The Window (1949)

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The main conceit is just too delightful to ignore. It posits the following dramatic question: What if the boy who cried wolf saw a murder being committed immediately afterward? Because that’s precisely what happens to little Tommy Woodry.

He’s one of those imaginative little boys who likes playing Cowboys and Indians while telling his contemporaries that his family has a large ranch out west where they raise horses. It all seems perfectly innocent except in close confines such stories take on a life of their own. Soon the landlord assumes that the Woodrys will be moving out shortly.

It’s not just this incident either but Tommy has a history of dreaming up all sorts of stories and wanting to teach their son good old-fashioned American values and honesty, his parents say there will be consequences if he lies again.

What happens next is so absurd and outrageous Tommy is sunk even before he’s begun. He spies the upstairs neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Kellerson (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) take part in a grisly murder. He does the fairly logical thing and goes to wake up his mother to let her know what he witnessed. But it’s not so logical based on what has already happened.

First, she dismisses his stories as a bad dream but after he goes down to the police station to get them involved, his mother is even more alarmed. Mr. Woodry comes back home from the night shift to hear about his son’s behavior and as much as he doesn’t like to do it, he does the fatherly thing and punishes the boy.

He’s meant to stay in his room and that wouldn’t be so bad if his father didn’t work nights and his mother wasn’t called away to take care of her ailing kinfolk. Because the Kellersons know he’s been snooping around and they’re not about to be found out — especially not by an inquisitive kid. When they figure out what he knows, he’s little better than a sitting duck.

If it wasn’t obvious from the outset the picture sets itself up for a claustrophobic finale that’s quite the piece of entertainment. Rear Window is one of my favorite films and it’s hard not to draw up comparisons between the two pictures because they both utilize their limited space well and allow us to get inside the plight of our protagonist in a way that’s excruciatingly disconcerting.

For L.B. Jeffries it’s the fact that he’s trapped in a wheelchair with a purported murderer living right across the courtyard from him. In this picture, it’s that little Tommy has his freedom revoked and finds himself made prisoner in his own home with his parent’s gone because they are angry with his constant fits of fibbing.

But more so than Rear Window which is a fairly opulent picture, The Window suggest the impoverished state of the characters at the fore, living on the Lower East Side as they do. Their lives are not glamorous at home or at work. They have a tough time scraping by and it shows in their dress and how they present themselves every day.

Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale do a fine job as Tommy’s parents because they feel like decent folks, generally humble and wanting to raise their son the best way. That doesn’t make their immune to parental blunders but, nevertheless, they love their boy.

Likewise, Paul Stewart is a bit menacing and thuggish veiling it with a good-natured facade while Ruth Roman normally remembered for fairly upright roles is cast as a wife who seems more frightened by her circumstances than anything else. She’s hardly a villain but that doesn’t make her any less complicit in this whole affair.

Bobby Driscoll was on loan out from Disney and he embodies the precocious nature of a boy in a way that’s completely believable and at the very least compelling.  It’s a wonderful live-action performance to fit right alongside his voice work before his life took a tragic dive into drug addiction.

It might be an unnecessary connection to make but director Ted Tetzlaff was formerly a cinematographer and one of the films attributed to him was Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) from only a few years before. Hitch would come out with his home thriller in 1954. I’m still partial to the later film — it’s one of my personal favorites — but there’s no doubt The Window proves itself as a harrowing family thriller in its own right.

3.5/5 Stars

Babes in Toyland (1934)

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Laurel and Hardy had better films with better gags and more iconic moments but Babes in Toyland, or The March of The Wooden Soldiers as it was also known as develops the most immersive fantastical world that they ever had the privilege of gallivanting through. It’s almost fitting that we find them in an almost childlike world because they brought laughter to not only adults but a plethora of children as well and this picture does them both justice.

It’s true that out of the imagination of babes (which was consequently Oliver Hardy’s lifelong nickname) comes a film steeped in nursery rhythms and kiddie stories. Above all, it proves to be the perfect playground for two of comedy’s greatest treasures as they play Make-Believe in a world of Mother Goose, the Three Little Pigs, Old King Coal, and a host of others. Except it’s not made up at all. By 1930s standards everything is very much alive and it very easily could be a child’s delight. Also, rather unwittingly a minor Christmas classic was born.

Ollie Dee and Stannie Dumm, as they are affectionately called, work at the local toy factory in Toyland and reside in a Shoe with a certain Old Woman as well as Little Bo Peep.

But she is being accosted by the resident villain and shoe forecloser Silas Barnaby. He’s a hyperbolic, conniving, cackling antagonist who undoubtedly finds origins in the invariably black and white worlds of a child’s fantasy (It’s no coincidence that Disney’s canon has boasted some of the most iconic villains). He’s played by none other than 21-year-old Henry Brandon and though he’s draped in a beard there’s no doubt that his stunts in the final scenes evoke the physique of a young man.

