Blood and Sand (1941)

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There’s little doubt Blood and Sand was a follow up to The Mark of Zorro (1940) meant to capitalize on the lucrative romantic pairing of devilishly handsome heartthrob Tyrone Power and winsome ingenue Linda Darnell. But what it sets out to do, it achieves through an ability to capture us in a joyously Hollywood confection. It pulls out all the stops to establish Spain for the moviegoing audience. Flamenca, guitar, castanets, swirling skirts, and sashaying ladies are all present bursting forth from the screen with multicolored gaiety and merriment.

The picture in straightforward fashion charters the rise of a young boy into a renowned matador with aims at commanding the grandest stage in all of Seville. Juan Gallardo (Power), buoyed by a tight-knit band of friends and propelled by lifelong ambition, is ultimately able to realize his dreams and to garner all the laurels lavished on the man of the hour.

Most important of all, he’s finally able to marry the girl whom he’s loved since childhood, the virginal beauty Carmen Espinosa (Darnell). She has dutifully waited for his triumphant return when he serenades her with a full band and presents her a wedding dress to pronounce his everlasting love. They’re young and deliriously happy.

While initially maligned as a fifth-rate talent, now the famed purveyor of public opinion, Natalio Curro, christens Gallardo the finest matador in all the land. Laird Cregar is more than capable as the pompous bullfighting critic who relishes the spotlight as well as his reputation as a tastemaker.

Likewise, everyone wants Juan to be the godfather of their child. He is in high demand and he catches everyone’s eye. Namely, the recently returned socialite Doña Sol des Muire (Rita Hayworth) coming from irrefutably high-class stock. She has her pick of the litter and she immediately becomes diverted by this dashing matador tossing him down a red rose in return for a couple tokens of his goodwill.

Meanwhile, Carmen remains faithful by his side praying every day he enters into the ring to do his work. She dotes on him with breakfast, reading the headlines about his finest hour, and remains his constant companion.  However, the allure of the “other woman” ensnares him and his fate is all but sealed. Just as he baits the bull, she soon has him reeling much the same. But the only real person to blame is himself.

His wife is betrayed in one heart-breaking confrontation, his finances are in disarray, his temper has alienated many of his closest allies, and his success in the ring has begun to falter. None of these plot developments are unforeseen. On the contrary, we expect them. As his mother reminds him, taking cues from the Biblical parables, “One can’t build on sand.” Because everything you worked so hard to erect will just as easily come tumbling down when the downpour hits.

It’s as much his own fault is it is the fickle masses who are so unforgiving. Pretty girls like Doña just as easily move on to a new toy, this time Juan’s lifelong rival Manolo (Anthony Quinn). And of course, Curro has been quick to pronounce the new man as the latest shining comet of the new season. He fails to add that comets burn brightly only to fizzle out in a nose dive. The tragic metaphor is a little too obvious.

But again, the picture is all spectacle and it’s ultimately bolstered by lavish costumes and the early shades of Technicolor offering a seminal example of 3-strip Hollywood opulence. Rouben Mamoulian’s artistry in mise en scene from his days with the stage are on display, played out to the nth degree. The screen and the stars are easy on the eyes. The director purportedly kept cans of spray paint on hand to touch up any necessary blasé patches with enhanced color. However he achieved it, Blood and Sand generally works.

True, bullfighting always seems like a barbarous pastime even as Hollywood can’t show that much. It does feel like a modernized incarnation of gladiatorial battles.  Just as the public is petty, it’s even a little difficult to feel sorry for our protagonist, though Linda Darnell, continually surrounded by Roman Catholic imagery, remains as the last vestige of saintly virtue.  She’s never been so pure.

The same cannot be said for Rita Hayworth in her secondary role, which in itself is a rather strange circumstance since she had yet to reach the heights of her later career and pictures like Gilda (1946). Tyrone Power could coast on his looks and charisma alone and he pretty much does.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: My Darling Clementine (1946)

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The first time I ever saw My Darling Clementine I couldn’t get over how unimpressive it seemed. If nothing else it certainly didn’t give off any self-aware sense of its own importance. There was nothing that struck me as outright epic and monumental. And yet this western has been a heralded favorite since its initial release in 1946. People love this movie. I think this time around I understand it better.

Maybe it’s all those reruns of the M*A*S*H classic “Movie Tonight.” Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) eases the camp’s aggravations with a showing of his favorite horse opera which, of course, is My Darling Clementine.

But while the reels are spliced and diced for poor Klinger (Jamie Farr), the audience still gets something impactful out of the experience spilling out into their shenanigans together which makes for a quality evening. Because for once My Darling Clementine is a western with many moments that feel unextraordinary in the most human of terms.

Surely there was no greater and more prominent mythmaker of the Old West than John Ford. The key is in the realization Ford need not push anything, allowing everything to unwind in a way that’s the cinematic equivalent of organic action. The director goes with his proclivities of narrative scope, pairing down dialogue, focusing the story instead around activity — and those moments don’t necessarily have to be the perfectly suited sequences for instigating incendiary drama.

Ford’s actual meeting with the real Wyatt Earp on a film set back in the 1920s was a seminal moment for him. One could say he was imparted the blueprint and the inspiration for this picture and that is enough. Because the western never thrived on facts but the embodiment of romanticized figures and ideals. Wyatt Earp was such a figure.

