42nd Street (1933)

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“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” – Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler

42nd Street essentially feels like hallowed ground even today because it single-handedly gave an entire generation of films plentiful ammunition for tropes while jumpstarting Warner Bros.’s cottage industry of musicals. These included Footlight Parade, Dames, and a whole slew of Gold Digger movies among many others. Not to mention many heirs apparent from Stage Door (1937) to Cabaret (1972).

There are several angles from which to approach this film. One of them has to do with Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), an acclaimed theater director who is nevertheless broke thanks to The Crash and warned by his doctor that the undue stress of such a rigorous career is taking a toll on his health. He knows the clock is ticking for him and he deems that this will be his last Broadway show and it will his best even if it kills him. It probably will.

Meanwhile, the shining star of the forthcoming production Pretty Lady is one Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who keeps the picture’s lascivious financial backer (Guy Kibbee) onboard while never letting him get too familiar with her. Because you see, she has a secret romance going on the side with a young man (George Brent) who used to work with her in vaudeville. Now he’s jobless.

With all his reputation and finances dependant on the show’s success, Mr. Marsh quickly turns into a berating taskmaster, first, in casting calls and then through the grueling rehearsal regimen.

Three girls who manage to finagle their way into the show through some insider influence are Lorraine (Una Merkel), Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) and the wholesome newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She knows next to nothing about the tooth and nail competition and so the two old pros gladly take her under their wing.

It just happens that she finds a romantic interest in the baby-faced crooner Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) as they both have parts to play. Meanwhile, the higher-ups catch wind of Dorothy’s male friend Pat (Brent) and he soon is paid a meeting with an influencer — someone to rough him up a bit and keep him from gumming up the show. To a degree, it works as he heads off to Philadelphia and Marsh continues to drive his stock company mercilessly. He doesn’t just want it good, he wants absolute perfection, and despite his greatest efforts, he’ll never be completely satisfied.

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The first number we’re acquainted with is “Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and with it soon comes the opening strains of Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscope choreography — a mere taster of all the fine abstractions to come. But there must be a quarrel to further ignite the already bumpy proceedings. It starts when Dorothy gives it to the biggest sucker Abner Dillon (Kibbee) who is about as insufferable as they come, a buffoon as only Kibbee can play.

But the same night, in the process of blowing off steam, Dorothy is stricken with a fracture the day before her big debut. Things couldn’t be any worse with the pompous buffoon threatening to pull out his funding and Marsh is sunk without his leading lady. However, if you’ve seen any of the movies that this musical inspired, you already are well acquainted with the fact that “The show must go on!”

That same timorous yet sprightly chorus girl, Peggy has her chance at the big stage. Marsh drives her mercilessly through song, dance, and dialogue. Never praises her and essentially tells her that the entire weight of the hopes and dreams of all the cast is on her shoulders. Her quivering shoulders must carry the brunt of the production. That’s a terrible amount of pressure to place on one human being but the true miracle is that, of course, the new starlet manages brilliantly. The crowds want to love her and when she’s through with them they do.

In the latter half of 42nd Street, the dramatic elements give way to the actual musical numbers. “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is a fine introduction full of romance and cheeky innuendo, spearheaded by Merkel and Rogers consorting in a compartment, chomping away on fruit. The camera is on the move as well, scanning across the train facade between faces hidden behind curtains and the shoes that ultimately get left out for the porter.

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Then, Dick Powell takes the lead in “Young and Healthy” opposite a nameless platinum blonde (Toby Wing in a memorable bit role) which is elevated by more novel shot selections. Namely, the fact that the bench our two performers are romancing on promptly sinks into the floor with them now sprawled out together. We get a signature Berkeley pirouette right after that which still never ceases to amaze me, followed by a tracking shot through a tunnel of legs. It succeeds in being far more cinematic than stagebound and that’s the key.

“42nd Street” is the tip-toppest number of them all by breaking away from any confinement with the sheer scale and mass of humanity that it puts forth. Only a few camera setups in and one realizes we are no longer a theater audience, unless we transition from sitting in the balcony to the ground level, and finally end up in the rafters looking down on the entertainment with the most impeccable of overhead views.

The final extravaganza is great fun to behold with a plethora of dancers performing in what feels like all but perfect cadence, constructing a cutout city of their own by turning around in unison. Then, they pull away and the camera gives us this wonderfully curious illusion that we are looking up the full length of the Empire State building, our two beaming starlets popping up at the top of the towering heights. The asbestos curtain drops and they have all but sealed the success of their show and the film.

While the musical ends on a rather inconclusive note, it in no way neutralizes the effervescent numbers and performances that bloom out of an otherwise theatrical backstage drama. 42nd Street is still important to us because it is the origin of so many musical traditions but it subsequently still manages to enrapture with even a few feats of artistic ingenuity. It deserves its place among the seminal musicals even if its staying power is moot.

4/5 Stars

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy_Rich_Asians_poster.pngThe opening gambit of Crazy Rich Asians feels like the scene some Asian moviegoers have been waiting for all their lives. We’re in a stuffy hotel lobby with the snooty staff looking to deny service to Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh) and by the end of the conversation she winds up mopping the floor with them. It’s satisfying to get some sweet revenge but short of being malicious, it’s rewarding, setting the tone for the rest of the experience to come.

No one can understate just how impactful Crazy Rich Asians is for the Asian film community. Images speak volumes in this saturated world of ours and they are a meaningful reflection of the lives we lead every day. Thus, it means so much when they are able to reach out and resonate with a wide audience in a totally satisfying way.

Because doing a cursory look back over the past decades, the last times we had anything close to this in mainstream Hollywood would be The Joy Luck Club and then Flower Drum Song decades earlier and yet these movies were like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Hopefully, those days — when such films feel like noteworthy outliers — will soon be left behind us.

However, the beauty is that this is not just about Asian-Americans but Asians across the world from all different backgrounds. It is a stepping stone to greater representation and I believe that is all we can ask for. It cannot be the perfect film but it can lead to more opportunities in the future for Asian stars. If the box office returns are any indication, we’re on an encouraging road in this regard. This is a landmark picture for Asian audiences and they have shown their support.

