Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave_of_the_Fireflies_Japanese_poster.jpgAnime is very much a Japanese art form denoted by its style, the visuals, and even the depiction of its characters with wide eyes all the better to convey emotions. Oftentimes the images onscreen are a great deal more stagnant than the real-time action that American animators try and replicate with a greater frame rate.

Maybe American animation is more “realistic” but what the Japanese films have is an unrivaled beauty almost like watercolors or as if canvases of actual paintings are making up the backdrop for our characters to reside in. There’s even a line of inspiration that can undoubtedly be drawn from Japan’s own rich tradition of vibrant scroll and woodblock paintings.  Far from being derided as childish fare, cartoons are given a platform as art and they are executed as such.

Thus, it’s fitting that Grave of the Fireflies brought to us by renowned Ghibli Studios and the acclaimed director Isao Takahata would utilize this very Japanese style to tell a native story full of pain, suffering, chaos, and survival. His canvas includes exquisite landscapes that glorify the Japanese countryside but more often than not provide a muted even sobering lens to view the ashes and destitution that war sows. The wounds and the scars. The dead bodies left in the streets and the dirtiness that pervades daily life. It’s offensive to the eyes. All of this because American planes drop fire bombs to break the will of the enemy.

In western minds, it almost seems like an incongruity that a film can be both a stark war-torn drama and an animated picture but Grave of the Fireflies proves emphatically that this simply is not the case.

There are very few films brimming with so much emotion, so powerful and evocative and so fully invested in the human experience. There is an innate understanding of the pure destructiveness in the totality of war. It breeds very little that is good. Ripping families apart, causing children to grow up too fast, and subjecting mankind to excruciating loss and indignity.

But in my estimation, it remains far too simplistic to simply state that Grave of the Fireflies is an indictment of the carnage of war or that it is an anti-war picture because its scope is so much greater than that.

Notice what Takahata doesn’t do. He doesn’t make the Americans into dehumanized monsters or anything else. They are just absent, faceless individuals that we will never know. However, he does give us a front row seat to the events through the eyes of two other people.

I think it’s an especially uncomfortable and maybe an important perspective for Americans because instead of seeing ourselves front and center of this epic story of WWII amid both its victories and tragedies, we are only a distant force. This film causes us to take on the viewpoint of those on the other side of the Pacific. This wasn’t just an emblematic figure like Tojo or some crazed, inhuman killer that we were looking to take down.

It becomes clear from the outset that the people being displaced from their homes by firebombs and struggling with rationing and families getting split apart by conflict are not so unlike us.

Takahata brilliantly gears us up for a story that could not be more universal. It doesn’t take place on a battlefield. It doesn’t involve war rooms or army barracks. It’s about two siblings. An older brother Seita and his little baby sister Setsuko.

Together they provide the core of the film. Because Setsuko is one of those precocious little kids who undoubtedly does not comprehend the gravity of all the chaos that swirls around her. All she knows is that she wants to see her mother or that she’s hungry or that she wants her favorite Sakura fruit drops. And her brother provides for her and sticks to her closely with fortitude and faithfulness that makes their bond one of the most affecting connections between cinematic siblings.

I would be hardpressed to guess how old Seita is but there’s no doubt that he’s forced to act quite a lot older than should be necessary under normal circumstances. His father is gone in the navy. His mother is debilitated. He must be his sister’s keeper and everything else for her. Her friend, her playmate, and her protector from a traumatic world that she cannot begin to understand. Since they only have each other and as they skrimp by, as an audience we realize just how abhorrent their conditions are and how no child should ever have to know a life of malnutrition or obliteration.

It’s easy to marvel at the animation because whereas normally we would probably take care in depicting actions of great consequence, a picture such as this finds time to articulate the little things that feel so human. Fiddling with a piece of clothing, scratching an itchy mosquito bite, or simply frolicking along the shoreline for the sheer relish of the moment.

It’s these smaller interludes and touches that give even greater import to the larger ones. A childhood home burning down with a whole host of others so that an entire town looks drastically different. A brother and sister who are forced to live on their own thanks to the glacial welcome they receive from distant relatives. And ultimately the inevitable comes knocking: death.

But just as the titular fireflies fill young Setsuko with a certain awe and wide-eyed wonderment, even in death there seems to be some distant even elusive sense of hope. In a world that can hardly be fathomed, Seita and Setsuko are reunited; no longer plagued by their suffering, their path illuminated once more by nature’s shining beacons of light. While we might have slightly different views about the afterlife, there’s no doubt that we share a desire for such an outcome after death.

Where graves will be emptied. Death will be no more. Pain will have ended. War will be over. Families will be restored. Wounds will be healed and peace will be the final resounding note. Do not let your flame be extinguished by hate, burdens, or dissatisfaction but know that there is so much more to life. In their enduring innocence in the face of such devastation, Seita and Setsuko are a stirring reminder.

