BLIND SPOT 43: ‘THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES’

When I was planning my Blind Spot series for 2019 I knew I needed to tackle one of the most heralded films that I had yet to see: William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. The film not only won 7 Oscars but it is widely considered the best film to ever win Best Picture. In addition, it’s also a favorite of many of my movie friends including the great MovieRob who has seen more than enough movies to have his opinion be taken very seriously. The only reason I hadn’t seen it is because the length and subject matter intimidated me but that’s what makes the Blind Spot project great! I finally watched this classic film, and I’m sure glad I did.

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The Best Years of Our Lives tells the story of 3 veterans (Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, Frederic March) of World War 2 who meet on their way home to their small hometown of Boone City. While all soldiers, they are each quite different and they go on to each have different struggles in adjusting to home life.

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Naturally we also get to know the women who are in the lives of our soldiers. I especially liked Myrna Loy who is number one on the call sheet but gives an understated supporting performance as the housewife who comes to realize her  returning husband may be an alcoholic and that his recovery from fighting will be no easy task.

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Probably the most memorable role in The Best Years of Our Lives is from Russell who had never acted before but plays the soldier with no arms with such humanity (probably because it is who he literally is!). I kept thinking now they would just cgi away an actor’s arms (see Dumbo from this year) and what a loss that is for cinema. What I appreciated most about his performance is most of the time he’s pretty reasonable, not looking for sympathy. He even seems proud of what he can accomplish with his hook hands, as he should be. However, he also keeps people at a distance because he doesn’t want to burden them with his struggles. This is most of all true with his fiance Wilma played with great heart by Cathy O’Donnell. Their love story together is very touching.

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There isn’t a ton of plot in The Best Years of Our Lives. Even the grand moments are only grand because we know what they mean to the characters. They are simple moments like a man sitting in a used plane, another giving a speech at banquet for the bank he works at or a former soldier showing his girl how he puts on his pajamas. Simple stuff but it means a ton within the story. I particularly teared up at said banquet speech when a drunk Al promises his fellow soldiers will be supported by his bank and get the loans they need. This is probably a more of a pipe dream than anything else, which is what makes it both touching and tragic.

All of the acting is superb in The Beast Years of Our Lives and everyone has tremendous chemistry. Some will probably find it tedious, but despite my misgivings, I was fully engrossed with the characters and their journeys. It actually felt quite relevant to the struggles many veterans experience today. Often for soldiers it is very difficult to find employment, manage PTSD and relate to civilian life. However, even beyond that this film is full of human stories, and as long as they are well told, human stories will always be relevant.

If you haven’t seen The Best Years of Our Lives don’t wait as long as I did to give it a watch. You  will be rewarded by a moving story of love, family, and the ability of the human spirit to turn the worst years into the best.

For a modern film with these themes I recommend Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace which was one of the best films of 2018.

10 out of 10

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BLIND SPOT 42: ‘GIDGET’

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When I decide on my Blind Spot picks each year I try to select a variety of films both for my own enjoyment and the interest of my readers. As important as it is to check the epic sagas and masterpieces off of my ‘to watch’ list, I also find guilty pleasures, cult hits and popcorn films of the past rewarding to discover. For June I picked the bubbly coming of age comedy from 1959 called Gidget.  It’s a really interesting movie which could be easily criticized as an example of pre-feminist filmmaking, but I actually found it surprisingly modern and a delightful watch.

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Gidget stars Sandra Dee in the lead role as a 17 year old girl who is struggling to balance her feminine and tomboy sides. She wants to be appealing to men but also laments the time when she could hang around with her girlfriends without much worry. On a trip to the beach she decides to give “manhunting” a try, but she ends up discovering that she loves to surf instead. Of course, she also gets more motivation when she meets handsome surfer Moondoggie (James Darren) and his group of beach bums. Immediately smitten she works all summer to become part of their group.

At first the boys do not treat her differently as a woman and some may find this surprising. They even try to drown her at one point as some kind of initiation which gives her a sore throat and fever. The whole time she puts up with all this to be accepted in the group but also in hopes that particularly Moondoggie will notice her and make her a ‘real woman’. She even talks with her Mother openly about her desire to explore her sexuality. This surprised me for a movie made in 1959.

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Some may want to discount Gidget as too much a of a bubble-head or silly woman pining after undeserving men, but I disagree. From the beginning of the film she knows what she wants, and she goes after it. This is true in surfing and with the boys.