It must be stressed above all else, this is not simply a showcase for Asian representation around a lifeless shell of a movie. This is universal, quality entertainment that can reach out and be relished by everyone. Because it starts with a leading couple who are warm and witty with the chemistry to tie a picture like this together nearly effortlessly.

Constance Wu is Rachel Chu, an Economics professor, smart, pretty, funny — all the superlatives of a rom-com heroine — and she is in love with a seemingly great guy. His name is Nick Young (Henry Goulding) and he’s a handsome stud full of warmth and thoughtfulness.

The most pleasant surprise about our central romantic relationship is how it’s forged between two people who genuinely love each other and treat each other well. It does not rely on contrived misunderstandings or sudden swings in character, making mountains out of molehills for the sake of the story.

Everything that threatens to destroy their relationship is the results of outside stressors. Specifically, because they are having to face Nick’s family together for the first time and the expectations that come in such circles. In his romancing of Rachel, Nick never flaunted the affluence he was born into. Growing up in Singapore his family was not just rich, their lives are absolutely overflowing with decadence. Right here, the film (based off Kevin Kwan’s book) earns its title; they are CRAZY rich.

While they are not the core sources of strife, Rachel and Nick are nonetheless taxed and forced to come to terms with who they really are and what their main priorities will be. It delivers a wonderfully satisfying result. We have this cross-cultural chafing between Rachel who was born of an immigrant mother in America. She’s worked hard to get where she is. Whereas Nick is culturally Singaporean and he is part of a rich tradition that cherishes the good of the family name above all else.

Michelle Yeoh proves a venerable and worthy adversary because she is one of the most authentic kind, a conflicted antagonist who has genuine concerns and capacities for immense affection. The key is a devotion to family duty and loving her son. It’s a very real issue that plagues her and the age-old dynamic when her boy brings a new girl to meet the parents. It just so happens they’re really, really rich.

Many viewers with only a nominal interest will probably be engrossed in this world of complete and total excess. You have opulent clothing, jewels, sprawling mansions, and almost unimaginable riches. It will give a view of Singapore — a place many Americans might be unfamiliar with — that we can probably somewhat call into question. Again, it’s important to stress this is not a blanket representation of the entire country but it does give us some sumptuous sights to enjoy.

You have private islands for bachelorette parties, bazookas going off on gigantic yachts, and any amount of other luxuries. True to form, I was most enraptured by the food. Thankfully, this is not a completely hollow world because we are given a road into this space through the vast array of players. The film is especially rich in vibrant secondary characters who breath humorous and touching life into this tale of family and cultural identity.

There are the catty women looking to tear Jessica down because she had the good fortune to catch Nick instead of them; they even go so far as to leave a bloody, dead fish on top of her bed in an act of vengeance. Then, the gossipy old women can’t help but get distracted during their bible study, sharing the latest tidbits and watching Jessica like a hawk when she makes her first appearance. It’s true everything seems to exist inside this magnified petri dish where every action is being monitored and everyone is just waiting for the wheels to come off.

The men are little better, obsessed with money, personal reputations, and their own perceived masculinity. Nick’s closest cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) is saddled with such a relationship. This B story is not as strong nor as beneficial to the full arc of this narrative but for those who have not read the books (like me), there’s an inclination it is setting up future arcs. Regardless, Gemma Chan is a sympathetic figure and she tries to navigate her own guilt about coming from money and concerns over feeling like she’s emasculating her wet-noodle of a husband.

The true standouts are the showstopping trio of Awkquafina in her blonde wig, Ken Jeong as her CSU Fullerton-graduated father, and Nico Santos as Cousin Oliver the one with the family fashion sense and enough covert gumption to help Rachel stand up to his Auntie.

The final glowing jewel of the movie has to be Lisa Lu who plays Nick’s grandmother. Though a smaller part, she is no less crucial as the family’s oldest matriarch. Lu acts as not only a connection point to the last major landmark of Hollywood Asian-American cinema, The Joy Luck Club, her career also had ties to less heralded but no less historically fascinating work like The Mountain Road where she co-starred with Jimmy Stewart.

Right up until the final shot of  John Chu’s blockbuster romance, I am happily reminded this is an unabashed fairy tale. The wedding scenes have license to feel magical and it’s not merely gaudy decadence anymore but real, sincere fairy dust floating over the moment that makes them feel innately special. Kina Grannis lends her gossamer voice to the moment and even Harry Shun Jr. makes an enigmatic cameo (her costar from Wong Fu’s Single at 30).

I was also somehow strangely entranced by Katherine Ho’s cover of “Yellow” which felt like a perfect capstone. The best movies are an experience and Crazy Rich Asians certainly fits the bill.

4/5 Stars

It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

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Rene Clair makes no justifications for his flights of fancy and it’s true that the stuff is unabashedly whimsical to the zenith. He made a reputation for himself in his native France for his playful cinema and for the decade or so he was in Hollywood (1935-1945) he continued much in the same vein. Most people would say it came with lesser dividends though some of his more memorable offerings included I Married a Witch (1942) and this film, It Happened Tomorrow.

Again, it involves highly unconventional orchestration like he was all but accustomed to in his comedies. It’s nary for everyone. In fact, it probably relies too heavily on its nifty bit of novel storytelling involving a journalist who begins to receive the following day’s news in advance. He can predict the future and it proves advantageous for grabbing the scoop and betting on the horses among other trifles.

Subsequently, the film begins rolling out a red carpet full of tropes upon tropes. But no one can shame Clair for sticking to his own whimsical abstractions and if you do allow it to invade your space you might just find yourself taken with its jungle gym-like acrobatics through time.

It starts 50 years ahead of our story with the golden anniversary of a couple talking about a small matter that happened years before. Then we fall back to the 1890s where Lawrence Stevens (Dick Powell) has the monotonous distinction of penning obituaries for the local paper before finally being promoted to reporter by his grouchy editor Mr. Gordon.