Because life is not simply upended by tragedy. It is also fortified by hope. That’s part of what makes it worth living. As Dylan Thomas once eulogized, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Do not let your youth be quelled. Do not let your optimism be forfeited. Do not give up your capacity for love. It’s well worth the fight.

5/5 Stars

Tampopo (1985)

220px-Tampopo_cover.jpgJuzo Itami’s so-called ramen western Tampopo is unequivocably original in its hilarity, opening with what could best be called a public service announcement. A suave gangster is getting ready for the movie screening only to be disrupted by a noisy bag of curry potato chips. He threatens the foodie and sits back down to enjoy the entertainment, concluding the film within a film.

What follows in the actual movie is an unabashed love letter to food with some oddly sensual elements. It has off-beat scatterbrained touches of humor that send it in all sorts of odd directions, picking up momentary storylines and varying vignettes focused on different people all over Japan with the one unifying element being the food that they eat and enjoy.

There are the businessmen going out for a meal together who all order the same thing in deference to their leader only to be put off by their youngest associate who turns out to be well-versed in French cuisine and champagne. Then a society of women gets a lesson in how to eat Spaghetti like a true westerner which apparently means shoveling noodles into your face and making as much noise as you possibly can. They`re not wrong per se. Even the aforementioned debonair gangster and his lover turn up several more times romancing each other over their favorite dishes.

But the main attraction and the one that takes up most of the runtime has to do with the art of the perfect ramen shop with touches of what can best be termed a ramen western (an oriental rendition of Italy’s own affectionate spinoff, Spaghetti Westerns).

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe) ride into town in their big rig and happen on a ramen shop that’s not doing so well. Its proprietor is a single mother who lives with her young son and looks to maintain the establishment after the death of her husband.

Unfortunately, she’s not much of a chief or a businesswoman and the shop has been suffering as a result. Thus, the newcomers main objective becomes turning the humble Lai Lai into a 3 star ramen operation. They are the hired hands who swoop in to save the helpless villagers, metaphorically speaking.

Recall Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, or Shane and you`ll probably be on the right track. In this particular rendition, the first order of business is a name change to Tampopo Ramen. A regiment of further fortifications follows thereafter.

Goro takes his new benefactor to scout out the major competition in the area, gleaning from their success and also their failures. A good ramen shop has no wasted movement and provides a quiet atmosphere for the customers to savor.

Next, Tampopo trains with the foremost masters who know how to make a truly delectable bowl of ramen in every dimension. Finally, Goro and his compatriots help build a team to ensure her little shop will have the best of everything from food, to decor, and, of course, noodles. They are ready to face the inevitable onslaught headed their way: The lunch rush.

In her final test, Tampopo succeeds with flying colors. Goro`s work here is done so he can drift on further down the road a spell until another ramen shop catches his interest.

To its very core, Tampopo is a meandering film that ambles along forcing no clear agenda nor does it seem intent on getting to a certain destination. Instead, as it roams it slowly causes us to become attuned to the simple pleasures of food while wrapping us further still in the idiosyncrasies of humanity. This is the holy grail for ramen-lovers everywhere. It will make their mouth’s water in frame after frame and leave them raising an eyebrow on more than one occasion.

It’s possible to guarantee that you’ve probably never seen a film quite like Tampopo. While it revels in Japan’s rich culture of food it may not be for everyone. The same might be said of Japanese cuisine. I for one am more partial to the noodles but the film no doubt has a few savory moments.

4/5 Stars

Review: Back to the Future (1985)

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Back to the Future zooms at us as a lovely mishmash of sci-fi thrills and 50s nostalgia that feels like pure happenstance. The one purported flaw, the fact that Marty McFly has no right to be in his family, is partially understandable. As Michael J. Fox wasn’t even slated to appear in the film. He was a last-minute replacement that just happened to pan out. But what a bit of serendipity it was all the same.

Without question Back to the Future clocks in as one of the most enjoyable adventures of the 1980s for delivering unadulterated audience satisfaction. It has all the great hallmarks we yearn for starting with rewarding characters, inventiveness that makes up for any corny interludes, and a pulse on what’s fundamentally entertaining.

Our introduction to the story tells us as much about Doc Brown as it does the teen rolling in on his skateboard, if not more so. Marty, the plucky kid with a penchant for rock n roll, finds Doc’s workspace in complete disarray thanks to an extended period of neglect. More on that later.