In many ways she reminded me of Baby in Dirty Dancing, just swap out surfing with dancing. She’s young and awkward, but she still always knows herself and doesn’t change even in the end, unlike other heroines like Sandy in Grease. If anything the surfing bros change more from her influence not the other way around. What’s more modern than that?

There wasn’t as much music in Gidget as I was anticipating. I assumed it was similar to Grease or Bye Bye Birdie in that regard. However, the 2 songs they have are pleasant if a little corny. James Darren has a nice voice and The Four Preps bring a poppy 1950s style to the opening credits.

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As far as any negatives to Gidget go her father can be a bit of a patriarchal cliche but it was made in 1959 so I’m fine with him. Also Cliff Robertson plays a surfer named Kahuna and his character seems a little creepy and out of place with the tone of the rest of the film. Gidget is smart enough to deal with him but it comes very close to going over the line into uncomfortable territory especially with her being only 17 and him being much older.

Fortunately these are only minor quibbles. I thoroughly enjoyed Gidget, and I look forward to catching up with the sequels this summer. I don’t think I will make it to the beach so why not enjoy some surfing fun in the movies? Sounds fun to me!

Gidget is also recognized as a key player in popularizing surfing in the United States and the ‘beach party film’. I absolutely love the ocean and had the thrill of learning to surf on one of my trips to Hawaii. It is a favorite memory of mine and you can read about it here.

8 out of 10

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Blind Spot 41: ‘Brief Encounter’

I always like to have a little bit of variety on this Blind Spot project and this month we are going back to 1945 and taking a look at the romantic drama Brief Encounter.

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Starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter tells a simple story of 2 strangers that meet in a train station ‘refreshment room’ and become fascinated with each other. Then they meet several more times until a relationship develops. Unfortunately with them both being married they cannot pursue their love so it is doomed to remain unrequited.

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Brief Encounter is directed by David Lean and he, with cinematographer Robert Krasker, do a stunning job crafting this film. The black and white photography is beautiful with great use of shadows and light. You feel an intimacy with the couple like you are somehow eavesdropping on their conversations instead of watching a movie. It kind of reminded me of the Before Sunrise movies in that regard. I think it also helps that we don’t have traditional movie stars in the lead roles but more ordinary looking humans. It makes their connection feel more grounded and real.

If you are worried this is a movie that justifies cheating, it doesn’t. In fact, the ending with Laura and her husband is actually quite touching. It’s just a moment between two people and that’s it. If it was made today it would probably be tawdry and tasteless but here it strikes just the right note.

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My only flaw with Brief Encounter is it is perhaps too brief. They go from strangers bumping into each other to declaring their undying love very quickly. In that sense, it feels a little hard to believe. We understand why Laura is tempted by a new and exciting love but are not entirely sure why this love with Alec fits that bill. I wish there were a few more scenes where we got to know both of them more and could understand their connection better.

That said, I definitely recommend checking out Brief Encounter. It is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel which is a service I highly recommend. They not only have great films but tons of special features on most of the films.

(Also David Lean is such an incredible director. It’s hard to believe the person who made this also directed Lawrence of Arabia!)

Overall Grade

7 out of 10

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Blind Spot 36: Desk Set

I must admit I was a little unsure what I was getting myself into when I put Desk Set on my 2018 Blind Spot list. I needed a Christmas movie I had yet to see (a tough task when you are dealing with me, the Queen of Christmas movies), but I didn’t enjoy the much heralded Hepburn/Tracy film Adam’s Rib. Despite their chemistry, it just didn’t work for me (been a while since I’ve seen it but that was my experience at the time). Fortunately my experience with Desk Set, was much better, and I thoroughly enjoyed this bubbly Christmas romcom.

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Desk Set was the 8th of 9 pairings between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and it was directed by the great Walter Lang and written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron (parents of my literary hero Nora Ephron!). They built the lead roles with Hepburn and Tracy in mind and you can tell- especially for Hepburn the lines feel like they are almost improv it is so natural.

Heburn plays a woman named Bunny Watson who works as a researcher that answers questions for reporters. She is a very modern woman who has been dating her boyfriend Mike for 7 years and leads an office of 3 other women (Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill and Sue Randell). These women are strong, yet feminine and can definitely hold their liquor. If you made a version of Desk Set today you wouldn’t have to change much of the behavior of the women, which considering this was made in 1957, that is saying something.

