Bigger Than Life (1956): Nicholas Ray and George Mason Fit The Bill

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James Mason gleaned the idea for Bigger Than Life from a contemporary article featured in The New Yorker by a medical writer named Berton Roueché. He detailed the side effects of the drug cortisone featured in real-life horror stories.

The title is certainly far from a misnomer and James Mason gives a performance to fill up the expanses of the screen bursting off it with furious abandon in all sorts of unwonted ways.

If my memory serves me correctly, there’s a shot at the entrance of the school where he’s being dropped off by his wife (Barbara Rush) who demurs that he’s always been 10 feet tall to her. The shot following has to be about the lowest angle conceivable with Mason positively towering over us until he walks forward and things become normalized.

It’s almost playful and still a disconcerting manipulation of the typical visual field. It’s indicative of much of the film. On the top layer, it’s the portrait of 1950s suburbia seen over and over again. There’s even an inadvertent connection to the quintessential nuclear family thanks to a pint-sized cameo from Jerry Mathers. But there’s also something pernicious gnawing away at our protagonist.

The film readily brings back the palette of Rebel Without a Cause we know and love, using the up-and-coming widescreen Cinemascope format, typifying the luscious productions of its era.

Ed Avery (James Mason) is a school teacher, one of those shining beacons of pedagogy and some things certainly have not changed. For such a noble profession, he can’t claim to be affluent. In fact, he’s moonlighting a couple nights a week in a cabbie service to make a bit more money. His wife Lou has a sneaking suspicion he might be cheating but how could he? He’s an utter angel.

His relationship with his best friend is borne in an introductory shot. Wally is played by none other than Walter Matthau. If that’s not enough, we meet him in a school corridor with a catcher’s mask strapped over his head and baseball gear filling up his hands. It’s a fairly slight part but as Matthau had a lengthy pedigree ahead of him, it’s a satisfying morsel to start.

Meanwhile, Barbara Rush gets few laurels as an actress, but she works handily as the loving spouse who Ed returns home to every evening. It feels strangely ironic because I almost unconsciously traced the line between Magnificent Obsession. It lies in their deep abiding roots in medical melodrama.  The first features Rush as a grown daughter and now she has progressed to a maternal figure, but the trauma remains constant.

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Because, as it turns out, Avery is a fairly sick man with the clock ticking away on his life. Thank goodness there’s a miracle drug, “Cortisone,” which while still widely unknown has been used with some success on such cases as his. At first, the unassuming pills seem to be doing the trick.

Riding a generous streak, he takes his wife out to a dress shop to buy her the finest things and then gets his son a shiny new bicycle. James Mason is a riot in the store leaving his family speechless. He’s walking on cloud nine. Positively the picture of good health and yet every bit of heightened euphoria is a hint of something far more ruinous working underneath the surface.

Because the changes are no longer comical or imperceptible for that matter. It comes to tossing the football in the living room chiding his son’s lack of ability and resolve. There are unwarranted mood swings to follow and the broken shards of a mirror blatantly suggest what is to come.

Back to school night is highlighted by an uncharacteristic rant about the woes of childhood and the claptrap of modern education, which has parents in a huff. It’s the most recent sign of coming attractions. Megalomania begins to overtake him with ensuing ravings about new missions and leaving matrimonial shackles behind with increasingly radicalized rhetoric injected with delusions of grandeur.

Now his only resolve is to rear his son in the pursuit of self-efficacy as he begins to enact a dictatorial behavior over all his domain, berating a wayward milkman, turning an uninterested eye on food, sleep, feelings, or anything else that might get in his way. To get psychological, he blatantly disregards Maslow’s hierarchy of needs leaping straight to the pinnacle.

Meanwhile, his wife is scared stiff. Worried for her husband’s well-being as much as she is for her boy. And yet, if it gets around about mental trouble in the family, there will be no reprieve and so she tries to weather the storm. It becomes a suburban horror tiptoeing along an impossibly sickening tightrope. You couldn’t contrive something more calamitous if you tried.