But then something far more miraculous happens. Lawrence doesn’t realize the implications at first when Pop, a veteran newspaperman with a near-saintly demeanor, becomes Lawrence’s guardian angel. To speak in known references, he might very well be this movie’s Clarence. His true gift is offering his young colleague the following day’s headlines.

They involve, of all things, updated classified adds, irregular snowfall and then an Opera House Robbery — offering the first moment of realization that Lawrence might have something extra special in his grasp. Simultaneously he becomes, enamored with the clairvoyant half of a niece (Linda Darnell) and uncle fortune telling duo.

Not until reading a little further into Linda Darnell’s history did I realize just how young when she made it big in Hollywood. Like her finest efforts, she dazzles with that bright-eyed concern next to Dick Powell. Though he would begin the redefinition of his career shortly with his introduction as Philip Marlowe and upcoming hardboiled fare, there’s still time for something light. He carries it with his usual assured comic energy as the headlines continually drive him into action.

One night he’s saving a girl from jumping off a bridge — his own girl in fact — to make a prophecy come true and then the next morning he’s tipping off the suspicious police chief on where to capture some wanted bank robbers.

Lawrence is now the talk of the town and the go-to writer for the paper with his uncanny nose for news. Soon he’s asking for Sylvia’s hand in marriage though a momentous misunderstanding leads her uncle to insist on a shotgun arrangement. If that’s the case he gladly takes the poison. But to bankroll their happy future together he bets on sure thing after sure thing at the racetrack. After all, he can’t lose. Or can he?

If you could know when you were going to die would you know or is ignorance really bliss? The movie begins its downward spiral after Lawrence’s winnings are swiped and it is foretold that he will die the same day in a hotel at 6:25pm on the dot.

Flimsy physical comedy takes over as we plummet toward the inevitable despite Lawrence’s vehement attempts to derail fate. He still winds up in the lobby of the St. George Hotel, within the very confines where he is destined to be gunned down. Like clockwork, everything unspools toward that exact end. The most exasperating thing is he saw it all coming and could do nothing to stop it.

But with a knowing wink, Clair flips the conceit on its head and that’s the story’s flash of momentary brilliance because we see as the narrative gets back around how things can work out in such a convoluted but somehow logical fashion. The paper reads: Lawrence Stevens is Dead. Of course, we know he’s alive. But the movie manages to make the headline ring true. You can have your cake and eat it too.

3/5 Stars

God’s Little Acre (1958)

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If there was an atypical even offbeat Anthony Mann picture, then God’s Little Acre would probably fit the bill. Based on the wildly popular and vehemently decried Depression-era work of the same name by Erskine Caldwell, it essentially serves as a second outing for much of the cast and crew involved with a picture from the year prior, Men in War (1957).

We have Mann reteamed with his favorite, Robert Ryan, and young Aldo Ray. Then, most prominently, we have cinematographer Ernest Haller and composer Elmer Bernstein returning. Even Phillip Yordan once more fronts for blacklisted Ben Maddow. And yet the actual results are oil and water.

The opening notes of a folksy title ballad sound off, seemingly more at home in a live-action Disney classic than a mainstream drama such as this. In truth, it’s an outmoded brand of melodrama. We just cannot hope to look at the pedigree the same way with its southern gothic and a hint of hillbilly.

That’s right. It’s part Jed Clampett, the other section Tennessee Williams, edgy and sweaty as any 50s film at its height. But what leaves an impression is not only the raciness for the day but the unadulterated playfulness. This is real Georgia down-home entertainment and it benefits from these qualities.

Ty Ty Walden (Ryan) is a slightly scatterbrained matriarch, who resolutely believes that his daddy left behind gold on their property. He’s hellbent on getting him a piece of the wealth and he’s pursued his aspirations by leaving his family acreage dotted with holes.

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He’s dragged his two sons into it too (Jack Lord and Vic Morrow), who are both a bit neurotic in their own right. The jealous Buck is constantly at the throat of his ravishing bride Griselda (Tina Louise in a sweltering debut) believing she still has the hots for their brother-in-law Will Thompson (Aldo Ray), a man married to the eldest Walden gal (Helen Westcott). He’s not altogether wrong but he’s not helping the situation any either. Then there’s Shaw. He just repeats everything his older brother says. They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed. They take after their father.

Meanwhile, their youngest sister, the bodacious southern belle Darlin’ Jill, is quite the looker herself. Buddy Hackett is just about the same as we remember him in all his pictures. That voice. That blubbering. That rotund lovable girth. His character, the aptly named Pluto, comes looking to court Darlin’ Jill who strings him alone as is expected.

Otherwise, the cast also features a criminally underused Rex Ingram as a farmhand and Michael Landon in a thoroughly unique role as an albino. Though only a minor player, he proves a crucial component of the plot since Ty Ty is convinced that albinos have an impeccable radar for gold and he pressgangs the boy to use his remarkable abilities. The beauty is that no one seems to outrightly question such a notion. They just move along like normal. In the meantime, Darlin’ Jill has fun tantalizing her rotund suitor and making eyes at the intriguingly pale Dave Dawson.

The latter half of the story follows lusty looks and passionate clenches as forbidden love is rekindled between Will and Griselda. It seems like just about everyone is being pawed over by everybody else. Tremors are going through the household with Ty Ty putting it upon himself to bring his family together and keep them on amicable terms. It’s not such an easy task with so much dysfunction at hand.

Will’s wife is beside herself as her man gets drunk and has some vague notion of turning the power at the old plant on so work can commence again for all the impoverished locals. But Ty Ty’s also in a scrape for cash and relationships have only deteriorated into fiery hell between Buck and Will — a woman still caught between them.

What are the main takeaways from the picture? It’s a rather incredulous piece that’s provocative and dull and maladjusted all at the same time. Ryan once more shows his capability at ably anchoring an entire film. However, all I could think of was the fact that if God’s Little Acre had been a bit more conventional and garnered a few more accolades for hard-hitting drama, we might be remembering Tina Louise as a cinematic sex symbol instead of a “Movie Star” from Gilligan’s Island. Maybe some movies get buried serendipitously.

