Incredibles 2 (2018)

The_Incredibles_2.jpgPleasant surprises abound in Incredibles 2. What is supremely evident is that Brad Bird still has a pulse on quality storytelling just as the overall animation is blessed by the continual technological advancements in the medium.

Here we are picking up right where the previous film left off with the Parrs donning their disguises to face off against the Underminer to save the city. It works seamlessly as an opening gambit even if it has little bearing on the subsequent plot.

Regardless, it plays like a bit of wish fulfillment and yet somehow we must begrudgingly admit the encompassing magic has somehow left the material. We can never get back the unassuming success of The Incredibles now that it returns as a blockbuster juggernaut. Still, what isn’t lost is the retro cool or the equally frosty camaraderie provided by Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). Then, the long-awaited return of Edna Mode follows which is equally satiating though far too short.

The creme de la creme was witnessing the full extent of Jack Jack’s immeasurable powers. You can tell the Pixar team has a blast exploring his full potentials and they really hit it out of the ballpark to realize the open-endings they left themselves in the original movie.

However, the film also begins its new chapter by introducing a brother and sister power duo, Winston and Evelyn Dever (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener), who are looking to rebrand the superheroes and sway public opinion to get them reinstated.

Since we still live in a world wary of supers, this is a chance to right the ship and allow the Parr family to exhibit their powers without fear of public backlash. Despite everything they’ve been through as a family, what becomes increasingly apparent is how circumstances haven’t changed much. This is where the new chapter really begins.

On the homefront, they agree Ellen will dawn her Elastigirl attire once more as Bob is faced with the harrowing task of taking care of his children. Jack Jack is literally a bouncing fireball of energy. Violet is having boy problems. Dash is struggling with The New Math without his mother’s instruction. All these issues fall on the man of the house now.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Elastigirl must track down a criminal mastermind, The Screenslaver, who is using television screens to mesmerize audiences through some ultra high-tech form of mind control. But as this is a film full of media and PR tactics, it seems convenient this is all part of a broader conspiracy to discredit supers for good. It’s meeting the Deavor’s plan in an equal and opposite direction — with nefarious implications.

Villainy is always a sense of someone with convictions they believe to be true ultimately getting twisted in ominous ways. It’s easy enough to discern who the culprit is but we can hardly hold it against the narrative.

The story culminates at a summit to promote goodwill between benevolent authority (Isabella Rossellini) and the supers. However, as the result of wide-ranging tampering,  any projected trailer-worthy moments from our three favorite superheroes are essentially killed in a dastardly attempt to sink negotiations.

But what it does do is provide a platform for the Parr kids to strut their stuff. It seems fitting the final act belongs to them following their mother’s ascension to the starring role for the bulk of Incredibles 2. It is the best reminder that the series was always a family affair and far from being just another superhero movie, it was a family movie first and last.

Still, I cannot help but feel something is eerily amiss. Yes, if we reach back into our memories from where we left The Incredibles before it does feel gratifying to add another chapter to their story.

But like Finding Dory from only a few years ago, there’s such a big gap between the chapters, a certain amount of detachment sets in, especially since we are expected to pick up right where we left off. Toy Story 3 takes into account the fact we have matured over the last decade and change.

These newer entries seem to take it for granted that we are near the same places we were years ago. Granted, I understand it’s all but necessary with where we left the Parrs. Still, in a young person’s life seismic shifts have occurred and so if Pixar’s stories have not changed, it feels odd since we have changed so much. We are more out of touch with the content. Maybe we have even moved on.

And yet even as these stories operate as if nothing has changed, there are small things that do feel different. It’s nitpicky to admit but we have a new Dash and other slight changes in the original continuity. True, the Supers were all decimated by the threat of Syndrome but there are really no tie-ins to the heroes of old — I’m talking about the supporting crew aside from Mr. Incredible, Elastagirl, and Frozone.

Because we get this new batch of superheroes who in some strange way feel out of place and we have no reason to like or even care about them. Is this overly harsh? Perhaps but it comes from a space of deep affection for what The Incredibles was able to imbibe and so anything else added to the canon is going to come under a lot of scrutiny.

Where it counts The Incredibles 2 is a worthwhile outing with flashes of nostalgia that can easily pass for rediscovered thrills. Filled in by the stellar, fresh animation and Michael Giaccomo’s score, it might be easy to claim contentment.