Anyways, our heroes promise to raise the necessary money to keep the shoe so Little Bo Beep doesn’t have to marry such a horrible fellow. But of course they go and make a shamble of things messing up Santa’s wooden soldier order and they get fired. Even a trojan Christmas present in July sent to Barnaby fails because of Stan’s typical good-natured idiocy.

He’s up to his usual tricks as the lovable pal who begins his trademark sniveling while his friend is getting tortured with a dunk tank only to offer Ollie a glass of water once he’s made it back to dry land with his usual vacuous deadpan. Furthermore, still plagued by malapropisms, he turns “heartbroken” into “housebroken” and similarly misconstrues other words.

The villainous Barnaby is not to be outdone. First trying to arrest Ollie and then framing Bo Peep’s true love with the kidnapping of one of the three pigs. Banishment to the dreaded Bogeyland looks all too imminent. Still, Babes in Toyland stages one of the most delightful battles of good versus evil that evokes everything from The Nutcracker to The Wizard of Oz. Toys become ammunition and buildings are to be sieged as everything comes alive.

Like Our Relations two years later, this film employs one of the oldest sitcom tricks but here it’s all but forgivable. Because, again, television tropes hadn’t been invented yet much less television. It’s true that the kids will probably enjoy this the most or perhaps the young at heart. Still, Hal Roach delivers another Laurel and Hardy comedy with its share of child-like charm and some dashes of Disney magic (namely a Mickey Mouse lookalike and the Three Little Pigs theme song). Yes, it’s puerile entertainment but what’s wrong with that?

3.5/5 Stars

The Southerner (1945)

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It’s easy to infer there is an innate kinship between famed director Jean Renoir and the folks within this picture. Certainly, he was no peasant, by any means related to those found in Millet’s The Gleaners. However, like his painterly father Auguste Renoir (a figure I always find myself reverting back to) he had a penchant for people and nature underlined by a genteel eye for beauty.

That is not to say, Jean was exactly the same. His films can often be socially-minded, capable of both satire and commentary. But underlying such themes is always this same sense of natural and artistic pulchritude.

Though his output in the states is generally forgotten, upon closer analysis, efforts like The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) and The Woman on The Beach (1947) have glimmers of his brilliance as an auteur. We can even see how the content often fit Renoir, though the system and in some cases, the performers might not have.  However, in its day, most everyone seemed to agree that of all his efforts as an expatriate, The Southerner was his finest achievement stateside. I don’t disagree.

At its core, Zachary Scott gives an understated performance full of grit and common decency as the head of the Tucker clan. Right beside him, his wife, Nona (Betty Field) exhibits a stalwart character exuding both affection and maternal grace, a constant rock to steady her man. In an inciting event that feels strikingly similar to The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Gramps dies and the family sets out on a pilgrimage in search of a new life. This will eventually lead them to a strip of land to call their own.

While Scott’s no Henry Fonda, I’m pretty sure even John Ford would consider Jean Renoir his equal if not a superior director. Regardless, both are visual filmmakers of the most visceral kind. In fact, Poetic Realism was an attempt to put a label on Renoir’s exquisite naturalism, placing the human form in environments like modern day evocations of the Garden of Eden in an otherwise sullied world. A Day in The Country (1936) or even Toni (1938) stand as stunning earlier examples from his native France.

Compared to his other American efforts, The Southerner has the most straightforward and even conventional narrative. Because the story is simplistic and the dialogue unadorned; at it’s worst it’s throwaway. However, it effectively provides a bulwark for Renoir to capture strains of humanity with a truth that gleams with his usual sensibilities. Again, like Ford, such a minimal plot frees him up for digressions that are more lyrical and character based so by the end of the picture as short as it is, we feel like we have witnessed something full-bodied and singular.

The Tuckers have the most darling little kids. Beulah Bondi subverts her angelic image as the cackling, particularly ornery granny. Their new life is hard, their resources scant, and yet the Tuckers are cisterns full to the brim with indefatigable spirit. Sam is driven by the humble desire of Man to cultivate his own land. He never says it implicitly but God was a Creator and so it’s almost innate for him to want to do some of the same.

But Tucker, like Job, is born to trouble with backbreaking labor and constant devastation. His boy is stricken with sickness needing nutrition from vegetables, lemons, and milk that they either don’t have or can’t afford. The Tuckers live by a creed of family and neighborliness but they receive no such charity from those nearest to them. It’s like the gruff farmer next door is seeking to see them fail. Nature too is all but looking to sink them. There’s no amount of clemency

In one pleading moment, Tucker even walks out to his decimated crop he’s toiled over for so long and talks to God in the most candid of ways. It’s like a modern-day psalmist asking the honest questions. His resolution is to keep going and hold his family together thanks to the unremitting determination shared by his wife.

However, overlaid on this is also the struggle between the new urban centers and all the natural wonders of God’s green earth. We saw it in Renoir films such as The Human Beast (1938). In Sam’s case, his friend all but guarantees him a steady factory job and yet he continually balks at the chance. His calling is to be in the fields no matter how inexorable his opposition might prove to be.

The beauty is that we get a bit of a reprieve from the constant barrage of misfortune. It comes in the form of a wedding when two jolly old folks get hitched and it births the most joyous occasion. Partying ensues full of good-old-fashioned gaiety and square dancing brimming over with laughter and hilarious antics made 10 times more humorous in the company of others. Each and every one of them is a part of this grand joke. The Job-like assaults keep on coming and yet in the company of others they hardly seem as catastrophic. There you have a secret to life.

I rather like the conclusion Renoir’s film makes tacitly. It’s quite evident in the following aphorism voiced by one of the characters, “It takes all kinds to make up this world.” So this is not the Romanticist where everything mechanical and technological is inherently bad. Nor is farming or the land being tilled and cultivated any less important. They share equal footing and they need each other.

Again, it’s the humanism of Renoir fully realized. This is an American story, the most American narrative undertaken by the French director. However, in the waning days of WWII, you cannot help but see this as a universal rallying cry. Out of the ashes of destruction and international animosity, ill-will, and hatred, we need each other. Come to think of it, the credo is a timeless one at that. We could use these words now as much as we ever did. There you have a secret to the relevance of Jean Renoir.

4/5 Stars

Little Women (1949)

Littlewomen1949movieposter.jpgIn the recent days, I gained a new appreciation of June Allyson as a screen talent and in her own way she pulls off Jo March quite well though it’s needlessly difficult to begin comparing her with Katharine Hepburn or Winona Ryder.

Meanwhile, Mervyn LeRoy was a capable director of many quality films and it’s difficult to say anything damaging about this one because no matter the amount of mawkishness, it’s all heart to the very last frame.

If possible to imagine, this cast is even more star-studded than the 1933 adaptation and yet still somehow the casting just doesn’t seem quite right. In the Katharine Hepburn anchored cast every character was almost perfectly wrought and they felt like an impeccable ensemble.

Somehow here you have the varying personalities rubbing up against each other and it doesn’t feel like this is the March Family as much as this is June Allyson, this is Elizabeth Taylor, this is Janet Leigh, and Margaret O’Brien. Their beloved Marmee being played by none other than Mary Astor. They’re all fine actresses with esteemed Hollywood careers in their own rights but as a family, the dynamic is slightly off.

Of all the names attached, Elizabeth Taylor feels the most at odds with the material, not that she couldn’t play these types of sincere characters — she did it in Jane Eyre (1943) and National Velvet (1944) — but she’s nearly past that stage of being cute and now simply comes off as a bit of a snob. If I know anything about the character Amy (which I may not) she’s hardly that.

This is also far from Janet Leigh’s best role as she all but disappears into the background because there’s this underlining sense that Jo is the oldest sister here (due to Allyson’s obvious age advantage over Leigh) and so with that subtext Meg loses a great deal of her quiet strength as the perceived eldest sister. Because that means she’s hardly the one that the others look up to due to her age. She’s just the noble one while Jo is the free spirit hurtling over fences and throwing snowballs. Thus, the order of sisters really does matter for the full integrity of the narrative.

Come to think of it, the other obvious departure in the film is the development of Beth as the youngest March girl which gave Margaret O’Brien the opportunity to play her and she does a fine job at stirring the heartstrings with her timid solemnity but another dynamic gets altered in the process. I also wasn’t sure what I would have to say about Peter Lawford as Laurie and yet he does a commendable job as does the stately mustachioed C. Aubrey Smith.

It’s fascinating how the same story with at times almost verbatim dialogue can give you a completely different sense of the characters. Because it’s true that this version borrowed much as far as dialogue from the 1933 version. Thus, the scenes are all but the same with slight alterations to the opening and such, but the results are starkly different.

The same goes for the setting or rather the tones of the sets. Though the colored pictorials are glorious and lend a real jovial nature to everything also helping to make this Little Women adaptation a shoe-in for annual yuletide viewing, some stories just are not made for that treatment. It’s no detriment to this film whatsoever but there’s something about the original black and white that evokes the nostalgic aura of tintypes and antebellum photography in a way that this one simply cannot. Little Women seems like such a story.

Of course, that’s only my opinion and it could very easily be the case that someone else’s conception of the March family is very different than my own. That’s part of the fascination with novels and their adaptations. Despite our best efforts, or maybe because of them, they all turn out vastly different. It’s probably for the best.

3.5/5 Stars

Little Women (1933)

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I still remember visiting Louisa May Alcott’s home in Massachusetts and of course, my sister read her magnum opus innumerable times when we were younger but for some reason, maybe it was a fear of what the title suggested, I still never cracked it open during my childhood. But I’ve always been intrigued by the story usually brought to me in snippets or in bits and pieces from films (namely the wonderful 1994 version).

Here we have a quintessential Cukor picture that embodies the nobler side of humanity — the little women as represented by the March family — and it’s a winsome charmer, where the world seems vibrant and gay.

Despite their humble state, the March girls are cultivated by love and affection. They grew up playing at John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress when they were children and now as they become young women they have real burdens.

And yet their lives are still fortified by hope and the pure optimism of youth is captured within this picture. It provides access to that time of life which you wish you could hold onto. You see it most aggressively in Jo (Katharine Hepburn) — young, wild, and free as she is — her life full of frolicking and exuberance. She sees the world as perfect bliss surrounded by her mother and sisters — her father to return from the war at some point, a hero in her eyes.

Her next-door neighbor starts out a stranger and soon becomes one of her finest companions. Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) stirs up all her energy and welcomes being brought into the fold while his stately grandfather proves to have one of the most capacious hearts with which to bless the March girls with. Not to mention the fact that Laurie’s tutor Mr. Brook takes an immediate liking to Meg (Frances Dee) and she harbors a mutual fondness for his gentleness and good manners.

Even a life such as this is struck unmercifully by tragedy. Beth (Jean Parker) is stricken with scarlet fever after watching a neighbor’s baby die in her arms. These are the depths of woe. These are the moments for which the March family stands around the piano and sing a chorus of “Abide With Me.”

The shining moment arrives when the father of the house returns. He barely has any screen time in the entire picture because after all, this isn’t his film. But his presence is used exquisitely to aid how Cukor approaches the material. We look on as he sees each daughter and his wife until the camera’s focus turns completely on Beth bedridden and stricken with sickness as she is. Seeing her father the girl miraculously rises to her feet recalled to life after being incapacitated for so long. The miracle of the moment isn’t lost to us nor the imagery of her father arriving as a savior to lift her up. It’s deeply moving.

But it’s funny how life works. Things cannot and will not stay the same forever. Sisters mature. People grow up and share the company of men. We too grow and progress though we only seem to see it in others and not ourselves.

Jo cannot bear for her older sister Meg to get married – to be forced to watch things change within her household – still they do change and she must accept it. However, she cannot accept that Laurie is in love with her and she reacts to his professions the only way she knows how.

The final act follows Jo as she looks to pursue her career as a writer, Meg is happily married now, and Amy (Joan Bennett) is off to Europe with curmudgeon Aunt March. Time passes and old wounds slowly begin to heal, especially when Jo meets another person of peace in Professor Baehr (Paul Lukas). He is a man of great intellect but humble means and he encourages his “little friend” in her writing. Developing a relationship that they both cherish deeply.

Little Women has always been such a striking example of how life can end up so much different than we could ever imagine and yet in hindsight, there are hardly any complaints to be had. It’s never about the complaints but the difficult things that tear us apart only to tie us closer together. Because, at the end of this story, Jo has progressed so far and yet she still has her family and they love her as much as ever.

Katharine Hepburn feels perfectly at home in the role of Jo always the tomboy, independent, boisterous and such. She rumbles with “coarse talk” her favorite exclamation being “Christopher Columbus!”

I’ll try to head off any criticism that might suggest this adaptation is quaint or dated because I would argue that it’s recalling a different era that in so many ways boasted so much that we should yearn for today in our current world. People putting other’s before themselves — living only with what is necessary not in excess or in pursuit of some self-serving hedonism. These are people who cherish what family can give them and the simplicity of quality time and relationships.

Where Christmas festivities have nothing to do with gifts or monetary value but a spirit of giving and a joyful heart. The March sisters even have the original home theater putting on a performance of their own creation letting their imagination and creativity ignite.

What I respect deeply about this story is that it doesn’t feel like it has to be a romance. True, people get married and fall in love but that is not the pretense for the story. As their father entreats them in his letter, they are to “conqueror themselves.” Finding a man is not the point of their existence and this story makes it clear that life is so much more than that. It’s about love, selflessness, humility, and a great many other traits that we would do well to pursue.

4.5/5 Stars

Ohayo (1959)

Good_morning_dvdIf Yasujiro Ozu can be considered foremost among Japan’s preeminent directors then there’s no doubt that Ohayo (Good Morning in English) is one of his most delightfully silly films. But that’s only on the surface level.

Young boys are unified in their affection for watching sumo on television and passing gas as a great gag to pull on their friends. Nosy housewives gossip incessantly whether it be the next door neighbor’s new washing machine or the mysterious disappearance of dues for the local women’s association. Meanwhile, most of the men go to work and spend their evenings knocking a few back at the bar noting how much the world is changing around them. Then they go home oftentimes a little drunk.

Ohayo is actually a reimagining of one of Ozu’s most remembered early pictures during his silent days I Was Born But… (1932) and yet he skillfully reworks the storyline into an everyday comedy of family and neighborhood drama that’s full of humor and his brand of quietly observant social commentary.

Ozu always took great care in analyzing family units and matrimonial bonds that affected relationships. Although we have a bit of a fleeting young romance in the works, this film’s greatest concern are two young boys from the Hayashi family who are giving their parents the silent treatment until they are allowed to have a television. Their parents are holding out and it begins a rather humorous ordeal as the brothers Minoru and the ridiculously comical Isamu (constantly exclaiming “I Love You”) try to make it through dinner, school, and so many other daily activities without a word.

As he would dissect many times over, Ozu focuses on the generational divide that was emerging and becoming increasingly prevalent in the post-war years as reflected by technological advancements like television and other such devices slowly turning present Japan into a land of a million idiots. At least that’s what the older generations feel.

Still, it’s just as equally occupied with the moral customs that have long ruled the nation where wives can speak so kindly to their neighbors up front only to slander them behind their backs a moment later. Saving face and personal honor is often cared about far more deeply than anything else — even in some circumstances when it happens to be at the expense of another family member.

Perhaps the most troubling thing is the very Japanese predilection to talk about nothing in particular, filling conversations with salutations, pleasantries, and comments on the current weather patterns. It hardly ever gets to anything of substance and that comes in numerous forms. Sometimes it means a young man never gets around to sharing his feelings with a girl or adults never being particularly candid with neighbors or spouses. There’s very little of that kind of transparency to be had. Few of the words passed along between people in conversation mean all that much.

The irony of the whole situation is that, in one such instance, it’s a young son who calls them out on it and he proceeds to get a heavy scolding from his father (Chishu Ryu) who bluntly tells him that he talks too much. Meanwhile, although Izamu can be constantly chiming “I Love You” in English, there’s an uneasy sense that his parents and most certainly his father, might have never said the words to him.

In these very simple ways Ozu rather delicately and still humorously tackles many of the issues that have long plagued an honor-based culture such as Japan’s but he does it with an adroitness that uses touches of humor and his own understanding of human nature to craft yet another universal tale that’s ultimately sympathetic in its portrayals.

It unsurprisingly feels like it could be a Japanese episode of Leave it to Beaver except for the father never has much of a talking to with his sons and the mother may be as put together as June Cleaver but hardly feels ever as affectionately maternal.

Equally spectacular is Ozu’s mise-en-scene which as per usual is meticulously staged and gorgeous in scene after scene. He offers up each individual image in a flat two-dimensional way that can best be described as taking cues from not only the theater but Japanese woodblock paintings with wonderful symmetry and compositions boosted by color.

He uses the clique of adjoining homes as the perfect set to send his characters in and out of with the hint of comedic forethought. While watching characters walking by on the hillside up above the homes — their figures slowly moving in and out of the frame past the houses — this provides some of Ohayo’s most visually stimulating images pleasing the eye incessantly.

There’s always a visual fearlessness that you see in very few others because he not only has color at his disposal but the staging is on point as is his disregard of the 180-degree rule of perspective. It just works. What is more, he also continues to use what could best be called establishing shots by western audiences. Except they hardly ever need to establish anything. It’s as if he simply put them there because they are vivid depictions of the reality he is painting — adding yet another distinct contour to the world he is working with — going beyond the figures that he places within the frame.

There’s no doubt that this is Ozu but not all that surprisingly this might be my personal favorite in his oeuvre for the aforementioned reasons. It feels like Ozu operating at his most playful while nevertheless maintaining his peak form as a filmmaker.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Coco (2017)

Coco_(2017_film)_poster.jpgIt only serves to show where my mind goes when I watch a movie. I couldn’t help but think of Harry Chapin’s elegiac and stirringly heart-wrenching tune “Mr. Tanner” as I was ambushed with some of the most revelatory notes of Coco. The most meaningful line out of that song relates how music made our eponymous hero “whole.” I feel the same guttural satisfaction blooming out of this picture.

Coco proves to be a film about many things. This is a film about music melded with family. The wholeness that comes out of music when you do it for sheer love and passion. Because you couldn’t live without picking up a guitar or throwing back your head to sing. Serenading family or penning a love song is just an extension of who you are. If you know anyone like that you can thoroughly appreciate what we have here.

In the best ways, it’s also about when families and our passions and the traditions that we’re taught to live by and that are passed down to us seem to collide — wholly impervious to any type of reconciliation on first glance — yet still somehow capable of fitting together.

Our hero Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a precocious boy who lives with his family in Mexico as part of a shoe-making matriarchy where they have long been taught to despise music because their no-good great-great-grandfather left his family behind to pursue his dreams as a musician. The conflict is created right there.

Visually it’s another inventive landscape for Pixar to play with under the helmsmanship of Lee Unkrich because though the setting and storyline are planted in the present world of Miguel’s family, it’s infused with rich undertones of Mexican tradition. Not least among those is “Dia De Los Muertos” or “The Day of The Dead.”

Except instead of taking that as a mere tradition or a cultural practice the film translates that into a fully animated reality as Miguel experiences the “afterlife.” There the spirits of his ancestors exist in skeletal form making a yearly pilgrimage to commune with their still-living relatives. Family is still of the utmost importance to their lives and the most tragic reality is to have no one left to champion your legacy.

The hero’s journey laid out before Miguel is direct and compelling so we know what he is up against. He must receive the blessing of one of his blood ancestors before sunrise or else spend his days forever in the land of the dead. Even now he’s slowly losing more of his definition a la Back to the Future (1985). The stakes are obvious and his inner conflict stressed by the very fact that his relatives will only provide their blessing if he gives up his true love: music.

There’s so much else that could be lauded in the film for how it dares to explore its setting much in the way Inside Out (2015) did. It boasts some clever reversals akin to those found in something like Toy Story 3 (2010) and plays on the themes of hero worship in a similar fashion to UP (2009) with Miguel being charmed by mythical singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). It’s also a bit of a Ratatouille (2007) tale of someone pressing against the currents around them to realize their individual gifts. But far from being to the detriment of the film, every one of these similarities is a genuine compliment. Could there be too many themes even? I’m not sure.

However, the idea I was most taken with deserves a bit more explanation. I’ve purposefully refrained from talking about Coco until now. If you were like me you probably assumed that our hero was named Coco or something like that, without giving it much forethought. However, we soon find out that she’s the fairly senile great-grandmother of our main character.

Because a major aspect of this film has to do with this idea that can best be described as transgenerational memory — where we pass down our recollections of the people that came before us to the younger generations. It’s no small coincidence that the lynchpin track is called “Remember Me.” Because in digging into his family’s personal narrative Miguel develops a deeper bond with his great-grandmother. It’s striking how even as we grow forgetful our long-term memory, the entrenched recollections of childhood or even muscle memory, often stay with us. That’s precisely how it is with Coco and Miguel aids in keeping her memories alive.

In these moments I could not help but reminisce about one of my favorite musicians Glen Campbell who passed away just this past year. He was a high profile casualty of Alzheimer’s and yet during his last tour though he could hardly remember the words anymore to his most famous songs, his fingers were just as nimble on the guitar frets as they were as a young man. Amazing. One of his final tunes was the brutally honest admission “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.”

And I mention it in passing only to suggest that if the idea is that you will only be remembered if other human beings remember you then that’s a terrifying world to be subjected to. As a writer that means that I will fade away unless someone actually unearths some of the mindless drivel I penned and shares it. If I’m single it means I better find someone quick and start a family so my children can not only pass on my gene pool but keep my name.

Even the pervasive theme that two people’s love for each other will live on forever, though a nice sentiment, still rings slightly hollow. Not to be a nitpicker but eternity is a long time. Even a blazing meteor burns out at some point. So if you’re like me maybe Coco will get you to think long and hard about your mortality. I’m not sure the answers are that easy to come by but they’re necessary to consider nonetheless.

In the context of this life at present, Coco fittingly rewrites the negative admonition to never play music with a more positive call to never forget family. Taking the restrictive and making it ripe with promise. That’s something most of us can probably get behind and share with our kids and grandkids as the years go by because we won’t be on this earth forever. The question remains, what do we do if we aren’t so lucky?

4/5 Stars

 

Song of the Sea (2014)

Song_of_the_Sea_(2014_film)_posterIn an animation market saturated by the likes of Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, those that have become some of the foremost names of the latest wave of animation, we sometimes forget that there are other voices as well. Song of the Sea is one of those alternative stories that is ripe for discovery.

Tomm Moore’s creation is so rich and vibrant, steeped in mythology and Irish folk tales. In some strange way, there’s a very cursory resemblance to some of Hayao Miyazaki’s worlds — the way that this story is similarly immersed in the culture in wonderful ways as well as fantasy elements entrenched in the culture (ie. Selkies), yet it still manages to remain universal, grounded in the everyday relationships of a family that pertain to all of us.

It becomes this grandiose mixture of the depressed and even decrepit streets of Ireland, wind-tossed waves, and hardened rocks. But against that very austere environment is something so luminous, magical, and life-giving. It gives the story an immense character both pictorially and thematically that runs through its entire narrative with every frame reflecting a certain essence of Irish culture, history, and even topography.

We watch with a degree of awe as young Ben is brought up to look at the world with the same wonderment in his Irish heritage. His father (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) is the local lighthouse keeper and his mother raises him up in a loving spirit. But with the birth of his younger sister and the loss of his mother, Ben’s life is different. He’s faced with loss just as his father is but he’s also faced with a promise he must keep. To love and protect his little sister Saoirse — to be her guardian — as his mother entreated him to.

Of course, the story devolves into a tale of annoyance and jealousy as Ben grows a little bit older and slowly becomes peeved with his sister’s ways. She still doesn’t talk and seemingly beats by a slightly different drum. He quickly loses sight of the value in her — only seeing the nuisance that dwells there.

But if anything, Song of the Sea is a story of discovery or even rediscovery if you will. Like Narnia or any such fantasy tale, it asks its main protagonist and the audience as well to grab hold of their child-like sensibilities and lose everything that causes them to grumble on a daily basis. That is the road that Ben is taken on. First, his goals are simple. He’s sent away from the family home he’s lived at forever and so his main objective is to escape grandma’s house in the city and get back to his dad and his dog, the massive, huggable, lovable sheepdog Cu.

However, Song of the Sea’s stakes heighten so much more because he comes to realize, begrudgingly at first, how special his little sister is and as his mother entrusted him so long ago, he must protect her. It’s a struggle but to the end, he honors that promise and it reflects the maturity that comes over him. It makes the film’s conclusion especially meaningful because we have seen the full progression and know truly what is at stake. That’s the sign of quality storytelling that will meet both kids and adults and leave them changed for the better.

In truth, my own name is Irish Gaelic and though I don’t speak a lick and the closest I’ve ever gotten geographically is Scotland (not quite close enough), there’s still a fascination I have with the very spirit of the place embodied so perfectly by this film.

The folk songs are elegantly mellifluous and even in all the chaos, all the darkness, great light can still be revealed. That is the hope of this film and even as families are fragmented and split apart. They can be mended and healed. Even if all the pain and hurt does not evaporate, the fact that we can hold family close, share the laughter as well as the tears together, that is often enough. Because it teaches us to care about others — to leave our petty, selfish endeavors behind to love others well.

4/5 Stars

I Remember Mama (1948)

I-remember-mama-1948_poster.jpgInitially, I Remember Mama comes off underwhelmingly. It’s overlong, there’s little conflict, and some of the things the story spends time teasing out seem odd and inconsequential at best. Still, within that framework is a narrative that manages to be rewarding for its utter sincerity in depicting the life of one family–a family that feels foreign in some ways and oh so relatable in many others.

In this case, the Hanson’s are a family of Norwegian immigrants circa 1910 and the story gleaning inspiration from two earlier works features a post-war George Stevens at the helm with Irene Dunne anchoring the cast as the titular character.

And it’s true that the film is rather like a eulogy, memorializing this woman who was such a strong, stalwart example despite her unassuming ways. It is her daughter Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes) who looks back fondly at her mother, as she, now being an author sees her mama as a worthy protagonist for a story. Because, after all, this is their story, personal, individual, and unique.

The film feels anecdotal as much as it is serial, taking galvanizing moments, little snippets of that time and place and crafting a very distinct picture of what life was like back then. And that’s part of the simplistic beauty of I Remember Mama just like Marta Hanson herself.

In the opening moments, the adult Katrin recounts vividly the evenings at the dining room table where the whole family would gather around to count out the weekly expenses. They scrimp and squeak by with the meager funds at hand so mama never has to go to the bank. Meanwhile, the timid Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby) looks to marry the local undertaker and she calls on her sister to rein in their two other sisters Sigrid and Jenny who are both rather unfeeling.

Other happenings include the entrance of the boisterously quirky Uncle Chris who blusters his way into their lives initially frightening the children with his antics which secretly mask a generous spirit. Young Dagmar subsequently goes in for an operation and Mama goes to visit her breaking hospital protocol to keep a promise to her little girl. This instance reflects exactly the character that Marta imbues.

She also appreciates the influence of the families’ elderly lodger Mr. Hyde who reads each evening from his many editions of classic literature from Dickens and “Fenimore Kipling” as mama recounts erroneously. She sees this as a gift not only to herself but also her children, opening them up to thoughts, ideas, and even a little bit of culture that she can never give them. The fact that he leaves behind his books in lieu of rent receives only her gratitude while her sisters become puffed up with contempt.

Again and again, she exemplifies that almost all-knowing love of a parent. While never perfect, there’s an innate understanding of what is best for each one of her kids and she is continually willing to work and sacrifice for the sake of her family. To say what those things are would be precisely against the ethics of such a person as Mrs. Hanson and so I will refrain. See them for yourself and you too will understand as Katrin does what makes this woman great.

This is yet another feather in the cap of Irene Dunne, confirming my belief that she is one of the most underrated actresses of the 20th century. At times she’s almost unrecognizable hidden behind that accent and a certain amount of stern, straightforward, and still motherly charm. Look at her character and you see a woman of such a phenomenal stock and integrity.

Nicolas Musuracas’ crisp black & white photography lends an authenticity to the San Francisco street corners as well as the interiors helping to develop a healthy aura of nostalgia. And you get the sense, that perhaps George Stevens was intent on tapping into a bit of that old-fashioned goodness because the post-war world was a far different, far darker place. I Remember Mama is a film of tremendous virtue and inextinguishable light.

There’s also a bit of a personal connection to this film as well because half of my ancestors were, themselves, Norwegian immigrants. Although I doubt they came through San Francisco there are some familiar touchstones and it’s easy to imagine that these people pictured up on the screen could share the contours and backgrounds of my own kin from bygone generations. Wishful thinking perhaps but it’s also incredibly exciting and that’s part of the reason that I left this story feeling as if I gained something from it.

So Stevens and Dunne succeed excellently with what they set out to achieve providing a character study that is nuanced and still evocative in its pure depiction of the sacrificial love of a parent. Some would say that there’s no greater love than that.

4/5 Stars

 

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

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I remember the first time seeing  E.T. and enjoying it immensely, though it never floored me. I felt the same thing this time around for no particularly justifiable reason. Good but, in my estimation, not great, whatever that means because those terms are equally murky. Still, the fact that there had been little change in some ways made me feel uneasy. What was I not seeing?

But then thinking about it more I latched on to this idea that made me appreciate E.T. far more than I had before. Like an epiphany, it came to me what this film really is. It’s a childlike fantasy full of personal notes from a director who just happens to be Steven Spielberg. That’s not much of a discovery, but the implications are great.

The story of young Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his chance encounter and befriending of E.T. is rather like a boy and his dog story. Except both characters are going through almost parallel situations and Spielberg takes it to the literal extreme. They actually feel each other in a sense. They are perfectly empathetic towards one another.  With E.T. the motives are most obvious. His ultimate goal is to “phone home” so that he might be reunited with those that he calls family. For Elliott, it’s also about home. His home life is a bit fragmented with a father who is vaguely mentioned to be in Mexico (although that’s probably not the case) and siblings who quarrel like siblings usually do.

However, it also struck me how this family really does care about each other. Little Gerty –a beyond memorable Drew Barrymore–is the quintessential 5-year-old sister. First frightened of, then intrigued by and finally faithfully devoted to E.T. And the older brother Michael teases his siblings as has always been the case since the beginning of time but he too invests himself in this adventure. Certainly, it’s out of charity towards this visitor from outer space but it’s undoubtedly also an extension of the affection he has for his little brother.

It’s also peculiar that almost all the secondary characters are very ill-defined and the antagonistic forces attempting to impede E.T. and Elliott are even vaguer. At first, this felt wrong in some regards– a potential sign of poor storytelling. But once more I was brought back to the unmistakable idea that this film really is a boyhood dreamscape. This is Elliott’s story and if it’s Elliott’s story, it’s even more so Spielberg’s own meditation on adolescence and his own childhood. The narrative is even said to have been inspired by his own imaginary friend as a child and his own dealings with a split household. And there’s also a hint of the Wizard of Oz here. There’s no place like home.

Thus, what becomes undeniably important is this dynamic relationship between this boy and his newfound friend who just happens to be from outer space. It’s quite simple. It’s childlike really. And that is and forever will be the beauty and allure that comes from this film. Families can watch it. Kids can marvel at it. Parents can soak it up. Because just as it is about a family–dysfunctional as they may be in their suburban life–it is also for families.

There’s the sheer mayhem of the shrimpy kid grabbing a kiss from the pretty girl in class as hordes of frogs hop by. The iconic magic of Elliott and his friends soaring through the sky on their bicycles, John Williams’ score dancing majestically in the background again and again. Even the fact that this extra-terrestrial goes from death to life is strikingly analogous to the archetypal biblical narrative that permeates our culture. It’s all spectacularly remarkable but rather than be skeptical we acknowledge it with almost wide-eyed wonderment, accepting it, accepting these people that we meet. And watching E.T. ascend back into the atmosphere with true awe.

I find it fascinating that only a few years earlier Spielberg was inspired to put Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters. In E.T. I see his closest approximation of the French director’s own thematic elements. To put it in terms of homage. E.T. is Spielberg’s version of 400 Blows, granted featuring space aliens, Star Wars, cultural references and so on, but they’re not all that different. They really are about the same core issues. It takes until after 400 Blows for Antoine Doinel to find love and intimate relationship with his wife. For Elliot, it comes with family, his brother and sister, and mother, and of course, with E.T. This is what has a lasting impact on Elliott and I could guess, with Steven Spielberg as well. But the audience gets to be a part of it too, an equally important  piece in this trinity.

4.5/5 Stars