Here Earp (Henry Fonda) is herding some cattle with his brothers when they pass by the town of Tombstone and leave the baby of the family to hold down the fort. In the most simplistic terms, their cattle get rustled and there’s little need to guess who the perpetrators are. The grizzled Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) is right there with his boys, a most obvious culprit. He needn’t even bother denying it. He never does nor does Earp ever accuse him outright.

Instead, Earp decides to stick around for a while and takes up the tin star for marshaling in Tombstone, that illustrious hell hole, emblematic of western lawlessness. Straightaway he shows a bullish tenacity in running drunks and troublemakers out of town but there’s still something more to him.

Ward Bond and Tim Holt act as his brothers and his constant companions. They don’t have a whole lot to do but stand behind their brother at the bar or eat their vittles at dinner tables. But then again, you could make the case most everyone has a fairly unostentatious part.

There is no standout performance and that seems very purposeful. Surely Fonda is the glue holding it all together but it’s not due to flare so much as an ever-steady portrayal that never feels like it’s vying for attention. He leads by example and yet this does not mean the film doesn’t have moments that leave an impression.

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Linda Darnell gives him a slap and he proceeds to dunk her handily in the watering trough for her part in a crooked poker game. She’s the devious, saucy, and unfortunately named Latina Chihuahua. There’s the introduction of her man Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) that clears the bar and would have ended in a gunfight in most any other picture. Wyatt Earp smooths things over allowing life to sink back into the status quo.

A local theater production evokes a particularly rowdy atmosphere where Fonda gets a hat thrown his way which he promptly tosses right back while Darnell looks to whop someone over the head. The locals are aiming to make their displeasure known to the actor who has run out on them on multiple occasions. Earp and Doc go to fetch the man who is being harried by the Clanton boys. In one of the most articulate and entrancing sequences in a western to date, we are treated to Hamlet on the range. You know the words but never have they come out of a man such as Doc Holliday — suggesting that there is a side of him even an amount of breeding that we fail to comprehend.

Finally, Clementine comes to town (Kathy Downs) and we begin to understand. She was Doc’s girl back east when he was still practicing and known in circles as Dr. John Holliday. He’s different now, plagued by illness and alcohol-fueled demons while emphatically wanting her to go back from whence she came. It’s Wyatt who stands by with all sincerity. Getting up, tipping hats, and opening doors for her. The peaceful countenance she wears coaxes him in the direction of the church bells and a dance social.

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We know what must come in the end. It’s all but inevitable: The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In all truth, My Darling Clementine’s shootout is not the most climactic and I could readily name numerous others I prefer. But in capturing it the way he has, Ford has remained true to the essence of the narrative thus far. What strikes me is it is by no means a sensationalized picture. It never even feels like drama or caters to the theatrical. But John Ford has made it cinematic and though it might sound like some form of paradox, I do not think it is.

We are acutely attuned to the moments with no music intuitively because there is little auditory manipulation or further distraction. Everything of import is derived from figures placed up against Monument Valley or staged in crisp interiors. Likewise, few words need to be put to any of it. Because we are fully aware, almost subconsciously. We have just seen a microcosm of the West being tamed and made livable for common folk. The old world is being undone and churches and schools now find a place in the new social order provided by men like Wyatt Earp — embodied by the likes of Clementine as the new schoolmarm. All of this is evoked not by dramatic shifts but a near meandering rhythm of scenes stacked one on top of another.

Again, we go back to the indelible image that everyone instantly conjures up of Henry Fonda with his feet propped up against the post leaning back and just resting his feet a spell. And of course, he’s our hero and the same man who will enact this change. But Ford makes him a laconic figure and one he seems content as anything just to relax.

He’d rather get a shave at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor or carry the bags of a pretty gal than get into a gunfight any day. True, he can be ornery when he wants. Still, only as a last resort. Fonda’s the perfect man for the part because there’s nothing burnished about him but he comes off honestly with a straightforward sense of integrity. This allows My Darling Clementine to induce a generally optimistic portrait of the West from a picture that could have otherwise dwelled in the depths of near noirish cynicism.

However, even with its strains of the mundane — far from feeling prosaic — the film is blessed by Ford’s mastery of the image. Because what is Film if not a visual medium? The West was by far the most American canvass and Ford one of the finest masters of the art form. There need not be a better reason to relish My Darling Clementine. Aside from my expatiating, I would be amiss not to acknowledge this film as good old-fashioned communal entertainment. M*A*S*H 4077 is the case and point.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: I watched the Pre-Release cut which was restored by UCLA with slight differences from the theatrical release (arguably closer to what Ford originally intended).

Hangover Square (1945)

Hangover_Square.jpgWithout question, Hangover Square is in many respects analogous to The Lodger with the reteaming of director John Brahm with Laird Cregar and George Sanders. However, the biggest difference is that we have Cregar putting on on a new persona and losing over 100 pounds!

Among other things, it forced director John Brahm to shoot the production in sequence as to not completely decimate the continuity, based on the movies main protagonist. In fact, the actor initially turned down the part because of his aspirations to remake his image. Though he reconsidered when he saw the part could be played to his advantage and he turned Hangover Square into a superior vehicle.

If we want to break the movie down to its most incremental themes, it’s essentially about a man in Edwardian London torn apart by conflicting musical projects representing the two women in his life, who are effectively pulling him in opposite directions. He’s a mad genius whose personality disorder is completely torn asunder by the chafing in his life. It will only prove to be his undoing.

Like any good noir, there’s the femme fatale: Linda Darnell, hair puffed up in a bouffant, legs kicking gayly as she puts on her best English accent. She handily makes a coy nuisance of herself, cajoling him with her flittering eyelashes and then evolving into an icy heartbreaker on the turn of a dime when he no longer does her bidding.

