Finding 2016

2016 was an unusual year in the real world: one of political change, tragic losses, and confounding times. The world of cinema mirrored this in many ways, from rebels confronting an overpowering empire, an empowering feminist Puritan horror movie, and a blue fish trying to make sense of the ocean around her.

I haven’t been watching as many movies this year as last year, due to some personal changes on my side. I cut my cable cord and later Hulu, so less stuff was just “on” to kill time. What has also changed, and for the better, is watching fewer movies but with more meaning and getting share that experience with others.

Early in the year, in my quest to see all the films nominated for Best Picture, I saw Brooklyn in theaters with someone new in my life, who has long been a US citizen and immigrated here about 25 years ago. We didn’t speak at all during the movie, but afterwards wandered the quiet streets of Pasadena talking about our own family histories, the feeling of “newness,” and learning to find home in a new environment.

The experience of sharing love of movies, and our personal ties to them, continued on through the year, particularly with throwback screening events. At the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, I got to see Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, Hercules, Lady and the Tramp, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled – and that’s not including the first-run movies that premiered there. Getting to see such long-beloved films in packed theaters, with devoted audiences both young and old, is a wonderful opportunity of living in Los Angeles.

Speaking of Los Angeles, my city has probably never looked better than it does in La La Land. Damien Chazelle’s modern musical is shot in warm oranges and lush purples, with thrilling musical sequences as vibrant as anything from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’m eager to see how this one does come awards season.

It would also be tremendous for Zootopia to get some love, especially in the Best Original Screenplay category. There was probably no smarter movie in 2016 than this fast-talking comedy/mystery/thriller that tackled issues of gender, race, and class (to name a few) better than most movies for grown-ups, without coming across as preachy or with a set agenda. In today’s hyper-PC culture, it’s incredibly daring for a major film from a major studio to make a film saying we are not equal, the world is not colorblind, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make it better. The rainbow palette landscape of the Zootopia metropolis gradually fades away into bleaker greys and browns as our optimistic heroine Judy Hopps gets deeper into a mystery, revealing the darker underbelly of the world she thought she loved.

The other triumph from Walt Disney Animation Studios was Moana, which took my heart like no other film this year. The epic scale of this Polynesian story about a princess who has to save her people has a mythic sense of destiny and importance, in a similar vein as Brave and even The Lion King. Its spectacular musical score is the most varied and consistently strong in years, with brilliant lyrics from the mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This year also had its share of disappointments – I left Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Moonlight, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story feeling lackluster, despite their critical acclaim and enthusiasm from audiences. Still, I appreciate getting to see different takes on existing franchises, and stories of people who frankly aren’t often portrayed onscreen, and the new ways of thinking they might inspire.

Here’s a look back at my 2016 in film:

  • 248 films seen (0.68 movies per day, down from last year’s run rate of 0.73 movies per day)
  • First movie seen: In Cold Blood (1967)
  • Last movie seen: Blast of Silence (1961)
  • Most-watched:

    • Zootopia (4 times)
    • Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (3 times)
    • Brooklyn (3 times)
    • Looking: The Movie (3 times)
    • The Witch (3 times)

What were your favorite films & discoveries from 2016? Any special movie memories? Reply below in the comments!

La La Land (2016)

There’s a lot to love about La La Land.

You’ve probably heard how it’s an homage to classic Hollywood musicals (and in many ways it is), but don’t let that discount the layers upon layers of passion and ingenuity that clearly went into this project.

Its terrific musical score, treading between big band jazz and melodrama symphonies, is one of the strongest of a non-animated musical in years. A recurring horn line, simultaneously building up in strength while an underlying minor chord wrings out the tension, is a perfect accompaniment to the film’s key conflict: balancing professional dreams with personal passions.

The visuals of the film, for both its musical numbers and dramatic spoken scenes, is also thrilling to behold. Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and her roommates go for a night on the town hoping to be noticed by “someone in the crowd,” sporting different colored  dresses. From the costumes perspective, each young woman asserts her own unique identity, to catch the eye of someone who may help her career, while wearing a similar cut and complementary color to one another. Again, the underlying conflict of what must be done for one’s career, while balancing personal and social pressures, is illustrated, in visual film.

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I wish I had roommates like this.

Where the film disappoints, sadly, is its story. There are great nuggets and scenes throughout, but I never really bought the love story between Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), so the abstract, extended dance sequences felt less like organic, romantic movement and more like forced choreography. The musical numbers were great on their own terms, but as the film dragged on (and frankly stopped being fun after a while) I was ready for things to wrap up.

I wouldn’t call La La Land the modern musical masterpiece many claim (or hope) it to be, but it is a great step in a positive direction for imaginative, strong staging of musical sequences within a setting as (typically) unromantic as Los Angeles. The pure heart and love that went into this film is evident in every frame. Pictures like La La Land make the movies a better place.

