Little Women (2019): Gerwig’s Spirited Adaptation of An American Classic

Little_Women_(2019_film)I once had the opportunity to tour Louisa May Alcott’s house on a family vacation. It’s one of those experiences I’m not sure you appreciate until you have the time and space to look back on it.

However, even then I think there was this innate understanding of how this beloved book was sewn into the very fabric of Alcott’s life and her family home in Concord, Massachusetts. You cannot begin to separate the two.

What’s so intriguing about Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is how it almost conducts an intertextual dialogue with the source material. It frames its story — the creation of a novel and its main character of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) — in order to map out something of Alcott’s life too. Because, again, they are very much intertwined. 

From what little I know about her, she seemed an equally driven, independent, and brilliantly-minded individual. In her own life, she never got married (unlike her characters) and she also provided for her family.

The movie itself has a brazen free-flowing structure taking material some of us might know intimately (and others not quite so well) and finding renewed meaning. To explore plot feels inconsequential — and not just because it is so familiar — Little Women is, by its very nature, anecdotal. It’s about the passage of time as girls evolve into women without ever being totally beholden to any singular event. 

If I might make a wildly unsubstantiated reference it comes off a bit like Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961), at least in form, where wild expanses of time are chopped up and compressed into these fluid increments. It feels like a young person’s version of an old person’s book. It courts the timelessness already present but, far from being stodgy, the movie burst with its own vigor, always lithe on its feet.

But this also funnels down to the staging and characterizations as well. Especially for the scenes set during their early years, it’s obvious the writer-director tries to capture the near-spontaneous, giddy energy that’s often the fuel of sisterhood. It can be an overwhelming force of nature full of emotion, affection, and contention in all the most meaningful of ways.

Even as someone with only a modicum amount of knowledge about Little Women (mostly from previous movie versions) Greta Gerwig shows such an immense appreciation for the material, she almost willfully carries us along with her. Even when we’re not quite sure what she’s doing or where she’s taking us, we learn to trust her decisions. If nothing else, she cares about these characters as much if not more than we do.

It’s true her version starts in what is normally considered the end of the narrative, as it slaloms back and forth from past to present with ease. All the moments, as far as I can recall, have antecedents in earlier versions, but as Gerwig stitches them together, it’s as if they are rejuvenated and given rebirth — a new context in which to be understood.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is how each sister in this newly minted construction is given their own definition and the ability to stand on their own two feet. Because, if you recall, Jo March has always been the undisputed star of these movies; she has provided the central protagonist and P.O.V. from which to understand these stories. If we are to believe Gerwig, Jo essentially wrote them after all.

There’s no denying Saoirse Ronan is our through-line in the narrative here as well amid all its undulations and purposeful digressions, and yet it feels like I get to appreciate the other March girls in ways I never have before. I don’t think it has much to do with star power — because traditionally there have been big names in most of the roles. Again, it is Gerwig who gives each a platform and her players graciously oblige.

Florence Pugh modulates wonderfully between moments of girlish cattiness and whining while simultaneously setting her eyes on mature ambitions, whether it be marriage as an advantageous business proposition or aspiring to be a great artist taken to Paris by Aunt March.

Far from simply capturing the past and the present of Amy, Pugh somehow makes the most complicated, even unlikable sister come out, in the end, gaining our deepest admirations (and sympathies). For those unaware of Pugh’s talent, it stands as yet another breakout performance.  

Emma Watson is able as the decent and contented Meg whose life still spills out of the mold of propriety she’s always been relegated to. There’s a bit more to her. Then Amy (Eliza Scanlen) remains the gifted musician and somehow the purest and most naive of them all. Her purpose is to fill the world with goodness and beauty. Some things never change.

Marmy (Laura Dern) — the family’s moral anchor — might come off an angelic goody two shoes quoting scripture judiciously (ie: “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger”). It could be a little much, that is until you realize her love is genuine, and she’s worked on it for an entire lifetime. Meryl Streep could probably play Aunt March in her sleep, and it’s not just a figure of speech; she does. Her performance is generally prickly and imperious while also belying a suspected soft underbelly. 

Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), as always, is found on the outside looking in at the March’s household. Their brand of enveloping community is so attractive you yearn to be a part of it, drawn into the fold as one of their kindred. After obliging with a token of his good-will, he quips “man is not made to live on books alone.”

In truth, I’ve never appreciated Chalamet more. There always seemed to be a pretentiousness drawn about him. Here there was something a bit different. It might have been the merit of Laurie teasing it out, but he felt slightly more animated and alive in a way that makes him likable. Although he is a man bred in affluent spheres, he nevertheless, hates their stuffiness.

He would rather dance a jig with Jo, and he calls out the March sisters when they falter into the general public’s pettiness because he knows the people they really are in the familiarity of their own home. In fact, he has tussles with nearly every sister, but never out of malice; there’s always such genuine care, even love, in its multifaceted forms. 

What I truly appreciate about Gerwig’s relationship with the text is how she openly courts contrasting ideas. Specifically, there are threads of feminism coursing through the narrative even as they extrapolate off ideas Alcott dealt with years ago.

And yet in the same instance, she does not shy away or completely dismiss romantic love or a more traditional desire for marriage. Case and point is Meg who is genuinely glad to be courted by a decent man she loves before raising a family together, in spite of their poverty. For Meg, this life fills her up with joy

So in some sense, Gerwig’s having her cake and eating it too paying deference to a timeless piece of American Literature while still perceiving it through her own personal creative lens.

You might say this even from a casting perspective with Ronan, Chalamet, and Tracy Letts all being holdovers from Lady Bird (2017). It might be the importance placed on female relationships, or the buoyancy frolicking with a sweeping passion through the storyline.

We get the happy ending if we so choose while also being allowed the space to consider an alternative. It doesn’t feel wishy-washy. Instead, it’s engaged with the enigma of Louis May Alcott herself even as it’s engaged with the process of creating art.

For me, it has the best of both worlds. Little Women has not been compromised and yet we have not been gipped of Gerwig’s own cinematic vivacity. While it’s not a perfect adaptation — not always intuitive to follow — it never scrimps on life-giving vitality.