Cregar gets walked all over as Veda sucks his talent dry for her own aspirations and the pursuit of a more dashing suitor who she vows to marry — even after making fragile promises to be his. She knows how to play him, if nothing else.

Barbara (Faye Marlowe) is the “Guardian Angel” who has everything including his best interest in mind. Her father (Alan Napier) has long been advising on Georges latest masterpiece — a Concierto that he has been laboring over for some time. She has been his astute pupil on the piano while also seeing right through not only Veda’s mediocrity as a performer but also her manipulative guise. There’s nothing sincere about her.

What we continuously see are reverberations of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale. Here is a man of such musical receptivity able to craft pieces with such depth of feeling and yet there is another side of him — a side that strangles cats in his spare time and other things… Quite frankly his unaccounted behavior scares him and he goes to a Dr. Middleton (George Sanders) at Scotland Yard seeking some kind of aid.

It’s true that Hangover Square is a movie plagued by claustrophobic hysteria supplied not only by Cregar’s performance but the mise en scene as well. What we have is the artifice of gothic exterior-interiors with layers of ready-made atmospherics and foreboding scoring interjected with an instantaneous cacophony of chaos composed by the virtuoso artist Bernard Hermann.

One enduring moment is that of the burning effigy lit to high heaven on Guy Fawkes Day. It’s the quintessential image to capture the essence of our main character and the conflicted conflagration burning inside of him. Nero purportedly played his violin while Rome burned. George pounds away at the piano slavishly. But his story is a tragic tale of destructive genius that overtakes him. The final lingering images can’t help but leave an impression.

If Bogart sculpted psychopathic gangsters into hardbitten anti-heroes, later on, there’s a similar sense that Laird Cregar might have fashioned his menacing villains into conflicted but still heroic alternatives too. It’s mere conjecture and alas we will never know what could have been.

Two months before the picture was even released the actor would die from a heart attack, the ultimate tragedy brought on by his rapid weight loss. A fairly heavy man in most of his earlier roles, Cregar was committed to changing his physique in an effort to be leading man material. But, again, it was not in the stars.

While not a bona fide classic per se, Hangover Square remains as a chilly noir that’s not only a testament to Linda Darnell’s aptitude as a spellbinding black widow but to Cregar’s ability to make madness all but palpable. It’s a shame we lost him so suddenly because there’s no telling what heights his career might have reached. How true it is we very rarely appreciate someone’s talents until they are no longer available.

3.5/5 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

 

Men in War (1957)

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“Tell me the story of the foot soldier and I’ll tell you the story of all wars.”

The date might seem arbitrary but we are told that this story takes place over the course of one day: Sept 6, 1950. Robert Ryan might as well be the stand-in for a Bill Mauldin G.I. as he leads a battalion cut off and deep in enemy territory. He’s got the 5 o’clock shadow and most other prerequisites. There’s a sense that he’s just trying to live through the day and keep his men alive for as long as possible — hopefully to see their way back home or at least to their brethren on the other side of the next hill.

But in order to get there, they must survive a line of snipers, a hailstorm of enemy artillery, and terrain laced with mines. If I had never seen The Steel Helmet (1951), Men in War would easily become one of the most crucial war movies for me. Because it dares to tell a narrative of war that rings fiercely resonant not simply because of cynicism or even pure authenticity. It has to do with a story stripped down to its bare essentials. Men in War is just that. It comes down to the semantics of what you think that actually means. But for the average soldier, it’s a moment by moment struggle to survive. It’s not about heroics at all. Instead, it entails methodical and level-headed action in the face of constant stressors verging on the absurd.

Though Hollywood might have suggested otherwise on various occasions, war was never about the glut of combat. It’s always lean and mean — proving to be disillusioning even to the victors and far more so to those who must stand defeated or draw a truce.

The best way I can find to describe this particular experience is through the influence of negative space. Because Mann’s film, in showing us less manages to evoke the exact inverse, suggesting what is not shown to be as vitally important as what is left in the frame. Far from lowering the tension, it only succeeds in making it all the more unnerving. There’s an ongoing sense of isolation and the enemy is left all but unseen.

Then, in a single moment, we realize they’re as afraid of us as we are of them. Actually, the adversary is only shown on a couple of brief occasions, most visibly with a surrendering Korean Soldier (played by Bonanza support Victor Sen Yung).

Aldo Ray is a soldier at his most cynical and insubordinate. The only thing more exasperating about him for Ryan is the fact that in most cases he’s right and more important still, he’s too ornery to be knocked off. But it’s almost odd how fiercely loyal he is the catatonic colonel (Robert Keith) who made it away from the lines with him.

James Edwards offers another obvious link to Fuller’s Korean War picture while serving up his usual foray in minor though intelligent portrayals of African-American soldiers. Men in War is devastating in how unsentimental and unsensational it is. The scenes with machine guns, flamethrowers, bazooka, and grenades feel palpably real. These are not infallible killing machines. Just men who are doing their best to stay alive and fight another day. Again, it’s about mere survival.

Here we have Mann’s earlier explorations in noir more fully externalized with a sense of psychological torment made visible in an environment of continuous unease. The action is taken outdoors while maintaining what we might call even an intimate interaction with its characters if it weren’t so harrowing. It’s likewise an extension of the director’s Western landscapes, though the palette is muted, it consequently plays a crucial role in shaping the drama as Mann usually takes particular care with his atmosphere.