For now, the iconically cool vibe of “The Power of Love” underscores Alan Silvestri’s own cinematic orchestration on the project providing a fitting anthem for everything that is Back to the Future. McFly coasts around town on his skateboard using each passing car as his own personal lift. Rock is his main passion while his girlfriend Jennifer remains his main distraction. Meanwhile, Mayor Goldie Wilson looks to get reelected a la Nashville (1975) and Marty is accosted by locals championing the “Save the Clock Tower” campaign.

In fact, Hill Valley is a bit of a mythical city. It’s part Middle America, part fantasy, where the local principal is out to get our hero, his closest friend is a mad scientist, and he must battle against the ultimate affront of all time that he might not amount to anything just like his old man. Those are the stakes and this is the world. The perfect place for time travel. Doc in all his scatterbrained kookiness makes an appearance to introduce a DeLorean time machine into the storyline as well as the main conflict. The rest is in Marty’s hands as he whizzes away into the past.

The fact that it paints this world as a caricature as well instead of reality, far from being a weakness, becomes one of its bolstering charms. Refrains of “Mister Sandman” play throughout town. The local marques boast the star power of Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan (wink wink) in Cattle Queen of Montana (1954). Further still, the local five and dime features the tunes of Nat King Cole, Pattie Page, and of course, Tennessee Ernie Ford. Everyone gets a plug to set the scene.

A few good-natured jabs at incumbent President Reagan are also in order. After all, who could ever believe that an actor could become a president? Of course, nothing is all too surprising in this day and age. Still, the 50s via the 1980s were in many ways both simpler times. Star Wars and Van Halen. Chuck Berry and Jackie Gleason. That was the life.

It devolves into a glorious unfolding of circumstances as worlds collide and Marty’s cause begins to unravel at two ends. First, he needs to get back to the future, hence the all-encompassing title but in his haste, he accidentally tampered with the natural order of things – namely the initial meet-cute of his mother and father. It subsequently instigates one of the most awkward cinematic mother-son relationships known to mankind.

Having done irreconcilable damage to their relationship, Marty must do all he can to get his parents back on track. The problems are innumerable. Namely his mother’s infatuation with him, the dreamy out-of-towner Calvin Klein, his father’s undeniable dorkiness, and of course the bullies to end all bullies Biff. In fact, he’s been a thorn in George’s side for 30 years.

Still, with Doc’s aid (the quintessential secondary helper), Marty looks to right all that is wrong. It proves difficult as he attempts to set his parents up to attend the Enchanted Under the Sea Dance together – the fateful dance where young love kindled. Yet Marty watches his life slowly disappearing moment by moment as his parent’s union seems a slight chance at best.

With a few riffs of “Johnny B. Goode” and an imminent date with Doc at the old clock tower in town, a happy conclusion seems possible if not for the Libyan Terrorists still waiting for Doc in the future. After all, Plutonium doesn’t grow on trees and there are consequences for swiping it. Thankfully he doesn’t necessarily listen to his own advice about altering the future and Marty returns to a world that is strikingly different to the one he used to know. It’s strangely rewarding even if it does feel all too perfect in this third world.

While it becomes one of the most obvious films to shamelessly set up and plug its sequels (ultimately two other offerings), there’s no doubt that Back to the Future makes each a rewarding prospect. Not only is it boosted by a winsome performance by Family Ties favorite Michael J. Fox in a now defining role but Christopher Lloyd’s turn is equally laudable even if it easily typecast him in future tech nerd projects. There are certainly worst places to be.

Furthermore, under the tutelage of executive producer Steven Spielberg, director Robert Zemeckis became one of the great successes of the 80s and 90s with Back to the Future being yet another reason why Spielberg remained at the forefront of popular entertainment throughout the decade.

For their part, whether they like it or not Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd will remain pop culture gods in the hearts of nearly everyone. Bless them for that. Doc and Marty are as memorable now as they were back then and no doubt even years into the future. That’s right, a movie about a time-traveling DeLorean has staying power. There’s a bit of the magic of the movies for you.

4.5/5 Stars

Bull Durham (1988)

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Bull Durham is actually a fairly religious film. The only catch is the fact that the religion in question is baseball with its multitude of superstitions, curses, annual rituals, and rites of passage performed daily by all those playing in the games or sitting in the bleachers cheering on their club. There’s even a shrine set up to late-great Yankee backstop Thurman Munson. The other religious sects, namely Christians and adherents to voodoo, are shown as real airheads but really everyone in this film is a bit of a laugh.

I personally found the contemporary comedy Major Leagues (1989) a fairly nasty sports film but what sets Bull Durham apart is that good sense of fun while still truly finding the joy in baseball. Because it truly is a joy. I will stand by that as a lifelong lover of the game even if I hung up my spikes in middle school.