You can note the humanity in profound new ways mined from a novel that’s been culled through and cherished for generations. I’ve never believed Little Women was a “women’s picture” or just for an American audience.  It is, in fact, universal. 

4/5 Stars

Night Moves (1975): Arthur Penn’s Neo Noir

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“I saw a Rohmer film once; it was kinda like watching paint dry.” – Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby

Gene Hackman is still with us but unlike others who are predisposed to continue working, he was content in setting a hard and fast end to his acting career. All that can be said is he is dearly missed. Even a less renowned project like Night Moves suggests how indispensable his talents were to the acting landscape of the 70s and 80s.

Director Arthur Penn was not an obvious practitioner of genre subversion as say, Robert Altman, but if you look at the likes of The Left-Handed Gun (1958), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Little Big Man (1970), and certainly Night Moves, it’s obvious he took accepted genres like westerns, gangsters movies, and film-noir only to give them a fresh point of view.

It seems fair to assume this film finds its place among the likes of Harper (1966) and The Long Goodbye (1973) because it begins by acknowledging the successive hoops of private investigator films with conscious self-awareness.

However, in such cases, the true entertainment comes in the departures, when it pertains to artistic vision, content, and narrative digressions. Penn shows particular preoccupation in a man at odds with his times and ultimately, a man unable to navigate the world, both personally and professionally.

In one very blunt admission, the lone wolf P.I., Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), acknowledges, “I didn’t solve anything. It just fell in on top of me.” Later, when asked where he was when Kennedy was shot. He responds wryly, “Which Kennedy?”

This is the perfect sentiment in a Vietnam, Post-assassination, Post-Watergate age where rhythm and reason seem all but cast to the wayside. If things reach a resolution at all — and a fatalistic one at that — it feels inevitable. In one sense, there appears to be little personal agency in the current cultural landscape. It’s no different for Harry.

It’s also imperative Night Moves boast a familiar point of demarcation. The despondent point of view is already in place, but it takes time for it to build up to what might already be a foregone conclusion.

It must begin in what feels like a conventional realm. Moseby receives a request from an aging Hollywood B-Girl whose husband formerly made Biblical epics. Now her free-loving daughter Delly (the saucy Melanie Griffin) has gone missing. The actress entrusts Harry with finding her daughter and bringing her home. It’s everything but a by the book assignment.

In fact, Alan Sharp’s script is equally aware of its traditions. Mrs. Iverson inquires if Moseby’s “the type of detective who once you get on a case nothing can get you off it: bribes, beatings, the allure of a woman.” He responds without missing a beat, “That was true in the old days before we had a union.” His fee of $125 a day plus reasonable expenses is also dirt cheap compared to Jim Rockford.

But this is indicative of his general temperament. Asked about his affinity for some grungy old antiquities from a would-be detective partner, he responds bluntly, “I would if they didn’t all remind me of Alex Karras.” Later, when he traps his wife with his crippled rival, far from the virile adversaries of yesteryear, the man coaxes him to take a swing at him, “The way Sam Spade would.”

He is a P.I. as only Gene Hackman could play one forming a beeline through The French Connection (1971) and The Conversation (1974). The core tenets of each of these varying protagonists are flaws — deep and messy. He is prone to violence and resentment and yet somewhere buried deep is a certain tenderness — a conscience and a moral compass of some kind. This ever-fluctuating identity is key.

He feels like a traditionalist more at home with the gumshoes of old than the new-fangled technology guiding detective agencies now. Hackman even rivals Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, but he doesn’t seem as absurdly out of place so much so that it verges on the satirical — even from a visual standpoint.

His emotional and personal framework is what puts him at odds with this current generation. On stakeouts, of course, he occupies himself with chess matches, watching the mark out of the corner of his eye, and it becomes the film’s defining metaphor.

In making the rounds, he questions a mechanic and one of Delly’s friends named Quentin, followed by the hotshot pilot who wooed her away. The last is the veteran stunt coordinator (Edward Binns), all leading him on the trail to his prize.

His primary case seems to be well on its way to a conclusion far sooner than we might have ever imagined. He tracks Delly down to Mexico, following the leads to her step-father (John Crawford) and the in-house dolphin expert (Jennifer Warren) who are making their domicile on the edge of the water. It’s a little bit of quaint paradise, and it feels rather like a dead-end, where crime stories might come to die.

If this is the outcome of the case, it seems anti-climactic at best. Still, something keeps us glued to the screen. We appreciate the characters and there is some amount of intuition mounting. Arthur Penn would not abandon us like this without something more to ruminate over. Night Moves just keeps on getting more and more perplexing by the minute.

It’s because the issues at hand are not localized; they only seem to morph and proliferate with every encounter, folding back on themselves to create more issues through the simple rhythms of character. Fittingly, actual travel is rarely denoted, only implied by varying cars and sudden jumps in location, thus continuously expanding the story.

It starts with Moseby but trickles down to any number of people he crosses paths with. Melanie Griffin’s part, much like Jodie Foster’s role in Taxi Driver a year later, does its very best to get under my skin, as both play squirm-inducing and unforgettable Lolitas.

Meanwhile, Moseby orbits within this confusing solar system of female relationships. It begins with the problems with his wife and patching up their relationship; because he knows what’s happening, but he doesn’t try very hard to fix things. He just keeps on with his work. Paula is the one who truly tickles his fancy; she’s warm and independent — working for Tom Iverson because, in her own words, “he gets nicer, not meaner when he’s drunk.”

Talking to Paula on another evening Harry explains a famous game in 1922 where Bruno Moritz failed to make a handful of knight moves. “He had a mate and didn’t see it.” These words linger in our mind from thenceforward. Because thoughtful films do not lay out these clues without there being a payoff, and it’s true these prophetic lines of Harry’s recall his own failure. The distractions are too many and his faculties are misdirected and diverted in all the wrong places.

At no instance is this more apparent than the film’s ensuing conclusion. A befuddling series of events begin to unwind. There are fluke accidents on a film set, drudged up bodies, outright murder, and aerial assaults at sea. It concludes with what can only be described as a hypnotic, if not entirely haunting final image — for one last time Harry was unable to see the whole puzzle. He stares helplessly at yet another scene that blindsided him.

Night Moves is a film you almost need time to marinate in. Because on first glance it feels like a sloppy, less meticulous Chinatown plot. Revelations arrive when it is far too late. Yet in its own way, Penn’s movie feels deeper than a surface reading and Hackman is a messed-up hero on par with anything Jack Nicholson could muster up.

However, the antagonist and the opposing forces are of a different nature. If not quite as sinister as Chinatown, they’re equally jarring, leaving us with a wistful impact of despondency. Chinatown is made up of a world that we must helplessly accept as passive bystanders.

It can be propped up as one of the finest mysteries of all time like a tightly wound clock of impeccable foreshadowing and interconnections. Night Moves leaves us with a boatload of loose ends still unresolved and unexplained.

The mystery and focus constantly seem muddled and shifting away from center just as our own focus continually seems to drift. It’s hardly as methodical as its predecessor but this looseness still couches numerous befuddling reveals, as abrupt and disjointed as they might seem.

Of all places, our protagonist’s opinions of art-house cinema provide one last fateful portent. He gets antsy watching a film like Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s where dialogue takes precedence over action.

But it is also a film of choice — little microcosms that require decisions. It’s apt Rohmer’s characters are creatures of choice. When we look at Harry there are similar issues and yet his choices feel pointless because he has little comprehension of the scenarios at hand.

However, there’s no way for someone like him to experientially understand all the situations and, in the end, he pays dearly for it. If the moral of the story is not learning to like appreciate Rohmer’s cinema, it is, at the very least, a call to appreciate that we are people of choice as much as we are relational beings. Both are crucial to life. Harry never quite figures either out quickly enough.

4/5 Stars

Breaking Away (1979): Bloomington Indiana on Wheels

220px-breaking_away“When you’re 16, they call it sweet 16. When you’re 18, you get to drink, vote, and see dirty movies. What the hell do you get to do when you’re 19?”

Oftentimes sports films are memorable for merely pioneering underdog stories or analogous themes meant to inspire. But then we get a whole slew of imitators coming afterward. You see it with baseball, basketball, football — most of the big ones — each one already boasting a substantial fanbase and accepted canon of classics. However, cycling has never been as popular in the States and thus, watching Breaking Away, even today, feels like it’s own unique experience.

Sure, it’s the age-old, small-town coming-of-age story. There are too many of those to even begin counting the good ones (much less the bad). We’re supposed to care for four dreamy highschoolers going out against the world. There is so much that could feel hackneyed and overdone. But married with cycling, Breaking Away has yet to meet its equal. Off the top of my head, there is no other cycling film that channels this same sense of exuberance or captures a certain time or place like the Bloomington, Indiana featured herein.

Because along with Hoosiers, Breaking Away is in the running for the most Indiana movie of all time. It lives and breathes the tangible air made very apparent in Steve Tesich’s script. He has an intimate understanding of this area, having lived there in college and even having been a member of a cycling team.

So for every forgettable yarn that I’ll graciously refrain from mentioning, we get an American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. Breaking Away is very much the same. Their skill comes in taking the individual and the deeply personal memories, only to realize them in a way that cannot help but be universal.

It grabs hold of those strains and feelings that we all can relate to, no matter our background or race or creed. In some circles, it has to be the greatest common denominators. Like not knowing what you’re doing with your life. Having a difficult relationship with parents. Even being the underdog forced to prove yourself against Goliath.

In this case, our protagonist is a scrawny kid (Dennis Christopher), nevertheless, obsessed with cycling and therefore, Italian culture. He’s going through a phase that’s just about driving his father up the wall. He’s a man who won’t have any “inis” in his house from Fellini to Zucchini.

 Dave’s a cultural sponge where imitation is and always will be the highest form of flattery, even going so far as to thank the saints on one particularly fortuitous occasion (“Oh Dave, try not to go Catholic on us”). Along with the constant biking comes the Italian language used in the home, opera records, and shaving his legs (like an Italian).

It’s how he’s able to make a unique identity for himself aside from being the former sick kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing with his life. We’ve all been there. At least he’s added a little flair to his existence while he still can.

What ensues is a cringe-worthy romantic introduction as he submerges into his Italian persona just to get acquainted with a girl. It’s almost a defense mechanism because he’s too unsure to be himself; it’s much easier to put on a larger-than-life, sing-song facade. If it gets rejected there’s no harm. Moonlight serenades outside the sorority house window follow and stirring heart-to-hearts.

If Italian culture and a girl become his main extracurriculars, then most of his formative time is spent in the company of his buddies. Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the tough guy with the chip on his shoulder. He’s protective of his turf and always ready to rumble with the more affluent sects of society. He’s not about to back down from anyone.

If there’s a Mike in every crowd, there must also be a lovable airhead like Cyril (Daniel Stern), good for a few laughs so tensions simmer down. The last amigo is the shaggy-haired and affable pipsqueak Moocher, who is no doubt in the most serious relationship of all the boys. In his own way, he might actually be the most mature.

Regardless, they are constantly reminded of the realities of living in a college town. Part of this is the socio-economic aspect. They spend their summers swimming in the local quarries, as opposed to the sleek indoor swimming pools and co-ed decadence of all the out-of-town college kids.

They proudly wear their somewhat derogatory label as “Cutters,” the local blue-collar families who either don’t have enough money to get into the school or perhaps they aren’t bright enough. I’d be willing to believe the former more than the latter.

However, if Dave Stoller thinks he’s found who he is, events cause him to reevaluate his very identity. Not about being a cyclist — he still can ride faster than just about anybody in town — but there’s more to him than that. He’s forced to sort it out.

Because the day he’s been waiting for finally arrives, and he realizes his dream to ride with the team from Italy who have come to Indianapolis. Being in their stead provides him with a rude awakening. When he gets sent careening off the tracks by some foul play, his idols tumble right down with them. He realizes the necessity of being his own man and so he goes out on another limb.

He admits to the girl his whole Italian shtick was an act. He made it all up. Not surprisingly, she lashes out in bitterness over his bout of deception. It sends everything spinning into a tizzy. The untouchable, alluring college girl has a moment of genuine frailty and our hero is ousted for what he was — not simply an insecure adolescent — but a jerk for putting her on.