Phillip Yordan’s involvement, whether the true author or only a frontman, might be slightly up for debate but what’s not is the fact that the script keeps the action clean and unfettered by strains of patriotism or similar endeavors. Elmer Bernstein, best remembered for his western scores of resplendent glory, nevertheless, delivers a piece with the right amount of understatement to compliment such a picture as this.

Again, Men in War is unassuming, even unspectacular, but that’s what makes it all the more deserving of discovery. By going against the grain with a few similarly formidable titles, it gave us a far more mystifying portrait of The Korean War. Because reconciling with that conflict is far from a straightforward task — as it is with most any war.

3.5/5 Stars

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

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Madeline’ Madeline takes the very individualistic nature of its title and boldly realizes it through POV and metaphor to begin digging around in the perplexing head-space of a teenager. The first words we hear are as follows, “The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s. You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.” We are in a hospital and then within a feline pawing and purring, followed by a turtle sliding its way out to the ocean into the depths of the sea.

In the midst of the movie, I had an epiphany that I would have difficulty being an actor if the part strayed away from human qualities. Because when I look at animals there is wonderment there but I never feel like I could bring anything to them. I cannot understand or comprehend them.

Likewise, it would be difficult for me to invest in the perspective of a turtle and a cat, not that they are not important but they do not seem to operate, think, and act in the same way that we do as human beings. Because Madeline (Helena Howard) is a character who is playing a part and the metaphor is extended across this entire film. One could say she is playing a version of herself — the version that she perceives and wants to exist as — while others have another version of her that they want.

In playing her part, she willingly sheds her skin and puts on the guise of other creatures and gives herself over to them completely. One of the inherent fascinations in the showing Howard gives is the meta nature of playing the role of someone else playing a role.

So, in theory, we have the layers and the complexities of this whole patchwork of theater people and normal everyday humans playing their parts both real and fabricated based on the world around them. A certain ubiquitous Shakespeare quote is overwrought I know but it is also quite pertinent. “All the world is a stage and the people merely players.” We can break this film down to these more basic components as well.

Madeline’s involvement in her theater troupe not only facilitates this layering of a part on top of a part but it creates a visual dichotomy between the two women in her life who carry weight over her adolescent years. Her nervously concerned mother Regina (Miranda July) is always worried about her behavior, if she’s eating, taking her medicine, being safe about sex — all sorts of things. Her high-strung nature is a result of a daughter she deems to be unpredictable.

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Then, there’s Evangeline (Molly Parker) the drama director and empowering free spirit who continually encourages Madeline in her physical expression and touts her in the devotion she gives to the stage. In this carefree communal environment, the girl feels truly herself and at ease with the beings existing around her.

They do some of the familiar improv, turning the story of an incarcerated man into literal expression. They do photo shoots and costume runs with giant pig heads and garish ensembles. When they sit in a circle together sharing their emotions and insights I could not help but feel the portrait epitomized the stereotypical acting experiences seen in a show such as Community. Needless to say, someone like me repressed and stunted as I am, looks on such a showing with a skeptical eye.

In one solitary scene, Evangeline even sits down with Madeline and starts expounding upon the philosophy of Jung. All is chaos in the cosmos. In the disorder, there is an order and the pendulum perpetually swings between sense and nonsense. While not necessarily reassuring, perhaps these words allow us to piece together a certain perspective to see the world. Maybe…

It becomes increasingly apparent — certainly beginning with the opening shot — this is meant to be a very intimate film. The camera hugs Madeline’s face and really provides close-ups for just about everyone while simultaneously blurring the screen artistically with exposure techniques to allow light to constantly seep into the frame. That’s when we’re not literally inside the camera’s viewpoint. Audio is often being funneled to us with dulled or hazed effects as if we are seeing the world through interference and distractions like others do.

At one point the stage performance is about prison and then it is a metaphor and then it morphs against into a piece on mental illness until Evangeline literally turns into a performance of Madeline’s most intimate details thinking they are all part of a character named Zia. Of course, the mask is only Madeline. She becomes a daughter regurgitating the words of her mother — imprinted on her brain — in a very public forum and it becomes a bit too real.

Then, Madeline winds up seeing a different side of Evangeline, not unlike her own mother, and once more we have drolling adults communicating on an altogether different wavelength than the teenagers.

The inevitable happens and Madeline and her troupe create a near funhouse of performance art all overtaken by an idea and rebelling against the forms their fearless leader imparted to them.

There is a unique voice and a vision that is unlike most anything else. But I’m not sure it even knows what it is striving for. There’s not necessarily an issue with this and yet it does lack what we would ascertain to be a central conceit for the rest of the film to orbit around.

If I had not just If I had not just recently seen A Bread Factory I would say this movie existed in a stratosphere totally its own. Regardless, it boasts a wholly original perspective from director Josephine Decker coupled with a mesmerizing performance by Helena Howard.

Whether we know what to make of it or not is up for contention. I still haven’t decided if this point is really worth dwelling on. The onus should not always be on a film to provide answers and if that is the case Madeline’s Madeline is a success because it arguably offers something more valuable — food for thought. For now, I am content ruminating over my multitude of questions.

3.5/5 Stars

First Reformed (2017)

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“You’re always in the Garden.  Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden, on his knees, sweating blood. He was on the Mount. He was in the marketplace. He was in the temple. But you, you’re always in the Garden.” 

Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese unknowingly formed a legendary partnership in making Taxi Driver (1976) that has left an indelible mark on cinema. Despite their diverging backgrounds, it seemed like they were very much kindred spirits. At least, they understood each other.

Scorsese of course, grew up in the Catholic Church even considering becoming a priest. Schrader likewise, had a deeply religious upbringing rooted in reformed theology even attending Calvin College. Aside from both being cinephiles, each man has battled through his share of demons and yet they have come out on the other side no doubt wiser.

Thus, with the release of Scorsese’s deeply spiritual passion project Silence (2016) a couple years ago, it seems fitting Schrader followed up with First Reformed soon after. I’m not sure if it’s mere coincidence or not but by this time in their lives, with space for retrospection, they have come to a crossroads to make daring, personal pictures about religious faith.

The opening shot is instantly recognizable. We have the stark symmetry of a church steeple. The religious space lacks the same type of iconography as the Catholic Church because the Calvinists came from a  tradition foregoing any amount of pomp & circumstance for a stripped-down aesthetic. All the focus was on the cultivation of the spiritual life.

There still is history, as this particular church is just about to celebrate its 250th anniversary and it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad years before. The resident reverend’s tours include touting the Dutch Colonial architecture and showing wide-eyed kids the trap doors escaped slaves used to hide in.

Now it’s ironically also a spiritual museum-piece — a creaky religious relic — attended by a few stray parishioners. The real center of religious activities is at Abundant Life a well-meaning but somewhat sanitized megachurch set up across the road. Perfectly reflected by their cafeteria wall emblazoned with the words from Acts 2.

The story actually begins with an experiment of sorts. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) will keep a journal for an entire year in a notebook and then he will destroy it. There is an obvious finality to this. He’s set himself a hard timeline.

Though he mentions word documents and digital files, he might as well come out of a Bresson picture. His possessions are few and far between. A well-worn Bible sits on his bedside table accompanied by the works of Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton. His landscape and surroundings are just as stark and humble. Interiors are kept equally simple and straightforward.

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The unadorned yet meticulous composition use geography whether structures or a bit of symmetry to set up scenes. Inside the church with the lines of pews that might be plucked directly from Winter Light (1961). Then, along a row of houses in a neighborhood as a car pulls up to a house.

One house he pays a call on belongs to Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, who grew up in the church and is now worried about her husband Michael’s mental stability as of late. She worries it will affect their future child. The reverend might be able to help.

Upon their first dialogue together, it becomes obvious he is not a learned man. He had a stint in jail for his environmental activism in Canada and currently holds down a job at the local Home Depot.

But he gives a cogent account of why he does not want to bring a child into the world. By 2050 all scientific analysis seems to suggest dire straits are ahead if we do not make radical changes on an international level. Because climate, water levels, and everything else will not leave man unimpeded.

His question is simple. How do you sanction bringing a girl into the world who is full of hope and naivete? Then, she grows up and as a woman, she looks you square in the eyes and says, “You knew it all along, didn’t you?” And yet you brought her into this world of death. Most of what the reverend does is listen to his grief. The only response possible is that the blackness is not a new phenomenon. Man, woman, and child are born to trouble. It seems small comfort.

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As the themes begin to interweave there are continuous nods to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1961) from the snow motif to a deeply troubled husband and even a female associate who takes a deep concern in the well-being of our protagonist. You can sense Schrader acknowledging his deep abiding affections for Robert Bresson — an obvious reference point being Diary of a Country Priest (1951) — with a man of faith suffering from a mysterious ailment. It only serves to exasperate his human relationships and give a physical manifestation to his existential crisis.

In maintaining the transcendental spirituality of the film, Tarkovsky levitations and Dreyer-like “resurrections” are also evoked and the list goes on and on. In fact, it amazes me how obvious and plentiful the allusions are. Schrader barely tries to hide his affinities for certain pictures. They are most assuredly there being represented and it’s generally satisfying.

But it is a film that is also born out of the mind who brought us Taxi Driver and the ties are closer than we might expect. Because it becomes more akin to the desolate alienation of Travis Bickle as the story plods on. After experiencing a tragic death and witnessing the ways the modern world functions, Toller seems to see the need for a martyr in an unjust world. He becomes increasingly alienated.

His life involves helping out with the homeless food line, sitting in on the youth small group, and of course, his tours and Sunday duties. But it’s the old conundrum. He feels confined to the walls of his church. It doesn’t seem like he’s necessary for anything aside from spiritual comfort. He has no true impact on people lives and he himself is struggling to keep in communication with God. Solitary prayer seems empty. Hence a nightly journal.

Something happens when he gets in a spat with a local big whig over negative publicity from a funeral for Michael Masana. It was held at a toxic waste dump with a choir singing an environmentally conscious Neil Young tune. Toller gets lambasted for his “political behavior,” though he was admittedly only upholding the man’s wishes. And yet he is beginning to question how people who proclaim to follow God cannot take a greater stake in preserving his creation.

In documenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts, Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2015) was a call-to-action in the realm of social justice. For all those people who claim or at least strive to be good, morally upright people, it is clear this is a universal fight. Likewise, First Reformed is a call or at least a meditation on environmental justice because humans are meant to be stewards. It is not completely about extremism (though Toller begins to inch that way) but in some ways, we are meant to live radical lives. Full of radical love and a radical conception of justice for the earth and other human beings.

But one could say this is not the true punchline. For that we must revert back to some of the deep-set themes of Schrader’s career, returning once again to his first collaboration back with Martin Scorsese back in 1976.

