Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star_Wars_The_Last_Jedi.jpg“Let the past die.”  – Adam Driver as Kylo Ren

I left the theater feeling completely taciturn. It’s an onerous task to begin articulating all the jumbled fragments circulating through my mind but I will try my very best.  Certainly, there is a great deal to be enjoyed and to be relished about Episode VIII and you would be served well to go into The Last Jedi not searching out its faults but reveling in the successes that are there. Let it be known that there are many and Rian Johnson is a fine maker of movies as he guides us through the Resistance’s latest evasion of The First Order still up to their old business of quashing anyone who dares defy them.

True, I did not necessarily find it a narrative of revelatory reveals or epic showdowns in the vein of what I initially envisioned. However, I can see the picture separating itself from all of its predecessors — subverting the norm and drawing away from all that we knew before. That gels with much of what was said in the wake of The Force Awakens. It could not simply be another Empire Strikes Back if the new franchise was to flourish. In that regard, there’s no doubt Johnson’s film is an undisputed success building on the character arcs instigated in J.J. Abrams’ effort.

Yet my feelings are somehow conflicted.  Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) call to action to Rey (Daisy Ridley) midway through was never more pointed. “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” And that’s much of what has been done here. Not simply in a single film or to the Jedi order or the legacy of a character but in some respects to an entire franchise.

I am realizing that though I cherish Star Wars as my own, the many aspirations and fantasies of my childhood, it is a communal narrative. It might seem odd to get so thoroughly introspective but I can’t help it. Star Wars is almost inbred into my DNA.

Watching this film might topple the white knights. For one, the Jedi order as we know it. They lose much of their mythical stature that they always evoked. We already lost Han Solo and it’s little surprise that Luke and Leia (with Carrie Fisher’s passing) will most likely not be returning either. The old guard has been all but removed from their posts (with the exception of R2, C3PO, and Chewbacca though Anthony Daniels is the only other returning core cast member).

But it’s no surprise that I often savor the past — the way things used to be. That’s part of what made The Force Awakens such an enjoyable ride. There was an innate sense that this was something new, yes, but it was also squarely centered on the glories of the original trilogy. If I said it once I said it a thousand times, it was like returning to the company of old friends.

Now the old is gone and don’t get me wrong the new additions were greatly appreciated. Once more Rey (Ridley), Fin (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Issac) are indubitably winning personalities and fine action heroes. It’s easy to become immersed in their individual journeys along with the newcomers such as Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). However, that doesn’t take away my wistfulness at the conclusion of The Last Jedi.

It wasn’t even the kind of bittersweet conclusion we saw in earlier installments either but a plaintive ending without a giant climax. Harrison Ford received a venerable though tragic send off. His contemporaries not so much. There is still hope and events have been prolonged for Episode IX but not in some monumental cliffhanger fashion.

Whenever I take in a new film I am also constantly filtering it through the reference points that I already know. Obviously, Star Wars has such a vast lineage that must be sorted through but this latest film also can be read through various other archetypes. It strikes me that Luke Skywalker, the Star Wars hero I always aspired to emulate, was like Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man — waiting in the wings until he finally stepped out of the shadows.

Though I enjoyed that moment and the pure rush of adrenaline when he came back to the fore, expectations do not always correlate with reality.  Although we get to see Luke Skywalker and there are some enjoyable moments, the best of them come as all too brief reunions with his faithful astromech pal and his sister followed by a showdown with his main adversary — The nephew who turned to the Dark Side — again it was this wistful sense of an anticlimax.

We see in Luke what Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) once was at least in a visual sense. A hermit who has removed himself from society. Cloaked, bearded, and detached. But whereas Old Ben was a wise, eccentric, and even a fatherly wizard, Luke has become a world-wearied, surly misanthrope. A far cry from the man we dreamed about.

The reverberations of the past echo down in other ways too from the inciting distress signal from his sister that started him off on this cinematic adventure all those many years before and then a visitation from a furry friend.

Likewise, the final showdown is somehow more reminiscent to the archetypal lightsaber battle of A New Hope than all the fanciful epic showdowns we imagined of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker tackling every conceivable villain with his green lightsaber. The old man’s words even mirror the final lines of his late mentor (Strike me down in anger and I’ll always be with you. Just like your father).

Even briefly with lightsaber in hand facing down the greatest forces in the universe as we always thought possible in our mind’s eye, there’s a momentary catharsis. Though the full satisfaction of the moment is stripped from us. Luke is not quite how we remembered him, nay, maybe not even the same man Mark Hamill embodied all those years ago.

It does bring to mind the mythological line out of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And it’s still true of Luke Skywalker for those in the galaxy far, far away and right there he can remain a hero.

The film’s most intriguing dynamic reveals itself in the perceived connection between arguably our two most crucial characters in Rey and Kylo Ren also known as Ben Solo. But that core struggle between the two of them — literally the dissonance between the Light and Dark sides of the Force — is rudely disrupted. It’s such an ambiguous dividing line between good and evil and though it still remains, the character of Supreme Leader Snoke, equally implicated in this web comes off as little more than a ploy. All the potential grand conspiracies around it are gone in a puff of improbable smoke.

Intertwined with this is Rey’s familial identity which has been of paramount importance to everyone ever since these new pictures were conceived. It’s not so much that I minded what the revelation was (minor as it was) but it was more the fact that this bit of seemingly crucial exposition was so quickly cast aside as well. It felt once more a bit like a bait and switch — as if the Star Wars saga was somehow rewriting its own mythos in counterintuitive ways.