3/5 Stars

 

Help! (1965)

Helponesheet.jpgWhat can I say? I am one of the proud and the many who loved The Beatles before they loved any other type of music. So when I watch Help! I look for all the best in it because that’s all that I can do.

However, if you are familiar with this follow-up to the frenzy and the success surrounding A Hard Day’s Night (1964), then that picture will feel like a serendipitous accident where everything came together for 90 minutes of magic. Help! is more of what one might actually expect from distributors trying to capitalize on The Beatles fandom before “the fad” ran its course. It’s less inspired and hammered out with what seems like little forethought at all. Because that’s what it was. Except previously a better job was done to fake it.

Though a quality filmmaker, Richard Lester was hampered by time constraints even going so far as to edit his daily footage while he was making the film. The ending results showcase a purposely disjointed narrative with a ludicrous script following a Far Eastern cult’s attempts to swipe Ringo’s prize ring for their human sacrifice. There’s not much more to it than that. It would prove ample fodder for many an episode of The Monkees which made no qualms about being a Beatles knockoff.

The rumor mill even provides accounts that the Fab Four were to have made a western picture with the lads all fighting for the affection of a rancher’s eligible young daughter. Maybe it’s the novelty of an idea never realized but I would have liked to see that picture in lieu of this one. However, we must content ourselves which what we have.

Stacked up against some of its more forgettable contemporary spoofs and scatterbrain comedies, Help! could have done a worse job blending the exoticism of Bond with its attempts at comedy. There are numerous Eastern influences and if anything the film facilitated Harrison’s introduction to the sitar. We even hear a version of “Hard Day’s Night” on the Indian instrument.

Otherwise, the boy’s flat is decked with Tati-like contraptions and coloring that evoke the Frenchmen’s work in Mon Oncle (1958). The lines of disparate gags owe a debt to Peter Sellers (especially The Goon Show) and act as a less inspired precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

These are the only reference points I can manage and yet this suggests that Help! might have been so much more. Instead, fueled by their new infatuation for marijuana, the boys are in a bit of a garbled haze and it reflects the mess of the film full of flubbed lines and absurd non-sequiturs.

Nevertheless one could argue that much of it feels akin to the world The Beatles were finding themselves adrift in. Their fame had blown up to outrageous proportions that were almost laughable. It would make someone go batty. Perhaps they needed a trip to the Alps and the Bahamas, play acting with tigers and then tanks on the Salsbury Plains. For a few stray moments, they were not a commodity. They could muck about and be themselves.

That gets down to one of the primary takeaways. We still have The Beatles. True, John Lennon later commented that it felt like the boys were sideshow attractions in their own movie. I get the sentiment but I would disagree it in the sense that I’m hardly drawn to any of the other characters. There’s little interest in their antics because I’ve seen countless more inspired takes on the same material.

But we have Richard Lester directing The Beatles’ music so we have something iconic to grab ahold of. It’s not a total loss. What you gain an appreciation for, especially in this effort, is how Lester has almost single-handedly invented the language of the music video whether he meant to or not. At its best that’s what this manic comedy is — an early exhibition in the music video — using spliced together standalone sequences showcasing the boys in various situations most memorably attempting to ski or playing curling.

“Ticket to Ride” in the snow, “I Need You” out in the brisk British air, and “Another Girl” shot in the Bahamas are able to bottle just a little bit of The Beatles because it’s their music that stands the test of time meshed with those playful personas.

While it’s momentarily amusing for flashes of humor and memorable for the unparalleled tunes, in many ways, it pales in comparison to its predecessors.  It lacks the perfect docudrama zaniness of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the pure animated invention of Yellow Submarine (1968). Instead, Help! slates itself as an often shallow even dopey picture.  But, I’ll say it again. We still have The Beatles. Surely that is enough for most of us.

3/5 Stars

 

 

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

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Though Preston Sturges would never eclipse the heights of the early 40s again and his stellar run was slowly spiraling down, we do have Unfaithfully Yours and for my money, that’s recompense enough.

It documents the life of a prestigious conductor, Sir Alfred De Carter (Rex Harrison), happily married to a gorgeous woman (a stunning Linda Darnell) with ample help from a staff including an efficient personal secretary (Kurt Kreuger) and a crotchety Russian played by Lionel Stander. The entourage includes his wife’s wisecracking little sister (Barbara Lawrence) and the sister’s husband, an insufferable bore of the bourgeoisie named August (“He’s got $100 million don’t also be expecting Mickey Mouse”).

The whole issue arises when said brother-in-law, played by Rudy Vallee, takes Alfred’s passing entreaty quite literally to “watch over his wife” while he’s away. As August was also away paying a visit to mother, he has a private detective check in on his sister-in-law. The P.I. collected a comprehensive dossier on her activities while he was gone, which Sir Alfred promptly rips up.  It doesn’t help that the hotel house detective (Al Bridge) is very thorough in his job, driving the conductor to burn the documents decisively, followed by a valiant effort to put out the subsequent conflagration in his dressing room.

However, all his attempts are to no avail and the conductor starts getting ideas; the rumors that were in the back of his mind now start moving to the front, making him irritable.

What other film, featuring a tailor just trying to eat his lunch in peace, winds up leaving an impression because the man is given enough to say? It’s quintessential Sturges and he doesn’t disappoint many of his faithful players either. Each gets a spot of their own. The private detective (Edgar Kennedy) gets a contentious visit from De Carney and turns out to be a patron of the arts. He’s a keen follower of De Carney’s oeuvre even. Sturges gives him the perfect summation of his opinions, “For me, there’s no one who handles Handel like you handle Handel.”

There are also a few choice Sturges lines that I couldn’t help but recall being recycled from other pictures such as being “left to hang on a meat hook” and the age-old favorite “nuttier than a fruitcake.”

As the director slices through the material, De Carney thrusts and waves his way through Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. He’s so attuned to his craft, in fact, that he daydreams through each, the music setting the perfect melody to each of his mental confrontations with his wife.

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The first arrangement of events is calculated yet diabolical, played to a piece booming with sweeping, all-encompassing, passionate rage. Using a voice recorder, he stages the perfect murder to entrap the other man. He ends up cackling in the courtroom with relish as he watches Tony get his sentence. It’s all too easy. Hitchcock might have been proud.