Because First Reformed has one of the most abrupt endings in recent memory. It catches us off guard on numerous fronts. We must start with the ambiguity which is nothing new. Travis Bickle entered the pantheon of cinema characters partially due to the enigma that clouds his fate in Taxi Driver.

Most people who have ever been ambushed by the film will recall the ending. Travis goes on his crusade to clean up the filth and it’s a violent rampage in the eyes of the world but for him, it’s an act of triumphant heroism.

In the final moments, he’s back in his cab again — his personal cathedral — driving the streets and there’s his untouchable girl, Cybil Sheppard, who appears in the back seat. He sees her through his rearview window and rides off. It seems almost impossible to read it in the literal sense. How could this be? Is this his own personal delusion? Could this actually be real? I know my own inclinations but I don’t know what to believe.

First Reformed is much the same. Here we have the Reverend about to take his poison — looking to end his life — in the face of such a dreadful world. Then a door opens and there stands the one person who might save him, Mary, appearing in the doorway like an angel.

They embrace and then beginning kissing and we spiral around and around them in one of the most violently uninhibited camera setups in the film. We have broken out of the harsh asceticism of the entire movie thus far.

Is it about this salvation coming through the physical union between two people? This could be the Ordet-like resurrection or maybe like Taxi Driver it’s all part of the ultimate delusion. The bottom line is we don’t know and Schrader doesn’t tip us. Much like Silence, what’s paramount is what we fall back on in response.

Can we read this as a story of despair or hope? The words of Toller echo through my mind, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously.” This is First Reformed at its finest, ever oscillating between the two defining poles of any life.

4/5 Stars

 

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” – Dutch Prime Minister and Theologian Abraham Kuyper

Day of the Outlaw (1959)

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Filmed in Central Oregon on the eve of winter, Day of The Outlaw displays gorgeously fluffy photography as the snow covers the ground. With the leading part anchored by Robert Ryan, I could not but help recall his portrayal in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), another project that made liberal use of immaculate winter exteriors. Likewise, that was only the backdrop for a tough and unfeeling world.

In this particular instance, Andre De Toth’s picture has grudges burning deep under the surface making relationships generally contentious. The story is as old as the western itself. At least its central themes make themselves known straight away. The conflict is between homesteaders and cattle ranchers embodied by two men. The aptly named town of Bitters, Wyoming has recently seen more folks settling down there. One of them named Hal Crane is intent on putting up barbed wire fencing to measure off the land for his new homestead for he and his wife.

As always, there are two sides to every field and the epically named Blaise Starrett (Ryan) is vehemently against the wire being put up because it will keep his cattle from roaming free across the land. He hasn’t minced words about what he’ll do if Crane tries it. He’s equally bitter, and he has some right to be because the way he sees it, he was one of the men who tamed the land with blood, sweat, and tears. The farmers are the ones who settled down in his shadow and now look to shoulder their way into what he has made.

However, what makes the story even more embittering is the fact that Blaise once had a thing for the other man’s wife, Helen (Tina Louise). We witness them as they meet in the general store. And at first, they give off nothing away. All that’s there is seemingly a mutual distaste. But they sit down to a nice neighborly cup of coffee alone and something else becomes evident.

She starts the conversation and makes a cold observation, “You want another man’s wife but the man has to be dead before you take her.” It’s obviously a twisted David & Bathsheba triangle. It’s about to come to its boiling point when the two men look to have it out in the local bar. Finally, a moment of violent catharsis is at hand as a lone bottle rolls down the bar to an inevitable end.

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But in a bit of serendipitous (or not so serendipitous timing) they’re bloodbath gets postponed by the entrance of a band of renegades who have just ridden into town fleeing the Cavalry for some unnamed crimes. Time to put all that we assumed the film to be about on hold and do an about-face.

Their fearless leader, a former Union officer Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) is a surprisingly honorable man who vows to the people of Bitters that no harm will come to their women. He also forebays his men ffrom drinking, commanding the proprietor to get them some grub and lock away his liquor. Ives had a key role in the William Wyler western epic from the year prior The Big Country (1958). His performance here is fascinating for its nuance.

Jack Lambert is the quintessential baddy in my book right up there with Lee Van Cleef and he shows up in fine form here joined by a crew of other sneering malcontents just waiting to go crazy. You can see the pressure rising yet again. However, the fact that much of the film is confined to interiors makes the moments that we break out into the open that much more impactful and the imagery is equally rewarding.

One particular highlight is a fist fight in the muddy slush where Blaise puts up a good struggle but ultimately gets wailed on as an example to everyone else. Simultaneously the women folk fear for their well-being trying to make a break for it and a little boy is taken as a hostage. Another sequence involves a whirling dance hall gathering of forced fun. Bruhn’s men get riled up with the ladies but as their leader sees it, this is a safety valve to blow off steam, far better than more sordid alternatives.

Everyone knows this cannot go on forever and so Starrett agrees to lead them in their escape — a heroic act to remove the men from the town he helped civilize. The final ascent into the mountains to traverse a tortuous path through to the other side proves treacherous on multiple accounts.  While the ending might be yet another slow burn, it does the picture justice even if a fuller, happier ending would have been appreciated by contemporary audiences. We are given enough.

The picture successfully suggests that Tina Louise is far more than Ginger in Gilligan’s Island. She certainly leaves an impression. At first, I didn’t realize David Nelson was even in the picture. Besides, his brother was the true matinee idol and yet to watch him in this oater you see the tender-hearted candor in the older Nelson. Perhaps his father was trying to make both of his sons into western heroes in Rio Bravo (1959) and Day of the Outlaw respectively. Though this outing hardly gets as much respect, it’s nearly as entertaining.