There is also tangentially the obvious paralyzing fear of stepping off into the great unknown that is the future and out of his father’s life into his own. What Breaking Away does a fine job at is coloring the relationships, not just between peers but a father, son, and mother.

Barbara Barrie is sublime as a steady ever-understanding wife and calming maternal figure. She performs the role seamlessly. Equally important is Paul Dooley as Ray Stoller. He’s full of irritations and hilarious punchlines that give way to real feeling.

He’s born out of a generation that does not know what affection is. They are proud and they work hard and grit it out. He helped excavate the land that became the university, and now he’s a used car dealer. Looking at his son he sees someone who is soft and inexperienced. And yet when he’s really honest and speaks his heart, he wants something better for his boy than what he had.

This is how you know parents care. No matter how much they might grumble and gripe, most everything they do is to set up their children for a better future. It’s no different in Breaking Away. Coincidentally, parents almost always make the greatest cheerleaders because they’re always there.

 If Dave’s tumble off the bike and the renunciation of his girlfriend were subsequent slaps in the face to his ego, then the Little 500 Race is the obvious chance at redemption. Again, the beats are oh-so-familiar but at this point, it doesn’t matter. The wheels are spinning and we’re ready to cheer on the boys as they seemingly take on the world or at least all the hotshot fraternities dismissing their very existence. It’s superfluous to mention the ending.

The euphoric joys of a goosebump-filled finale cannot be totally dismissed. It makes one realize the power of characters that we are able to empathize with. Knowing what will happen doesn’t take away one ounce of the excitement because we feel for them and are urging them to succeed.

We are a part of the Cutters team and every burn, every lap, every push they make against adversity, means something to us too. There is nothing self-important about it and this above all else allows it to be a sheer delight.

Peter Yates career, while somewhat uneven, boasts some quality outings if you consider the likes of Bullitt and Breaking Away. They could not be more different (the settings alone are starkly juxtaposed) and yet they do capture a very specific milieu — in this case, through a free-and-easy coolness — with kinetic energy utilized to its utmost degree.

Both are a reminder that far from taking away from the human experience — vehicles can be an extension of them, in allowing characters to realize greater potential. Bullitt in his charger, bouncing through the streets of San Francisco and then Dave blazing down the highways and byways on his bike in and around Bloomington.

The evocation of a specific place with corresponding feelings is so important. Content doesn’t matter as much as long as it manages to leave a lasting impression on us. Evocative narratives do just that.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Paul Newman

Here is the latest in our ongoing series of, hopefully, manageable beginner’s guides to classic movie stars by curating 4 films to watch, while slipping in innumerable more to consider for future reference.

This week our figure of note is Paul Newman actor extraordinaire who became a much-loved icon and remained married to Joanne Woodward for over 50 years! He got his start coming out of the same New York stage-driven scene that revolutionized Hollywood with the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean.

However, his career evolved with the times and one of his greatest attributes was a winsome charisma to go along with his baby blues that led to staggering longevity in Hollywood for decades.

Let’s talk about where to start with Paul Newman.

The Hustler (1961)

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Paul Newman was forever rueful about The Silver Calice, his first major onscreen credit. Some early successes to consider are Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Long Hot Summer. However, this is one of his emblematic roles as up-and-coming hotshot Fast Eddie Felson. His pool table battles with Jackie Gleason became the stuff of cinematic legend.

Hud (1963)

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Paul Newman’s career was laden with H-titled films including the previous entry, Harper (1966), and Hombre (1967). However, his turn as Hud is in a league of its own as he plays the carouser with the barb-wired soul in a western world slowly falling apart at the seams in the face of modernity. It’s a blistering turn by Newman as he fully commits to his unsavory part.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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Paul Newman and Luke Jackson are almost interchangeable. He’s a mythical hero both dashing and anti-establishment. A social outcast and a leader of men who captures their imaginations with his casually confident, indefatigable spirit. It’s rare to find such a fitting hero for a generation and a state of being. “Nothing” is a cool hand indeed.

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)

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It’s the ultimate buddy film. Paul Newman and Robert Redford would forever be linked and immortalized thanks in part to William Goldman’s comical mythology of Old West outlaws. They helped make the anti-hero amusing while redefining the West fading away in the modern age of civilization. The boys had so much fun they came back together for a double-dose with the widely successful The Sting. Still, it’s difficult to top the original.

Worth Watching:

The Left-Handed Gun, Paris Blues, Slap Shot, The Verdict, Nobody’s Fool, Road to Perdition, Cars, etc.

The Last of Sheila (1973): A Mystery Missing Its Columbo

Last_sheila_movieposter“That’s the thing about secrets. We all know stuff about each other; we just don’t know the same stuff.”

The Last of Sheila is an intricate murder mystery with origins in real-life parlor games put on by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim for some of their socialite friends in New York. While these mapped out scavenger hunts did not involve actual murder, they are easily adapted to fit such a storyline. Because all we need are a group of folks thrown together, some friendly competition involving misdirection, and a boatload of lies, and we are on our way.

James Coburn takes up his position as the grinning master of ceremonies inviting a group of his closest “friends” aboard his yacht. In the wake of his wife’s death from a hit-and-run driver, he plans The Sheila Green Memorial Gossip Game in her honor. Aside from being rather facetious, it becomes obvious it’s a chance to get some wicked revenge.

The rest of the cast reads easily enough. You have Dyan Cannon playing a bubbly talent agent modeled after Sue Mengers (her real-life agent), Richard Benjamin as a struggling screenwriter, and Joan Hackett as his well-off but generally sincere wife. Raquel Welch is her typically alluring self and Ian McShane fills in as her husband/talent manager. James Mason is our final guest bringing his gravitas as a veteran director, probably in the mold of Orson Welles.

Soon enough, they are all thrown together on the yacht, floating off the coast of France. The ever-conniving Clinton (Coburn) develops quite the complex ordeal to throw them into with each obliging player given a specific card because this is a game with double meaning. It is part leisure and the other more sinister aspect is meant to unveil deep dark secrets.

The first clue is a sterling key that sets them off exploring the local digs like giddy school children out for a lark. This is the fun and games portion. Then, the following afternoon, someone turns on the turbines causing a near-traumatic accident or a very insidious murder attempt.