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

The first time I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens about a year ago, I left the theater enthralled by the dynamic new characters, imprinted by the instantly-iconic new planets, and superbly entertained by an overall great film.

I felt none of these during Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As the first stand-alone Star Wars film (rather than an “Episode,” a specific piece of the lineage), it has plenty of room to experiment and redefine what a Star Wars movie means. If they continue to go the route of Rogue One, however, the standalone anthology films might not be for me.

Rogue One explores just how the Rebellion got the plans to the Death Star, without which the victory in Star Wars: A New Hope could never have happened – certainly an important moment in the Star Wars saga. A quirky band of rebels, led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is tasked first with finding Jyn’s father, a designer of the Death Star, and then learn it was designed with a core weakness, and then task themselves with procuring the plans so the Rebellion can destroy it.

Everything requires a lot of steps, it turns out. I found myself irritated by a climactic battle scene, where the Rebels first had to disguise themselves as Imperial officers (a moment reminiscent of That’s So Raven), then get the plans, then radio-signal them up to Rebel ships, but first clear the air lock, and fix the broken satellite, and also fix the comms tower while they’re at it. It felt like the unending climax of Finding Dory, where trivial conflicts would pop up only to accumulate another 5 minutes running time, rather than build up any real tension.

What made it all worse was that these characters weren’t any fun. Jyn and Cassian had no personalities to speak of, and even the deadpan humor from new robot K-2SO fell flat. It’s already hard to be engaged in a movie where we all know the ending, and it’s even harder when you don’t particularly like anyone onscreen.

I did appreciate how the ending (which I won’t spoil) was handled, as it was a pretty gutsy move from a major movie studio. Rogue One ends on a very dark note, appropriate for this time in Star Wars “history” and the broader film anthology.

I didn’t like Rogue One, with weak characters and a frustrating narrative that were simply not up to par with what we expect from the Star Wars saga. It was interesting to see this piece of the story fleshed out, but these are not people and places I care to revisit. At least (according to Kathleen Kennedy) there won’t be a sequel!

“White Christmas” Bing-isms

There’s a lot to love about Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas: the music, its homey warmth, and certainly star Bing Crosby’s otherwordly slang.

Here are a few choice phrases with a rough translation, so you can bring a little Bing into your everyday speech:

  • Slam-bang finish = a great finale
  • Hunk of dynamite = star performer
  • Mish-mosh = fight, scene
  • First sacker = first baseman
  • Scatback = fast, agile running back
  • Grab the cow = grab the milk
  • Time, time, cut! = slow down

ANNOUNCEMENT: Criterion Book Club

Been brewing on this for a while, and excited to kick off 2017 with the Criterion Book Club.

What is the Criterion Book Club? It’s a monthly digital book club, focused on literature tying back to the films of the Criterion Collection. All are welcome to join the Facebook group here!

These books can include:

  1. Novels/plays that have been adapted into films in the CC.
  2. Biographies/memoirs of key directors, writers, actresses, etc. with films in the CC.
  3. Analysis/criticism of films or individuals who are featured in the CC.

As a digital book club, we can chat about books in the Facebook group, through blogs – the possibilities are endless! (Just be sure to link back so we can find it!)

Here is a calendar for 2017’s reads —

  • Jan: “Making a Film” by Federico Fellini
  • Feb: “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay
  • March: “Godard on Godard” by Jean-Luc Godard
  • April: “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Nikos Kazantzakis
  • May: “The Graduate” by Charles Webb
  • June: “Something Like an Autobiography” by Akira Kurosawa
  • July: “A Room with a View” by E.M. Forster
  • Aug: “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life” by Sophia Loren
  • Sep: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris
  • Oct: “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin
  • Nov: “Hitchcock” by Francois Truffaut
  • Dec: “The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography” by Frank Capra

With over 800 films in the Criterion Collection, there is a wealth of books that go along with them – please feel free to chime in the comments section or in the Facebook group for other reads to check out (either as recommendations or ones you’ve been meaning to pick up)!

Hope this takes off as a fun activity for fans of the Collection – happy reading!

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.”

 

Moana (2016)

It opens with the familiar Disney castle logo, accompanied not by the orchestral fanfare we’ve grown accustomed to, but a solo female singing in Tokelauan (a Polynesian language), joined by a fuller choir, then the pounding of drums layering on deeper impact. Before the action even begins, we are immediately cued that this is a very different kind of Disney movie.

Moana, the latest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios, is nothing short of a masterpiece. If Zootopia is (and it is) a gift to the mind through snappy dialogue and complex social undertones, Moana is a gift to the heart, operating on more of an emotional plane than an intellectual one.