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Unfortunately, the perfect office is disturbed when Spencer Tracy’s Richard Sumner comes in and announces they are replacing the researchers with 2 EMERAC computers. Richard then works with the women to make the transition to the computers as seamless as possible. Of course, it is fascinating to see the effects of automation and computers on a 1957 workplace when the same issues and workplace dynamics exist today. We just call it google instead of the EMERAC!

Desk Set is not a movie that is going to have you in stitches laughing. It’s more a pleasant workplace comedy starring two Hollywood greats with terrific chemistry. Hepburn’s Bunny can be quite sarcastic and snarky with Tracy’s Richard, especially when she is drunk. She even laughs so hard in one scene she snorts, which I’m sure was unplanned!

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It did take me a bit to get into Desk Set (the first act is pretty slow) but once the computer arrives and they have their Christmas party it gets cracking! If you like romantic or workplace comedies you will enjoy it. It doesn’t have the emotional heft of something like The Apartment but it’s a delightful little comedy with a hint of Christmas in it for the holidays.

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If you’ve seen Desk Set what did you think? Do you like it better than Adam’s Rib or is there another Hepburn/Tracy pairing you prefer over both of them?

Thanks for joining me in this 3rd year of Blind Spots! I am excited to start a new series for 2019 and if you have any suggestions please let me know! Merry Christmas!

Blind Spot 33: Ikiru

Ikiru marks the 3rd film I have seen from acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa (I’ve previously seen Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai) and of the 3, it might be my favorite. In what feels like a Japanese version of Death of a Salesman, Ikiru paints a fascinating portrait of business life in Japan and how one man tries to stand out after learning of his imminent death.

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Ikiru is about a middle-aged man named Kanji Watanable. He has worked as a bureaucrat for 30 years and with a dead wife and selfish son/daughter-in-law he doesn’t have much to live for or be excited about. One day he finds out about a proposal to turn a cesspool into a community park and he thinks he might be able to make a difference.

Then he finds out he has stomach cancer and decides to make the building of the park his legacy. Unlike America, Japanese society often values group effort over individual accomplishment. This makes Watanabe’s subordination to get this park an extraordinary effort. His coworkers are shocked by his actions and after he dies they marvel at his boldness.

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Watanabe also receives inspiration from a young girl who he has drinks with. He asks her ‘how do you have such love of life?’ and she says she simply loves her job making toys because the toys make children happy; thereby, giving her life the value of making the children of Japan happy (you see more of a group rather than individual accomplishment).

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Like Death of a Salesman there is a melancholy to Ikiru because his accomplishment (especially to modern American eyes) is so small; however, I related to the emotions that Watanabe experiences. It reminds me of the great quote from You’ve Got Mail ‘I lead a small life. Valuable but small and I don’t know if I do it because I like or because I haven’t been brave?’ That is the question of Ikiru and to his credit Watanabe decides to be brave.

At the end of the movie his associates enthusiastically determine to follow his example and do bold things; however, upon returning to work they lose their conviction and life continues on as before. It’s sad how often the road more traveled, not less, is the choice of so many.

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The cinematography in Ikiru is stunning. The way Kurosawa and cinematographer Asakazu Nakai use the black and white to capture loneliness and melancholy is breathtaking. I loved the way rain and snow looks in contrast to the black sky. Beautiful.

I also thought all of the acting was strong especially from the lead Takashi Shimura. Again, he has a Willy Loman quality to him with his shoulders slumped over at all times except when he is swinging in his park.

As for downsides, the film does lose steam when Watanabe dies and becomes a little repetitive. Also I wasn’t crazy about the music, which seemed a bit too bubbly for the sober story. Other than that, it was a great film! I definitely recommend it!

smile worthy

 

 

 

Blind Spot 32: Young Girls of Rochefort

I’m really glad I decided to make Jacques Demy’s classic The Young Girls of Rochefort  my August Blind Spot pick because it seems like such an interesting forebearer to films such as the recent Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again and certainly the Oscar winning La La Land. In fact, after seeing it, I almost feel like Damien Chazelle took the happy moments from Rochefort and the sad moments from Umbrellas of Cherbourg and birthed a movie. They are so similar it is weird- even the score sounds the same.