The next locale for the escapades is a deserted island monastery meant to be the showcase for another clue or personal secret. But the frolicking goes awry when our master showman is found dead, brutally bludgeoned to death by a stone column. It becomes obvious one of our company is a murderer. It’s just a matter of deciphering who it might be.

Since this is a type of parlor game, it’s fitting everyone gets gathered together for the obligatory convening to begin sifting through the facts and slipping the pieces together. These new conjectures don’t keep another member from being left for dead in the bathtub. Our number of suspects is beginning to dwindle.

If it’s not exactly a false climax, it does feel like the picture peaks too early, and it kind of peters out. Because there are still some variables to plug in, but there’s nothing astonishing about the final resolutions.

What’s most important to the architects is the stalwartness of the story, making sure all the pieces fit together into a fundamentally sound puzzle. Unfortunately, the characters are then pushed to the fringes and become of lesser importance. When you’re boasting such a wide-ranging and potentially intriguing cast, it does feel like a bit of a waste.

The Last of Sheila is a tantalizing prospect with less than stellar results. The mysteries feel mostly compartmentalized, and they string us along without ever completely gripping us. This is no Agatha Christie who-done-it nor does it have the intriguing characterizations of a Columbo episode holding it together.

The star power is there but not the actual concern in the story. Because there is no Columbo to hold it together with levity and groggy charm. In fact, it’s as if the whole cast is filled out by Mystery Movie guest stars. Any of these players might have easily crossed over. Cannon does the most admirable job of bursting out of a ho-hum characterization to leave a real living, breathing impression.

But again, it is a story of first world problems, of Hollywood glamour, feuds, scandals, and ultimately, excess. Somehow the murders of such people in the context of this film, where we never truly get to know anyone, feels relatively pointless and blase at best. Because these are icy cold individuals. There is no emotion (only Hackett shows a sensitive side); everyone else feels hardened or fickle, made callous by the world and the lives they have chosen.

If it had dipped more deeply into the cynicism earlier, it might be different. But this is hardly a commentary. It’s merely a decent excuse to exercise some mental ingenuity for the benefit of an audience. This narrative could have been so much more, but we are forced to settle for something gleaming with star power and only moderately compelling as a mystery drama. Sometimes high expectations can sour an experience. The Last of Sheila would be another prime example of this phenomenon.

3/5 Stars

Dog Day Afternoon (1975): The Fury of Al Pacino in a Great Heist Film

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We usually think of filmmakers like Woody Allen or even Noah Baumbach for their portrayals of New York. There’s no doubt they have left their imprint on the city, so it’s difficult not to envision it without their influences. However, in his own right, Sidney Lumet also deserves to be viewed in this light, even if it originates from a fundamentally different perspective.

Lumet is a director who seems to know this place intimately, but he hardly sugarcoats it. He gives us something loose and engaging, full of human drama. We saw it in everything from 12 Angry Men (1957) to Serpico (1973). With Dog Day Afternoon it’s much the same.

The film starts with a boat, before making its way across the city with imagery of both the vocational and leisurely activities of the general populous. People are bumping tunes as these city-wide scenes hum with the familiar rhythms of daily life. It seems a curiously wide net to take from the outset, only to make concrete sense minutes later.

Alongside these typical shots is something highly irregular within this same context: The attempted robbery of a local bank. One can easily champion Dog Day Afternoon as the greatest heist film for the very fact it is a comedy of errors because the sub-genre has always been defined by all hell breaking loose as everything eventually goes awry.

This picture never even gets there. It’s the purest articulation of the core tension flowing through any heist movie, going back to the days of The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or The Killing (1956). However, in this case, we are provided none of the same space for a setup or earlier preparation. It’s all the mechanisms of the job going haywire right in front of our eyes. It’s not even that the perfect plan hits a fateful snag or there’s a turncoat or what have you. These robbers are obviously sunk before they’ve even begun, and the story pivots on this, becoming something novel in itself.

It commences with their youngest accomplice who doesn’t have enough stomach to go through with it, and he literally bales on them during crunch time. Sonny (Al Pacino) and his buddy Sal (John Cazale) muddle through because the gun has already come out. They’re committed to what they’ve started. Soon the manager and female tellers are rounded up along with the security guard. No one’s looking for trouble.

But this is just the beginning. Because when they finally get to the issue at hand — the money in the vaults — there’s barely any cash. It was all taken out in the latest shipment. Strike two.

Though Sonny professes to know the ins and outs of bank work, he’s none too bright and in one of his most gloriously idiotic blunderings, he burns up the bank’s register only for the smoke from the wastebasket piquing attention out on the street. Just about everyone needs to use the toilet; they’re the kind of complications you don’t usally make allowances for in such a scenario.

Meanwhile, the police swarm the sight and Sergeant Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) takes on the point to strike up a line of communication with the criminals. This is phase two where Dog Day evolves into a story where the aftermath of this event takes the most prominent place but for altogether different reasons than we usually expect. We reach this point of extended stalemate.

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The security guard is plagued by asthma and gets sent as a sign of good faith, but Sonny’s not about to take any double talk. In the galvanizing moment that forever vaulted Dog Day Afternoon into the conversation of anti-establishment cinema, Pacino walks out on the streets and dares the cops to back down.

This is his stand, and it catalyzes the rest of the film’s action. He knows he has power because the crowds are watching him — if not the entire city. In a moment of inspiration, he starts screaming “Attica” and as his chants, evoking the contemporary prison riots, sweep through the onlookers, and they begin to cheer him on almost as if he’s one of their heroes, and he has found solidarity with them.

TV coverage makes everything live and visible to the viewing public, and it’s the same game we can play with Network (1976). If the media was invasive back then, just imagine how much more of a parasite it is now with smartphones capable of capturing everything.

One might say Dog Day Afternoon documents a very specific cultural moment because we have only continued to progress from there with the media getting more and more intrusive as time goes on.

This strange almost absurd strain of insanity becomes acceptable. Where we have stalemates and compromises with people trying to communicate and defuse a situation of the most volatile nature. All because of a measly bank robbery running afoul.