There are still very few feelings so exhilarating as throwing a baseball and hearing the crack (or ping) of the bat as the ball goes soaring into the outfield for a base hit. Or that great moment when you make that diving catch or get that winning hit and everyone cheers you on. Whenever the ball comes down the pipe in slo-mo and it feels like you can crush it to kingdom come. I experienced each of these wonderful sensations at least once in my middling career as a kid.

But most of the time, the experience is made up of a lot of strikeouts, errors, getting hit by pitches, and that’s just as much a part of the game as all those previously mentioned aspects. In such a way, it seems like baseball has always been wrapped up in the human experience and that what allows it connect all people.

This film, in particular, is a bit of a love triangle. Baseball groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is annually immersed in the baseball culture of the Single-A, Minor League team The Durham Bulls. Each season she takes a young player under her wing, teaching them about the game, and holding court with them until they move on.

Her latest protege is the big strapping, bubbleheaded, heat-throwing pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Though Nuke has a big league arm he also can’t throw a strike. It’s the veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) who is brought in by the management to refine their young talent. They meet in a local bar for the first time only to almost get into a fist fight until Crash cooly asserts, “You couldn’t hit water if you were falling in it!” And it’s true. But under the tutelage of Anne and the wry experience of Crash, Nuke turns into something. Someone who actually has a chance at “The Show.”

Crash was there once for 21 days but he never had the talent of this young kid. So he must watch others move on to their big chance as he stays behind and grinds out his career away from the scrutiny of the bright lights and big contracts. And it’s in Bull Durham where something becomes increasingly clear.

We so often think of sports as glamorous shows of skill by superstars with million dollar paychecks which is in one sense true. But for every one of those stories, there are probably a thousand more who will never be known. No one cares if Crash winds up with the most career home runs in Single-A, except Anne that is. He ends up scrounging around for another job. Maybe a catcher for a different club or a small time management position. In fact, it’s easy to feel sympathy for the Annies and the Crashes because their whole life is baseball and yet in sporting terms, they’re past their prime. Thankfully they can have each other to dance through life together.

Bull Durham has it’s profane moments, it’s slow patches, and some good ones too but it’s the goods ones that usually stand out and the very fact that this film genuinely seems to care about baseball — but that does not mean there’s simply reverence — there’s enough respect to show the inane stuff too. It’s treated as American’s Pastime. But even that past time had the “Clown Prince of Baseball” (Max Patkin) who is also fittingly featured in this one.

Some of the best moments happen on the diamond with our two ballplayers giving themselves mental pep talks whether it’s predicting the next pitch in the batter’s box or going through the signs. When they’re gathered around the mound not to talk strategy but to discuss what wedding present they should get for their newly hitched teammate. And of course, every time Nuke shakes off one of his catcher’s signals, Crash proceeds to tell the opposing hitter what’s coming as payback. That’s when baseball is fun. Because it is a game. When you lose sight of that it ceases to evoke the same pleasures.

3.5/5 Stars

No Way Out (1987)

No_Way_Out_(1987_film)_posterIn the 1970s political paranoia involved issues in the realm of Watergate. Government conspiracy and that type of thing perfectly embodied by some of Alan Pakula’s best films. But it’s important to realize in order to better understand this particular thriller, the 1980s were a decade fraught with fears of Soviet infiltration compromising our national security. The Cold War was still a part of the public consciousness even after being a part of life for such a long time already. So No Way Out has a bit of Pakula’s apprehension in government and maybe even a bit of the showmanship of Psycho with some truly jarring twists.

The conflict is surprisingly close and even if it involves the vast bureaucracy of the Pentagon and various other arms of government, Roger Donalson’s film only takes great interest in maybe three or four characters really.

From early on its evident that Kevin Costner is our everyman and the person who we will be investing our time in for the rest of the film. It’s a star-making performance to add to a string of classics including the Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Dances with Wolves.

The always capable Gene Hackman takes on the role of Secretary of Defense and his ultra-loyal right-hand man Will Patton goes to great lengths to protect his superior. They are key to the storyline as is Lt. Commander Tom Farrell’s girl Susan Atwell (Sean Young) who also moonlights as the Secretary’s mistress. Her character is lively and a crucial player but over time it becomes evident that above all else she’s used to serve the plot and ratchet up the tension.

Already you can begin to see the complications and their ensuing implications. But that is only the beginning of No Way Out because in its latter half it drops off the deep end with a seismic shift that shakes up everything we knew before about this world.

It’s in these moments that I had the sneaking suspicion that I’d seen this before somewhere and it’s easy to see the striking resemblance to the 1940s noir The Big Clock. On further examination, the two stories do share some of the same plot points from Kenneth Fearing’s novel but this is certainly a re-imagining meant for the 1980s transposed to a politically charged arena.