His middle piece captures the pure melancholy of the entire scenario. Both maudlin and chivalrous, as he decides the greatest act of love he can perform is to let her go to her true love while writing her a check that she might never have to work her pretty hands ever again. The final coda picks up the tempo again in a ragingly melodramatic fashion that culminates in the proposition of Russian roulette between a gentleman and his rival.

What actually happens is like so: It entails an inexplicable trashing of his apartment after dipping out of his finest hour prematurely. Lamps and wicker chairs are systematically demolished, not to mention the knocking of the telephone off the line and unwittingly pranking the operator again and again. Glass shatters, pratfalls, miscues, clunking about like a witless neanderthal. It is all present.

There is a Georges Rouault painting up on a wall that I distinctly remember from an Art History textbook I once read. So, obviously, this makes this picture the height of culture and it might as well be. Juxtapose that with Rex Harrison, always so refined and erudite, seen stomping about and making a shambles of his apartment and you have one of the film’s high points. And the picture has much to offer us even amid its bleak and admittedly dark deviations.

What’s striking is not simply that this is a physical comedy (typical Sturges) but that it wholly relies on Rex Harrison’s abilities and is nearly a wordless sequence. For a man who was so renowned for his pen, Mr. Sturges shows an apt restraint. This long extended scene says in visual terms that the very way we envision things never hold a candle to actual reality, where things get complicated and muddled by this or that. Nothing is left where we remember it or sudden onslaughts of sneezing come out of nowhere.

Recording machines, that despite being “so simple they operate themselves,” never seem to behave properly, foiling us at every possible interval. In fact, each of his nefarious ploys that he dreams up get thwarted.

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His wife comes home and they have a normal, healthy, human misunderstanding. Husbands get accidentally cut by razors, spill ink pots all over the desk, and wives innocently confuse the marginally different games of Russian Roulette and Russian Bank, worrying about the moods of said husbands.

The only flaw in Unfaithfully Yours, if we can call it that, is the fact that the husband has no open line of communication with his wife. Of course, not having it allows the film to cycle through each of its subsequent movements, thanks to our protagonist’s mercurial nature.

What I find most troubling about it is how he jumps too quickly to accusatory behavior in taking the higher moral ground. His better half is given the lower position as the doting wife, though her sincerity is never in question like his. I suppose it’s precisely why we must see Harrison acting like such a numbskull lunatic; we have a counterweight.

It’s true that the picture could have featured the pairings of Ronald Colman and Francis Ramden then James Mason and Gene Tierney at different intervals. Rex Harrison was brought on with Carole Landis to play his wife, only to have the actress replaced due to difficulties between her and Harrison. Landis is remembered today namely for her romantic ties to Harrison, her figure, and a terribly unfortunate, premature death.

It seems nearly impossible to separate the two as the picture’s release date was pushed back in part to the actresses death and her close romantic ties to Harrison (married to Lilli Palmer at the time). He was the last person to see her alive as well as one of the first people who discovered her body. While the parallels to this film aren’t altogether obvious, there’s nevertheless still some controversy swirling around both.

What we are left with is that Unfaithfully Yours is funny and then sad and then sadly funny again. We can’t laugh but we must just as life must be full of laughter. For it is one of the grandest antidotes for poison. The acerbic poison that crops up in people due to jealousy and distrust. The picture might be truer to life than we would care to admit. I’d generally be interested in hearing Rex Harrison’s thoughts. I guess we’ll never know. The viewing public in 1940s America certainly wasn’t ready for such a perversely pitch-black picture. It was probably too far ahead of its time. Even today it still maintains that sting of biting wit.

4/5 Stars

Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

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I have long sought out this picture and all I can say is all hail the conquering hero! It’s everything that could have been hoped for in a Preston Sturges wartime comedy. But in order for the laughs to come along with a great deal more, there must be a setup — a watering hole for our main players to familiarize themselves.

Sure enough, we are introduced to a fairly somber nightclub scene or maybe it’s simply the face of the one man the camera chooses to focus on, sitting dejectedly at the bar. There slumps Eddie Bracken, slightly pudgy and round-faced. By no means classically handsome but he and Preston Sturges had quite a thing going for a couple years.

He got sent home from the Marines for chronic hayfever. I’m extremely empathetic to his condition as I’m sure innumerable others are as well. Anyway, he’s too embarrassed to go home and it’s been a year now and he’s still not returned. However, he has nothing except the highest regard for the Marines as his father gave his life serving his country. In fact, it was the very day our boy was born.

He pays it forward to a group of Marines on leave with no dough, thanks to the gambling habits of one of their pack. The act of charity isn’t lost on them and they get acquainted. Soon they find out the name of their benefactor. It has the be the most patriotic names ever invented: Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (sans the Truesmith).

Soon they are regaled with his story and stunned by his encyclopedic knowledge of the exploits of the Marines out on the battlefields. Their leader Sergeant (William Demarest) even finds out they have a lot more in common as he knew the elder Truesmith — Winky Dinky for short — before he perished.

The only place for the film to go from here is back to Woodrow’s roots and so without his consent, his mother gets called up and it’s announced that he’s getting sent home. Woodrow’s against it from the beginning but his new pals say there’s nothing to it. He’ll wear a uniform for a day, give his mother a hug, and take off the uniform soon after, completely forgotten. Of course, as they ride the train into town, they have no idea what’s been stirred up in preparation.

A homecoming like you’ve never witnessed has been hurriedly assembled by the local committee chairman (the frantically hilarious Franklin Pangborn) and it’s the true essence of cacophony with unrehearsed dueling brass bands; the mayor and any number of folks milling about in expectant anticipation. The show is just beginning to warm up now.

What many will find astounding is just how perfectly Hail the Conquering Hero has been constructed by Sturges, at least in the way it skirts its topics with simultaneous delicacy and verve. Here is a film striking an impeccable course between that very same comedy and then admiration for the armed forces because no one can forget WWII was still blasting away across the world.