That doesn’t mean we cannot still hang on to some of our minor qualms. Because if anything they remain as a testament to how special the original installment was and that is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means we can cherish the first film even more.

4/5 Stars

Leave No Trace (2018)

Leave_No_Trace.pngLeave No Trace instantly reminded me of two distinct reference points. The first relates to a man named Richard Proenneke who lived in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years building his own cabin and raising his own food in a life of tranquil solitude.

Then, the other comes from a book I read when I was a kid called My Side of a Mountain, written by Jean Craighead George, following a young man who literally goes out into a forest, builds himself a home hewn out of a tree, and subsists off the land. The common themes running through these narratives are already quite obvious.

If you’re like me, especially in this technology-saturated world of ours, sometimes it seems like we’re pretty helpless and ever plugged into our devices. But some of us look at such stories and see a sense of romanticism. It seems like a nice idea — like a picnic or going camping — out communing with nature. Except it only goes so far. We love to read about it and live vicariously through others but we stop short of getting involved ourselves.

The pair existing in Leave No Trace is actually up to the challenge of living this life on the move, out in an Oregon nature reserve, surviving off the land, and in so many ways remaining self-sufficient. They are far closer than many of us can probably ever comprehend. Because everything they do has near life and death consequences. You don’t live as they do without getting close and forming a bond. There is no other way to exist aside from constant symbiosis.

The father, Will (Ben Foster), a former member of the military, has passed down so many practical skills to his daughter, training her up to survive out in the wild. It’s like an extreme version of homeschooling. Tom’s (Thomasin Mackenzie) social skills are lacking but if you stacked her up against anyone her age she’s probably more resourceful and capable than any of them. Because her brain has not been programmed by technology nor is it awash in a world of a vacuous glut of constant stimuli. Their total immersion in nature is refreshing as is their independence and very stripped down lifestyle.

But this journey is particularly worthwhile because it is still set in our world and so these two very unique individuals are forced to brush up against society and the norms in place. Technically, they are trespassing and so in a way they take on the mantle of fugitives constantly on the run as nomads dodging the authorities. You can only hide and break camp and get away so long. Even for people as attuned and regimented as them, there’s always a slip-up.

Now there are good folks in the world — social workers and then common, ordinary people who try and give them a leg up. There are ways to get Tom and her dad back into society without completing severing their ties with the naturalism that is most comfortable for them.

It is a story about a relationship, a very close-knit relationship between a father and daughter. But it becomes a story of maturation as well. Tom realizes her dad is hardwired a certain way. Whether it is restless feet, the demons of post-traumatic stress, or some unnamed specter, he’s constantly dodging, or simply discontent with modern society. He is never capable of settling down.

Meanwhile, she is willing to make allowances and sculpts each place they find together into a new home. Still, it never feels like she’s selling out completely. True, she’s enamored with a new bicycle and mentions in passing how having a phone would make it easier to communicate and yet the core aspects of her character do not waver. Tom still maintains her immense inquisitiveness and affection for all flora and fauna in the great outdoors. She loves dogs, makes friends over rabbits and honeybees. These are the places she is truly in her element.

However, she is also a willing participant, ready to enmesh herself in an ecosystem of people. She gets comfortable around the relationships she makes and yearns to set roots down somewhere. The great revelation comes when she realizes her father can never be that. Instead of always following his lead, she becomes more and more of her own person, making her own decisions. It has nothing to do with a split or not loving him anymore. This is about being mature enough to let other people go and being okay with the realization.

Read only as words on the page, Leave No Trace could be chock full of high drama but it wins its victories through the subtility of its leads and the more nuanced touches to fill in around the naturalism and bevy of sojourning survival tactics. Debra Granik directs the movie with an eye attuned to relationships and while generally unadorned, the movie is full of wonderment in the world’s natural beauty.

It exhibits the lush greenery quintessential to the rainy, fresh imagery that the Oregon coast conjures up. There is arguably no better film that I’ve seen to capture this environ in all its verdant glory. While a completely different sort of film, I could not but for a moment recall one of the greenest films to ever be on the silver screen, The Quiet Man. Because whether romantic or familial there’s no question the milieu of a film is so crucial in fashioning how we perceive a cinematic experience. Like its predecessor, Leave No Trace is a roaring success channeled through tranquil trails of its own creation. Sometimes those trails must break off and lead toward different destinations. Being content in moving on is key.