Anyway, it’s easy to see why filmmakers like Chazelle would be inspired by Jacques Demy as both Umbrellas and Rochefort are incredible films. Rochefort like Mamma Mia 2 is an effervescent bubbly celebration of love, and I kind of loved it! (Obviously Mamma Mia 2 isn’t near as good but it does have a similar tone)

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The story isn’t very important to Rochefort but it follows twin sisters Delphine and Solange (Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac who are real life sisters) as they meet 2 carnies Etienne and Bill (George Chakiris and Grover Dale) and have a romantic adventure for the weekend.

We also learn about their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darrieux) who had a love that she foolishly let go as a young woman because she didn’t want to have his last name. She meets her former love Simon (Michel Piccoli) and his American colleague Andy (Gene Kelly) and has her own romantic adventure.

And that’s about it. The movie isn’t about the story. It’s about the continual singing, great choreography and an overall feeling of joy. Just look at the opening ballet number and how much fun it is (and how much La La Land used for its opening number!)

I love that this movie took real care to make the singing and dancing great. It does not feel half-baked at all.  They dubbed all the singers so that the singing would be good. They have very impressive dancing throughout and all the costumes and colors are so dazzling.

Look at this effervescent delightful scene with Gene Kelly. The tap dancing at the end is perfection

I probably still like Umbrellas of Cherboug a little better because it is so moving but The Young Girls of Rochefort has definitely taken a place in my heart. I can watch Cherboug when I want something deep and watch Rochefort when I want to smile. Well done Jacques Demy!!

The Young Girls of Rochefort is definitely smile worthy!

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Blind Spot 31: The Last Emperor

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This month for my blind spot pick I decided to take a look at a film that took home 9 Oscars including Best Picture and Director: 1987’s The Last Emperor. I didn’t know much about it going into the film except that it was a long and sumptuously mounted production. After viewing it, I agree it is long and sumptuously mounted but aside from those qualities, I wasn’t very impressed by it.

The Last Emperor was helmed by Italian director Bernardo Berlotucci and it feels European in its grand scope and leisurely pacing. It was the first Western film authorized by the PROC to be filmed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, so naturally all of the sets and locations are authentic and grand. It is completely understandable why it won Oscars for art direction, cinematography and especially costume design. The music by Ryuichi Sakamoto is also very strong.

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However, in many ways it felt like a foreigner telling a Chinese story. The Last Emperor is about the life of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. Evidently they based the screenplay off of Puyi’s autobiography, which is odd because so much of it rang flat and false.

To begin with, having all the characters speak English feels like an almost mocking choice. It takes you out of the scenes because this is supposed to be a serious movie and they are so obviously not speaking the right language. It’s one thing for an Indiana Jones movie to have accents but an epic masterpiece like The Last Emperor? Not so much. I guess you could make the argument it is in the traditions of old school epics like The Ten Commandments but those movies had stronger narratives to make up for the cultural awkwardness.

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Speaking of story, it boggles my mind that The Last Emperor won Best Adapted Screenplay because the narrative is very weak. We see many events happen to Puyi but I never felt sorry for him or invested in his character. For most of the movie he came across as a spoiled brat without much nuance or introspection. Towards the end he grows as a person as he is incarcerated by the communists, but I still felt distant and like I never truly understood him. We are told Puyi is the “loneliest boy on earth” but he just felt like the blandest.

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Some of the side characters are more interesting like his main wife Wanrong. She kind of has a lesbian relationship yet does seem to love Puyi and want him to succeed, which could have been interesting but it isn’t really explored in a satisfactory way. She’s a lonely character and I wish we got to know her better and have more time with her. Peter O’Toole is good as Puyi’s British tutor Reginald Johnston. He both kowtows and challenges the Chinese royal establishment, but even he could have been used more effectively and challenged more as a character.

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The frustrating thing is I can tell Puyi’s story is fascinating having gone from opulence to a puppet emperor to a prisoner and a common man all in one life. But the screenplay in The Last Emperor delivers that compelling story without any tension or emotional heft. It all landed like a thud and was really quite boring. I didn’t care about his character and the interesting parts were more like reading a textbook than watching a compelling narrative. It needed a Steven Spielberg type voice to come in with sweeping moments of drama and tension to sell the soapy dialogue and characters. That might have worked better.

I kind of wish they would remake The Last Emperor. I don’t think many are too attached to this version and there is a good story in there to tell. A modern filmmaker could have all the good qualities of this film but make it in Mandarin with a better, more compelling script and it could be an amazing film.

I can see why other people like The Last Emperor, and I do commend it for its production design, costumes, cinematography and music but it didn’t work for me as a movie. It was bland, culturally awkward and plodding. I’m glad I checked it off my blind spot list but it is definitely one I will never watch again.

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Blind Spot 29: Gallipoli

This month’s Blindspot pick, 1981’s Gallipoli, is an interesting one because it is my best movie buddy Phaedra’s favorite movie. She is a blogger just like me but at least with prestige pictures we often have very different tastes. We can both have fun at silly films like 47 Meters Down (she went with me and enjoyed it!) but let’s just say our picks at Sundance are quite different. LOL. So knowing Gallipoli was her favorite film and that it was a war movie I prepared myself for some intense stuff. What I got was very surprising. Gallipoli is more of a coming of age film than a war movie and despite a very sad ending is surprisingly hopeful.

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Gallipoli stars a very young Mel Gibson (you can definitely see how Gallipoli influenced Gibson’s Braveheart and Hacksaw Ridge) as Frank and Mark Lee as Archy. They are young men in 1915 Australia who meet sprinting together. Archy yearns to go to the war where Frank is more blasé about it but eventually agrees to go along for the ride.

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After a long walk through the desert the boys enlist and are sent to Cairo and eventually to the Gallipoli Peninsula at Anzac Cove.  Surprisingly we don’t see much of the war or any fighting until the final act. Most of the time is spent getting to know Frank and Archy and their friends. In many ways it reminded me of Chariots of Fire in the slice of life portrayal of young boys trying to figure out what they believe in.

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When we get to the ANZAC attack it is quite devastating because the characters have been built up so well. The most frustrating part of the bloodshed is that it is based upon a miscommunication between 2 officers, not on any actual need to fight. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but Frank desperately tries to stop the advancement as a messenger in the final scenes and it is very intense.

In many ways it makes sense that Peter Weir directed Gallipoli. He always has a way of bringing out sincere and moving performances from young actors (Dead Poets Society, Witness) and this is probably his best movie. I was really engrossed in the story and felt attached to Frank and Archy as their journey progressed. There were light moments where you got to know them as people that made the losses of war feel all the more real and devastating. It was very well done.

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I also thought all the production values were strong in Gallipoli. The cinematography was striking capturing the dry, deserts of both Australia and the Anzac Cove. It also had fantastic music featuring both modern electronic and classical orchestrations. The war scenes felt convincing, which helped build the tension well and drew me into the story. I recently watched a WW1 movie called The Journey’s End and it was so dull, so I know this is not an easy task to achieve.

What makes Gallipoli a hopeful film is promise and potential we see in Frank, Archy and their friends. Yes they were put in a war and that is awful but seeing that potential and getting to know these characters is still a good thing. Hopefully we can see the joy and dreams in young people today and do a better job at not snuffing it out far too early. Even the imagery of Archy running throughout the film (and in the closing shots) is hopeful.

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Gallipoli is a great movie, and it should be talked more about as such. I think it is even better than Saving Private Ryan to be honest (both good films). It develops its characters better and builds up to the battle instead of starting with it. This makes you more invested (and devastated) with what is happening. There was a humanity in Gallipoli that moved me because it wasn’t just a clinical exercise but a story of 2 young men who wanted to run but ended up being unable to outrace the foolish decisions of their generals.

smile worthy

 

Modern Mouse Radio: Life Lessons of Disney Princesses

Hey guys! I hope you are all doing great! Most of you know that I have a little podcast called Rachel’s Reviews  that I am extremely proud of. If you aren’t subscribed you should be because I produce pretty engaging content, much of it focusing on Disney and animation. Well,  last week I had the tables turned and I got to be interviewed on a podcast for once!

Josh over at the Modern Mouse podcast asked me to join him and talk all about Disney Princesses both official and not quite canon. In particular, we asked the question ‘which of the ladies carry the most social change and the best life lessons.”

I personally think all of them can teach you something and be a good example for kids but it was great having the discussion with Josh.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-lessons-disney-princesses-modern-mouse-radio-185/id1118717435?i=1000404142734&mt=2

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/network-1901/e/53506883