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Likewise, the church service far from belittling the faith is a lingering visual gag as we watch the dueling reactions of the two sides of the pews. First through the hymns and then a very sincere homily from the preacher culminating in yet another rousing display of goodwill. By now Woodrow has little hope to derail any of the fanfare with the erection of a commemorative statue christened “Like Father, Like Son” soon in the works. All his newfound Marine buddies are good for is stoking the fires and applauding the sentiment.

The next great sequence is cued by the music and Mother answers the door and mentions that the Judge (Jimmy Conlin) and some other civic leaders want to see Woodrow. Immediately his mind leaps to the worst possible scenario. The game must be up and all his Marine buddies inconspicuously grab household items in case of a tustle that might take place in the drawing room. Of course, their intentions are nothing of the sort. Far from it. The lead up makes the outcome into yet another outrageous reveal.

Just around this juncture, it becomes increasingly apparent that all the characters appear to move in packs and Sturges crams the frame gladly with bodies and faces and more appendages. Woodrow does his best to avoid the spotlight, flubbing his speech to the masses, and trying to downplay the bid for mayor thrust upon him only to be thwarted at every turn by a cheering crowd of well-wishers. One man even proclaims his was the greatest speech since William Jennings Bryan’s “Crown of Thorns!” Already we have the swellest giggle-fit inducer I’ve encountered in some time.

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I wracked my brain only to realize I’d never seen Ella Raines in a comedy before and for much of this picture she’s in the periphery, her comely smiling features on the screen with a whole host of others. But there are a few moments that, far from playing merely humorously, prove deeply moving as she is split between the man she is betrothed to marry and the one she truly loves.

The family she’s caught up in includes a quibbling father and son. The incumbent mayor (Raymond Walburn), who ponificates incessantly, attempts to dictate his speech in his latest bid for reelection only to get annoyed by his dim-witted boy (Bill Edwards) who nevertheless corrects his grammatical blunders. She’d do well to get out of there. Nevertheless, they are a bounty for humorous dialogue.

The stakes are set for a reversal of fortune with a number of parties having a chance to oust our hero. One man who’s buddy-buddy with the Mayor, the cool and collected Jake (Al Bridge) is mighty curious about Woodrow’s service record and he sends a wire to the Marine Base in San Diego. He gets the incriminating news shortly.

But ultimately it comes down to Woodrow himself and Sturges puts the perfect words in his mouth that Eddie Bracken then utters with an assured conviction. Riffing off the Biblical epithet he notes, “My cup runneth over with gall” and proceeds to pour out with veracious intent all the lies and masquerades he’s been too scared to admit to his own town. His guts are laid out right in front of him. Yes, his mother cries. The townspeople look on somberly and his Marine buddies can do nothing to dispel any of it. Even the words of the Mayor and his pal mean nothing now.

With such a showing you would think it was all over for Woodrow and he tells his mama that he’s going to leave again. He cannot stay. Not like this at least. But his girl comes back to him because she at least loves him unconditionally.

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At the train station the parlor games look like they might commence again but this time the whole town is involved, a lynching all but imminent. The Marines this time wrap up their belts inconspicuously to prepare for combat once more. Of course, the mob is there for a very different reason altogether.

The film has the foresight to see what so many of its contemporary war movies were, only made plainly obvious with the luxury hindsight: Light-hearted and good-intentioned yet still mawkish propaganda pieces. So Sturges took up his pen and tackled such hero worship and smalltime jingoism and yet settles on a resolution proving to be as venerating as it is satisfying.

Hail The Conquering Hero is a miracle assemblage of poignancy and humor; I don’t know how it comes away still intact and with my heartfelt laughter and deepest respect no less. It’s not an easy road to traverse by any means. Only a few have managed it. Chaplain in The Great Dictator (1940) distinctly comes to mind and Preston Sturges here.

4.5/5 Stars

Christmas in July (1940)

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“If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” – Maxford Coffee House Slogan

Christmas in July is one of Preston Sturgeses earliest efforts where he both scripted and directed the material. He was fed up with how others had handled his handiwork. Obviously they must not have directed it in the zany scattershot way they should have. He would all but rectify that oversight in the early 1940s with his string of successes.

We are privy to a rooftop romance between Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) and his best gal Betty Casey (Ellen Drew) as they take up a light squabble over modern living and radio sweepstakes. The man is intent on winning the grand prize of $25,000 for the Maxford House Slogan Competition. He hangs attentively around the radio to get the verdict. He, his girlfriend, and millions of other Americans.

But a snafu arises when the jury is hung in their decision-making process by an obdurate Mr. Bildocker (William Demarest). The radio announcer has no choice but postpone the annoucment. Not only does it annoy the public by leaving them hanging on a meat hook, it leaves space for a practical joke to go horribly awry.

You see, Jimmy is adamant that his slogan will be the kicker and he’s not shy about telling everyone about it. First, his girlfriend, then his mother, and finally any coworker who will listen. Three wiseguys in the office overhear his spouting and pull the gag to end all gags. All it takes are a few slips of paper, some paste, and an unused telegram slip. It’s a pretty horrible joke. You can probably envision it already.

In fact, I could just see it unfolding like the emperor’s new clothes and yet it’s more good-natured and innocent. He sees the note, reads it, and proceeds to stand on top of his desk to share his good fortune and tell his colleagues to gather around. It’s a sequence full of canned laughter as the floor manager comes by to see what the ruckus is about.

Jimmy and Betty are glowing and positively floating down the corridors together. They must be dreaming. He quite innocently wanders into the Maxford offices inquiring about his winnings and walks out again as nice as you please with a check for $25, 000. Next, comes the department store jewelry case and every other department they have.

Seeing the astonishing check in his possession, the store all of a sudden gets very generous and soon he’s being given everything on credit. Buying new fangled whizzbang contraptions like the all-in-one Davenola. Diamond rings and fur coats for his girl follow, and gifts for everyone else in his family and the adjoining neighbors. The street in his old neighborhood is pure bedlam with the passing out of toys to all the kiddies and free caraousel rides and confections. They’ve never had it so good. There has never been such a respite before.