4/5 Stars

Sounder (1972): A Family and Their Dog

sounder 1.png

In adolescence, you are inundated with stories about dogs. The Red Fern Grows, Shiloh, Homeward Bound, Ginger Pie, Marmaduke, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Air Bud, Snoopy, and Old Yeller. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, off the top of my head. Sounder belongs to the same storied tradition based on humanity’s infatuation with canines which is certainly well-founded.

Except some will be surprised to find that this Depression-era tale brought to us by Martin Ritt is hardly about a dog at all. True, we are met with the eponymous hound dog right off the bat. What greets our ears is the bouncy staccato harmonica-twanging behind the visuals of a frantic tear through the underbrush that goes with the territory of a coon hunt. It’s an instantly recognizable image to introduce our characters.

Not just Sounder but a boy named Henry Lee and his father, the jovial but hardpressed Nathan. The year is 1933 and we’re in Lousiana in the midst of the Depression. With society sectioned off as it is, as a black family, the Lee’s have been forced to scuttle through by sharecropping for a white farmer. It’s the fate faced many African-American families of the day.

They’re perpetually in debt, have trouble keeping food on the table, and live with the most meager means possible. All in all, with two parents, Nathan and his wife Rebecca (Cicely Tyson in a fiercely unvarnished performance), there are also three kids, and of course, Sounder.  Writer Lonne Elder III takes this atmosphere, the environment, and the family living within it and builds the framework of a story with great care and concern for their everyday reality. The plights and the joy that they still manage to have.

Taj Mahal, while also providing the film’s music, does a fair number in front of the camera as well as the energetic neighbor named Ike who drifts in and out of the story as he pleases. There are baseball games where Nathan Lee comes out the hero striking out his last opponent with runners in scoring position. From the local church, you can hear Gospel spirituals like “Old Time Religion” ringing out with fervor.

But in the same community, there’s a segregated schoolhouse and Nathan gets jailed and sent away for a year of hard labor for what seems like a trivial infraction. White men, including the local sheriff and the shopkeeper, will hardly budge an inch for a black man. That’s what seems so pernicious. Sometimes it’s not even outright violence but it’s this inability to change or have any amount of grace or understanding. There is no clemency to be had based on this rigid narrowmindedness.

When you begin watching more movies sometimes you fail to acknowledge those that are unpretentious and good-natured — the kind of stories that are meant for the whole family and wholly uplifting to the soul. Sounder is one of those movies. Surely there was a social hierarchy in place of oppression and de facto segregation. And yet around the nucleus of the family, there is a decency that pervades the picture and ultimately lifts it up. While it doesn’t completely eradicate ill-will, it does push it to the fringes of the frame.

Family reunions have never been so poignant — considering the moment where Nathan finally comes home after innumerable trials and his family has toiled and sweated day after day to hold onto their land. What they have in that instant is a small slice of heaven. It’s written over every face as the space between them rapidly fades away and they meet in an embrace that brings their world back together as it was meant to be.

But Sounder also manages to be a tale of empowerment for one lad in particular, young Henry Lee. The movie places people in his life who are willing to give him a leg up. There’s old Mrs. Boatright who is one of the few whites who will take any kind of stand — even a slight one — and she blesses him with things like The Three Musketeers.

It’s these people and books and knowledge that give a glimpse to a world of greater freedom and opportunity. An avenue to a life where people cannot keep you down no matter how hard they try because with ideas comes a power to think and to be your own person, set on improving yourself and the world as you go forward.

Yet another woman, a schoolteacher, takes an interest in Henry Lees improvement since she perceives the quiet wisdom that can be cultivated into something fully-realized. Her gift to him comes through education and elucidating him about figures like Harriet Tubman, Crispus Attucks, and W.E.B. Dubois — people who were shapers of history big and small — just as he has the opportunity to be.

Granted, it does feel as if the family’s pet is pushed to the periphery for much of the film, but in a way, it feels like a realistic depiction. He doesn’t need to be front and center. By their nature, if dogs are really man’s best friend, what makes them so meaningful has to do with their loyalty — they are always there — consistently reliable.

Because the life of an impoverished family like the Lees is the epitome of hardship. They need all the stability they can get. You will come to realize it is not really about a dog at all and certainly not one of those family-friendly films marketed as such because they feature some extraordinary, nearly superhuman animal.

No, Sounder is for the family because it takes care in documenting the realities of this particular family in a way that is thoroughly candid. It might still stand as faulty advertising but for the plethora of folks who are moved by the movie, they probably won’t be complaining when the credits roll. What we get is far better than a run-of-the-mill boy and his dog narrative. What I am reminded of is one subtle parallel. Sounder is winged by a shotgun when Nathan is taken away. He doesn’t come back for a long time. But when his wounds are healed, he returns good as new. There’s a startling resilience present in both the canine and the family.

4/5 Stars

Summer 1993 (2017)

summer 1993 2.png

Summer 1993 is a testament to subtleties which can make a film into something imbued with deeper meanings than what we might initially realize. It begins with the title immediately asserting this is a period piece and also implicitly we have the suggestion of the autobiographical. The postcript dedication is the final confirmation.

Otherwise, the film does not project a sense of self-awareness nor does it continually remind us what we are watching. Instead, it works in terms of intimacy and nuanced beats which lay out a world of the past that is piercing for the very transparency it projects. The personal becomes obvious in the ways it is handled with grace and an emotional candor.

This is a story of a small girl named Frida. She owns a pair of beautifully expressive brown eyes. Her hair is curled like a perfect little cherub and she is introduced in the midst of tragedy though we know very little about it. Being a child, she cannot quite understand the circumstances either. Much of the film occupies her head-space and point of view. Conversations waft over her. Things she cannot understand the gravity of. All we know is she has been affected. But even that rarely comes out of her.

She is defined mostly by pensive and measured actions. Her grandma teaches her the words necessary for her first communion. She repeats them obediently. Then, comes the move out of her family home with her new parents — an uncle and aunt — who have agreed to take her to live with their baby daughter.

They are caring and yet as with any change, there is a difficulty in adapting — a disconnect because she must become acclimated to a new life and even as the familiar has been replaced with something novel, we question how the transition will go.

Her doll collection is most important to her — and she plays house with her baby cousin — taking on the persona of the emotionally-detached mother even smoking a make-believe cigarette through her garish mascara. In town, she joins in a game of tag with the local kids and like it always goes — being the one new person — she gets shouldered with the task of being “It.”

She scrapes her knee scampering about and one mother becomes frantic that her child might be infected.  It’s an overreaction but it gives a hint to Frida’s past — the very reason her parents are no longer present in her life. Later there is a solemn conversation held over the kitchen table with all the extended family discussing her as she sits docilely by.

At night she’s lying in bed, saying her prayers and the barely audible notes of a marital argument can be heard between two people who nevertheless seem kind and in love. Life has a way of weighing on our hearts and minds. It is never an easy road to traverse.

When the baby daughter gets lost in the woods, injuring her hand, there is another change. Husband and wife, with prodding from the wife, in particular, agree limits must be put in place for Frida. She can hardly be trusted to look after her sister in this state.

summer 1993.png

Even against this backdrop, Summer 1993 is a reminder of the beauty and inquisitiveness of children. Their hands so meticulous, their eyes searching and innocent. In many ways, they are not jaded and troubled by many things as we often are as adults. Still, they are capable of selfish acts, defiance, and naughtiness. They do not understand how their actions affect others besides themselves. What ties us all together is the very fact we all have feelings and emotions. These do not change. They are the universal connector between us all.

The greatest pleasure is that the film very rarely — if ever — feels like artifice. There is such a measured and sensitive eye at work here to be able to capture a moment in childhood and do it without unheeded histrionics.

Better yet are the sweet refrains like the whole family snuggling up in bed together. Double-fisting ice cream as a reward for another successful doctor’s appointment after a whole slew of tests. I was there once as well except it was always Cheetos and strawberry kiwi Snapple.

The other moments are just as real. Frida watches her baby sister tumble into the water and watches wide-eyed as her father jumps in after her. She is scolded for her inaction in the face of the helpless cries for help. Then she drops her grandma’s gift nightdress in the dirt — ungrateful and jealous of her baby sister’s — even spilling milk on it. Her mother tells her to go wash it even as Grandma tries and make concessions.