Once more we have the authorities looking for a phantom man but the said man seems to be the only one who knows he is innocent. Off such a foundation No Way Out builds a pulse-pounding narrative that at times feels utterly absurd but it also tapped into the fears of that age and even this one that our highest modes of government are being undermined by our enemies. The Big Clock boasted a more idiosyncratic and colorful script but No Way Out certainly works well as a highly underrated thriller.

My initial assumption would have been that Hackman would have played a bigger role and potentially had a shot of pulling the spotlight away from Costner but our lead remains our lead to the very end, dashing in a uniform and incredibly fearless when it comes to defying authority.

If nothing else it leads to a vacuous car chase that ends up on foot in a Subway station. Hackman and Fernando Rey did a better job of it in The French Connection but that does not take away an ounce of the enjoyment. Because whether you’re ultimately a fan of them or not, No Way Out does have some monumental twists that will either leave you scratching your heads incredulously or cause you to fly off the handle in indignance.  If you crave a good old-fashioned political thriller 80s-style No Way Out is worth it.

3.5/5 Stars

The Princess Bride (1987)

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Few films can please the restless masses that inevitably gather at some unfortunate souls home for a movie night. Because as varied and diverse individuals of a myriad of backgrounds we very rarely agree on anything especially given the proliferation of content that is available to us at any given time. But most can agree on one thing. The Princess Bride is one of the great crowd pleasers of its generation and for good reason.

If quotability was the sole parameter for a great movie then The Princess Bride has few equals and it also happens to be the most fun you’ll have in a single sitting because all that it does, it does with an unquenchable zeal. There’s a spirit to the film full of romance and humor and adventure, even playing to those who will forever be skeptical.

Adapted from his own novel, the venerable William Goldman carries over his framing device of a grandfather reading to his sick grandson and it works marvels to bring us into this tale. Especially when the two actors in question are a precocious Fred Savage (Pre-Wonder Years) and the inimitable Peter Falk (Post-Columbo) slipping seamlessly into the role of a grandpa with a twinkle in his eye.

The story unravels like many great fables with a love story torn asunder by circumstance. A young man who goes off to seek his fortune only to die (or more likely take on the identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts) and a young maiden who is made a princess and remains unhappy all the same without her true love. Of course, she does not understand the nefarious intentions of her soon to be husband Humperdinck nor that her love is going to great lengths to find her. And amidst the fantasy, swordplay, trickery, and rampant humor, love conquers all as it has a habit of doing in fairy tales with everyone of note living happily ever after.

This unabashed tale also boasts near pitch-perfect casting. Cary Elwes as Westley does embody a certain quietly confident charm that while not quite Flynn or Fairbanks still manages to guide the film with similar charisma. He can be the hero, handsome and witty, made to play perfectly off all the intriguing figures who inhabit this fairy tale.

In her debut, Robin Wright glows with a radiant beauty and stubborn defiance that’ s enduring and which in many ways has remained a defining moment in her career and it’s certainly not a bad film to be forever remembered for. Meanwhile, Mandy Patinkin plays the vengeful Spaniard Inigo Montoya with the perfect amount of bravado, honor, and charm in his lifelong search for the six-fingered man who killed his beloved father. He’s the perfect accompaniment for Andre the Giant’s lovable brand of brawn and Wallace Shawn’s hilariously irritating turn as their cackling leader.

But what makes the film even better or the odd sorts who pop up here and there including Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) a curmudgeon wisecracker like no other and The Impressive Clergyman (played by the oft-underrated Peter Cook) who single-handedly ruined the solemnity of wedding vows for all eternity.

Rob Reiner is rarely considered a masterful director but if anything it’s easy to make the case that The Princess Bride remains years later his greatest achievement because it has so much life provided indubitably by Goldman’s superlative script and the very figures who dare to fill his world. And Reiner captures it all with a clarity that comprehends the humor but very rarely goes for that at the expense of characters or story (unless they are villains or Billy Crystal). After all, this isn’t a Mel Brooks film.

By this point, it’s a disservice to call The Princess Bride a parody or mere homage– simply a cult classic that’s garnered widespread affection. The reason people love this film is connected to those aspects but also the very fact it stands on its own.

As Falk sings the praises of the story early on, so we can affirm, it has “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” If that’s not exciting nothing is and it’s quite easy to forget that the film is continuously hilarious but there’s something remarkably moving about its story.  It plays the comedy well but simultaneously builds its own road through the mythology and fantasy of fairy tales that have captivated all people for eons.

In The Princess Bride, there’s not simply roots in comedies like The Court Jester but swashbucklers like The Adventures of Robin Hood or the magical journeying of the Wizard of Oz. It covers the spectrum of entertainment which is part of the reason it’s so satisfying.