Phillip Yordan’s work on the script does a fine job of creating numerous points of contention that get placed right on top of each other, tweaking the expectations of the audience nicely. What looks like a straightforward feud over a woman soon becomes far more volatile as old enemies must join forces to protect their town against the invaders. And yet the invaders are led by a man who has a sense of conscience. So the ticking time bombs are set off with his cronies hemming and hawing, private resentment still lingering under the surface, and a gunshot wound sustained by Bruhl threatening to put him out of commission permanently.

Day of the Outlaw is a genuinely satiating effort from De Toth that brims with brooding energy supplied by the perennial outsider Robert Ryan and aided by gorgeous snowscapes and a script brought to life by an engaging ensemble. If there is any one thing that hampers the picture, it could probably be chocked down to budget restraints. The production ran out of money in the end and so De Toth wrapped up filming prematurely.

That’s what makes it even more phenomenal the movie boasts undisputed quality as a truly unheralded western classic. Just as my estimation of Robert Ryan rises after every subsequent performance displaying his at times tortured and dogged resolve, I have a newfound respect for Tina Louise and their director. This would be Andre De Toth’s final time helming a western and there’s little doubt he went out with a winner.

4/5 Stars

Roma (2018)

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Alfonso Cuaron is always a director whom I’ve admired from a far whether it be Harry Potter or Gravity (2013), but I would stop short of saying I’ve felt a connection to any of his work. Not that it is not there, I simply have not been affected in a specific way.

Roma, right from the outset, is vastly different from those other titles. Here is a man who has carved out success for himself in Hollywood along with his fellow countrymen like Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Inarritu, and Emmanuel Lubezki. Still, by taking stock of his life, stepping back, and returning to his roots, instantly I have a more profound understanding and subsequent appreciation of Cuaron.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for monochrome and Roma is by far the most gorgeous movie that I’ve seen from 2018 in this regard. Also, the world being documented intrigues me. The only film I recollect existing in a comparable space is Machuca (2004) and even that story was very pointed in putting the social and racial elements front and center.

Roma somehow manages to work wonders by bringing those normally existing outiside of the spotlight into the forefront while nudging usual focal points to the periphery and yet they are no less a part of this world. It’s a deeply admirable endeavor to try and pull off and it generally succeeds.

Because this is a story of a family living in the Mexican quarter of Roma but if it is about children, a grandmother; a husband and wife, then it is more specifically about their in-house maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). It’s made plain she is the glue to hold everything together in this story and within this splintering family.

The camera itself follows suit, with Cuaron making a concerted effort to keep his visions broad and encompassing (He served as cinematographer as well as director and screenwriter). We still know we’re being guided albeit by someone coaxing us to observe and take in scenes at a certain distance. It’s the overall impressions and a sense of the gestalt that is more important than mercilessly driving our focus. Soft pans at times turning a full 360 degrees make all the space fair game. I’m not always a fan but they generally work.

The freedom is exhilarating and at the same time pensive because it allows space to really sit back and relish scenes unfolding at their own pace. I can’t help but be reminded of Tati’s Playtime (1967) where so many things might be going on in the frame and you are given license to enjoy all or none of them at any given time.

Beyond these shots, the most gratifying are the tracking ones moving right to left along street corners. Maybe it’s a pair of young women running to their favorite lunch shop to get a torta for or little kids scampering ahead to get to the movie theater to see the new movie Marooned (a Gravity inspiration perhaps). It’s not simply a technical appeal but a complete immersion in the landscape that we can appreciate.

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But the drama is also evident, especially following a tumultuous one-two punch instigated by rioting and blood in the streets, an outcome of the notorious Corpus Christi Massacre. The historical moment gets personal and the sheer volatility of it all feels palpable. I cannot help but remember the rumblings of unrest and chaos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. For Mexico’s people, it was far more than a pair of black power salutes.

This is augmented by a moment that proves equally bleak. It feels like a dream out of 81/2 (1963). Stuck in a traffic jam — not moving an inch — except this is very real and disconcerting. There are some real issues with not only the social and economic unrest but the very infrastructure of the nation.

Cleo is on the verge of pregnancy and yet they are not moving anywhere. The hospital seems desperately out of reach. When they do finally arrive it too is full of tumult. Pulling strings, they manage to get Cleo to the doctor. However, nothing can prepare us for the devastating drama with the birth of Cleo’s child.

The news finally drops that father is not gone away in Canada. He’s simply not coming back. In the aftermath of all this excitement and the family vacation, life settles into a new equilibrium. Cleo tries to get over her heartbreak as the family accepts that dad is not coming back and they must be brave and move forward with life.

These encompass many of the moments already mentioned but it seems just as necessary to mention hail storms, barking dogs, hanging up the washing, nights in front of the television, and the complete decimation of automobiles simply in an attempt to park them in the narrow family garage.

A story like this thrives on these moments just as much as the overt drama because Cuaron has pulled from his own memories — the personal recollections of his childhood — and so when we see these very mundane sequences there is an appreciation for the details.

The only caveat that should come with Roma is the necessity to be aware of the social structure in place within the context of our story. If we were taking an anthropology course we would probably call it hegemony. Because our central family is part of the middle class, the social elite, and their background shows connections to higher education and the world at large.