She likens her plight to that of a Catalan Cinderella but then again for all kids childhood is a bit of a fairy tale even the bad parts. It feels like the whole world is against her. Of course, it couldn’t be farther from the truth but she is blinded by her own childish narcissism.

The fact her adopted parents are so loving, understanding, and have her best interest in mind makes it all the more striking. How can she view the world in that way? One evening she finally gathers her meager belongs, all but prepared to go off on her own, loading her bag with all the necessities including fruit from the kitchen table.

Her baby sister tells Frida she “loves” her and she reciprocates by leaving behind the doll she had packed. It’s undertaken with the sincerity of youth and that’s what makes it so sweetly affecting. There is this gravity to the proceedings even as this innocent girl does not understand all the intricacies of her situation.

summer 1993 4

A fitting final scene comes over the kitchen table again. Frida finally seems happier, at least she is getting used to life, but then out of the blue, she asks her new mother how her first mother died? Then, what follows are a row of very honest questions.

Her new mother fields them calmly in a reassuring way so her daughter can comprehend but you also sense there’s a touch of relief as Frida is opening up and willing to talk about the things she’s been aching to know. It’s a moment of deep personal connection. The impact is heady because it is hidden inside something seemingly so mundane in nature. But to those involved, it means the world. It is the beginning of greater understanding, moving them closer and closer to a whole family.

Getting ready for bed Frida spontaneously breaks into tears. For the whole film she has kept it in — remaining surprisingly unemotional — and yet now she can let her guard down. She doesn’t know why she is crying but we have some inclination. Could that be an eye getting misty? Not unlikely.

It recalls one lovely summer I spent living overseas because it is the one and only time in my life where I have lived on the edge of nature where you can hear and see the wildlife and walk around in it. It truly becomes your backyard. But it was in such a paradise where I had to rebound from personal grief as well.

It was not in the Catalan countryside but I was going through the same sense of isolation. Being a bit older I tried to cope in a different manner. What I realized is there is a need to gravitate more toward others opposed to falling away. But even as an adult it is difficult to do. It goes against our impulses in such moments where solitude is our greatest friend. Ultimately, Frida got there and I did too; it simply takes time. What a beautiful elegy to a childhood, to a mother, and, ultimately, the rebirth of a young life in the midst of tragedy.

4/5 Stars

Shoplifters (2018)

Shoplifters_(film).jpgHirokazu Kore-eda has quickly become one of my favorite Japanese directors and I consider it fortuitous that this affinity has cropped up in such a fertile period. Shoplifters is a high water mark in his already illustrious career.

Many folks are probably quick to label him the modern generation’s Ozu because it is an easy and harmless claim to make — a very complimentary one at that. Though, Kore-eda himself rightfully likens his work to Ken Loach or even Mikio Naruse. But if we conjure these names it seems equally apt to consider Vitorio De Sica’s, particularly The Bicycle Thieves, especially in the context of this film.

He’s shown it before but Kore-eda exposes us different strata of Japan. It is more personal, humble, and if we can make the claim, more realistically transparent. You will not see his world in Lost in Translation (2003). Because he shows us something that many people probably would not want to acknowledge, much less those making the laws and running Japanese society.

His central characters are a husband and wife, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who approach life as countercultural enigmas within the country at large. He is a struggling day laborer, hampered by a sprained ankle and she is ultimately laid off from her position at a local laundry firm. These are hardly spoilers and more remarkable indications just how extraordinary their relationships are. Because together they form a ragtag yet tight-nit nucleus of a family.

Living with them are Grandma (Kiki Kirin), a runaway hostess club worker named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and a taciturn son named Shota. The beauty is how we know these individuals as part of a symbiotic unit. We assume each one is a sister or a son until we realize just how unique this “family” really is.

It begins coming into focus when the “parents” take in a lost little girl named Yuri. There are signs of neglect and even abuse on the part of her parents that leave her seemingly detached from the world. But through constant nurturing and their own brand of endearment, she begins to come out of her shell and feel safe once more. It is through the lens of her situation we most distinctly view the discrepancies apparent in such an overtly unified society.

It is a movie that I must consider in the context of actually spending a great deal of time living in Tokyo. Because the city itself is wonderful, the streets are clean, everything has order and tranquility. But it all comes down to being perceptive. If you look around you begin to see the flaws, the skeletons in the closets, and the issues residing very near the surface.