It has scenes, moments, lines, those little idiosyncrasies and quirks that have left an indelible mark on viewers and as a result our culture as a whole. Lines like “As you wish,” “INCONCEIVABLE,” or best yet, “My Name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die.” Each has its special place within the context of the film and is still imbued with that same meaning hours after.

If I write about this film more from my heart than my head you’ll have to forgive but it truly is a weakness. I can envision being little Fred Savage enchanted by the sheer magic of fairy tales. I wouldn’t begin to care about romance until years later but swashbuckling and humor always had me enthralled and they continue to capture my imagination to this day–no more powerfully than in The Princess Bride.  It’s sheer magic in all the best ways.

5/5 Stars

Hoosiers (1986)

hoosiers_movie_poster_copyright_fairuseThe last time I saw Hoosiers it was on VHS and I was only a boy and I hardly remember anything. Gene Hackman yelling. Dennis Hopper as a drunk. Jimmy the boy wonder, “The Picket Fence”, and of course Indiana basketball at its finest. But in those opening moments, as he drives into town and walks through the halls of his new home, I realized just how much I miss Gene Hackman. Yes, he’s still with us but the moment he decided to step out of the limelight and retire from his illustrious career as an actor, films got a little less exciting. His passionate often fiery charisma is dearly missed.

Norman Dale is a character who precisely reflects those very inclinations. He’s a man who had a long stint in the Navy following a lifetime ban from collegiate basketball. Supposedly he punched out some kid. The particulars aren’t all that important but what the town of Hickory represents for him is a second chance, a clean slate to leave his mark on.

And through a no-nonsense philosophy coupled with tough love he looks to get his pistons firing on all cylinders, the ultimate goal to lead his team to a winning season. However, his tactics early on receive the ire of most of the local fan base as well as many of his players who willfully walk out on his new regime.

Barbara Hershey is the skeptical love interest who is nevertheless a cut above most of the other locals. She went away for college and returned home in an effort to care for her family. She has the coach pegged early on but he is an individual who meets the pressure of the town’s expectations and combats them the only way he knows how, by coaching hard, fundamentally sound basketball.

Certainly, at first, his boys have their misgivings but once they buy into his system and realize that he will fight for them to the end, they really do become a team–the very word that they chant every time they leave their huddle. It’s meant to define them in every game they play. Hackman’s screaming tirades are just as good as I remember as he berates referees about every call imaginable, all in an effort to intercede on behalf of his players. Meanwhile. Dennis Hopper falls into the role of disgraced father catapulted to redemption with tremendous ease showcasing his typical savvy as a character actor.

Sometimes I consider the 1980s (rather unfairly) an era devoid of quality filmmaking but a film like The Hoosiers in its goodness, as sentimental as it is, feels so utterly sincere in all of its endeavors that it hard not to be won over. The rhythms of the plot are all there to develop one of the lasting feel-good stories of a generation and Hoosiers simultaneously set the groundwork for numerous subsequent and, more often than not, lesser sports films.

There’s one scene in particular that resonated with me. It’s not necessarily crucial but it’s poignant speaking to the character of the man before us. A young man comes to not only his teacher but to his coach questioning why Dale is giving the boy’s drunken, ostracized father a chance as an assistant coach. And essentially the answer has to do with grace. No one else will give the man a second chance. No one. But doesn’t he deserve it? Maybe not at all but Coach Dale is willing to give it to him. You get the sneaking suspicion he feels precisely this way because no one ever offered him any grace when he faltered. Small towns can often be rigid, set strictly in the ways of tradition. There’s no room for errancy or disgrace of any type but then coach comes to town and changes things. Redemption is possible.

As was commonplace at the time, every day is rife with Biblical imagery no more practical than an illusion to David versus Goliath in the State Championship. Because coach Dale and his boys are big fish in a small pond transported to a veritable ocean. But he says it all when with hands together in one final huddle he says proudly, “I love you guys.” At this point, the results really don’t matter though they play a good game. Something to be proud of, reflective of everything they’ve done the entire season, one last final exhibition of what they are — a team — first and last.

I was never a gifted basketball player hailing from the Kurt Rambis school of hustle and hard knocks and that makes me thoroughly appreciate this film. It’s fundamentally sound on and off the court. It also helps that I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgia. Whether they like it or not Indiana basketball will always be defined by Hoosiers.

4/5 Stars

Veronika Voss (1982)

veronikavossYou get a sense that if they had ever met, Norma Desmond and Veronika Voss might have been good friends. Either that or they would have hated each other’s guts. And the reason for that is quite clear. They share so many similarities. Both are fading stars, prima donnas, who used to be big shots and now not so much and that seems to scare them so much so that they try and cover their insecurities with delusions of grandeur. Having to look at your near reflection would be utterly unnerving.