There are moments of almost-overwhelming beauty, such as the toddler Moana meeting the living, personified water. In a completely wordless scene, the waves reveal a shell in the shallow end of a beach. Moana happily trots toward it, and the ocean gradually retreats further and further back, welcoming her to come closer. It’s a spectacular moment of youth, discovery, and destiny – like something out of a Terrence Malick film, not a mainstream animation studio.

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This scene, and many others, are heightened by spectacular music. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who brought us The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, to name a few) are no strangers to crafting the animated musical, and Moana delivers moments as good as anything they’ve done. The songs are staged in very imaginative, artistic ways: “How Far I’ll Go (Reprise)” as a montage of Moana choosing to leave her home behind, “You’re Welcome” as a colorful mixed-media frenzy. The easy choice would have been to stage these numbers literally, and these veteran directors still have plenty of tricks up their sleeve.

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What’s also notable about Moana, and possibly its strongest trait, is how it reshapes what a Disney Princess is. Early on in the film, her father trains her how to be Chief of the Motunui and she goes through the motions of being a functional leader. She advises her people on where to plant crops after the harvest fails. She assists in building projects. She even butts heads with her father on where the fishermen should sail. This is truly the first time we’ve seen a Disney heroine functioning as a ruler – not in passing broad strokes, but actually taking on the responsibility of a leader.

Moana is another great entry in the immensely strong contemporary Disney canon. Its innovative storytelling, rich music, and terrific heroine will cement it as a story to entertain families for generations to come.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Someday I’ll get a straight answer from you, and I won’t know what to do with it.

 

Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings is full of individuals lost in underlying turmoil but manage to dig themselves deeper, rather than find a way out. Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is a pilot and co-owner of a mail air line, who knowingly sends his men and himself in danger, accepting hazardous weather and unsafe working conditions as part of the job. Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is a former showgirl bound for home, who decides to put her trip on hold and stick around for Geoff, who admits he would never ask a woman for anything. Judy MacPherson (Rita Hayworth), Geoff’s old flame, chooses ignorance over learning the truth about her morally questionable husband Bat.

All of these characters, and more, are swirling around Barranca, South America (no country is given), in a world somewhere between Casablanca and Gilda (though it was made before both landmark films). Barranca is a bustling banana port o’call, and Geoff’s airline carries mail back and forth over the Andes. The large troupe of Americans who call Barranca home are seeking some sort of escape: from responsibility, from home, from their pasts.

This might sound like the perfect recipe for film noir, but Only Angels Have Wings doesn’t fit cleanly into any easy genre. It is part adventure thriller, with well-constructed, often heart-stopping, sequences of flight and their sometimes-tragic aftermaths. It is part romance, as Geoff and Bonnie become acquainted, and the feelings that echo back as Bonnie shows up. It’s even part western, with the standard themes of escape from traditional society, isolating oneself in a “man’s world,” and dropping domestic responsibilities.

To be honest, a lot about this movie is weird. Early on, we get cues that Brooklyn-born Bonnie is right at home in Barranca, engaging with the locals (despite referring to Spanish as “pig Latin”), and wildly playing “Some of These Days” on the piano in a scene that had me giggling nonstop. Later on in the movie she whips out a gun and shoots him in the shoulder. And, in an interesting subversion of gender norms, Geoff never has a lighter on him, and needs Bonnie or Judy to light it for him. The macho fella who wouldn’t ask a woman for anything, still needs them to get through the everyday.

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Would you like Rita Hayworth to light your cigarette?

But a well-rounded, genre-bending (albeit sometimes confounding) film suits Hawks well. The man who later brought us a subversive, challenging western in Red River and the excellent, tongue-in-cheek screwball comedy musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes proves his mastery of and flexibility within genre pieces, so a film that touches so many avenues is a perfect fit for a man of his talents.

In addition to the strong directing and crazy choices, we also get great performances, particularly by Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. Jean Arthur plays what appears to be her usual “type” as the plucky pal, bringing on the gravitas when appropriate. Early on in the film (spoiler alert!) a pilot has a fatal crash, igniting a firestorm of emotions for her: desperate grief at the loss, anger and frustration at the men for (she believes) not caring, then tepid complacency as she learns that’s just the way things are in Barranca. Her complex, layered reaction both highlights her adapting to her new environment, as well as an early sign that she’s not just some fast-talking gal: she has depth and real emotion.

Rita Hayworth, in her too-few minutes onscreen, sets everything ablaze with her piercing eyes and deep, seductive voice. She’s not quite a fully-fledged femme fatale in this one, but she makes some gusty moves, even visiting her former flame in his bedroom. Jean Arthur even pops up at the end of this scene but scurries away, which is unfortunate — I would have loved to see some screen time between two archetypes during this era of film.

Only Angels Have Wings is an exciting, genre-bending film taking us into exotic locales, entrenching us with questionable characters, and dazzling us with complex performances.