You have this monumental epidemic of loneliness in this sea of humanity, the reality that many old people die alone without a network of community or because they have little welfare or funds, the elderly take up menial jobs just to survive in their old age. Fewer and fewer people are getting married. The population in Japan is slowing declining.

All types of folks fritter away their days (and money) in Pachinko parlors, or they seek out some kind of intimacy through tawdry forms of sensual pleasures. Even well-to-do families — those who represent what we might call “The Japanese Dream,” fathers with well-paying jobs, a beautiful wife with fine, intelligent kids — they can be dying a little bit every day on the inside too.

If the Shoplifters is capable of pointing us to anything meaningful, at the very least, it suggests how imperative personal relationships are. They must be built on affection and genuine concern. There must be space for feelings and love and closeness. Ironically, for a place with so many people, Tokyo is just about the most isolating place you can possibly exist in.

The film also creates this utterly riveting dichotomy that we might tie back to De Sica’s famed neorealist picture. Because many people will see the film’s title and frame the entire narrative through that window of perception. Here is a family living in poverty and stealing produce and things to make ends meet. On a surface level, this is all true. In fact, we meet Osamu and Shota in the act of their very meticulous thievery of a grocery store. It begs that question of what would you do to provide for your family?

However, one could argue Shoplifters takes it a step or two further along this moral gradient. What really is right and wrong? Are the ways we monitor the differences in society really just or is their more nuance to the definitions than we normally give allowance for?

To another point, yes, this family is breaking the law. There is no doubt about it whatsoever and yet you look at how they treat one another and live with such close-knit bonds and you wonder. Again, it is the so-called “honest citizens” who treat their children’s lives with such detachment or worst yet derelicting their duties as parents completely. They substitute material things for true concern. There is no competition. One is utterly infectious and meaningful, brimming with life and authenticity. The other feels callous, shallow, and fake.

If it is a critique, then it works in the most benevolent commentary known to man. Kore-eda has such an elegant, nonconfrontational approach to his material, you never feel like you’re are being preached to. Instead, he rightfully invests in onscreen relationships to make them feel genuine.

Because if shoplifting is in the title this movie is nevertheless an exploration of so many vast and varied topics that are well worth our time and money to consider. Kore-eda makes each one more than worthwhile through his deft touch and handling of each character. His children feel real and genuine even as his adults have multi-faceted contours worth pulling back.

In Matsuoka’s scenes at her work, the few solitary moments we have there somehow evoked Paris, Texas (1984) for me. Because in one sense, we are provided certain expectations — this outer veneer with preconceived notions of what this place will be — only to have them be subverted in the most beautifully illuminating manner possible.

The most meaningful revelation comes when she finally comes face-to-face with one of her customers in a small, intimate space. The man, who barely utters a sound, does not even crave sexual intimacy but simply contact of the most basic nature He’s lying in her lap docilely just listening to her talk and sharing a moment for a couple of solitary minutes. They form a connection even in this short span — perhaps more affecting than anything else that has happened to either of them in recent memory.

Out of all the scenes in the movie, this one literally broke my heart. It’s difficult to describe but it is one of the best examples I can put to the debilitating loneliness often found in a place like Tokyo. You begin to understand how monumentally alone people might feel. These are not depraved folks seeking out sensual gratification; these are the isolated men and women looking for some human contact; any contact. You don’t hug in Japan. Even the physical touch in itself is life-giving. Our main family embodies this kind of affection to the core of their being.

While the final act takes us into new territory and for different reasons the makeshift family gets pulled apart at the seams, there is still this wistful sense of relationship. It was never discord that was going to break them apart. It always had to do with the outside stressors and rigid reinforcement of the world around them.

Even in this social structure they still find brief momentary nuggets of continual joy and familial warmth. These emotions are so powerful and so very difficult to hold onto but when you can they imbue life with so much meaning. One prime example is a family pilgrimage to the beach — getting them out of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life — for a bit of freedom.

Kirin Kiki is phenomenal again in this picture and while not her actual swan song, it is a fitting final testament to her versatile and highly perceptive talents. Although I’ve become acquainted with her quite recently, she will be dearly missed on the cinematic landscape.