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As an audience we are in on quite a big secret. We know the bubble must burst some time. Our greatest fear is that it will completely devastate MacDonald. He’s the kind of man who requires the approbation of others to believe that his ideas are any good and that can be dangerous.

For all the madness, there is a very sincere consideration of the American Dream in this picture, not to mention what people deem to be truly important in their lives. His Manager, far from being a mere boob, has some suprisingly sagacious knowledge to dispel:

“Mr. MacDonald. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works. But no system could be right where only half of 1% were successes and all the rest were failures – that wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure. I’m a success. And so are you, if you earn your own living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye. I hope you win your $25,000, Mr. MacDonald. But if you shouldn’t happen to, don’t worry about it. Now get the heck back to your desk and try to improve your arithmetic.”

Thankfully, the picture is loaded end to end with character parts. It’s positively swimming in them. Though he never worked with Dick Powell and Ellen Drew again, who coincidentally have a fine genial chemistry, many of the smaller bit players became mainstays of Sturgeses stock company. Aside from William Demarest (who gets the final comic punchline as per usual), you will see many other familiar faces if you’re acquainted with the director’s canon. In other words, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) Et Al.

There’s this innate sense that he’s stuffed this particular script with any number of inside jokes and he mastered the art of humorous character naming, only adding to this swirling cauldron of mayhem born out of one simple gimmick.

Hanging his hat on a slogan like, “If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee – it’s the bunk” is seemingly a foolhardy task and yet he all but pulls it off. I must confess that I couldn’t get my head around the statement for a while because it seems that “bunk” used in its informal and archaic etymology as “nonsense” isn’t as common today But it reflects Sturges perfectly.

If there is a modern heir apparent to Preston Sturges I am still in the dark. The closest might be the Coen Brothers and yet their work has never undone me in the same ways. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. You also had a contemporary in Frank Capra who was well-versed in populous fare but though he had close collaborators, he rarely wrote his material or had the same unorthodox pizazz of Sturges.

Billy Wilder proved capable of much the same as Sturges, both as writer and director, but even he worked often with writing partners. His work was injected with a cynicism even foreign to Sturges in all of his idiosyncratic, zinging panache. Each is worthy of an examination due in part to their differences. However, Preston Sturges  was really one of the first high profile screenwriters, preceding so many modern success stories. He gave the formerly uninspired and restricted post a newfound respect at a time when that was all but unheard of.

One part of me speculates whether his humor is dated and another part asks why we don’t have films quite like this anymore? Part of the answer might be because of television. The kind of hijinks and episodes that Sturges seemed to showcase often got translated into I Love Lucy episodes and numerous other sitcom tropes that would gain traction over the years.

Still, there’s little doubt that something deeply satisfying is afoot — a film that zips along at an hour and seven minutes yet leaves us feeling like a whole boatload has happened in that same amount of time. Because it’s true. There are dour notes. Moments of wistfulness even, but paired with all that is frenetic and wonkers, you find Preston Sturges coming out on the other side with a comedic trifle that speaks to a great many things about American life, however superficially. Because remember, the punchlines are just as important as the lessons.

3.5/5 Stars

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

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“When life hands you conundrums you turn it into art” – Nick Offerman as Frank Fisher

The opening introduction of our character is nothing short of fantastic. He lights up a cigarette absent-mindedly, headphones plugged in to Tweedy only for his reverie to be broken by a patron telling him he can’t smoke inside. He responds bluntly, “I’ll put it out if you buy something.”

We know him instantly to be a man who doesn’t play popularity contests even when it would benefit him and his record shop. This is what the following piece of superfluous dialogue is implying as this offended customer says he just bought an album on Amazon instead.

Without hardly knowing anything about him, somehow we like this man behind the counter and simultaneously feel sorry for him. Surely, he can see the writing on the wall. The record shop, the trendy bastion of a bygone era, even in a neighborhood like Red Hook in Brooklyn, is probably on the way out. It is an endangered species and we as the populous have killed it.

This is not High Fidelity (2002). The record shop is no longer a place for buddy comedy with your ragtag band of musical connoisseurs quibbling over personal tastes and nonexistent romance. The niche begins to feel smaller and smaller. It has become even moreso a thing of the past. I recently watched the documentary on the rapid decline of Tower Records, fittingly entitled All Things Must Pass. There is a certain wistulness in acknowledging this irrefutible reality.

Like most indies of this day and age, Heart Beats Loud uses the same formula with quirky supporting characters who have their charms. The mother is a ditsy kleptomaniac who once had a career as a songstress. It feels like a blink and you miss it turn for the Blythe Danner.

There’s Toni Collette, the local landlord who rents Frank his space. They have a relationship that’s hard to pinpoint. Their kids are grown. They’re friends and they can talk to one another. Still, there’s something unspoken between them; it supplies some unnecessary romantic tension.

Surprise, suprise, there’s Ted Danson who (wink, wink) runs the local bar and plays the ever-present available listening ear for our hero to commiserate with. We all need that friend.  Frank’s daughter Sam has such a confidante too even as she tries to figure out her life and love in the context of adolescence. Fortuitously, while I like these folks, they hold nothing compared to the people at the center. Seeing as we spend the most time with the two Fishers it’s probably for the best.

The age-old inversion is also present. The adult seems to be acting out like a child even as his kid makes up the difference by acting mature beyond her years. In one particularly indicative scene, Frank bugs his daughter in her attempts to study so they can have a father-daughter jam sesh together. Because this is the summer before she will head across the country to UCLA. They are on the cusp of a new period of life. He hasn’t accepted it yet.

The story beats are nothing strange or sensational just as the music is catchy but not altogether supernal pop. However, the familiarity is actually quite nice and because we like these people and the places feel warm and welcoming, we want to spend time there. There need not be more.

Together their jam sessions bleed into the synthesis of songs from the heart. It’s how they bond and find a way to communicate when there is no other available wavelength open.  Movies like these allow those of us who adore music and cannot play or sing a lick, live vicariously through some else’s experience. It’s the best way I can describe it. The last film to carry me away on the sound waves with this much relish was Sing Street (2016).

