Summer 1993 (2017)

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

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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)

little women 1933 1

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