The ultimate beauty of this film, however, is the very fact it is not about one individual but the whole interwoven network of lives stitched together. It does feel like a humbling experience. It is a film that suggests revelation can come from the most unassuming of places. We can learn more from a lowly thief than we might ever learn from all the professors, salarymen, and bigwigs in Tokyo. It is a stirring reminder of where true worth and priorities need to come from.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

meet me in st louis 1.png

One thing that can be said of Meet Me in St. Louis is that it captures the milieu of an era while simultaneously being quintessential Vincente Minnelli. Every man, woman, and child is dressed to the tee and enraptured by love and the grand promises of the World Fair full of dancing the Hoochie-Coochie with their special Tootsie Wootsies.  It’s cheerfully opulent in such a fashion that some might consider it almost garish and others will deem it the height of turn-of-the-century elegance.

There’s no doubt that the director had one of the most phenomenal palettes of any filmmaker from any time period. Certainly, this extends to the mise en scene and the costumes adorning his stars — pulled right out of Sears Roebuck circa 1900. But the other crucial aspect is that Minnelli seems to handle his talent with kid gloves or at least he creates an environment for them to flourish.

Of course, front and center of the Technicolor extravaganza is Judy Garland who would marry her director the following year and you get the sense that she had fallen in love with how beautiful he was able to make her on film. It’s true that she’s a striking sight to behold, only magnified by the world she traipses through, surrounded by her kin and singing to her heart’s content.

Still, if the set design is such a grand expression of the film’s potency and visual appeal, it’s necessary to point out again that this is far from a Judy Garland show; there is an ensemble component even if she’s the scene-stealer.

Margaret O’Brien is a riot because she plays little Tootie in the most ingratiatingly precocious way possible. Though it must be admitted she has a bit of a morbid side too. We meet her on an ice wagon telling a man how she’s going to give her doll a nice funeral and later on, of course, she takes the heads off all the snow people.

However, there’s also a whole Halloween interlude starring Tootie and their sister Agnes that feels more like a ghoulish Guy Fawkes day than its modern incarnation of door-to-door candy grabbing. Maybe Halloween has gotten tamer than we give it credit for. Put up against the film’s more mirthful moments, it comes off a tad alarming.

But then again, the story continually goes back to its roots in the centrality of the family unit. Its very integrity is in jeopardy of being disrupted when Father (Leon Ames) drops the news that they will be moving to New York from St. Louis. It comes off horrifically. It’s imperative to remember that in order for those heights to be so gay there must be a steady stream of romantic heartbreaks and personal roadblocks which the picture gladly provides.

There’s a lovely scene staged around the piano between Mr. and Mrs. Adams (Ames and Mary Astor) where like in so many other instances song becomes the perfect expression of the current mood. Based on where the camera is situated, the stairwell in the back is visible and you see the shadows of figures before they inch back into the frame and subsequently back into the family room. It’s a visual representation of the family staying rooted together even after a spat — constantly retracting — then contracting back together in continuous motion.

Without question, the well-remembered “The Trolley Song” is a giddy number that outshines any of the others but that’s because it is the summation of romantic euphoria that Esther (Garland) is feeling for her beau (Tom Drake). Meanwhile, “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas,” though hauntingly melodious, is quite easy for me to rip out of the context of this film.

meet me in st louis 2.png

Meet Me in St. Louis has never been a yuletide film for me in a similar fashion to how Holiday Inn (1942) is not so much attached to “White Christmas” or holiday cheer as the Michael Curtiz picture from 1954. Perhaps its influence isn’t as deeply rooted in my childhood recollections as some of its contemporaries. But then again, Meet Me in St Louis evokes Christmas in the same way that some of the cinematic adaptations of Little Woman (1933, 1949, or 1994) conjure up the season in the context of family. Perhaps that’s how it should be.

In its day, the film was a smash hit only to be outshined by that prior behemoth from David Selznick Gone with the Wind (1939) and it’s easy to draw up parallels if not simply visually speaking. Both films boast breathtaking imagery and extraordinary color photography for the era that even today can rightfully be considered landmark stuff. Still, that doesn’t mean that everything else has improved with age. Make the concessions where you will and the film can be a good-natured classic or even a Christmas perennial favorite. In my estimation its middling in both categories. Still, that can’t completely detract from its finer attributes. Namely Minnelli’s striking color scheme which remains second to none.

4/5 Stars

The Window (1949)

The_window_1949.jpg
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)

babes in toyland 1.png

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)

the southerner 1.png

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