Maybe for once, Star Wars has become a bit more pragmatic; it has sought out realism and the things of this world more than a galaxy far, far away. Here I will admittedly contradict myself but I am not sure how to deal with this development because Star Wars was always a fantasy, always a science fiction fairy tale built out of imagination and dreams. Now it seems to be inching more and more toward the real world. Not because there are any fewer lightsaber battles or blaster fights or fewer alien species and star systems to explore, but the makeup of the new generation of characters is somehow different.

It is a pipe dream to believe that Star Wars could always be the same because it was not created in a vacuum, it is no longer George Lucases, and it has so many other parties invested in it. I for one must come to accept that. The film ends on a rather odd beat with young children getting rapt up in tales of the Last Jedi and looking off into space empowered by the hope brought by the Resistance before the credits roll. Though it felt very un-Star Wars it’s somewhat fitting given this new direction.

Hopefully, younger fans eat up this latest installment and conceive adventures and worlds of their own like I once did, feeding on the visions of the screen as fuel for countless Lego lightsaber battles and made up assaults on the enemy forces with their ragtag band of Rebel Scum. These new films don’t mean so much to me but maybe they can mean something to the current generation. Maybe that’s what they’re meant to do.

Will I see the Last Jedi again? I wouldn’t be at all surprised but unlike The Force Awakens, this isn’t so much an extension of the original trilogy. This is a breaking of the chain. This is something starkly different and it’s taken the galaxy into uncharacteristic territory.

I resolutely admire Rian Johnson for his choices because it seems like he’s made a Star Wars film that is hardly cookie cutter in nature and the fact that it will not please everyone is a marvel (no pun intended) given the usual reality that blockbusters are supposed to be easy on the eyes while hardly divisive. Though flawed, it’s a relatively bold movie in running time, in how it utilizes its characters, and ultimately how it chooses to depart from its longheld traditions. But the boy inside of me still yearns for the Luke Skywalker of my youth as naive as that might sound. I suppose I’ve never been much of a realist.

4/5 Stars

Bachelor Mother (1939)

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Of course, Bachelor Mother is a blatant oxymoron and it’s a perfect summation of that vestige of a genre the screwball comedy — a genre that’s about marriage and divorce and the gray areas in between conveniently skirting past issues such as adultery or people “living in sin” as it were. The norm was not a genre of divorce but of remarriage.

As such this Ginger Rogers vehicle has her playing a woman who doesn’t actually have a child out of wedlock but it’s assumed as much and that’s where the roots of the comedy get their traction. Because therein dwells so many societal taboos that are subsequently turned into marvelous fodder for misunderstanding though no actual moral statutes have been broken. It’s that line of dramatic irony that the rom-com, in general, has always needed in order to survive.

Just think how perfectly it all happens. In one moment Polly Parish (Ginger Rogers) finds herself laid off from her department store gig just in time for Christmas and between the unemployment agency and home she happens upon a lady leaving a cute little bundle of joy on the doorstep of the local orphanage. She says it’s not hers. She found it somewhere and now she’s leaving.

But Ginger Rogers being our concerned heroine can’t just let the baby sit there so she takes a course of action, delivering the child inside and enlightening the staff about the situation. Of course, they all believe she’s simply shirking her maternal responsibility and running out on her child and they pass the news along to David Merlin (David Niven), one of her former employers.

By now, Polly is already long gone. She’s agreed to take part in a dance competition at the local hall the Pink Slipper. There’s $50 in it for her and her partner Freddie (Frank Albertson of It’s a Wonderful Life prominence) if they can win. Waiting, babe in arms and valet in tow, Mr. Merlin tries to rectify the situation and get Polly to take back her child.

If the film was born on the steps of the orphanage, then it is solidified right here as a full-fledged screwball comedy of motherhood and misconstrued circumstance. Polly finds herself called into Mr. Merlin’s office and is offered her old post as long as she takes her child back. Still, they don’t listen to her renunciation so she has no course but to become a mother, after all, babies are cute. They can’t be that much work…

The fact that this is a screwball and not so much a domestic comedy is made clear by the fact the baby is more of a plot element than an actual character and Rogers and Niven find time to fall in love even with the added strain of motherhood.

What seems to do it is a lovely night together on New Year’s Eve which is highlighted by an extended gag where Niven introduces Rogers as his date from Sweden who conveniently does not speak a lick of English. It’s punctuated by the definitive punchline of the film. Simultaneously, Rogers struts her stuff all night long (though we miss Fred Astaire) in a reverie of pure joy.

But that’s not all that’s capped off amid the pandemonium of the festivities. Love Affair is far from just the movie up on the nearby theater billboard. It’s also something coming to fruition between our two stars. However, if this was the end it could hardly claim the name screwball. That’s when the baby comes in. J.B. Merlin (Coburn) finds his son with this single mother and draws conclusions of his own and…he’s very happy to be a grandfather and not so happy with the spineless conduct of his son.

What follows is a mad dash by our two leads to try and conjure up other stand-ins for a game of Who’s the Father? Three eligible contenders are brought in to play the charade. We already know Merlin, then there’s the dancing fiend and disgraced floorwalker Freddie, and the landlady’s bespectacled son.

In the end, everything is squared away nicely and the corkscrew comes full circle. Though Charles Coburn plays a very small part it proves to be a crucial one. Meanwhile, I adore Ginger Rogers and once more following Stage Door and Vivacious Lady, she proves in yet another film her genuine skills as an actress of immeasurable smarts and humor. Sometimes I’m admittedly unfair to David Niven — he’s never been the most compelling actor — but he’s fine in this picture.

This film also shares much the same world as the Devil and Miss Jones (including Charles Coburn) and the toy store environment provides the perfect arena for a terrifically comical shoplifting sequence full of excitement. It’s this movie to a tee. Positively quacking.

3.5/5 Stars

Vivacious Lady (1938)

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The first moment Pete Morgan (James Stewart) actually catches sight of alluring nightclub singer Francey (Ginger Rogers), the gangly botany professor proceeds to knock over a drink cooler. He’s enamored. In the movies, it’s that magical trope called “love at first sight.” For other pictures that’s where they go to die as the two loved birds get wrapped up in the throes of romance exploring New York City together. With Stewart and Rogers as our guides, there’s no place we’d rather be. Soon they are married and on their way to meet the parents in the idyllic town of Old Sharon.

Except they never get there or rather they get to the town but Pete never gets to the part about telling his parents he’s married. Charles Colburn is bullish as Peter Morgan Sr. the obdurate, overbearing intellectual who will not allow his son to get in a word edgewise. That’s aggravated by the fact that in his typical manner Stewart is always beating around the bush, never quite able to get the words out and so the happy news never finds an audience.

Besides Mr. Morgan has his sights on his son marrying the prim and proper Helen (Frances Mercer) while he turns his nose at the blonde woman that his nephew Keith (James Ellison) is traipsing around with it — that undoubtedly unsophisticated creature who also happens to be his actual daughter-in-law!

Thus, begins the film’s longest digression as wife becomes a student for the sake of being close to her husband and Pete tries his darndest to break the news to his parents while still getting time with his wife. But the guise of student and teacher isn’t helping much. They probably broke the whole code of conduct book on student-teacher relations circa 1938.

One of the favorite hot spots for late night extracurriculars just happens to have an outboard motor right next to it and it can make quite the din if accidentally pulled. Otherwise, Pete has an awful time trying to see his wife as the lobby clerk (Franklin Pangborn) is a real stickler and so the only access to her room is of a clandestine nature up the fire escape.

And still his father won’t listen to him and his former fiancee is still trying to nab him. It’s getting so hopeless that Francey thinks it might be best if she leaves Old Sharon behind for good. A memorable dance party with the parents in Francie’s room proves the kicker. Though she forms a bit of a rapport with the kindly but frail Mrs. Morgan (Beulah Bondi in 1 out of her 5 turns as Stewart’s mother), an indignant Mr. Morgan will have none of this tomfoolery.

Soon enough Francey decides to leave town of her own accord.  But even at the cost of his professorship if need be, good ol’ Jimmy Stewart won’t let her get away that easily. Whether or not this film drags a bit in the latter half is beside the point because you couldn’t have two more likable stars than Stewart and Rogers nor a Hollywood director more competent than George Stevens in balancing the breadth of slapstick comedy and romantic drama.

If the material is simply adequate enough, they are the type of talents that take us along and we will willingly be their audience through every complication. It’s our privilege.

In case there was any doubt whatsoever Ginger Rogers is awesome and it’s put on full display when she has a slap fight with her archnemesis before taking her in a headlock. If you liked her before simply for dancing prowess, she proves to be a savvy cat fighter as well.

Jimmy Stewart was still in the fairly latent stages of his illustrious career but Rogers recommended him for the role and he provides his homespun charm and length to every frame like we are accustomed to seeing from him. Not to mention his forays in home brewing. They’re quite impressive.

The only major blot on the film is an appearance of the prolific Willie Best playing his typical googly-eyed waiter — the walking stereotype that always feels like a cringe-worthy addition to any picture of old as does a cameo by Hattie McDaniels. At least there weren’t any chinamen. Not that there’s much consolation in that. Shall we just say that Rogers’ vivacity and Stewart’s universal affability make for a quality viewing experience and leave it at that?

4/5 Stars

A Christmas Tale (2008)

achristmastaleposterThe initial inclination for seeing Arnaud Desplechin’s sprawling family drama was the presence of the estimable Catherine Deneuve. And she’s truly wonderful giving a shining, nuanced performance that makes the audience respect her, sympathize with her, and even dislike her a little bit. But the same goes for her entire family. The best word to describe them is messy. Dysfunctional is too sterile. Messy fits what they are. If you think your family is bad around the holidays, the Vuillards have a lot of their own issues to cull through.

The inciting incident sends a shock wave through their already crumbling family unit. Their matriarch has been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and must make the difficult decision of whether or not to risk treatment or go without. But Deneuve carries herself with that same quietly assured beauty that she’s had even since the days of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In this capacity, she makes A Christmas Tale, far from a tearful, sobfest. She’s strong, distant, and you might even venture to say fearless.

And because of her strength, this story is not only about her own plight – it’s easy to downplay it because she is so resilient – but it frames the rest of the interconnecting relationships. It began when her first son passed away. The children who followed included Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny) who became the oldest and grew up to be a successful playwright. Junon’s middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric) can best be described as the black sheep while the youngest, Ivan, was caught in the midst of the familial turmoil.

Because the issues go back at least five years before Junon gets her life-altering news. It was five years ago that Elizabeth paid Henri’s way out of an extended prison sentence (for a reason that is never explained) with the stipulation that she never has to see her brother again. Not at family gatherings, not for anything. And she gets her way for a time.

But with Junon’s news she and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) realize this is a crucial time to get their family back together because, above all, their matriarch needs a donor and due to her unique genetic makeup, a family member is her best bet.

Underlying these overt issues are numerous tensions that go beyond sibling grudges and sickness. Elizabeth’s own relationships have been fraught with unhappiness and her son Paul has been struggling through a bout of depression. Ivan and his wife (Chiarra Mastroianni) are seemingly happy with two young boys of her own. But old secrets about unrequited love get dredged up and Sylvia is looking for answers of her own. Although it’s a side note, it’s striking that Chiarra Mastroianni is Deneuve’s real-life daughter and in her eyes, I see the spitting image of her father, the icon, Marcello Mastroianni.

There’s also a lot of truth and honesty buried within A Christma Tale and in most competitions, it would win for the most melancholy of yuletide offerings. However, it’s important to note that its darkness is balanced out with romance, comedy, and a decent dose of apathy as well.

Still, the most troubling thing about A Christmas Tale is not the fact that it is extremely transparent, but the reality that the themes of Christmas have no bearing on its plot. We leave these characters different than they were before but whether they are better for it is up for debate.

The sentimentality of a It’s Wonderful Life crescendo would be overdone and fake in this context but some sort of reevaluation still seems necessary. Because without faith in anything — faith in their family is ludicrous — their world looks utterly hopeless. The two little grandsons wait in front of the nativity staying up to get a glimpse at Jesus (perhaps mistaken for Santa Claus) and their father calmly states they should go to bed because he’s never existed anyways. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with holding such beliefs.

Even the fact that Junon and her grown son Henri attend midnight mass is an interesting development. But during this season emblematic of hope and joy, it seems like the Vuillard’s can have very little of either one. Henri can be his mother’s savior for a time by extending her life for 1.7 years or whatever the probabilities suggest. But then what?

It’s this reason and not the family drama that ultimately makes A Christmas Tale a downer holiday story. Its denouement feels rather like a dead end more than fresh beginnings. Because Nietzche and coin flips are not the most satisfying ways to decipher the incomprehensibility of life – especially with death looming large during the holidays.

But that’s only one man’s opinion. That’s not to downplay all that is candid about this film in any way. If you are intrigued by the interpersonal relationships and entanglements of a family  — may be a lot like yours and mine — this film is an elightening exposé.

3.5/5 Stars

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

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It’s no surprise that this adaptation begins with that oft-repeated bit of poetic parallelism. “It was the best of times it was the worst of times” etc. Of course, in its abridged format the opening suggests the universal quality of those iconic words. It was a period very much like the present.

The scene is set. What follows are images that prove to be deliciously atmospheric with a loving mixture of British colloquialism and Hollywood storytelling all stirred together in an agreeable period drama.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay this film, directed by Jack Conway, is that it manages to capture some of the essence of Dickens’ novel even if it does not wholly enrapture me as the source material did those many years ago in my freshman honors English class.

The beauty of literature is that it allows you to create pictures in your head — to let your imagination run rampant — the magic of film is how it allows for such spectacles to be brought to us visually though they might come out imperfectly. Owing to length and practicality, it cannot completely transcribe every last detail onto the screen resorting to jumps in time and abridging of the text.

In fact, a slight criticism is that the film resorts to title cards too much. Still, there are some inspiring moments including the climactic storming of the Bastille sequences courtesy of that inspired combination of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. It’s simultaneously harrowing and marvelously condenses the sweeping forces of the mob rule’s swift rise during the French Revolution into a matter of brief images that overwhelm with their sheer scope and ferocity.

Also, whether this film succumbs to pure histrionics or is instead an impassioned interpretation of Charles Dickens’ material is up for debate but there is no denying that there is a pleasing texturing to many of the most prominent characterizations.

Though a minor part, Basil Rathbone that legendary villain turns in one of his myriad performances as a heartless French nobleman. Whereas Miss Pross is played with endearing yet resolute defiance by Edna May Oliver. Both Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay exude a certain geniality that we’ve come to attribute to the roles. They are less interesting but necessary for the story to have any magnitude.

The most telling difference in depictions for me was in the character of Mr. Lorry (Charles Gillingwater) likened to a crotchety old coot though Dickens paints a picture of him that feels much more reserved and similarly steadfast. I would know because out of all the many figures, I always resonated with him a man who remained a supporting player but nevertheless reflected fine qualities of loyalty and quiet integrity.

But of course, we must inevitably come to Sydney Carton. In the book, he transforms into our hero coming to the fore among a wide array of other characters but with Ronald Colman undoubtedly the biggest star in our film we are conveniently tipped off to his crucial importance and he is vital to the story.

It could have been all too probable that like The Prisoner of Zenda, Ronald Colman could have taken a double role because (SPOILER ALERT) Dickens’ original novel hinges on the likeness of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. But in this case, it’s almost a stroke of good fortune that Colman was only given one part.

In it, Ronald Colman plays the brilliant young solicitor who nevertheless spends most of his evenings with his snout in a bottle wasting so much of his talent toward purposeless diversions. He’s a charming fellow but he seems hardly a person of note. But that’s not the final word.

Colman is aptly able to focus all his energies on the man and he’s further allowed to embody one of the great redemption tales in all of English literature. It seems he knew it too, willingly relinquishing his iconic and beloved mustache in deference to the role which no doubt was one of the defining moments of his career.

There’s also no denying the transcendent themes that course through this narrative and reveal themselves much as we would expect. Because this is a story of ultimate sacrifice and a very overt evocation of the Christ story.

Thus, it seems no small coincidence that as Carton takes part in a selfless act that will define his life the trills of “Come All Ye Faithful” quietly play in the background. The inference is plain. Though, it’s a political fable as well a spiritual one, Carton’s words are what entrench themselves into the viewer’s consciousness, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Some might vehemently disagree but this is a Christmas film if ever there was one. Because it points to hope even in the darkest times. That’s how those paradoxical lines can stand true. It was the worst of times but also the very best.

4/5 Stars

Almost Famous (2000)

Almost_famous_poster1Almost Famous is almost so many things. There are truly wonderful moments that channel certain aspects of our culture’s infatuation with rock n roll.

It’s easy to become entranced with the opening moments, not necessarily because we are introduced to William, his protective mother (Frances McDormand), or even his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) who looks to leave the nest behind to go off and find herself. To steal a line from Simon & Garfunkel, she goes off, “To look for America” and we can ride the wistful waves of Paul Simon’s lyrics to understand exactly what she means.  But she also leaves behind a gift for her little brother under his bed. It’s easy to surmise that it’s drugs, something to “expand his horizons” but instead it’s so much more. It’s what this entire film hinges on: Music.

And when he opens the treasure trove of records his sister bequeathed him this is an initial kairos moment that also manages to be one of the most magical in the film–one that leaves goosebumps from sheer recognition. He flips through the albums. The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and on and on. Enough said. Each of these bands means so much to so many people as do some of these albums.

Almost Famous is at its best when it’s channeling those very things. Its soundtrack has the propitious fortune to include some authorized tracks from Led Zeppelin as well as Neil Young, David Bowie, and of course Elton John, his “Tiny Dancer” filling up the band’s bus with a chorus of voices in one of the most remembered sequences.

The film’s story is intriguing for the very fact that it has the potential to feel so personal in nature. It functions as a fictionalized autobiography of Cameron Crowe’s foray into rock journalism as a bit of a teenage prodigy from sunny San Diego who first wrote for Creem and then in the big leagues for Rolling Stone Magazine circa 1973.

That’s a narrative ripe with possibilities and anecdotes sure to pique the interest of anyone who loves music and there are certainly some of those moments. People jumping off rooftops into swimming pools their heads spinning on acid, tour buses crashing through gates to make a quick getaway from a horrible gig, and plane flights on the edge of death that elicit a long line of last-minute confessions.

But we are also reminded that life on the road is a grind, it can be dangerous too but more often than not it’s surprisingly dull. What happens to William (Patrick Fugit) is that he gets subjected to this life and far from changing, it simply changes how he sees these people. Ultimately, there’s a bit of disillusionment and alienation with getting that close to people you idolize. In many respects, he looks ridiculously out of place in this lifestyle of groupies, tour buses, backstage antics, sleazy hotel rooms, and sex, drugs, and rock n roll.  He’s too clean cut. Too much of a straight arrow. And that’s part of what’s interesting.

But while it’s easy to latch onto the trajectory of our character and care about his growth and maturity, the themes of Almost Famous feel muddled and not in a way that’s  enigmatic and mysterious. It just drops off at a certain point.

It’s almost transcendent, almost a masterstroke, almost captures our heart but it’s not quite there. Despite its best efforts it somehow still feels slightly removed from the moment it comes out of–a moment that now is easy to eulogize about as both electric and exciting in a way that the band Stillwater never is. Maybe that’s the point.

We can reiterate again and again that the music is phenomenal and while the situations had potential to be gripping they never quite reached that apex. Everything is quite satisfactory, it’s enjoyable watching this wide-eyed lad follow around this rock band, but there are moments when the film drags. Take the rock and roll out of these people and they aren’t altogether compelling. That might be an unfortunately cruel thing to say too.

But Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) the famed rock critic repeatedly notes that rock is on the way out and this film seems to surmise as much. At times it doesn’t feel completely caught up in the throes of its time, it’s not caught up in the moment as if there’s this subconscious feeling that it will all come to an end.

On the reverse side, William lives life alongside some of these figures who are never truly all that magnetic or memorable whether Russell (Billy Crudup) or even the iconically named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). The name dropping and connections to others make them the most intriguing. Dinner with Dylan here, something from David Crosby there. Led Zeppelin fanboys, David Bowie’s manager, and so on and so forth. Those connections have cultural clout still but once again the fictional Stillwater were only almost famous. Their name whether in fiction or reality has been lost to time and there’s no aura to them. Because we have nothing to sink our teeth into.

Maybe it’s the very fact that the film does this so well that it feels unremarkable. It takes time on those who really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of rock ‘n roll when the critics and pundits got together to write the narrative that would be accepted for a historical fact from that point forward.

However, Almost Famous also takes a particular care to show what it was and still is to be a rock star in this kind of volatile lifestyle always on the road. The fame and applause are amplified but so in many ways are the heartbreaks and ultimately the scrutiny that can either make or break you.  There’s no privacy in the general sense. But that’s the point, as a rock star you give much of that up. The question is, what happens when you’re in the middle ground? You’re not quite there but the journalists are still looking for their story, digging through your music, life, and affairs. No one has ever desired to be Almost Famous because, in some cases, you get the worst of both worlds.

4/5 Stars

 

The Circus (1928)

Chalincircus2b.jpgCharlie Chaplin always puts his Tramp in very simple situations that also happen to reap marvelous results both in the realms of humor and heartfelt drama. He follows up The Kid and The Gold Rush with the next iteration in the Little Man’s adventures which find him unwittingly joining the circus.

Initially, he gets caught up with a pickpocket and policemen which provides him an opportunity to go flying through funhouses with halls of mirrors and the like, the perfect fodder for a string of his best gags. Most notably giving an impeccable imitation of a mechanical man to fool the police. But his last sprint to get away from the clutches of the law takes him to the center stage where he becomes a welcomed bit of life to a rather droll piece of entertainment after he bursts onto the scene as a fugitive from justice, crashing into the stands. An unenthused audience is instantly crippled with laughter by every one of his accidental foibles. If only they had seen what he had been up to previously.

His accidental knack as a real-life clown gets him a gig in the main ring of the circus under the tyrannical showrunner (Al Ernest Garcia) who’s constantly bossing around his workers and abusing his meek daughter Merna who is also a part of the act as a tutu-wearing barebacked rider. This is where the film comes to its main storyline with Chaplin looking to do a few unassuming deeds for this girl in her horrible predicament while he himself begins to train as a show clown. But he proves to be terribly unfunny when he tries to be and it looks like he’ll back out on the street.

The major discovery is that he’s only funny unconsciously and so the opportunistic Ring Master looks to channel his innate comedy by hiring him on as a mere stagehand who nevertheless becomes the show’s main attraction. When the Tramp finally figures out what a sensation he is things are better–life is bright and cheery. But when a new man comes into the picture, a handsome tightrope walker, the vagabond’s demeanor begins to sour.  Still, he willingly gives up his own little bit of happiness for the girl whom he still truthfully adores.

Though the ending has a touch of the bittersweet, Chaplin does a masterful job of drawing up a straightforward yet rivetingly poetic tale involving his greatest incarnation. The Tramp has us fully involved in his story because he really is a marvel. Even when we’re not in stitches, it’s difficult not to smile at his very image.

In front of the camera, in many ways, it feels like business as usual. The story has euphoric moments of energy and charm underlined by dips into the dejectedness of lost love and destitution. This was always the rhythm of Chaplin’s work, But outside of his on-camera perfectionism, Chaplin’s world was thrown into turmoil to put it lightly.

He had a recent run-in with the IRS, acrimonious divorce proceedings from his co-star in The Gold Rush Lita Grey, along with the death of his mother, and a vicious fire throwing yet another wrench into the film’s production schedule. All told, it was delayed about 8 months in production purgatory, his hair grayed even more and he suffered a bit of a nervous breakdown.

Still, the final product perfectly personifies the humor that Chaplin always tried to capture rather like lightning in a jar. It’s those moments of organic, unconscious humor that can be found in a simple action. What makes The Tramp such a hilarious character is the very fact that he never for an instant seems to actually be trying to be funny.

Certainly, he’s light-hearted and mischievous but there’s a general import to his demeanor. He takes himself seriously, tips his hat, and tries to hold himself to a certain respectability. But despite his best efforts he can’t help but let out little hiccups and belches of chaos. He gives someone who deserves it a swift kick in the behind, scrambles every which way to evade a bucking donkey or gets trapped in a cage with lions and tigers, oh my! He vies for the affection of a girl the best way he knows how topping the competition on the tightrope and simultaneously tries to please each boss he has to the best of his abilities. They are very human responses even if he does it in a way uniquely attributed to him.

It’s the serious being made silly — the tragedy that is imbued with a silver lining — that is what The Circus gets to the heart and soul of. Because this hardly feels like a happy ending but the Tramp has done his good deed and walks away from center stage ready for a new adventure. As it turned out, we’d find him in the big city a few years later and he proved to never lose his sensibility for helping the burdened and downtrodden–namely a blind girl.

That is yet another reason to love that little man. His heart is large. Others give out of their abundance, but he gives out of his poverty, often offering everything he has–all he has to live on–and he does it happily so. Especially if it’s a pretty girl.

4.5/5 Stars

The Commitments (1991)

The_Commitments_posterThe Commitments is a very coarse film, extremely rough around the edges, and yet to its credit, the real appeal of this crowd-pleaser from Alan Curtis is the way that music is able to bring so much good into a dire situation. Because in some ways The Commitments are not just the christened “Saviors of Soul” but for one brief shining moment, they’re the “Saviors of Dublin” too.

It feels almost unfair to call The Commitments a cover band because although their debt is to soul and they cover soul tunes from the likes of the late great Wilson Pickett, from those tunes we begin to see the individuals coming into their own as together they create a sound that has the local crowds cheering in the bars and pool halls.

Their visionary leader is Jimmy Rabbitte a young man with ambitions to create a successful band that will play real music and in his humble opinion soul is where it’s at. Not the Beatles. Not the Stones. Not even U2. But the likes of “The Godfather of Soul” himself James Brown.

Far from being mere cultural appropriation, taking a very much African-American inspired music and imitating it, with The Commitments their allegiance to soul seems to suggest that mimicry is the highest form of flattery. And it seems like Jimmy as manager and the main ringleader sees this clearer than anyone else.