The drama settles into a strange equilibrium where everyone is trying to work with everyone else to get out of the current situation. The captors and their captives on the inside form a rapport over time. A type of Stockholm Syndrome sets in. Then you have the uneasy symbiosis of the perpetrators and the cop on the outside looking to defuse the situation so the hostages get away safely.

It’s a shortlived truce blowing up again when someone tries to sneak into the back and a shot goes off, sending the police and crowds into a frenzy. On the inside, it isn’t much better. Pacino is at his most intense following up the slow burn of the Godfather Part II (1974) with something equally grating. It’s not exactly documentary, but there is a certain sensibility to it that makes it continuously tense and strangely funny, in its most organic moments.

It only falters with its substantial length, because after losing some of its tautness as an out-and-out thriller, it falls into the strangely comically strains of theatrics before getting distracted by any number of things. These are the lulls that are weathered by the sheer ferocity of Pacino’s performance.

There’s the complication of paying for t the sex change operation of his partner. His mother comes to the scene of the crime to coax him to give up, and it’s another distraction he could do without, in between the phone calls he’s constantly fielding with the police.

In his semi-delusional mind, he develops grand plans to get a car to take them to the airfield where they’ll head to Algeria. Sal is menacing but generally composed, played with matter-of-fact sentience by John Cazale. You almost forget he’s there. The only moment he seems obviously perturbed is when the news outlets make out that he’s gay. He wants Sonny to set them straight.

At the center of this insanity, sweating it out and trying to balance all the pressures thrust upon him is the man himself. He orchestrated this whole thing only for it to blow up into a local phenomenon he could hardly control. He becomes the ringleader of his own form of media circus — albeit on the inside — on par with anything whipped up by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s Ace in The Hole (1951).

The ending wallops equally hard like cold air hitting the face. Again, we met with this weird sense of total equilibrium restored. Life can settle back into normalcy. It’s simultaneously a welcome sigh of relief and still a hollow victory.

Because even if it was momentary, we were in Sonny’s corner too — right there with his hostages — and maybe after spending so much time with him, we were inflicted with a bit of Stockholm Syndrome ourselves. There is this wishful hope that he just might get away and things could turn out. In this austere, pragmatic world of ours, such sentiment seems like folly.

Lumet documents the milieu while Pacino captures its ensuing despondency with his usual unflinching fury. At its best, Dog Day Afternoons is driven by performance, and its director creates an impeccable world for incubation.

4/5 Stars

Mean Streets (1973): Martin Scorsese’s Intimate Crime Film

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Martin Scorsese will always be synonymous with Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, but if we want to truly chart his ascension as a singular creative mind, Mean Streets must be our genesis. Because it essentially lays the groundwork for his entire career.

In truth, it’s the strangest gangster film of its kind; it’s emphatically Scorsese’s, full of his pulse and life-blood –his love of cinema. It is a gritty and intimate creature born out of the American New Wave, further imbued with religious imagery and the imprint of something starkly personal.

Though Robert De Niro might seem the obvious figurehead to gravitate toward, in this instance Harvey Keitel is our true vehicle to move through the picture. We get a line on him from his opening lines lying in bed, “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.”

Because here’s a good kid trying to look out for his friends, while working for his uncle who happens to be a powerful loan shark. There is no grandiose story arc here. At the most mundane level, most of the story revolves around the even-keeled, responsible Charlie trying to vouch for cocky local hothead Johnny Boy (De Niro), who has the continual insolence to dodge his creditors, perpetually trying their patience with his brazen excuses. He’s the type of jerk you’re never going to straighten out.  He just never learns.

The majority of the film has Charlie playing peacekeeper, though he also has the preconception that he holds his own fate within his grasp. The moral issues still gnaw at him. He wants to be his own savior. He’s proud and self-sufficient. 10 “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers” will not satisfy him. They’re just words. He wants to make his own penance for his own sins.

Meanwhile, his uncle tells him to stay away from Johnny Boy. He starts seeing Teresa (Amy Robinson), Johnny Boy’s cousin (and a lapsed epileptic), which is another rocky relationship, partially due to her own hatred of her cousin. Michael (Richard Romanus), a small-time shark gives him fair warning multiple times; he’s not about to take any more of Johnny’s crap. Somehow Charlie seems able to assuage him.

He hasn’t accounted for just how extreme of a hot-headed punk the kid is. In one isolated event, he finds Johnny Boy on a rooftop firing off a piece just for kicks and giggles. He seems to think it was a perfectly good idea, and he holds no respect for any form of social honor. This is near blasphemy in such a time-honored traditional society.

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As with anything Scorsese, it’s not simply about narrative but form as well, and one of Mean Streets‘ most notable successes is in the cutting of the footage to music. Charlie’s life is brought to us via home movie newsreels and The Ronettes “Be My Baby.”

De Niro certainly makes Johnny Boy pop, but his introduction shouldering two women in a bar, sashaying toward the camera in slo-mo to the pounding jagged edges of “Jumpin Jack Flash” is nothing short of virtuoso. It’s hard to even imagine the images outside of the context now. Because it’s totally indicative of the world Scorsese is introducing, bathed in red hues with a swaggering Robert de Niro, and Harvey Keitel watching from the bar.

The oddly discordant matching of “Please Mr. Postman” with a pool hall brawl instigated by Johnny Boy (surprise, surprise), provides a similar mental association as does “The Shoop Shoop Song” played over a brief image of Charlie just about to stick his hand into the flame of a stovetop. The reason is immaterial. The emotion is what speaks.

It’s true American Graffiti might be the quintessential soundtrack movie, but Scorsese’s soundtrack for Mean Streets deserves laud in its own right. Not only is it packed full of classics, they are such effective pieces of this narrative helping to cultivate the mood at any given point in time.

Obviously, Scorsese is a lover of movies, but in the context of this story, they also have a very personal function. They provide a cutaway from the world — existing as diversions and distractions from the daily grind whether it’s The Searchers or The Tomb of Ligeia. It makes no difference. Scorsese allows a reverence for everything, whether it be on late-night TV or a cramped, musty old movie theater.

Even when taking this into account, it’s easy to write Mean Streets off initially as just another gangster movie, especially if you try and analyze it retroactively. But this could not be further from the truth.