In the case of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s penultimate film, the tale of Veronika Voss actually finds inspiration in a real-life figure. It’s often true that you cannot make something like this up. You can play with the truth and stretch it a bit but still, there’s at least a kernel of reality here. The source of the story is the UFA actress Sybille Schmitz a star who came under fire for her continued work in the German film industry during the Nazi regime along with a disclosed love affair with Joseph Goebbels. That in itself made her a somewhat controversial legend. That and her tragic demise…

But rather like his forefather Billy Wilder, it seems like Fassbinder too was interested in teasing out a bit of the comedy and bitter tragedy of such a bygone star. Someone who used to be big and must begin to acknowledge the fact that they are no longer what they once were. Except very rarely are they willing to acknowledge their shortcomings. There lies the tension in Sunset Boulevard and Veronika Voss.

Voss, as played by Rosel Zech, is perpetually out of breath, preoccupied with lighting and shadow, the perfect environments to showcase her looks. Nervously trying to hold onto the last shreds of her waning fame. Now she’s scrimping to get just one role a far cry from her commanding star power when she worked with her one-time husband and screenwriter.

She’s rather incredulous when she meets Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) a bland sports journalist who doesn’t have the slightest idea who the great Veronika Voss is. Imagine that. It’s hard to know if that’s actually something to be surprised about or if it simply dictates the sign of the times. In 1955 Voss is an apparent nobody, a has-been. She simply has not accepted the reality.

Robert has a girlfriend and they seem generally happy but still, he begins a bit of an amorous romance with Voss. However, he also gazes into the deep recesses of her personal life which are currently dictated by the controlling and manipulative Dr. Katz. The lady doctor constantly keeps the dwindling star medicated and helpless, sucking dry all her assets in the process.

The film ends calamitously but its pale tones almost make us forget the drama. Instead, all conflict gives way to a distinct wistfulness. Popping pills and alcohol are a lethal combination (Fassbinder’s own death is a testament to that), but there’s something so debilitating about human greed and treachery. It’s positively lecherous, sucking the lifeblood out of all adjoining entities.

Going back to the Norma Desmond and Veronika Voss parallels, there’s no doubt that both are thoroughly tragic figures. It shows how fickle humanity can be. We’re so quick to love someone when they provide some sort of agency or pleasure but lose that allure and you’re kicked to the curb. That’s the way things often work — the sad inner workings of the world.

Fassbinder always has a knack for framing his sequences given his background in the theater and numerous scenes are shot through windows, windshields, and the like. Also noticeable are the quick transitions and wipes cutting from scene to scene like films of old. Voss also utilizes a fascinating layered sound developing an auditory collage of dialogue, score, and diegetic music. Featured tunes like Johnny Horton’s Battle of New Orleans and Tennessee Ernie’s Ford’s brooding Sixteen Tons serve a double purpose. They lend a specific time stamp to the alert viewer, while the country sounds simultaneously feel strikingly at odds with this world that we are introduced to.

But one last time the parallels become obvious, this time between the director and his subject. There’s a sense that he knew all too well what it was like to be someone like Veronika Voss. Famous beyond your years and in the same breath so utterly tragic. And both their lives, the adapted truth and the reality, arrived at much the same devastating ending. As surely as sparks fly, Man seems born to trouble.

4/5 Stars

Terms of Endearment (1983)

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I owe a comedic debt to James L. Brooks and that’s for the basic fact that he’s made me laugh countless times, namely because of his work with sitcoms. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi are two prime examples. The casts he brought together and the writing, the writing is just absolutely superb, orchestrating that tricky balancing act between humor and heart.

When I look at Terms of Endearment from a purely objective perspective it looks like a wonderful picture. James L. Brooks, the mastermind of so many great projects is writer, director, and producer. It’s his first time behind the camera for a film and his cast is what most others would only dream about. Looking down the cast list is like a hit parade.

Shirley MacLaine as the widowed Aurora, the quirky mother who is strangely difficult, looking for love and still somehow detached — with both her daughter and a plethora of male companions. The always spirited Debra Winger as her daughter Emma. Her husband, the fresh-faced lawyer, Flap is played by Jeff Daniels. The always devilishly grinning Jack Nicholson plays the washed-up astronaut next door who makes the strangest and somehow most viable of suitors for Aurora. And the other nooks and crannies are filled in by the likes of Danny DeVito and John Lithgow. So with such a rank and file, there’s no question that this film should be remarkable.

But for some reason, it just doesn’t come off. It’s not that it doesn’t have its moments or that it’s not intermittently funny, romantic, and moving. There are tinges of those qualities that this film is undoubtedly looking to elicit. But for some reason, one that is somehow difficult to articulate, Terms of Endearment never brought me in like the truly great films have a habit of doing.