It won’t win any awards and it will be dismissed by so many more and yet there will be a niche market for it — just like vinyl itself. I am thankful we still have actors like Nick Offerman, willing to make unassuming, passionate projects like this one.

In the end, a seemingly inconsequential decision winds up stirring up some notice as the song they cut together actually has some mild success under their moniker We Are Not a Band. There’s the giddy delight registering on Frank’s face upon hearing the song he made in his living room with his daughter playing in a local coffee shop. He’s as proud and as flabbergasted as can be even though no one else seems to understand his elation.

This is purely That Thing You Do! or The Commitments grade musicianship. It’s good but not virtuoso or magnified enough to get a large following. Nevertheless, it’s tantalizing. What could have been? Because even as the shop is having its final day and Sam gets ready to head out west, they get another opportunity.

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Someone is interested to monetize their band and tour it into something with legs. There is a moment where Frank genuinely wants this until he realizes it’s indicative of another issue. He needs a catharsis — a healthy, meaningful way to say goodbye to not only his shop but his daughter — and he gets it.

What more fitting way than a Last Waltz in the record store, except they’ve never even performed before. Still, they do it for the first and last time (maybe) and give it all they have for an audience of record hunters. The accolades and circulation were never important anyway.

They are in the pantheon surrounded by a hall of heroes. Some forgotten. Some not. I see Peter Frampton. Marvin Gaye. Lana Del Ray. The Beach Boys. Aretha. Bob Marley. Tom Waits. They’re all smiling down on these two people who love music. The personified joy is what it’s all about.

The message is succinct and we’ve heard it so many times before. Hearing it in the context of these people’s lives somehow gives it renewed resonance. Because it’s the message they need to hear and who knows, maybe some of us do as well.

Contentment is key. All change is not bad just as things of the past should not necessarily be ditched entirely for the new. Somewhere in between them all, between the record albums and the Spotify playlists, we should be able to find a happy medium. At the end of the day, the point of the music doesn’t change. It’s meant to bring us together.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Arigato-san (1936)

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The translated English title of Mr. Thank You somehow comes off insincere as if it’s making fun but there’s nothing of this kind of sentiment in this picture from director Hiroshi Shumizu. It proves to be a cordial exploration of human nature and human kindness played out in the most organic fashion possible. In turn, it’s blessed by extensive on location shooting as well as a wide-ranging cast of players.

What it promises is a charming road film like few I’ve ever seen; self-contained and yet freely spilling out over the roads with meandering ease guided by our eponymous hero. The driver of the bus traversing the road from the rural area of Iku to the big city in Tokyo is known to everyone as “Arigato-san” because when you hear a polite ‘Honk’ followed by an “Arigato,” he’s more than made his presence known.

People appreciate his continuous gratitude and also the courteous favors he does for them along his route. It might be picking up pop records for girls in the hills so they can have quality entertainment. Or for someone else promising to place water and flowers at a deceased father’s grave. He obliges graciously and constantly makes necessary pit stops to accommodate everyone.

The rhythm becomes second nature to us as an audience as well and we gladly follow any diversion the story takes. By the end, we’re so used to the film’s continual visual motif of point-of-view shots followed by an “Arigato” and a rear view of the pedestrians making way and waving our travelers on.

Peppy scoring right out of a Hollywood silent reel comedy does wonders to develop a certain mood on the road. In one respect it matches the jovial demeanor of our protagonist but at the same time, there are slight nuances of more solemn issues merely touched upon. Because it’s a bus that brings together quite the gathering of folks from all walks of life.

If our bus driver is a lovely character full of cheerfulness then his passengers are certainly just as colorful. He can be seen almost like a benevolent symbol of modernity and in some respects, his cohort is one too. She takes the seat right behind him and we gather at first that it’s simply to flirt. But as the story unfolds and we see more interactions those initial preconceptions give way to a more complex reading. She reflects a different sort of progressiveness. A woman who speaks her mind, drinks with the boys, and calls others out for their improprieties. You get the innate sense that she is worldly wise but generally kind-hearted.

The rest of the core group includes an impoverished mother and her daughter who is going to Tokyo for the sake of her family; it’s further implied that she will be forced to take on the ignominious life of a prostitute. Next, is a phony businessman with a handlebar mustache and a penchant for ogling pretty girls. The passengers are rounded out by earthy but nevertheless amiable folks and momentary travelers attending weddings and wakes. Each has a unique destination. Arigato-san transports them all.

For a director as prolific as he was — Shimizu had over 160 screen credits — it’s astounding that he has very little recognition among audiences now, at home or abroad. Yasujiro Ozu, one of his contemporaries and colleagues in their days at Shochiku Studio is of course revered the world over. Some might actually find Arigato-san more accessible in some respects and it’s definitely deserving of more acknowledgment.

Because what it offers up is not only a genial portrait of Japan and its humanity but also some of the inherent plight of the common man in rural Japan. In fact, the film is so affable that some of its undertones easily slip by. There’s a wide range of depth going from humor to surprisingly delicate commentary.

All the while we come to relish the time spent with each one of these individual passengers and especially Arigato-san. When they exit the bus upon arriving at their appointed destination it means something because in such a short time it does feel like we’ve built some sort of rapport with them. That’s one of the joys of travel felt most readily when you make the concerted effort to get to know those around you.

In this particular instance, the film provides deeper cross-cultural understanding and there is the realization that economic depressions were not centered solely around the U.S. Japan had similar if not worse conditions for its populous. And if anything, it makes you realize how the nationalistic movement in Germany or imperialistic ambitions in Japan took root. It comes from people who are weary from economic and social deprivation. They want something better.

For his part, I deeply admire the character of Arigato-san because his purpose is a noble one planted in humility. It seems like he genuinely cares for his neighbors and he readily goes out of his way to increase their joy. On a large scale, things might well seem hopeless but the micro-level shows that Japan was made up of many considerate people. While that cannot alleviate all the suffering of the impoverished it certainly is a jumping off point to instigate human flourishing.

4/5 Stars