a bridge. A guardian angel, Clarence, intervenes, by showing George the dark, alternate reality if George were never born. Realizing how much his family, friends, and community need him, George begs to live again.

A newly-awakened George dashes home, and finds his living room full of all those he’d helped and sacrificed for along the way: each ready to return the favor and help George now that he’s in trouble. George’s return home means the restoration of the family, and the community’s support reinstates faith and trust in small-town America.

A terrific film on its own merits, much of It’s a Wonderful Life‘s power is how it affects viewers in different stages of life. As a child, I saw myself more in the Bailey children, confused and upset if my parents were ever unhappy. As I mature more as a young adult, each year I relate more and more to George Bailey, struggling to balance ambitious dreams with the realities of everyday life. Whatever your place in life, everyone can relate to and be inspired by this movie masterpiece and its inspiring message that “No man is a failure who has friends.”

 

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Criterion Goes to Carnaval

You’ll end up going [to Carnaval]. No one can resist the madness.

In Catholic tradition, the pre-Lenten season is a time of gaiety and celebration. It is right before a period of fasting and penance, all culminating into one final wild night of the season: Carnaval. In classic film, however, Carnaval is less a celebration and more an ominous warning. Black Orpheus and Gilda both depict Carnaval not a festivity but a means of fate, bringing upon an inevitable doom.

Eurydice, the young heroine of Black Orpheus, fears for the worst the entire film. She is chased out of her home by a man she believes is out to kill her, and escapes to live with her cousin Serafina in Rio de Janeiro. She is oblivious to Carnaval, and the world she’s entering, but Serafina assures her she is safe from her pursuer.

blackorpheus383She is anything but, however, as Death appears to her her first night in Rio, follows her all throughout Carnaval, and eventually completes his chilling mission.

Death, and his pursuit of Eurydice, is so unsettling for two reasons. First, the sheer inevitability of the tragedy he brings. Eurydice takes a boat away from home, and immerses herself in the kinetic chaos of Carnaval, and yet this same man manages to single her out in the crowd. Second, for how he hides in plain sight. Sure, he comes after her late at night, in her cousin’s home, but he watches alongside the Carnaval-goers and blends right in the crowd, as another dark figure in the spooky masquerade. Evil is not only an unstoppable force, but an omnipresent one who walks among us.

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These same fears plague Gilda, the deeply troubled tour de force of Gilda. Tragedy strikes for her the night of Carnaval as well – in the midst of a gay affair in Buenos Aires, a body killed by her husband Mundson is discovered. Mundson escapes from the police, apparently committing suicide, allowing her to marry her ex-lover Johnny Farrell. Death comes to Gilda less explicitly; her social and private life is cut off, and she finds herself in the control of Johnny and his henchmen at all times. She is widowed out of one oppressive marriage, only to wed into another.

Like Eurydice, Gilda is destructively paranoid, though perhaps less justifiably so. Early in the film, she is tossing and turning over toasting “Disaster to the wench” in reference to Johnny’s former lover – herself. This spirit carries on as Carnaval approaches. She watches below, trapped in her prison of a bedroom, and asks her servant Maria what it means. Maria replies that Carnaval is “feasting and merry-making. Then comes the fasting and the penance.” Gilda chuckles and says, “Don’t tell anybody, but I’m awfully superstitious. […] I have the funniest feeling that [….] for me, too, it’s Carnaval.” Even before the aforementioned murder takes place in the casino, Gilda’s instinctive reaction is that tragedy will strike, and her own end is drawing near.

It’s not an accident that both stories build up to the drama heightened by Carnaval. In Black Orpheus, Orpheus has all but shunned his overbearing fiance Mira for the sweet Eurydice, spending the night and later dancing through the streets of Rio together. The narrative pivot, and tragedy that befalls on Carnaval, parallels the end of this happy splendor, a dream world that is too good to be true. Such is the case in Gilda, where the fractured romance between Gilda and Johnny seems to repair as they dance together in the night, and she offers him to “get in practice” again – to rekindle their love. The events of that night, and Gilda’s new prison, are the harsh reality that crush false hope.

Pairing Carnaval, a festive time, with such tragic events is an interesting tonal dichotomy as well. The joyful Carnaval celebrations of Black Orpheus and Gilda mismatch the darker drama unfolding before us, brushing aside a major cultural and religious event before more intimate, personal conflict. Setting the dramatic events of Black Orpheus and Gilda within the context of Carnaval make the narrative elements even more powerful when framed within a supposedly happy time.

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?

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?