The first tip-off Cleo is different is simply how she looks and her occupation as the family maid. Even the fact she speaks both Spanish and her indigenous Mixtec. These are elements we would do well not to gloss over.

Then, we see the community she was raised in and it becomes obvious the poverty present. Everyone does not live like her employers because they are part of the privileged few who can manage with multiple cars, many vacations, a fridge full of Twinkies, and money for frequent trips to the movies.

Again, these stark contrasts cannot be taken for granted. We have this strange process of dealing with these complex relationships deeply rooted in the country itself. Cuaron is attempting to acknowledge an unsung hero in his life while coming to terms with his ownpast. It’s imperfect but I have difficulty finding fault in it because this is essentially his existence with the curtains pulled back.

It is not for me to pass judgment on the merit of his life or his upbringing. What I can hold onto and feel drawn to are the moments of pain and suffering that feel human. We have instances of quiet strength and dignity, affection and bravery. Cleo is a beautiful figure. That doesn’t make her station in life right or the world around her okay but she gleams with something powerful. There are deep reservoirs of emotion evident here but they are not of the conventional sort.

In my estimation, pulchitrude will always hold precedence over ugliness. It’s not about being complacent or ignorant towards the dark tendencies of this world but it hinges on a resolute hopefulness. Roma is a meaningful ode even as it reminds us both the past and our current reality are deeply flawed.

4.5/5 Stars

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

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“Elementary My Dear Watson” owes its indelible stature in the lexicon hall of fame to this second installment in 20th Century Fox’s Sherlock Holmes series. The studio obviously did not gather the phrase to have that much resonance as they gave up on the franchise only to have it be picked up by Universal Pictures for many, many more outings. This would be the last one set in its original historical context and it’s unquestionably the gem of the lot.

Though the analogy breaks down, it was easy to see the first installment of Rathbone’s outing as Holmes like Peter Sellers in the original Pink Panther (1963). You get a sense of a formidable character who is subsequently given greater fluidity and is, therefore, able to break into their own. A Shot in the Dark (1964) was far better than its predecessor because it gave Inspector Clouseau his own vehicle.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes proves to be a superior film for two such reasons. First, Rathbone and Bruce coming off their success are put front and center in this picture. But also while the first film was an adaptation of a Doyle story, this picture is an original narrative thus taking the characters from the page and extrapolating them onto the screen in new and intriguing ways.

In one sense, I’m glad for that change because whereas The Hound of the Baskervilles was much better as detailed by Doyle’s pen, this story is a creation blessed with an imagination. Taking all that is good about the original work and synthesizing it into something that never quite loses the spirit but on the contrary, builds on it all the better for distillation to the big screen.

The remarkable revelation is that the story does provide a true conundrum for Holmes as he battles it out with his arch nemesis Moriarty in a chess match of wits. While there are several moments that seem uncharacteristically on-the-nose for a man of his intellect, otherwise we relish the game and his astute observations.

It opens in a courtroom as Professor Moriarty is exonerated for a crime that everyone seems to agree that he committed. Only moments after the pronouncement Holmes rushes into the courtroom with the needed evidence. But it’s far too late. His rival has lived to scheme another day and what a scheme it is. He plans to pull off the crime of the century by distracting Holmes with two toys that he won’t be able to put down. He likens Holmes to a fickle little boy easily distracted and he plans to exploit his idle curiosity.

What unravels and what is articulated by the script is a lovely piece of intrigue that provides many distractions not only to Holmes but his audience as well. We know full-well that though they might appear completely unrelated, they’re indubitably tied together. It’s simply a matter of understanding how and for what purpose.

The first involves a young woman named Anne Bramdon (Ida Lupino). She comes to Mr. Holmes on the behalf of her older brother who has received an ominous note. The reason she’s worried is that her dear father received much the same message before he died under strange circumstances years before.

Although it ultimately takes a back seat to this more interesting case, Holmes is also counted on by his friend at the Tower of London to help with security in the transfer of a priceless diamond to be added to the Crown Jewels.

Holmes is caught up in this perplexing case in front of him as Bramdon’s frightened brother is attacked by a mysterious assailant and soon after the lady gets a note of her own telling her to attend a certain social gathering of a longtime friend. Holmes advises her to go as he will be there to protect her but of course, the date and time are the exact same as the jewel transfer. You see the point already.

Rathbone makes another stunning showing in disguise apprehending the killer and dashing off to thwart another crime as Moriarty cleverly infiltrates the Towers security no thanks to Watson. George Zucco seamlessly embodies an intellectual yet sociopathic mind filled with disdain for human life. He asserts in one such scene to his harried valet that killing a plant should be a far greater offense than taking human life. He proves overwhelmingly that a superior villain with brazen intentions elevates any story.

Director Alfred L. Werker shoots the finale with some amount of artistry that heightens the climax to an agreeable apex. It goes down as it must on the top of the Tower of London and what is curious but rather refreshing is that there are no back and forth monologues of doom and heroism. Actions speak for both our hero and villain. While London Fog now seems like free atmosphere and little else, the film is actually at its best in visual terms with well-lit Victorian interiors.

The finest success of this film was in projecting a certain image or reputation that extends far into the present age. Watson became an incorrigible bumbler. Holmes a cinematic detective both partially sanitized and still witty. Moriarty remains one of the standards for villains to this day. And with so many different iterations on these same characters, the influence on Robert Downey Jr. to the modernized Benedict Cumberbatch is equally evident. There are few qualms acknowledging the impact of such a sublime mystery adventure as this.

4/5 Star