Soul represents something so simple and powerful and moving. A sound that can speak to the working class Dubliners in a way that other strains of music just cannot quite muster. So yes, Irish Soul sounds like an oxymoron but The Commitments prove that far from being false, Irish Soul finds quite the following.

Part of the enjoyment is getting to know all the figures who play a part in the band’s journey and there are quite a few. Deco is the lead singer, a slobbish jerk who also has an impressive pair of pipes. Lead guitarist Outspan (Glen Hansard of Once fame) with other local lads filling in on saxophone, bass, and drums. The backing vocals are provided by a trio of gals including the fawned over beauty Imelda.

But the oldest member of the band Joey “The Lips” Fagan is a rather mythical figure with a laid back almost spiritual streak. It’s also no joke that he’s played trumpet with some of the biggest soul brothers out there. He too provides guidance to the band’s vision but sometimes he’s not as zen as he lets on. Getting so many different people together is bound to cause friction — namely shouting matches, fistfights, and more than a few hurt feelings. Strangely enough, these are some of the very places the story finds its comic inspirations. People constantly bickering and getting on each other’s nerves in this way or that.

Equally enjoyable are the actual rehearsals and jam sessions which in truth are the heart and soul of this film. No pun intended. The music is what matters in the community from street corner performances of Cathy’s Clown, a father belting out his best rendition of Elvis, and the most wholesome member of the Commitments, Steven, playing a rather soothing version of Whiter Side of Pale on a grand church organ. That’s the stuff that makes the movie buzz.

We see the energy that gets people to notice. Sure, it’s not the type of coverage that will make them into international sensations but with this film much like its progeny like Sing Street, you see the pure ability of music and song to enrich the world. They not only give the musicians a powerful avenue of expression and joy but those performances can evoke an equally gripping reaction from their audiences.

In the end, The Commitments as a group begin to split at the seams after a number of promising gigs, even a bit of cash for their efforts and a spot in the local paper. But in the end they implode and it’s probably for the best as everyone goes their separate ways. Maybe they never quite got around to jamming with Wilson Pickett, but they did play with him in spirit every time they put all their passion into one of his songs. It didn’t turn into some profound watershed moment in musical history, but like this film, it was a recurrently lively ride.

3.5/5 Stars

The African Queen (1951)

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And you call yourself a Christian! Do you hear me? Don’t ya? Don’t ya? Huh? What ya being so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once and a while, it’s only human nature. ~ Charlie
Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ~ Rose

Sometimes when great talent comes together we see the result and question where it all went wrong.  Sometimes it just works pure and simple. The African Queen is such a picture and it’s true that the greatest films function on multiple levels finding ways to exceed our expectations, enrapturing us with storylines and developments that are a far cry from what we first considered. Far from not disappointing, they join the pantheon of classics we would gladly watch over and over again. That is probably the highest praise you can give a picture and The African Queen is such a film.

It’s christened The African Queen because she is the vessel that Charlie Allnut calls his own and she is the very vehicle for this entire adventure. Emblematic of their own grit, ingenuity, and indestructibility. Because the narrative begins with missionaries and the hint of colonialism as Rosie (Katharine Hepburn) and her Reverend brother look to bring the Gospel to the peoples of the Congo.

But due to the outbreak of World War I, Africa too is thrown into the fray as the Germans look to overrun the countryside and sweep it into their clutches. Rosie’s whole peaceful existence of Sunday services and afternoon tea are brutally disrupted. The village is burned, her brother’s physical and mental well-being suffers, and in the end, she has no recourse but to leave her little slice of home behind.

Ironically, her savior is the uncouth, uneducated Mr. Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a jack of all trades who formerly worked at a mine before it was commandeered by the Germans. He too is an inbetweener in this war, caught on the fringes and simply trying to survive. It’s in these very circumstances that these two diverging personalities are thrown together. And in an act of defiance and pure survival tactics, they do rise above their present circumstances.

Aside from mere plot points, the very fact that the film was shot prominently on location like John Huston’s previous classic Treasure of Siera Madre benefits the film greatly because there’s an authenticity to the entire undertaking that could never be fabricated. You see the waters and the jungles. You’re almost suffocated by the sheer humidity and apprehensiveness of every successive rapid they must ford because this feels like more than a movie. The dividing line between fact and fiction in many ways feels paper thin.

Huston had some wonderful black and white films including The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, and Sierra Madre but it seems rather fortuitous that The African Queen was made in color given the pedigree of cinematographer Jack Cardiff on such earlier vibrant classics as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. He brings a certain colorful exoticism to the frames that feels foreign to the eyes and yet still strangely beautiful. It all works so exquisitely.

Likewise, this is not simply a script penned by film critic, author extraordinaire James Agee with direction by Huston and the talents of legendary screen icons like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Yes, those are the separate entities that are joined together in this endeavor but they become far more than the sum of their parts.

Agee’s script which Huston also got partial credit for sings with life because of the two individuals it draws up and the world it dares to place them in. Rosie Sayer is a prim and proper missionary in Africa who nevertheless has a fearless streak brought to life so spiritedly by Hepburn as only she could play it. There’s a wonderful stubbornness that’s undeniable but remove the layers and you have the same giddy passion that crept into some of her earlier screwball performances. Mr. Charlie Allnut, as such, is perhaps the most lovable Humphrey Bogart has ever been. Allnut is content just getting by and surviving and he’s good at it — trying to find little bits of comfort in this world medicating himself when gin and a nice cigar every now and again.

But while he pushes Ms. Sayer’s to be practical and lose some of her stuffier tendencies, she, in turn, prods him to step out and do something worthwhile with his life. And it’s not simply about their romance which begins as a small feud, becomes a friendship, and evolves into a frenzied relationship full of affection. Their romance is being forged as they hang onto the faint objective of driving The African Queen into the ominous German gunboat the Louisa. It feels like a small battleground amidst the chaos of World War I but it all depends on your perspective because for Rosie and Charlie this is really is the very pinnacle of their existence. It involves their very will to survive.

They cling to this purpose and the joy of their adventure is the very fact that they are able to see it to the end, in the name of their country but also for their own vindication. And the telling aspect is that they both have been transformed by their experience. They are not so much forged by fire as the jungles that engulf them and the wildlife, foes, and raging falls that all look to be their undoing. And yet this unlikely pair, these polar opposites, prove to be the most formidable allies you could draw together.

The African Queen also has its own forays into spirituality and although they do not remain front and center for the entire film, there is a certain import to them. In a particularly formative scene, Mr. Allnut calls into question the other’s Christian faith which seems at the very least unfeeling if not hypocritical. But you could say the main conflict of this film is voiced by Charlie. It’s human nature.

Charlie has grown passive towards it while Ms. Sayers affirms that humanity is meant to “rise above” and this statement can be taken spiritually or maybe even with a tinge of imperialism (as man must tame the vast wastelands of his environment and such).

But there could also be a more universal ring in her words, suggesting that humanity must rise above every trial and tribulation whether personal, environmental, or social. Any number of these interpretations have stock. The question to ask is where does that will come from? It seems ludicrous to say it comes from within, closer still to say it comes from others, and maybe there’s still something broader going on in the background. No matter your opinion on such matters, The African Queen is still without question, one of the grandest, most rewarding romantic adventures hewn out of 1950s Hollywood.

5/5 Stars

Way Out West (1937)

Way_Out_West_PosterWhen put up against more sophisticated brands of humor and satirical wit, it would be easy to call the likes of Laurel & Hardy the lowest form of comedy. It sounds degrading but it’s also quite true. Their pictures are short. They’re for all intent and purposes plotless aside from one broad overarching objective. Their gags are simple. Pratfalls. Mannerism. Foibles. Visual gimmicks. More pratfalls and mayhem. It’s not brain science. It’s not reinventing the wheel. So, yes, it might be the simplest brand of comedy but it also might just be the funniest and most universal comedy out there.

People crashing through floorboards and chasing after each other frantically, laughing hysterically is hardly revolutionary but at the same time, most everyone can enjoy that at a visceral level. That’s why as a young man I loved Laurel & Hardy and I still love them to this day. You would be hard-pressed to find a greater, more timeless, more idiosyncratic comic duo than the two of them.

And it really is their dynamic that is at the core of all their comedy. It’s their close relationship that while antagonistic and full of bickering and manhandling has something also very sincere underneath it. Visually they’re so apparently different. Each man has his own look and routine.

Stan Laurel is the pencil-thin Brit with a bowler to match a pair of squinting eyes and a penchant for high shrieking laughter and sniveling. His tuft of hair is iconic. His nonchalant execution of supernatural feats unparalleled  (ie. lighting his thumb).

Meanwhile Oliver Hardy is the rotund fellow. The dominant personality who is always leaning on his counterpart both figuratively and literally. He’s also the one that believes he has the brains and the manners to help them pass as normal in their contemporary society. Of course, the key to all the comedy is that they’re both buffoons. Playing with their hats. Fussing with their ties. Awkwardly undressing to complete a business transaction.

They’re really made for each other. They’re inseparable. A perfect reflection of this being the very comical moment when they both go to sit down in a drawing room. Ollie rests his legs and Stan promptly props himself on his companion’s knee only to get brushed away to another chair. They really are conjoined at the hip despite how visually disparate they are.

But of course, none of this talks about Way Out West in particular and although there seems little need to talk about the film because the film is Laurel & Hardy, here’s a bit of definition all the same. Brushwood Gulch embodies all the western tropes you could possibly imagine. Bars, stagecoaches, floozies, and locals who hang around the avenues ready to break out into a western ballad at a moment’s notice.

Stan and Ollie’s arch nemesis James Finnalyson is also planted in the town as the opportunistic bar proprietor who looks to snatch away the deed to a mine that our intrepid yet idiotic heroes are meant to bestow upon the meek Mary Roberts. The ornery Irishman’s raised eyebrow shtick is in constant demand as he gets thwarted by Laurel and Hardy’s bungling at nearly every turn.  Although they still find time to make an utter shambles of the whole situation, getting chased out of town only to sneak back in to get the deed back so it can be delivered to its rightful owner.

Over the course of an hour, we get the joys of watching our two heroes do the oddest choreographed dance routine you’ve ever seen, seeing Stan eat a bowler hat, and having Ollie get synched up to a second story landing with the most disastrous results involving a pack mule. Any chance at a stealthy entrance goes out the window in a matter of seconds. That and the fact that they’re theme song tips everyone in the audience that trouble is afoot. Because there’s no pair that can make a fine mess of things as beautifully wonderfully chaotic as Laurel & Hardy. They’re imbeciles of the highest order and subsequently eternally endearing. Bless their souls.

4/5 Stars