Was the plotting too slow? Were there too many characters? Was it due to the fact that I have never been a huge admirer of Shirley MacLaine’s work? To each of these, I would have to give a fairly decisive “No.” In fact, for me, this is one of MacLaine’s finest roles (along with The Apartment) to date. She’s somewhat perturbing, inscrutable you might say, but that also makes her the most interesting character. Watching her cold maternal figure evolve is one of the interesting aspects of this story.

Because she is trying to learn what it is to love and in a sense what it is to show that affection which comes second nature to most. Over time I’ve become increasingly impressed with Debra Winger because there’s always something so dynamic about her — a certain vitality that allows her to do comedy and tragedy equally well.  Both are on display here but for that same unknowable reason, Terms of Endearment did not move me as much as I expected. That’s no criticism just the simple, honest truth as clearly as I can lay it down.

But I respect this film because any film about people, their relationships, and how they navigate the tragedies of life is worth at least a little bit of trouble. Parsing through those very relationships is what this story cares about like Brooks’ earlier works. Maybe it did not affect me as much as I might have expected but that does not take away from the fact that mother-daughter bonds are worth exploring as are marital turbulence and personal tragedy. Because each of these is a very real circumstance and there’s something incredibly honest in trying to examine such things. For that, I commend Brooks as well as his film.  I will not be singing its praises necessarily but we all can respect Terms of Endearment for the very fact that it’s sincerely trying to dissect our world with wit and grace. Whether it succeeds is very subjective indeed. But then again, that’s part of the magic of the movies. At their very core, they are subjective.

3.5/5 Stars

Platoon (1986)

platoon_posters_86It’s a rather interesting parallel that Charlie Sheen is playing much the same role his father did in Apocalypse Now. At least in the sense that they become our entry point into the mire of war, specifically in Vietnam. But where Apocalypse seemed to belong more so to Brando or even Duvall, Platoon is really Willem Dafoe’s film. At least he’s the one who makes it what it is. His final moment is emblematic of the entire narrative.

But it is also striking that the film opens with an excerpt from Ecclesiastes as follows, “Rejoice young man in your youth…” But the latter half of that same verse has major implications that will come into play later.

For now, these soldiers muddle their way through their tours of duty the best they can. Smoke, beer, and Smokey Robinson is the perfect way to combat the insanity and humidity right outside your tent.

Oliver Stone conjures up themes of politics and government conspiracies. The first word is uttered several times throughout Platoon but in the general sense. When you get a group of people together vying for positions and attention there’s bound to be politics. As for government conspiracy, Stone doesn’t quite scrape that barrel, although to be sure as a Vietnam veteran himself perhaps he has a lot to be disgruntled about.

Instead, he has a cast of characters who get to reflect all the angst and disillusionment for him and it’s a fairly impressive bunch. Aside from Sheen and Dafoe, John Bergener, Keith David, John McGinley, Forrest Whitaker, and even Johnny Depp make appearance wading their way through Vietnam.

It’s been far too long since I’ve seen Apocalypse Now to draw too many comparisons. However, although Platoon is a perturbing film it’s not the same type of expansive labyrinth that I recall from Coppola’s epic.  Charlie Sheen’s voiceovers attempt to add an introspective tinge to the entire narrative, but that is not where the strength of the film lies.

Platoon also has its share of pyrotechnics, in fact, it succumbs to them too often but that’s not the reason the film is affecting either. It’s the aftermath of those explosions. The carnage that is left in the wake of the barrages of RPGs. The bodies maimed and the images that haunt these young men.

And as audience members, it’s hard not to feel something. Repulsed. Angry. Frustrated. Confused. Perhaps that is the film working — giving even a zenith of the taste of what it was to be in the jungles of Vietnam back in 1967. This is one of those experiences I cannot take too often because it’s almost too much.

My initial hope was that Stone would not inject this film with his own brand or message and I will say that when I watch Platoon I am not left with the feeling that I am listening to Oliver Stone but instead I am watching something terribly volatile unfold. That’s certainly a testament to this film. In the end, Platoon is bolstered by its sheer intensity.

But back to Ecclesiastes, the earlier verse ends “and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things.” And it’s this final bit that is important in suggesting that young men are laid low due to their joy. But it’s hard to make that type of assertion. If anything, a film such as Platoon is perplexing because the answers are unclear and the reasons the world works the ways it does are not known to us.

Young men will continue to walk through life naively and he will struggle through life questioning the presence of God as much as this seemingly apathetic indifference towards the suffering in the world. Whether Stone was grappling with those same questions is up for contention but the beauty of film is that it very rarely works on a singular level. It can mean many things to many people. So it is with Platoon.

4/5 Stars