Would you cope living with an utter tyrant if it meant your spouse and father could go on living? If pain was the only issue, then the answer seems ridiculously simple, but sometimes those conundrums are the most devastating to crack. In fact, it makes me sick in the stomach watching the mental breakdown exacerbate.

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Overwhelmed by his psychosis, Ed begins spouting off scripture, one moment contemptuously, the next clearly intent on following Abraham’s lead by sacrificing his son without a second thought, twisting the words into another perverse commitment. He states his sentiments quite bluntly in one sequence as his wife hopelessly pleads in favor of compassion, “God was wrong.”

Turgid melodramas grow tiresome by the minute, and yet that fails to be the case when a film has far more to offer us whether it be artistry, irony, or social commentary. Equally compelling is a stirring dramatic situation at the core of Bigger Than Life.

Like the best films of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray is able to pull off the histrionics of such a derided mode of filmmaking and allow it to remain enduringly interesting — even resonant today — to the extent possible. Far from wearing it thin, the passage of time makes it seem more horrifying by the hour.

However, as comes with the territory of such ludicrous dramaturgy, it easily becomes a hit or miss proposition. It will go too far for some and for others just far enough to make it compelling. I think I fall in the latter category because this is not just a sitcom episode. It surpasses those rhythms for something more substantial.

In its final moments, Bigger Than Life morphs into a frenzied Hitchcock thriller in a weird, insane way as we watch a banister snap like matchwood in the midst of chaos and a deranged man is caught in a frantic confrontation with his best friend.

And as inauspiciously as it began, it comes to an end like the lingering remnants of a bad dream, resolved and forgotten just as quickly. The status quo falls back into place in the culminating shot and wife and son reaffirm faith in their family unit, cradled in the loving arms of the man of the house.

James Mason is generally remembered as a suave villain, but he proves his merits equally so as a family man gone off the rails. His performance seamlessly hits all these beats that are simultaneously heightened, while still ringing with some note of inner truth. He is a tragic hero of the post-war, suburban age.

All of a sudden, evil comes not from within man himself but from outside stimuli. Though one could easily infer that such behavior indicates the perversity lying dormant, just waiting to be unleashed. It simply takes certain chemical triggers to send him hurtling back toward his darkest inclinations. Regardless, it’s a terrifying portrait of instability in technicolor. Often real-world nightmares are the worst of all.

4.5/5 Stars

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019): Mr. Rogers as The Helper

A_Beautiful_Day_in_the_NeighborhoodAs of late, it feels like the world has entered a bit of a Mr. Roger’s Reinnaissance. He’s been gone since 2003 and yet last year we had Morgan Neville’s edifying documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? There are podcasts galore including Finding Fred and then Mr. Rogers’s words, whether before the Senate Committee or pertaining to scary moments of international tragedy, seem to still provide comfort and quiet exhortation to those in need.

Now to the array we can add A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Although partially fictional, it borrows inspiration from Fred Rogers and his real-life friendship with journalist Tom Junod. Their interview and subsequent meetings became the basis of a front-page spread in Esquire Magazine. That was back in 1998.

Surely, this cannot be a mere chance at publicity. Too much time has passed in this regard for it to make a shred of commercial sense. And yet here we are in 2019 welcoming in yet another tribute to Fred Rogers. The man who taught many of us once upon a time (including this viewer) what it means to realize you are special, that there are ways to deal with feelings, and what a lovely thing it is to be a good neighbor and reach out an inquisitive hand to learn and ask questions.

What Marielle Heller’s gently radical film does well is capturing the spirit of the man. He was always so caring and engaged with others as a listener and concerned friend. There was real intentionality present and a candor toward both children and adults within him. But he was also humble and deferential. These qualities are much admired and somehow so difficult to replicate in our own lives. But the beauty of this portrait is the reminder that no one’s life is picture-perfect.

Lloyd Vogel (Mathew Rhys) is a man with a lot of pent-up, unresolved anger. He’s married now and has a child. But he still holds onto the grief of a beloved mother who died when he was young and an estranged father (Chris Carter) who was never around and is now trying to make an effort at reconciliation in his old age. Lloyd must come to terms with his own issues. But simultaneously his editor has enlisted him to write something out of his comfort zone. It’s an article on a hero: Fred Rogers. Here is the crux of the story.

So Mr. Rogers isn’t necessarily the focal point inasmuch as the film has his fingerprints all over it. In screenwriting terms, he is the helper and in life or film, there is no better title for the man. Because in Lloyd’s own family issues and private hurts, we see a projection of all of us sitting out in the dark.

In fact, just as the man in the red cardigan spoke to us throughout our lives, he’s speaking to Lloyd; he forms a relationship. This is not a television neighbor. He is a cinematic one, but it’s purely semantics because it doesn’t make much difference when Mr. Rogers is concerned. As you might have guessed, he likes Lloyd just the way he is. We witness the man change from a cynical, distant workaholic to someone who is trying to change and reach out to others in love. It’s imperfect, but it’s a start.

Tom Hanks in many ways is too much Tom Hanks for me to lose him in Mr. Rogers and this works out fine. Again, he captures the spirit of the man. As best as can be gathered, it comes down to two integral pieces. First, there is the genuine candor.

The words coming out of his mouth, the salutations, the affirmations, even the words spoken with a puppet on-hand (like Daniel Striped-Tiger) run the risk of sounding insincere and making a joke out of Mr. Rogers. But that would run contrary to the man himself who gave attention and respect to everyone no matter who they were. Thankfully, Hanks extends his subject the same courtesy. The words leaving his lips don’t sound exactly like our television neighbor, but they feel like him.

Equally important, Hanks gets down the rhythm of Mr. Rogers. So much about him comes down to how to utilize time, slowing down and being okay with stillness and silence. Heller aids with one brazenly unassuming scene where Rogers entreats his friend to take a quiet minute (as he famously did at the Emmys) to think about the people who got him there. The movie obliges including a brief cameo of fan favorites Joanne Rogers and David Newell. Again, in 2019 it all feels a bit quaint and yet — if I speak for myself — it’s also appealing.

Here is the man who built his life on disciplines. He woke up early to pray for his acquaintances and read his morning devotionals. He swam daily at his local pool. Letter correspondence was a rich part of his relationships. But they weren’t disciplines for mere discipline’s sake. All these things beget goodness and kindness toward other people. Because Fred followed the greatest rule: Loving others as you love yourself.

Yet the movie points out he wasn’t a saint. Not that there are hidden caveats to his characters. (For the record, he wasn’t a marine and he didn’t have tattoos.) Rather, he was human like each of us, and it is possible to grow in these same skills no matter the skeletons we have in the closet and the messiness under our rugs.

The movie has a couple bizarre dream sequences, but these are Lloyd’s and not Mr. Rogers. They are part of his emotional journey, tapping into his various attributed issues going back into his own childhood and a bit of his mind’s own neighborhood of make-believe.

Otherwise, Heller’s film does well to bring satisfying touches of the original show. There’s that unmistakable tint to the camera on-set that takes me back. That front entryway. The closet. The zip of the zipper. The toss of a shoe.

The script penned by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue uses this familiar format of the program as a comforting window into Lloyd’s story. It allows us back into the world even as it puts us in touch with someone existing in our own.

Miniatures were also always an integral part of the show indicating Mr. Rogers’s home and where he was off to in the neighborhood. The movie entends this by utilizing models to chart the majority of Lloyd’s travels between Pittsburgh and New York. One other unique commute has Lloyd and Mr. Rogers receiving an impromptu serenade of “Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” on the Subway.

Fittingly, music holds such a special place in the film, both the television set sequences and outside its scope. Johnny Costa’s distinct jazz playing always colored and left such memorable accents on the show’s myriad of interludes, whether it was the opening and closing tunes, the skittering of fish, or ready-made trolley sound effects. Mr. Rogers had such a gift for music as well. His compositions and aphorisms were deceptively simple but filled with so many brilliant articulations of content (“Everything mentionable is manageable”).

If they are gauged toward children that’s wonderful. I was struck by “Just Do It” playing over the credits — a less-remembered song I probably hadn’t heard since childhood; it all flooded back in a euphoric moment of recollection. Only as an adult do you begin to realize the impact this man had, how formative a television program could be. We want to write it off and cast off “childish things” and yet give him a second look and you realize how timeless he is. Why else would we be coming back to his well of modest wisdom?

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence, in a landscape that feels more antagonistic, mean-spirited, and divisive than ever, Mr. Rogers feels like a beacon from a happier time. During the film, I thought 400 words were far too short to chronicle the man. Sure enough, Lloyd took 10,000 instead. I would probably be capable of doing much the same. I can only gather many of us have a story about Mr. Rogers and how he impacted us.

For me, it was a photo signed and addressed in his immaculate calligraphy: With kindest regards from Fred Rogers. That was in 2003. He would pass away from stomach cancer in February of that same year. I lost a good friend that day…

When I was frightened after 9/11 he provided reassurance, when I doubted he reenforced my worth, when I didn’t know how to love my neighbor he showed me the way with graciousness. Because the brilliance of Mr. Rogers is how he backed up words and songs with action and feelings of radical affection. I want to be like that. I want us all to be like that. It can still be a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Sometimes we just need a reminder. We are all human. Just like Mr. Rogers. But we’re also special just the way we are.

4/5 Stars

The Curse of The Cat People (1944): The Oddest of Horror Sequels

800px-Curse_of_the_Cat_People_lobby_card.jpgThe Curse of the Cat People feels like entering a storybook only to find ourselves in Tarry Town near Sleepy Hollow. Fittingly, we are placed with a group of kindergarteners who have come with their teacher to frolic and enjoy a field trip to the place brought to life in the tall tales of Washington Irving.

Immediately, this latest Val Lewton production plays to its greatest strengths by melding folk tale, supernatural sensibilities with bits and pieces of our world. The medium through which the picture chooses to work is a little girl named Amy (Ann Carter). She’s a serial daydreamer with her big doe eyes constantly glowing with light. One moment she’s infatuated with a butterfly and an overeager boy obliterates it in his attempts to catch it for her. She proceeds to rear back and slap him across the face.

It’s only her way but the other kids see her as odd and aloof. She’s not like them. With its opening premise in place, it’s safe to say The Curse of the Cat People is one of the strangest sequels for the very fact it has a decent amount to do with its predecessor and yet feels as if we have literally been transposed to a different cinematic world. Also, the name is an utter misnomer.

We have an offshoot taking the basic characters and settings from its predecessor while foregoing normal horror beats for a stranger set of psychological and adolescent themes. It might as well be an entirely standalone film with the urban working environment being replaced with a rural suburbia.

Now our hero from Cat People (1942), Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), has settled down with his wife Alice (Jane Randolph) and his little girl, but parenthood has made him a bit testy. Given the powers previously wreaking havoc on his life, perhaps it’s warranted. He wants to shield Amy from his deceased wife’s fate at any cost. 

But if we look at their current domestic life, it’s fairly sterilized in a way that might quickly become sickening to watch. They go by their three names: “Daddy,” “Mommy,” and “Darling” while their able-bodied, eloquent servant Edward (Sir Lancelot) keeps house. However, this very veneer is set in sharp juxtaposition with forces far more volatile and unnerving — at least at first.

Amy begins to have arcane experiences with the old Farren House where a cantankerous matron resides with her brooding, spectral-like daughter. So if we want to get technical, the movie is really about two families: One seemingly perfect, the other accursed.

On one such visit, Mrs. Farren grips the little girl with the local myths. The recounting of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow all but sweeps us up in a moment of pulse-pounding vigor, in spite of taking place entirely in a single drawing-room. Something about it is so alive and deeply unsettling.

As a defense mechanism, Amy calls out to a phantom who comforts her. We’ve all had invisible companions at one time or another so it’s not a strange request. However, her friend feels far more tangible than any of ours.

Of course, it’s Irena (Simone Simon) the woman her father has never dared tell her about. Besides, Irena is dead. As her parents worry about her mental stability, Amy is comforted by having Irena as a confidante. 

Life continues cheerfully enough. On Christmas, all the most important people in her life get a present. Carolers come by and begin an impromptu chorus of, “Shepherds Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep.” Mommy reminisces about her memories putting on “mummers plays.”

We expect something darkly twisted to invade this holiday conviviality and yet it never comes. What was initially exploited is childish fancy intertwining with this supernatural entity. But everything gives way to a heart-aching sincerity. We come in expecting one twist, and we get an almost anti-twist in its place. Instead of being haunted by demons and cursed things, a young girl makes friends and finds a way to heal wounds through a firm embrace. It turns out this could be an offbeat Christmas classic in some circles. 

The picture strikes this curious tone between obvious markers. Though it makes it maddening to try and categorize — especially for contemporary advertisers — now it plays more like a blessing than a curse. Because we expect something mundane and one dimensional, only to get a surprisingly inventive exploration of childhood and imagination. While we never quite forget we have a minor production on our hands, this Val Lewton-produced effort continues his run of beguiling material.

Taken as a body of work, Lewton’s pictures are bewitching to the very last frame. A young up-and-comer, Robert Wise, would also be called upon to complete the picture. It’s probably an understatement to say it was a humble beginning to an auspicious career. 

3.5/5 Stars

A Tree Grows in Brookyln (1945): The Precursor to I Remember Mama

ATreeGrowsInBrooklyn1945Poster.jpgThe reveries of a Saturday afternoon in childhood are where A Tree Grows in Brooklyn chooses to begin and it proves a fine entry point, giving us an instant feel for the world the Irish neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Its contours are impoverished, even harsh, but also richly American.

There is a mother (Dorothy McGuire) who is practical and ever-resourceful, scrimping and saving to eke by an existence for her family. She faithfully pays her family’s due to the door-to-door insurance man Mr. Barker, who is always ready to sow some juicy gossip around the community.

It occurs to me that Katie Nolan (McGuire) is a precursor to Irene Dunne’s role in I Remember Mama. But there is also a near-callousness that is lacking in the latter part, which is mostly sunshine. In this regard, it gleams with a certain individual truth. Struggling  to make ends meet, Nolan asserts, “My kids are going to be something if I have to turn into granite rock to make them.” She dishes out tough love and makes difficult decisions in what she deems is their best interest — an extension of her undying love for them.

There’s an extraordinary shot showing bickering wives, stories up in their apartments, with clotheslines strung up every which way and a man trying to fix the source of their problems.

Nearby sits the little girl enthralled with her book and you understand first hand the power of the library. Because with the internet, television, and movies we’ve deluded them but, at a certain time, books were a way of escape, of learning, and open avenues to distant places.

Francie (Peggy Ann Garner) is, without question, the emotional center and if we are to extend the earlier juxtaposition further, she is an analogous version of Barbara Bel Geddes’s character in I Remember Mama. We view the memories of the past through their impressionable eyes.

She too is captured by her imagination — the rapturous escapes that stories and music can provide a fanciful mind like hers in the station of life she finds herself in. Francie’s deepest wishes are granted when she is able to attend a fine school where her benign teacher gently cultivates her passions.

The advice passed down to her is empowering as Francie is inspired to be a writer. She must write about the things she knows imbuing them with truth, which can then be dressed up with the whims of her imagination.

It’s true Francie maintains an underlying sweetness and innocence even in the midst of heartache. For instance, there is the annual Christmas ritual retrieving discarded trees and boy do the kiddies bring home a whopper. Its presence alone puts some yuletide cheer and the smell of evergreen into their holidays.

It only takes such a minor yet meaningful Christmas scene to humble us in our modern tendencies so that we realize how off-base our modern celebrations are. These folks have nothing and yet to look into their eyes you see such contentment in the singing of a song and quality time spent together.

However, the most debilitating ideology in the film is the concept of neverending cycles — believing the lie that change is impossible and things will never be different. Because already you have a self-fulfilling prophecy. We see it most obviously in the marriage of Francie’s parents.

Johnny Nolan is an ebullient father bred on dreams and singing. There’s always a song in his heart whether “Swanee River” or “Sweet Molly Malone” and unfortunately, for the sake of his family, a bottle in his hand. His daughter memorializes him aptly, “He had nothing to give but himself but this he gave generously like a king.”

The words stand tall and true. To my mind, I have not seen such a compelling father finger as Johnny Nolan in some time and the reasons are as obvious as his flaws. He’s an alcoholic. He makes promises he can never keep. He’s practically useless when it comes to providing for his family. And yet through all his shortcomings shines a light of generosity and geniality that positively warms the cockles of our heart. We cannot condemn him without loving him just as deeply. There you have the testament of a truly impactful character.

Aunt Sissy (Joan Blondell) proves another bright spot in the film and her vivacity, much like her brother-in-law’s, injects the film with a buoyancy making us grow fond of them even as their flaws are laid fully bare. Sissy has her own struggles holding onto a marriage with a couple of husbands already coming and going. Her escapades leave her baby sister shaking her head and hoping to shield her kids. And yet even Aunt Sissy has her admirable qualities.

The local police officer Mr. McShane (Lloyd Nolan) walks his beat with a quiet integrity, disregarding any stereotypes of policemen and fashions them into compassionate people the world could probably use more of. Meanwhile, kind old Mr. McGarrity (James Gleason) heaps neighborly generosity on the Nolan’s in an effort to help the overextended Mrs. Nolan make ends meet.  It’s the benevolent spirits in the film who are quietly memorable.

Too blinded by the resonating sentiments, I failed to see the obvious denouement of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which nevertheless proves deeply satisfying. As its title suggests, out of death and decay can grow new hope. It comes from hardy stock and dutiful cultivation, which all seem integral to the American way of life.

For me, it’s almost unthinkable to think the man who played a small part as Googie in City for Conquest only 5 years letter would alight on a directorial career that shook Hollywood over and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. He brought us Brando and Dean, conquered stage and screen and left an indelible mark on film acting forever. Of course, we’re talking about Elia Kazan and here he has his first prominent muse Dorothy McGuire (a founding member of the La Jolla Playhouse) who is often an unsung star fitting as she’s playing an unsung heroine

It seems a fitting entry point into Kazan’s career as it is an immigrant story and he came from such a family. It makes no difference that he wasn’t Irish because we can surmise the essence is much the same. He believes in the American dream no doubt and the love and integrity that can see people through the turbulence of life.

However, perhaps the most striking acknowledgment has to do with the fact this story does not thrive on intensity — one might see that as being a marker of Kazan’s most noted works — it’s tenderness mostly. But then if you stop a moment and think of Brando slipping on the glove belonging to Evie (Eva Marie Saint) or James Dean crying to his father (Raymond Massey), you realize he never lost those sentiments. What made his films was the real emotions that reach out to us. He never allowed for those sensations to waver. There you have an integral element of his success.

4/5 Stars

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

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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)

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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 watermark 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, particularly The Bicycle Thieves, especially in the context of this film.

He’s shown it before but Kore-eda exposes us to a different stratum 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 counter-cultural 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 so remarkable indications of 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. Similarly, because they have little welfare or funds, the elderly often take up menial jobs just to survive in their old age. Fewer and fewer people are getting married. The population in Japan is slowly 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 pleasure. 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 neo-realist 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, 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 there 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 entirely. 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, non-confrontational 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