Because while rock soundtracks are the norm now, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were invariably at the forefront of this trend. They make the sound work seamlessly within the context of their stories. It adds layers that would be lost otherwise. There’s something powerful provided by the music working counter to the typical beats of non-diegetic scoring.

Consequently, I cannot help but recall Scorsese talking about his infatuation with Force of Evil (1948) because, within its poeticism, it manages to be equal parts small-time corruption and family drama, all in one.

The world of Mean Streets is analogous. It feels every day and unsentimental, ringing with an obvious authenticity. Because Scorsese is sharing a bit of his childhood neighborhood with us. These characters. The relationships and the business they find themselves in. There is nothing glamorous about it and when someone is willing to bring us something so close to them, they should be rewarded.

Without a doubt, Scorsese expresses deep affection for Hollywood, but he readily bursts forth with his own shot of individualistic adrenaline. These are the kind of efforts that made The American New Wave a boon of cinematic creativity and Mean Streets, with Scorsese as its maverick, must be kept front and center in the collective conversation. There’s no question the collaboration of Scorsese and De Niro is still one of cinema’s most transcendent.

Mean Streets forces us to extend more love to Harvey Keitel as well. The film could not be realized to this extent without all their talents coalescing. Somehow they share a joint language adding up to a shared experience. They know these people and these places on an intimate level, and it shows.

4.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Kirk Douglas

With this ongoing series, our goal is to help people who are new to classic movies, get a foothold. To make it easy, we give you 4 representative choices and then some supplementary options.

Sadly, with the passing of Kirk Douglas earlier this week at 103 years of age, it seemed apropos to tackle his career for those who might be interested. There are so many great movies to choose from, spanning the decades, but we’ll give it our best shot.

Champion (1949)

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Kirk Douglas had so many stellar early supporting roles in noir: Strange Love Martha Ivers, Out of The Past, I Walk Alone are all memorable. However, Champion was Kirk Douglas’s big break channeling his trademark intensity into the ring as an overzealous fighter. It would set the tone and help shape his growing reputation in Hollywood.

The Bad and The Beautiful (1952)

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Despite all the glitz and glam to go with a Hollywood storyline, Kirk Douglas is as blistering as ever. Like Sunset Boulevard or In a Lonely Place, it shows another side of the industry and Douglas and Lana Turner deliver some of the most memorable performances of their careers in this Vincente Minnelli drama. That’s saying something if you consider Kirk’s work in Detective Story and Ace in The Hole around the same time.

Paths of Glory (1957)

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Paths of Glory stands as one of the great wars films for the very reason it runs counter to many of the narratives we know well. At the core of this Stanley Kubrick WWI piece is Douglas as a man caught in the middle of the insanity of war, in this case, perpetrated by his own superiors. If you want more conventional entertainment there’s also Gunfight at The O.K. Corral (1957) highlighting Douglas’s longtime screen partnership with Burt Lancaster.

Spartacus (1960)

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Spartacus is arguably the tentpole of Kirk Douglas’s entire career, and it has the epic spectacle of sword and sandal epics of the era with Douglas anchoring the action with his typical dimpled charisma opposite Jean Simmons. Behind the scenes, the picture would prove to be a watershed for unofficially ending the Hollywood Blacklist by openly crediting ostracized writer Dalton Trumbo. It’s one of Douglas’s great moral triumphs as a Hollywood producer.

Worth Watching

A Letter to Three Wives, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Man Without a Star, Lust for Life, Last Train from Gun Hill, Lonely are The Brave, Seven Days in May, etc.

Parasite (2019): Bong Joon-ho’s Household Thriller

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I heard in an interview director Bong Joon-ho had the idea for Parasite percolating in his mind for a long time, and it was born out of the most curious forms of inspiration. In college, he used to tutor English for the child of a rich family. From that point of disembarkation, he started asking “what if…” and all of a sudden his latest thriller was born.

Whether this story is completely true or not, it gets at what I relish about screenwriting and the inception of ideas in any form. Oftentimes they come straight out of real-life experiences only to be morphed and molded, burnished and extrapolated upon until they take on an existence entirely their own.

In some ways, Parasite feels very much related to the previous year’s Cannes darling Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. In both cases, a story about an impoverished family becomes a handy jumping-off point for social commentary. But that’s just it. The premise provides a jumping-off point and there’s little else we can compare because the stories take drastically different turns simply adjudging from their creators.

Because the Kim family live crowded in a shoddy basement-dwelling leeching off the wi-fi of those who live around them, somewhat contented or at least resigned to their vagrant lifestyle. However, one day their teenage son, Ki-woo is enlisted by a friend to fill his position tutoring the daughter of a rich family.

His family helps him with the con using their skills of photoshop, composition, and dramaturgy to pull off the masquerade and ingratiate themselves. It helps that their mark is a simple-minded, trusting, and generally kind matriarch. There’s a touch of Luis Bunuel in the depiction of this rather naive and vacuous bourgeoisie family getting overrun by the lower classes.

And yet a distinction must be made here too because Bong does not altogether mock them. There is the inkling of affection for all his ensemble even as he teases them. This is one of the keys to the movie’s success. The message is not hammered home at the expense of the characters. 

One thing leads to another and the household vacancies begin filling up. First, an English tutor, then an art therapy instructor, next a new chauffeur, and finally a housekeeper. If the early dynamic is a tad like Shoplifters, as Parasite gears up, I couldn’t help but feel this same pervading unease experienced throughout Jordan Peele’s Get Out. While it might seem like a curious touchstone, what both films fashion are compelling thrillers carved out of the home.

The domicile and symbol of social capital, stability, even the family unit, is turned into this perturbing space that can be easily sabotaged and infested. It doesn’t matter if the main thematic element is race or class. They can both function in an insidious manner as a source of tension throughout the picture, seeping in through the cracks. Where you can live life from the heights of privilege or sunken in the subterranean void below. 

While the cat’s away the mice will play, and it’s at this point we ponder where we could possibly be headed. The Kims succeed in totally taking over the house and lounging in all its decadent luxuries. This could be the end of the story. Thankfully, we are in the hands of someone who knows full-well what they are looking to accomplish. 

Part of the ingenuity of the film comes in how form follows function in this very tangible way. Because the visual and environmental disparity trickles down through the story until it emphatically erupts. The metaphor takes on a very real and concrete form throughout the picture. But for the time being, it’s all about building the mounting suspense to a crescendo.

Bong is a disciple of Hitchcock, and thus he’s taken to heart the pervasive power of dramatic irony. He can both manipulate the audience while implicating us and making us totally invested in the charade at hand.

Though Parasite does have twists — one particularly harrowing in nature — it is built out of this maintained sense of dread and tension. It only works because the director has taken us into his confidence and we know something other characters do not.

The film is also built and developed out of not only its architecture but the sound design helping to create a distinct space and also a rhythm conducive to the action. A chaotic scramble to neutralize, not a gun, but a phone with social media capabilities is the centerpiece of one memorable scene full of struggling bodies, flailing arms, and the like, choreographed to perfection.

There are certain scenes like this one where they cease to be bits of exposition and dialogue, and they feel more and more like they’re verging on visual symphony as we watch images and actions flash by with a very particular cadence. They have the force to carry us away in the moment — cutting to the music — like many of the greats have done, from Hitchcock to Scorsese. 

When the Kim family is finally at their lowest point, sleeping on a gymnasium floor, their patriarch utters the film’s one line which feels like some kind of worldview tucked into a movie that otherwise functions only as a satire, if not an out-and-out black comedy. He says the best plan is no plan because nothing works out the way you mean for it to anyway. It doesn’t matter if you kill someone or commit treason. Nothing matters. Nihilism is alive and well.

Still, the beauty of this is even while Mr. Kim says these things, there is a director behind him — an artistic creator — who has more than a vision for where he will end up. There is a purpose to everything that is happening to him. 

If the majority of the movie is an exhibition in Hithcockian manipulation, then the ending is suitably macabre for someone totally versed in the Master of Suspense. Bong somehow manages to be playful, shocking, thrilling, and a tad somber all in the course of the final hour. The film is lengthy; we don’t always know where it will wind up, and yet it ends up in places that continually lead to further questions.  You cannot unsee it or quite forget about what we have witnessed. 

Parasite has an undisputed climax and still the story continues allowing itself to sink back into a newfound despondency and the original status quo. I still cannot decide if this suits everything we have been subjected too thus far.

Although another joy of screenwriting is narrative symmetry when we can take a movie back to where it began. Because so much has happened. We have weathered so much as an audience, watching and in some perverse way, rooting for this family, only for it to end up back the way it was, under very different circumstances.

All I know is that this is one of the most wickedly sharp and ingeniously pulse-pounding movies I’ve seen in quite some time. It irks me and yet in the same instance, I cannot quite turn away.

If there is any more fruit, broader still, it will come from the phenomenal press the film has received, and in an age where acclaim still guides public opinion, like Bong said himself, maybe this can be the film to help the general public conquer their fear of subtitles. Because if Parasite‘s any indication, it wields the power to open people up to expansive avenues of cinema. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

The joy of making the leap is the realization that you are not being pulled further away from what you know. More often than not, you’re getting closer — closer to the things that feel universal — the human predilections connecting us on an intimate scale. Both the parasitic and the hospitable, the good and the evil. 

Although they couldn’t be a more diverse company, you see it in Hitchcock (a Brit), Koreeda (a Japanese), Bunuel (a Spaniard), Bong (a South Korean), and many others. Go watch them if you have the chance. My hope is you will be glad you did. 

4.5/5 Stars

In Memoriam: Remembering Kirk Douglas (1916-2020)

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One of the greats is gone. At 103 years of age, Issur Danielovitch, known to movie lovers over as Kirk Douglas has finally left us.

In full transparency, if he was up against Robert Mitchum I would have probably sided with Bob. If he was facing off with Burt Lancaster I might have gravitated to Burt. But there was something so fiery and passionate about Kirk Douglas making him simultaneously one of the great action heroes and villains over an illustrious career.

Because he thrived on ferocity, conflict, and volatility before the days of Brando and company. In the 40s he knuckled down with the aforementioned men in seminal film noir like Out of the Past and I Walk Alone.

His first truly blistering protagonist proved to be the ambitious boxer Midge in Champion, and he would set a beeline for parts channeling the same energy straight to the top. Take anything like Detective Story, Ace in the Hole, and Bad and The Beautiful to get an idea.

If you take stock of these portrayals their altogether fearless. They are not consumed with being likable or palatable. They have sleaze and corruption dripping all over them but they’re also unmistakably magnetic. You can’t take your eyes off them.

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In many ways, Douglas felt as fearless in life as he was on screen. As he gained more clout he used his powers to pick uncompromising material. Paths of Glory, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is one of his finest hours as a stirring statement and morose portrait of war.

Is it an obvious cliche to say he had a Lust for Life in line with the characters he played including Vincent Van Gogh and Spartacus? Certainly, it is, but why belabor the point.

It was the latter film which galvanized his pronouncement for generations of parodies (For me it was in Community). And yet all kidding aside, it was this very same antithetical, and wildly popular biblical epic that helped crush the gates of the blacklist.

Douglas was one of the few men with the guts (and the sway) to call on the irrepressible talents of blacklist poster boy Dalton Trumbo and still get away with it.

If these few passing bits of observation were all his life had to offer, it would be well worth acknowledging. There’s so much more that I don’t even have the time or knowledge to fully cover. I will simply leave you with this. Kirk Douglas will be dearly missed because he loomed large over the industry.

To be fair we aren’t simply paying tribute to him because he was one of the last living testaments to the days of Old Hollywood though that holds true. We are remembering him in part because he had his fingerprints all over the film industry for generations. You cannot talk about the classical period of the 20th century without rubbing up against his influence.

There is a reason he was placed #17 on The American Film Institute’s list of screen legends. Not simply as a token award, but because it was well-warranted. As someone who is invested in sharing the world of classic cinema with others, he will be dearly missed. But the beauty of film is the fact he will not be forgotten.

Those who love or (even in my case) deeply admire his talents, will look to pass them on.

R.I.P. Kirk.

To many of us, you were Spartacus…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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