Category Archives: Film

Watch This: Three Reasons for The Palm Beach Story

Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story just came out on Criterion, and I desire it muchly. It tends not to be as well-loved as some of Sturges’ other films (and sure, I rank it below Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve), but I still have great love for it, and Criterion’s short Three Reasons video gets at its endearing zaniness – I’m curious if anyone who hasn’t seen the film can even figure out what’s going on from these clips!

EDIT: And then read this fantastic essay on the film by Stephanie Zacharek.

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Completing the Filmography: Five Graves to Cairo

This year instead of doing Blind Spots or other list-based viewing, I’m focusing in on completing filmographies of certain directors – some of which I’m only a few films away from completing and will probably do so pretty quickly, while others may be in progress for quite a while. I plan to do some major comprehensive posts about each one when I get finished with all their films (I’m also doing some background reading), but in the meantime I figured I’d do some posts with more informal thoughts as I work my way through these films. Since I’m eventually planning to include actors in this little completionist goal, I’ll keep track of how I’m doing on various actors’ filmographies as well. Stats! I love stats. In case you didn’t know that about me, now you do. I love stats.

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Five Graves to Cairo is Billy Wilder’s third film as writer/director (his second in Hollywood), and it’s a WWII-set film that’s more of a spy thriller than an actual war film – despite being set in North Africa in the midst of Rommel’s campaign, and having Rommel as a character, there are no battle scenes in the film. (Correction: There is a montage of a battle at the very end for like twenty seconds.)

The opening shot is one of the most visually arresting in all of Wilder’s filmography – a tank rolls across the desert, up and down dunes aimlessly. Not all is right here. A soldier’s arm drapes lifelessly out of the cockpit, where several other men lie dead, one flopped forward on the steering mechanism, keeping the tank moving forward. One man stirs; this is John Bramble (Franchot Tone), who is the only survivor and is now caught behind enemy lines.

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2014: The Year That Was

2014 was a rough year for many on many different levels, from Ferguson to Gamergate, which has made my commitment to positivity in 2014 tough in some ways, though in terms of my moviewatching (which was the real purview of my Year of Positivity), it has held true and I’ve been grateful to the perspective it’s given me. With a one-year-old in the house, I’ve still been limited on movie-watching, but I managed to see over 50 new-to-me films in 2014. Since fewer than ten were actually 2014 releases, I’m doing my year-end recap as a celebration of everything I saw, arranged into award-like categories. In keeping with my 2014 stance against evaluation, there is no winner in each category, nor ranking within them, nor strict limits on how many films could be in each category.

I will try not to include major spoilers, but for some categories I may have to in order to talk about why I chose the films i did. So just…keep an eye out, I guess.

I only played a handful of games and read a few books, so I’ll just throw in a list of my favorites of each at the bottom of this post.

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Whether in premise or character or storytelling, these are the films that made me think the most this year, sometimes for days or weeks after seeing them.

Snowpiercer (2013)
No film I saw in 2014 has a better premise than Snowpiercer, which envisions society as post-apocalyptic train segregated between haves and have-nots, complete with class warfare, rebellion, military subjugation, brainwashing, idealism, and cynicism. It’s very high concept, and gives you a lot to chew on, both about this society as its envisioned, and about our own in relation to it.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Most people (rightly) point to the first half of this film as the more iconic and memorable, but a lot of the depth and thoughtfulness is really in the second half, as we see what happens when these troops, trained by the drill sergeant from hell in the first half’s boot camp, actually hit Vietnam and discover how lacking any type of training is for the real hell of a war like Vietnam. The second half is messier, but it’s intentionally and thought-provokingly messy.

Employee’s Entrance (1933)
This is one of the few films of the year that I planned to write an in-depth post about, but I unfortunately never actually got around to it. Why did I find this piece of apparently Pre-Code fluff so striking? Warren Williams plays a confident, smarmy businessman as he so often does, the general manager of a Manhattan department store trying to keep his business afloat during the Depression – which often calls for reducing staff, making existing staff work longer hours, etc. And this doesn’t even include his horrific treatment of Loretta Young’s character and her fiance, his assistant who he wants unattached to better serve the business. Yet what could’ve been a straight-up underdog film about overthrowing evil Business for the sake of the underlings is actually more nuanced, thoughtful and relevant than I expected; today as in the Great Depression, balancing business and humanitarian regard isn’t always easy.

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)
What? A slightly regarded late Wilder comedy about a pair of bumbling songwriters carrying out an elaborate ruse to get Dean Martin to listen to their songs is “thought-provoking”? Yeah, I know. I’m probably stretching a bit, but of the late Wilder films I’ve watched recently, this one’s sticking with me to a surprising degree, largely because it employs a level of sexual freedom that I wouldn’t have expected even in 1964, when such things were beginning to loosen up, and it does so with a frankness that’s refreshing even though I may not have ultimately agreed with the characters’ actions.

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On Midnight‘s Screenplay

“There’s an old story, borne out by production records, about [producer] Arthur Hornblow Jr. deciding to exert his power by handing [Billy] Wilder and [Charles] Brackett’s fully polished draft [of the screenplay for 1939′s Midnight] to a staff writer named Ken Englund. (Like many producers, then and now, Hornblow just wanted to put some more thumbprints on it.) Englund asked Hornblow what he was supposed to do with the script, since it looked good enough to him. “Rewrite it,” said Hornblow. Englund did as he was told and returned to Hornblow’s office with a new draft whereupon the producer told him precisely what the trouble was: it didn’t sound like Brackett and Wilder anymore. “You’ve lost the flavor of the original!” Hornblow declared. Englund then pointed out that Brackett and Wilder themselves were currently in their office doing nothing, so Hornblow turned the script back to them for further work. Charlie and Billy spent a few days playing cribbage and then handed in their original manuscript, retyped and doctored with a few minor changes. Hornblow loved it, and the film went into production.”

- Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder

On German-speaking Billy Wilder Learning English

“For the refugees, a harsh accent was the least of their troubles. The precise cases, endless portmanteaus, and complex syntactical structure of the German language made their transition to English a strain. It required a thorough rearrangement of thought. In German, the verb usually comes at the end of the sentence; in English, it appears everywhere but. In German, conversation as well as written discourse, like a well-ordered stream through a series of civilized farms, flows. In English, such constructions are stilted. We like to get to the point and get there fast. For a displaced screenwriter – an adaptable one, anyway – American English lend itself to the kind of direct, immediate, constantly unfolding expressivity that German tended to thwart. Linguistically at least, American emotions are more straightforward. The violinist Yehudi Menuhin puts it this way: ‘When you start a sentence in German, you have to know at the beginning what the end will be. In English, you live the sentence through to the end. Emotion and thought go together. In German, they’re divorced. Everything is abstract.’

For a flexible storyteller like Billie Wilder – or Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov, for that matter – the new mix of languages was wondrous, pregnant with sounds and bursting with meaning. Wilder’s ear picked up our slang as well as our pragmatic syntax, and his inventive, hard-edged mind found twentieth-century poetry in them. Puns, jokes, verbal color, even the modern-sounding American tones and resonances one could make in the mouth – all were deeply engaging to the young writer-ranconteur. It was exciting for him to get laughs in a new language.”

- Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder