Hell to Eternity (1960): The Story of Guy Gabaldon

Helltoetpos.jpgAs someone of Japanese-American heritage, it’s become a personal preoccupation of mine to search out films that in some way represent the lives of my grandparents and their generation. This means the rich Issei and Nisei communities of Los Angeles, the subsequent internment camps, and even the famed 442nd Infantry Battalion.

Obviously, Hollywood has always had a complicated history with minorities, mirroring broader historical context. Thus, the opening images of Hell to Eternity feel like a bit of a surreal pipe dream — something I’ve looked for a long time and finally discovered. You almost have to pinch yourself into believing the industry actually made this movie.

A young punk (Richard Eyer) and his friend (George Matsui) stare down a trio of thugs who look ready for a fight. Its fitting proof Phil Karlson’s bloody knuckles aesthetic can enter the schoolyard as the two battling adolescence are pulled apart by their physical education instructor (George Shibata)

Japanese-Americans and their culture play a rich and integral part in this biography of celebrated war hero Guy Gabaldon. No, he was not one of them, but he might as well be. Coming from a broken home, his only place to turn is the Une family who gladly welcomes him into their home.

In some small regard, these scenes play out quaintly if not altogether conventional. Guy begins to pick up Japanese quickly and even teaches his benevolent “mama-san” a few terms by pointing to objects around the house. Despite, the stilted acting and out-and-out authenticity aside, the images themselves are powerful. And some background is in order on multiple accounts.

We have George Shibata who was the first Japanese-American graduate out of West Point. Then, Tsuru Aoki was one of the premier stars of the Silent Era even before Sessue Hayakawa. But the connections run deeper still because due to their Hollywood roots and the anti-miscegenation laws at the time, Aoki and Hayakawa wedded and remained married until her death in 1961.

The slightly older George is played by an extremely youthful George Takai. Meanwhile, there’s further Japanese-American representation in Papa-san, Bob Okazaki, and the likes of Reiko Sato and Miiko Taka.

It should be noted the Unes are some sort of amalgam of the real-life Nakano family whose son Lane fought in the 442nd and later become a short-lived actor in the likes of Go For Broke! and Japanese War Bride (1953). All of these basic details are based on fact.

However, with this necessary context in tow, it’s about time to turn our attention to the man himself who held such a unique background in his own right. Because make no mistake, Guy Gabaldon is certainly worthy of the biopic treatment even if a picture like this can’t quite do the man justice. That’s fine.

Although what it develops into is an unwieldy drama and having Jeffrey Hunter portray Gulbadon is one of the most hilarious examples of overstated Hollywood casting.  It feels like having John Wayne play Audie Murphy. However, what Hunter lacks in similar likeness and physique, he more than makes up for by capturing the resiliency of his subject. He offers believable candor and the embodiment of American exceptionalism.

Allied Artists was a B movie mill and Hell for Eternity was their wealthiest, most expansive undertaking to date, with their number one moneymaker on assignment: industry workhorse Phil Karlson. In one sense, Karlson seems well-equipped for some elements and then woefully disadvantaged for others.

Hell to Eternity proves itself to be wildly uneven because without jumping the gun, the opening scenes are quietly revolutionary and truly unprecedented when you consider Hollywood’s track record. Then, there’s a shift as his family is unceremoniously shipped out to internment camps, and you have Guy rushing to every branch of the service only to be rebuffed at every turn. Still, his remarkable qualifications — namely his Japanese abilities — gain him an in-road.

We also have the introduction of his buddies. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Sergeant Bill Hazen (David Janssen) proves himself to be an intense adversary and an even fiercer companion. As they foster mutual respect and camaraderie, it becomes evident he’s the type of buddy you want in your corner. And if he’s too intense, the swinging, snapping, undulating lady’s man, Junior (Vic Damone), more than brings the party.

It’s around this time where the film reimagines itself as what could easily be considered an entirely different movie. The midpoint in Hawaii has them left entirely to their own devices with one glorious night of freedom out on the town before they ship out. Not to be disappointed, they are treated to a titillating striptease show, courtesy of Sato, with the steamy hot jazz cutting through the night. The men cheer on the women with a rueful round of inebriated leering.

Where does this all end? How does this tie into Guy Gulbandon’s story; in short, it doesn’t. What does happen is the softening of the so-called “Iron Petticoat,” a woman journalist, who has gained notoriety for her prudish ways. It’s by far the most cringe-worthy sequence as Ms. Lincoln (Patricia Owens) lets her hair down, as it were.

What follows is a barrage of lingering shots over heels, tights, legs — you get the salacious idea — and from a distance, we can admit to it being fairly risque for the 1960s. It becomes amusement for their entire company. The woman’s impregnable defenses have finally been conquered. Whatever that means.

However, with a few abrupt cuts the whole meaning of these scenes is almost salvaged. Effectively, there is no interim. We get thrown directly into the campaign and their wild bender of an evening is only a distant memory as they cut their way across the shores toward the enemy embankments.

Even as Karlson isn’t able to make every crosscut of action fundamentally compelling, he’s far more in his element amid the volatility and constant barrage of bullets and bodies. What felt initially so quietly groundbreaking and devolved into needless exhibitionism, finally settles into his forte.

Here he can dig knee-deep into the nitty-gritty and give us something that packs a wallop. Hell to Eternity is a lot less sanitized than I would have surmised, especially given its era. However, there is no mincing when it comes to what we are privy to on the simulated battlefield. He capably mobilized thousands of extras from Okinawa for some of the most spectacular scenes where the large scale is matched with tumultuous elements of very intimate trauma.

And even as the skirmishes settle into a kind of chaotic equilibrium, Galbadon — using his Japanese skills — earns his moniker as the “Pied Piper of Taipei.” Using the talents he’s been gifted by his incredible upbringing, he does his best to coax the already cowed but testy enemy to surrender using their native tongue.

The one figurehead emblematic of the proud foe is portrayed by Sessue Hayakawa, emulating his similar role from Bridge on the River Kwai as a derisive Japanese officer. Once Galbadon can conquer him, he’s all but won the fight behind enemy lines. More than anything, I’m disappointed in the fact that we never circle back around to his adopted family nor the exploits of his brothers. Still, for more context, Go For Broke! plays as a decent companion piece about the 442nd.

So although it’s an imperfect and often befuddling vehicle, Guy Gulbadon was a hero more than worthy of a biopic. Regardless of any faults, Hell to Eternity is bristling with not only action but specific depictions of a historical time and place that often remain overshadowed in Hollywood to this day. It’s been one of my missions to discover more representations of Japanese-Americans in American cinema, and in this regard, Hell to Eternity is a stirring success. It can’t help but be groundbreaking even in spite of its unassuming nature. I look up at the screen and there’s a personal connection.

3.5/5 Stars

Drums Along The Mohawk (1939): Ford, Fonda, and Colbert

Drumsalongthemohawk.jpgRecently, it’s come to my attention there is really is a dearth of colonial America pictures between the likes of Disney’s Johnny Tremain and Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. The reasons seem somewhat obvious at least in the current day and age. Period pieces cost money and such material feels crusty unless you spice it up with ingenuity a la Hamilton.

For anyone who might want a dose of debatably historical entertainment, there’s Drums Along The Mohawk. Because what it cannot claim in the realm of accuracy, it more than makes up for with the usual shading of classic Hollywood reined in by a consummate professional directorial eye like John Ford’s.

This particular narrative begins with a newly wedded couple in Colonial America Lana (the always glamorous Claudette Colbert) and Gil (a severe-looking Henry Fonda). The ceremony takes place in a grand estate, and it’s true Lana comes from a wealthy family. In this regard, it’s easy to buy Colbert in this part given her image and even easier to comprehend her dismay when she is met with the stone-cold reality of frontier life.

Because, as it happens, Gil has sectioned off a plot of land near the Mohawk River, building a rudimentary log cabin just to get them started as they get on their feet as farmers. For his wife, it’s a shock to the system with the pelting rain and a late-night visit by the generally benevolent Native American: Blueback.

Fresh off their honeymoon, they make the acquaintance of the dubious John Carradine with allegiance to the Tories, matched by veiled threats of a potential Indian uprising. Otherwise, all the rest of the local folks are amicable, welcoming the Martins into their tight-knit community with open arms.

Like any God-fearing populous, they have church on Sundays and a ragtag militia carried away by the “Spirit of ’76.” It proves inconsequential when their homes get ravaged and razed to the ground by marauding Indians, an admittedly faceless tribe, catalyzed by a loyalist.

Until this point, Along The Mowhawk is not altogether compelling, despite our director and leads. However, it settles into its own when our protagonists have nothing; it forces them to make a crucial decision. They seek refuge on the farm of a blunt widow with enough gumption (and covert kindness) to make a new life seem feasible.

The word from the church pulpit is the most hilarious foray in comedy as the preacher takes a dig at Massachusetts men and notes the battle at hand, meaning that all men are expected to report or else be hung! He ends it with a resounding Amen. It’s old-time religion if there ever was such a thing, complete with an earsplitting “Hallelujah” from one of the good Christians.

A worthy image in the Ford catalog comes when the men march off in their column snaking down the dirt road, off into the distance, with the womenfolk watching them leave. It has the tangible sense of space — the assurance of a painting — informing the best pictorials of the director. The simplest measure of excellence is the fact it’s pleasing to the eye.

But of course, when soldiers go off to war some die and the rest come back as changed men. We recall the horror, the almost shell-shocked nature, of war.  Henry Fonda plainly detailing what they saw out in the thicket when they got ambushed is too real. You begin to remember this is right on the advent of WWII. WWI is still a heavy burden on America’s mind as the war to end all wars.

Within the context of this film, it becomes an even more complicated comparison when you place the antagonism of Americans versus The British of the colonial era with the soon-to-be conflict between Britain and The Nazis. In fact, Ford seems to make a distinction between calling the enemy “Tories” versus the British. In 200 years allegiances have changed a great deal.

However, it wouldn’t be a true Ford picture without folks kicking up their heels in a fit of merriment to fight off the dark tides with a joyful show of community. Ward Bond gets his finest moments opposite Mrs. McKlennar, calling into question her prowess in drinking and kissing. She gaily obliges. Meanwhile, in a lowly lit corner, Lana prays these good times might never end. Of course, they do.

Homes are burnt to the ground again. The townsfolk are forced to fall back to their fort to stave off the enemy onslaught in one valorous stand. It feels like a melding of apocryphal American Revolution history, “Remember The Alamo” sentiment and a moderate dose of Ford’s own mythologizing about the frontier. It’s not his very best, but there is a basic flare for the spectacle.

If we might try to encapsulate the reverberating theme to the last line, it would be fitting to evoke Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene who is quoted as saying, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Ford’s film reinforces this as being the American way. The only question remains who really gains the right to this way of life.

3.5/5 Stars

Story of The Last Chrysanthemum (1939): A Traditional Japanese Epic

The_Story_of_the_Last_Chrysanthemum.jpgAkira Kurosawa is obviously known for samurai pictures — the famed chambara genre  — and Yasjiro Ozu is most sedulous when it comes to the relational bonds between parents and children in Japanese society. However, in some sense, of the so-called “Big-Three,” it is Kenji Mizoguchi who is most obviously attached to the Japanese tradition. I mean this in the way his visual style fluidly mirrors the range of Japanese arts.

The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a fascinating portrait because as with any early picture from a forthcoming master, it bears some of the marks that would come to define his career at its most sublime. Due to its availability, the subject matter, and the cinematography, it’s quite seamless to arrive at this extrapolation. Because this is a story set in the past and borrowing liberally from kabuki culture.

It’s also convenient to liken many of the uninterrupted takes to a constantly unfurling scroll. The art form obviously has deep roots in Japanese culture and Mizoguchi uses his camera in a similar manner to capture actions. The setups feel complex, especially for the day and age. Even with a print that proved less than stellar, there’s no ignoring the meticulous nature of the shots marked by invention and a highly novel mise-en-scene.

The beauty of these observations is that the director would only continue to evolve and mature with time. Staying away from close-ups means there’s this continual conveyance of a certain amount of distance. It’s not necessarily about not having an intimate relationship with the material, instead, it feels much more like we are given license to take in everything. We are given a very concrete position as a viewer ruminating in a piece of art.

I think of Ozu as being a master interior filmmaker. Much of the same might be said of his contemporary, though their methods are different. There is, of course, the prominent use of dolly shots you would never find in the other’s work. There is also a fluidity and a movement to Mizoguchi’s work, which nevertheless, should never be confused with the dynamicism of Kurosawa. It stands on its own individuality.

At the center of our story is a young stage performer named Kikunosuke, who is the adopted son of a famed actor and a hopeless performer hardly worthy of the family name. Everyone criticizes him behind his back: geishas, fellow actors, even his own father.

What’s worse, few are willing to give him the truth, instead offering him empty encouragement and stroking his ego. In fact, he’s only popular because of his bloodline; all the naysayers contemptuously note he’s riding on the coattails of his father’s glory. As a result, they’re either jealous of his good fortune or intent on using him to get ahead.

It frustrates him, rightfully so, and he wants to leave them all behind. Except there is one individual who is different: a young woman. Fittingly, Mizoguchi uses a fascinating shot to introduce their relationship. The woman stands, holding her charge, an infant child in her arms. They cross paths and begin to walk with one another. However, it’s the most curious perspective almost as we are in a trench following along as the man and woman have a normal walk-and-talk.

Otoku is the only person who will tell it to him straight and even this is indirect — merely hinted at. In English, we might call her a church mouse, the subservient one who is subsequently the only character bearing any sense. She goes ever further in her bashful yet concerted effort to encourage him. One day he might be something. It’s alright to enjoy the pleasures of life, but he is an artist and he should appreciate and hone his art.

Her behavior is scandalous in others’ eyes. Her indiscretions are deemed impertinent as she has forgotten her place in a rigid society. The young woman is subsequently dismissed from her post leaving the young master stricken with anxiety.

In fact, he does everything in his power to track her down, and he does. The striking part is how he is all but ready to renounce his family name, which in any culture is the ultimate insult, but in Japan, it’s even harsher. Family is everything. The fact he is adopted is a lingering embarrassment. He resolves to make his own way.

Life begins anew on the road, kicking around in another theater, then a traveling troupe. 4 years are cruelly lost with a title card transition. The road has been a hard taskmaster making the man resentful and callous. His wife now is still a genial spirit, but he is struggling to love her as he did before. All he has is bitterness, thanks to a constricting life he cannot break out of.

However, he receives one final chance at redemption, thanks to the behind door pleading of his faithful wife. She’s so devoted to him and his career, in fact, she’s prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Analogous themes can be gleaned from the likes of Ozu and Naruse, but there’s no neglecting how central they seem to Mizoguchi’s entire oeuvre. There is no way to ignore their primacy throughout.

Kabuki is rarely shown in full motion — the behind the scenes drama is more pertinent — and when it is shown, in the climactic performance, it lacks gravitas. It is one of the few moments Last Chrysanthemums’ length does seem to catch up with it. However, in admitting my own inadequacies, this could admittedly speak more to my ignorance of kabuki than the actual merit of the sequences.

What strikes me is the overt implications. Kikunosuke is finally the success he always hoped to be. And yet, without his guiding light, success means nothing. Even as there is this implied sense of sacrifice for the sake of loved ones, one is bound to ask, at what cost?

Only two years after Stella Dallas, we have much the same weight in a sacrificial relationship. This one feels even more scalding given Japan’s deep traditions of submission and subjugation of women. 

At a substantial 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a lugubrious epic but artfully done on all accounts. I look forward to seeing a better print in the future because the masters deserve only the best treatment. There’s no question Mizoguchi deserves such distinction.

4/5 Stars

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Rejected Cornerstone

hunchback of notre dame 1.png

Note: This post was originally written a few days after the Notre Dame fire on April 15th, 2019.

“All over France, in every city there stand cathedrals like this one, triumphant monuments of the past. They tower over the homes of our people like mighty guardians keeping alive the invincible faith of the Christian. Every arch, every column, every statue is a carved leaf out of our history.” Harry Davenport as King Louis XI

We often say rather facetiously “if only these walls could talk,” referring to those hallowed grounds imbued with a history of ages gone by, whether they reach near or far into the past. However, it’s necessary to acknowledge, with a place such as Notre Dame de Paris, such an aphorism rings true. It takes on resonant meaning the very week I write this.

Only a few days ago, this landmark of Paris (even preceding the Eiffel Tower) was stricken by a fire that ran rampant, even torching the iconic central spire, so it came crashing down. Given the context and what this structure stands for — even as implied by this film — it’s no small surprise the news grieved, not simply an entire nation, but the world-at-large.

It is part of the reason I desired to watch this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s lauded novel. It is a bit of a memorial, but also an act of solidarity. We need to remember these bastions of history because they carry so much worthwhile beauty within their walls.

As would have it, this version of the famed Parisian tale begins with the two pillars of authority within the film, rather like the towers of Notre Dame themselves, albeit one good and the other bad. The King (Harry Davenport) is an open-minded, bright-eyed, and benevolent ruler, who looks at advancements like the printing press with only mild amusement. He sees no harm in the people being able to spread ideas.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Frollo (Cedrick Hardwicke), is the local judge and arbiter over the judiciary system. To mollify the production codes, he was changed from a religious hypocrite to a far more secular villain as his behavior is unbecoming a man of the cloth. Disney’s version would rectify this minor faux pas and yet for the longest time, this tweak went all but unnoticed. The sentiments and moral dilemmas work out much the same. Likewise, there’s little doubting the weight of the other performances in this version.

Like A Tale of Two Cities or Les Mis, both adapted throughout 1930s Hollywood, the palpable world being constructed here is one of the most prominent assets of this period piece. I might be biased toward these literary adaptations of old. They certainly are not faithful distillations of their sources; they’re processed through the mechanism of Classic Hollywood, and yet they never cease to amaze me for the sheer amount of atmospheric world they are able to put forth on the screen.

Case and point is the initial street carnival hitting the audience full-on with a flurry of activity, gaiety, and sensory overload in every area. There’s no way to fill in all the background with computerized extras or scenery and so what you see is what you get, from a mass of cackling gypsies to a giant hog on a spit, to all sorts of medieval dunces, stilt walkers, and street performers milling about. It’s true such an arena would be impeccable for a fruit fight and of course, there is one.

Charles Laughton’s turn as Quasimoto is a highpoint in an illustrious career because he willfully commits to the character in all of his outward ugliness and ostracization, while still endowing him with the tenderness dwelling therein.

At times, it’s a near-silent performance, which makes it potentially more compelling — so much is left to posture and expressions — the nuances of behavior speak volumes on his behalf. Dialogue might turn into a crutch for other characters, but very rarely for him. His words — when used at all — are chosen carefully and, thus, there is a meaning behind them well worth considering.

hunchback of notre dame 2.png

For the day and age, there is arguably no better lass to portray Esmerelda than Maureen O’Hara as youthful, fiery, and supernally beautiful as she is in this very moment. Whether she’s a convincing gypsy or not, it’s easy enough to believe she draws the admiring eye of nearly every mortal man.

So many eligible (and not-so-eligible) men vie for the affections of the striking, thoughtful, free-spirit. She is smitten with the handsome Captain of the Guards: Phoebus (Alan Marshal), who returns her favor. Another is the scorned poet Pierre Gringoire played by an initially unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien, due to the utter youthfulness of his features. Quasimoto harbors his own crush on the pretty maiden, though his is not the only unrequited love.

Frollo, as painted here, is no Disney villain — harsh and corrupt he may be — but there is something buried there to feel sorry for, even as his soul is twisted up inside. Tormented by an infatuation he cannot seem to quell. Ultimately, what remains is his vindictive polemic against gypsies and anyone he deems to be pernicious to his self-prescribed social order.

Here the narratives channels this undercurrent of Aryan prejudice sweeping the European landscape, this heavy strain of anti-Semitism that, ironically, brought a plethora of talent to Hollywood. The parallels are too overt not to comment upon. It goes to show how the social climate of the time cannot be completely stripped away from material which, while timeless, also has striking ties to the contemporary moment.

On a lighter note, what better vagabond to be King of the Hall of Miracles than the one and only Thomas Mitchell. His year would yield performances in a staggering five movies — all of them classics — including Gone with The Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, and this film. What’s more astounding is the consideration that this might be the weakest of all the pictures he was in! One can never discount the inevitable shadings of color he adds to any ensemble.

The Christ metaphors with Quasimoto are also blatantly clear. He is crowned the King of the people on the first day only to be ridiculed and mocked in the streets the next. He is the scapegoat, taking on all the people’s ills, grievances, and malevolence upon his head. Even the local leaders, as reflected by Frollo, look down on him in disdain and utter malice. So Quasimoto’s station in life is that of a total outcast, despised by everyone.

There is only one person who has pity on him and it is, of course, Esmerelda. She showed it before, marrying the poet to save him from hanging, and this is her second act of goodness. The wheels of justice can be harsh as she is sentenced to death, based on the bleatings of a Goat named Aristotle. The logic used is not unlike Witches sinking during the Salem trials. Her innocence falls on deaf ears, not as a result of clanging bells, but instead, even harder hearts.

There is a certain gravitas with the young vision of beauty bowed on the steps of the cathedral, awaiting her execution. The lingering essence is very much the same to Dreyer’s seminal masterwork Joan of Arc. A figure of such common virtue subjected to such ignominy on such a grand scale.

Again, the Christ-like metaphors cannot be dismissed as yet another martyr is unfairly condemned for practicing witchcraft. It takes one outcast rescuing another and seeking sanctuary in the house of God. While it might seem an antiquated tradition, there is something impactful about the walls of Notre Dame being a haven to all who call upon them.

The final storming of the cathedral feels more like disastrous miscommunication than a fully-fledged battle for the heart and soul of the city. Regardless, the last note is a resounding one. Esmeralda ends up with her man. Quasimoto, in a realistic development, despite being a hero, is forced to carry on his life of solitude.

Though he might not be the most prominent feature of Notre Dame de Paris, it becomes increasingly apparent he is like the cornerstone  — a vital component — mostly rejected and forgotten by the world around him. He did everything out of deep, abiding love, requited or not. Much the same might be said of Laughton’s performance. The whole story falls apart without him, and he handles each scene with his usual aplomb and theatrical bearing.

4/5 Stars

Rachel and The Stranger (1948): Indentured Servitude

Rats1948.jpg

It becomes increasingly apparent Rachel and The Stranger is a peculiar little movie that would have no place in the modern landscape, and not simply because RKO Studios is no longer in existence. It feels like arguably its biggest star is off-screen more than he is on because he was probably in at least 3 or 4 other pictures in the same year. When he is present, Robert Mitchum is altogether jolly, always wandering into the story with a guitar and a song on his lips. It’s a slightly different iteration from the rogues he was normally called on to play.

Likewise, Loretta Young isn’t her usual effervescent self for much of the picture, made to look dowdy and such given the territory. These were the days before William Holden had yet to come into his own. He’s likable in a movie like Apartment for Peggy or here, but he hardly has a voice. There’s nothing alive and individual about what he brings to the part. He’s not yet a romantic heartthrob, and he doesn’t have his cultivated sardonic edge.

Mind you, this is all before even getting to the content at hand. Because Rachel and the Stranger concerns itself with subject matter we rarely see in Hollywood either. Rather than consider it a conventional western, it’s more of a colonial drama taking on the pioneering days of the likes of Natty Bumppo and Davy Crockett.

David Harvey has just recently lost his wife to some unnamed affliction. He is comforted by his friend Jim Fairways (Robert Mitchum), even as he is faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of raising his son Davy (Gary Gray) on the harsh frontier with some element of civility. To uphold the honor of his wife, he wants to impress upon his boy the importance of education, praying before meals, and such puritan disciplines.

He knows he’s not able to give that to the boy as his own know-how is all of a practical nature, about survival out in the wilderness. The only alternative is to find a suitable wife, not a romantic partner, but someone who might be a good maternal presence in young Davy’s life. As women are scarce, David finds the next best thing in Rachel.

Historically, a step before mail order brides, there was something even more archaic: indentured servitude. This is before the chattel system of African slaves when we had another outdated economy where people were beholden to others to pay off debts. So David buys Rachel from her previous owner so she might fulfill the surrogate duties of a mother. One is led to inquire, “How in the world did Loretta Young end up as a bondservant, to begin with?”

As is all but expected, there are growing pains and chafing as Davy is unimpressed by this woman who is a shadow of his own mother’s talents when it comes to shooting guns and running a home. But Rachel has a will to prove herself and earn their undying respect.

In one sense, it’s somewhat difficult to consider the story soberly, given how the material plays, but Susan is quite a unique character, especially given the time period. Her point of view is typically unsung and unseen. For this reason alone it’s a slightly intriguing proposition.

The story escalates gradually with the men fighting over the woman. Because when Jim drifts back into their lives as he has a habit of doing, he brings out contours of Rachel they have never seen before. Her love of music. The warmth of her smile. Laughter. David realizes she is far more than he gave her credit for, and her personality is far more intricate than he ever took the time to find out.

However, this ensuing battle also asks the implicit question, “What say does she have in the turn of events?” If we wanted to use more current vernacular, we would need to consider her personal agency. Thankfully, she has a moment to fight back with a few choice words of her own.

The tone changes completely with a midnight onslaught by some militant Shawnee out on the warpath. It’s as if we needed a reminder of where our setting is. It does its job by blowing over the tiff between friends. It puts it in perspective so they can start afresh with a new lease on life. For once, this is a story about husband and wife — not man and servant.

True, there’s a controversial verse from the Old Book that reads, “Wives submit to your husbands” just as another entreats, “slaves obey your masters.” But there is a flip side to these seemingly patriarchal ordinances. Husbands are told to love their wives, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Then, “masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”

David Harvey without question is familiar with these words. This movie is an exercise of him grappling with the weight of their meaning, just as it is a tale of a woman coming into her own as a beautiful, unique individual.

3/5 Stars

7 Women (1966): John Ford’s Final Film

7 Women.png

7 Women is an oddity that nevertheless deserves a more prominent reputation. Here we have the inauspicious final film of John Ford, becoming the capstone to a career spanning decades and plenty of classics.

However, there’s no John Wayne in this picture nor western panoramas. Nevertheless, it sticks with you and delivers a considerable drama chock full of immense potentials in such a short span of time.

The story takes place in, of all places, a Christian mission situated in China near the Mongolia border. The year is 1935. Though the territory has some protection, there is still a world of feudal violence brooding around this stronghold of Christian virtue.

The religious subtext alone has enough thematic intrigue to keep the story continuously intriguing. On top of this, you stack the rather unusual circumstances (both then and now) of having an entire cast stacked with top tier women performers.

What sets the picture apart is how it becomes a kind of battleground for morality as people of different breeds chafe against each other, further exacerbated by the harrowing backdrop all around them.

Miss Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) runs her compound with puritanical virtue that would be off-putting if there were anyone to stand up against her. Instead, all her cohorts take her pharisee-like fervor benevolently because they share faith in the same God.

Among them is the right-hand Miss Argent always prepared to pay her services.  Sue Lyon is able to subvert her image as a youthful seductress in Lolita for that of an angelic missionary, who is taken under Andrew’s wing. She leads the orphans in renditions of “Jesus Loves Me” and is a sheltered young woman of genuine faith.

Eddie Albert feels strangely cast as a teacher — especially since it’s the Green Acres era — but bless his soul, he’s still as wonderful as ever. He could do it all, and he’s the perfect counterpoint to all the women in his stead, including his peckish wife, the pregnant Florrie (Betty Field).

Their lives could very easily continue in relative peace if not for the arrival of a lady doctor named Cartwright (Anne Bancroft as a last-minute replacement for Patricia Neal). It becomes apparent all too quickly she is the utter antithesis of all that Miss Andrews aspires for her immaculate city on a hill to stand for.

They immediately have it out over everything from cigarettes at a dinner table (ironic for a doctor who is supposed to care for the human body) and the liberal use of coarse language unbecoming a woman. They very much represent two distinct worldviews, and they have an impasse. Dr. Cartwright won’t agree to be shipped out; she has a job to look after Florrie’s baby, while her employer isn’t about to let her camp become a house of sin.

Her protests are final, noting the good doctor will never fit into “a Christian community,” and she takes this as a personal affront, asking the impressionable Emma if she wants to live in Dr. Cartwright’s world.

Admittedly, her points aren’t entirely unfounded as their new apothecary proclaims spiritually is dead because she’s never seen God take care of anyone. It’s the pragmatic truth as she sees it but to such an ardent zealot as Miss Andrews, these are blasphemous words.

While Ford never strikes me as a persistently religious figure, he was raised Catholic and his pictures from 3 Godfathers and The Quiet Man to 7 Women do provide portraits of different figures of the faith. This is arguably the most robust conversation, a heavy indictment of holier-than-thou morality versus actual sacrificial lives lived out of love.

7 Women 2.png

If all this back and forth is playing out in the foreground, the background begins to heat up with word of marauders ravaging the territory.  Miss Andrews’ own hypocrisy is laid to bear when missionaries from differing denominations (among them Anna Lee) are begrudgingly allowed asylum.

At least Dr. Cartwright is a straight-shooter. It’s when the real crisis strikes, true character is always revealed. Our suspicions are confirmed as the real heroes come out of the woodwork.

When the compound is overtaken by cholera and drastic measures are in order, the Dr. takes charge for the sake of everyone. Then, the local Chinese garrison flees, leaving them as sitting ducks. It’s inevitable. The feared Warlord Tunga Khan will soon be on their doorstep.

What we don’t know are the results of this impending invasion. To its credit, 7 Women does not spare us from the senseless killing; it is a horrible feeling to know no life is sacred in a film. Those who are spared are locked away to watch the bloodshed.

Mike Mazurski and all his Mongolian cronies are the film’s one obvious blind spot. It’s a moment where the film acts its age. And yet even underneath this apparent flaw, you have this strange counter-story as if in an alternate reality Woody Strode, former UCLA star, is going head to head against Mazursky who was himself a professional wrestler. It’s this weird subtext that’s strangely riveting as they battle for control of this rowdy assemblage of bandits.

With time, Miss Andrews becomes completely unhinged spouting off scripture and losing all pretense of a peaceful, righteous figure. She finally gets put in her place by one of her closest companions. (“What right have you to shout abuse behind our celibate walls”). She sees the Pharisee for who she is.

Again, it is the heathen — the woman of the world — who shows wells of affection when it comes to protecting the weak and the helpless and even those who despise her guts. There is another verse pertinent to her character, redeemed as she is, in her unapologetic profaneness. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The actions are what speak on her behalf.

In her final hour, Ford christens Bancroft with what should be remembered as an iconic doorway shot all her own because she knows what she has done, sacrificing herself for everyone, ready to drink the cup of wrath.

She goes out as fiery as she came in. In fact, Anne Bancroft kills it, despite Ford christening her with the rather unflattering moniker of “The Maid of Monotone.” This movie would lose so much fury without her husky heart and soul at its core.

The 7 Women is a fitting final twist in an illustrious career. In a mountain of westerns revolving around men’s men where only a few sturdy lasses on par with Maureen O’Hara were ever able to break in, Ford goes and makes a film populated with women.

What’s even more rewarding is how much there is to cull through. While it might have unceremoniously become the bookend of Ford’s career, it’s no less of an achievement. Taking stock of everything, it’s a criminally underseen gem that adds yet another compelling contour to the old coot’s already complex career in Hollywood.

Once asked in an interview about his favorite picture of Jean Renoir, Ford always the eloquent elocutionist responded curtly, “I like all of them.” We certainly can attribute this to the usual irascibility of the director, but it seems like a fitting way to consider his own work.

While pictures like Stagecoach and The Searchers get their due, even an offering like 7 Women, seemingly minor, taken as part of a broader career, is still full of Ford himself. “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” could not be further from the truth.

With Ford, it’s like each individual picture is giving you another side of him; artistically and thematically he is a part of these movies. The images speak on his behalf. All the better for someone so notoriously difficult to pin down. Look at his films if you want to know the man.

4/5 Stars

A Special Day (1977) with Loren & Mastroianni

a special day.jpgThe film opens with newsreel footage delivered to us in an undoctored format effectively presenting us a view into the past. It is the momentous (some would say fateful) day Adolf Hitler made his triumphant visit to see Benito Mussolini in Italy.

The year is 1938. And it has all the pomp, circumstance, military exhibitions, and blind nationalism one comes to expect with such historical depictions. Director-screenwriter Ettore Scola elects to give us the past instead of totally constructing a version of it. Because that is not what his film is about.

Even to consider Fellini’s farcical take on fascism in Amarcord, complete with swooning beauties and talking Mussolini faces in flowers, A Special Day couldn’t be more divergent. It works and operates in a much smaller more confined space, serving its purposes just fine. As the movie itself opens, we are immediately met with the most confounding of palettes — an ugly clay-colored hue — hardly the best for drawing on fond memories. In fact, it’s utterly unappealing.

This is not a criticism, mind you, because the pervading drabness is another calculated creative decision. What it provides is a very concrete articulation of the world. Furthermore, without committing to the broader context, Scola is able to focus his attentions on one building.

So yes, there is this huge cultural event with a gravitational pull dragging everyone out of the house in droves to celebrate with patriotic fervor. Everyone wants to see the Fuhrer and Il Duce for themselves. But this is all pretense, again, serving the smaller, more intimate scale of the film. It’s for the best.

Not totally unlike Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the housing complex becomes a limiting factor, but also a creative asset. The architecture and space evolve into something worth examining in itself. Within its confines, our two protagonists are thrown together thanks to an escaped myna bird. One is a long-suffering housewife (Sophia Loren) forced to stay at home while her family enjoys the festivities. She’s a middle-aged Cinderella with all the youthful beauty sucked out of her.

Her husband (an oddly cast and dubbed John Vernon) is an arrogant party supporter and all her six children are either brats or too young to know any better. Her station as a mother and wife feels totally underappreciated, even dismissed.

The other forgotten person she happens to meet is a radio broadcaster (Marcello Mastroianni), unwittingly diverting him from an attempt at suicide. Because the current regime has no place for subversive naysayers like him on the national airwaves.

There’s a questioning of whether or not there’s enough for a film to develop. Can it hold on and keep us on board for over an hour? Given everything so far, it’s a no-frills scenario. There’s not much to work with, and success in itself seems like a tall order. Thank goodness we have the likes of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The promise of having them together is a worthy proposition and in this case, it hardly disappoints.

If you’ve only seen them in their star-studded, glamorized roles, prepare to be astounded. Loren could never look completely dowdy, but there’s definitely something forlorn about her. She carries it off quite well. Likewise, Marcello, normally a suave fellow, still has his prevailing moments of charm, but he too is equally subtle.

At least in the case of Loren, it seems like Hollywood only ever saw her as a screen goddess with an accent, and thus cast her in roles catering to that predetermined persona. And yet in her native Italy, in a movie like Two Women (1961) or her in A Special Day, it’s as if they gave her the freedom and the trust to stretch herself and really prove who she was as a bona fide actress.

The little doses of magic they drum up together carry scenes and if you’ve ever seen any of their movies, the intuitive chemistry coursing between them is, by now, almost second nature. Dancing steps of the rhumba to the cutouts on the floor. For one single moment, a saucy tune drowns out the choruses of a fascist regime.

Later she tries to quickly style her hair in the bathroom as he bungles grinding the coffee and sweeps it under the rug like a sheepish schoolboy. Or he makes his valiant attempt at fixing the lamp over the kitchen table that always leaves Antonietta bumping her head. These are the lighter notes.

But if these are the distinct instances of near frivolity, then A Special Day is about so much more on a broader scale. It casts an eye on a society that deems women as totally auxiliary in both intelligence and importance.

Likewise, one is reminded about the institutionalized hatred including vitriolic prejudice against homosexuals. Where people have lost their image and are merely cogs in a political, faux-religion of the state. Not everyone fits in. Gabriele even exhibits a touch of mild insurrection to the state by not abstaining from using the banned “lei” instead of “voi” when addressing others, as the former was seen as too effeminate by Italy’s fearless leader.

If not totally radical, the relationship at the core of this movie feels countercultural, even as it probably taps into the basic longings of many. In some strange, miraculous way they understand one another, unlike anyone they ever have before.

It’s how the film is able to be an empathetic portrait of humanity. Never has it been more evident that understanding can exist anywhere and between anyone in the most unusual of circumstances. So by the time the day’s festivities are winding down and the crowds rumble back in, the two kindred souls part ways to their separate ends of the courtyard, and yet there’s no way not to think about one another.

Gabriele starts packing up to be shipped off and deported because Mussolini’s regime is no place for a man like him. Antonietta puts together dinner for her family — all the normal duties required of her — existing once more as the silent life force behind the entire household. Her mind can’t help but wander to the only person who seems to know her, just as one’s eyes can help but glance at the light he helped fix only hours before.

He takes one final survey of his apartment, his room goes dark, and he’s escorted out of the courtyard, quietly, without any fanfare. The wide void between their apartments has never felt greater. It is the antithesis of a Rear Window ending.

After a few moments of leafing through The Three Musketeers — the book he gifted her — she wanders off to bed and follows suit by turning out the light. Darkness overtaking the day in the never-ending rhythms of life.

If it wasn’t apparent already “a special day” is meant to elicit two connotations. The state would have you believe the sights of Hitler, Mussolini, and grand feats of military might are the type of memories you won’t soon forget. Perhaps they’re even worthy of telling your children about someday.

However, for others, “a special day” means something far more. It has to do with empathy and truly knowing someone and being known like you’ve never been known before. For isolated people in a callous and lonely world of monotone, it’s so much more than all the bells and whistles at a parade. In its own unassuming way, A Special Day is a heart-wrenching love story to the nth degree.

4/5 Stars

The Man Who Would Be King (1975): Starring Sean Connery & Michael Caine

the man who would be king 1.png

There is a sense that John Huston is on a tear to prove he can outdo David Lean. However, this might only be an observation based rather unfairly on circumstance. Because Huston purportedly meant to make the picture at numerous junctions in his career, though it never got off the ground with any of the dynamic duos originally put to the fore.

There was Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable at first. Then Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. It could have even been a reunion for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969). Ultimately, none of these pairings came to fruition.

Finally, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, it was given a new lease on life. Regardless, of your personal affinities, it ends up being an unmitigated success given their instant camaraderie even beyond any amount of action, intrigue, or world-building.

Connery is one of the great action icons, partially thanks to Bond, and Caine is very much his equal for a string of iconic roles of his own. It’s no coincidence they both have a “Sir” before their names and still remain two of the most beloved actors in Britain to this day.

Following in the mythic footsteps of Alexander Great, Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carehan (Caine) aspire to be the first Europeans to rule the isolated territory of Kafiristan in centuries. In all fairness, The Man Who Would Be King is as much about two lunatics as it is men of valor, soldiers of fortune, and brothers in arms. 

Their venture has them fending off local bandits, crossing the frozen deep, and looking to influence the local lords with their modern weaponry. It’s one step on the long road to becoming immortalized. With the fortuitous help of their translator Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), a Gurkhan lone survivor of a British outfit, they now have a mouthpiece to pass down their will to the local populace. 

They make liberal efforts to lean into the god complex in order to have an easier time subduing the people and subsequently, mobilizing a personal army. However, in crossing paths with the much-revered spiritual leaders, they find it’s just as providential to be Freemasons. Some brotherhoods are universal.  

It is actually Dravot who is perceived as a god and soon his head gets overblow with his personal ambitions to have a queen and a kingdom with bridges and infrastructure to connect the entire territory.

He is looking to fulfill all the hopes of his protectorate as a divine answer to their prayers. It’s his buddy Peachy, the mere mortal who knew him well before he became a god, trying to show him how nutty this is. It also proves fatal. 

the man who would 2.png

Michael Caine’s performance, in particular, is broad, overblown with vigor. Is he putting too much gusto into it? Given the stakes of the material and how it plays, he probably does it just right. Because we half expect our characters to be blustering and larger-than-life giants.

One can imagine not only Huston but his actors as well would have relished the material for these very reasons. It really digs into this sense of adventure while giving them parts to grab hold of. This is on the most visceral level; we see it playing out on a grand scale. Still, the picture has a certain intimacy worth expounding upon.

Because while it’s easy to refer to pictures of old as references, say Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) or Gunga Din (1939), what sets The Man Who Would Be King apart is the simplicity of the principal relationship.

The beats of the plot are nothing altogether new and novel; it makes sense as Rudyard Kipling’s original novella came out in 1888. However, strip everything away and what are we left with? It really is nothing more than a buddy film.

Certainly, it becomes complicated by all sorts of issues and yet what remains the common denominator as the story unfolds? It’s the relationship between our two leads. Hence the potential ties to Butch Cassidy being somewhat telling. Having a pair of charismatic anti-heroes to cheer for makes it extremely easy on the audience. It takes very little to ask for investment.

Above all, it reminds me of those aforementioned tales of old. They weren’t abashed about having a good time and giving way to adventure in the absence of social significance. There seems to be very, little apart from the actors, who place the movie in the 1970s.

After all, Huston was himself an old boy coming from a different generation altogether. Being the maverick and gargantuan personality of machismo in his own right, it seems fitting he would gravitate toward such a tale. Where the bonds between men speak volumes as do their unquenchable cravings for wealth and glory, verging on the obsessive.

Huston is provided his inroad through a real historical figure. Again, the idea of having an author like Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) be the inception of the story is not a new device. We have Somerset Maugham utilized in The Razor’s Edge for instance and the most obvious might be the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Except this movie is Heart of Darkness in some inverted world where the dark jungles of Africa are replaced with the golden plains of an equally harrowing Middle East. The constricting dankness is substituted with the dangers of the great unknown, wide-open spaces with their own share of pleasures and subsequent perils.

Once more we cater to analogous themes of human avarice and cravings to be made a deity over other human beings. Where setting oneself up as a king of a nation is more of a dream — the ultimate prize in obtaining power and glory — there is no dark underbelly initially.

One cannot help in drawing parallels to The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948) where the lust for all the riches the world has to offer rarely avail themselves without cataclysmic implications. Even as it can be riveting to watch such a big-screen adventure, we must check ideas of superiority or superman complexes.

While The Man Who Would Be King comes to accept this colonialistic world order rather than subverting it, at the very least it does imply the flaws in such a dogma. We’ve continued to see the fruit of such ideologies well into the 20th and 21st centuries.

4/5 Stars

Zelig (1983) and Gordon Willis’s Mimicry of Classical Hollywood

Zeligposter.jpgI never thought I’d be saying this about a Woody Allen film, but it feels more like a technical marvel than purely a testament to story or dialogue. Although The Purple Rose of Cairo did something similarly compelling, Zelig is literally a film relying on a look that is authentic to a time period. Allen even goes so far as using old-fashioned cameras, lenses, and techniques to try and get them as close to classic filmmaking as possible.

Preceding the cutting-edge footage in Forrest Gump, we have Woody Allen as his alter ego, Leonard Zelig, being inserted in all sorts of images. It’s spliced together in such a seamless way we wonder if some scenes were simply chosen because they featured a lookalike of Allen to fit with the rest of the film.

Shot as an obvious mockumentary, which could be likened to Citizen Kane‘s News Marches On segment, one might concede Zelig is humorous in a similar vein. It’s not like Take The Money and Run (1969), Sleeper (1973), or even Annie Hall (1977), each offering genuinely zany and laugh-out-loud gags.

By playing something so ludicrously out of left field, completely straight, Allen has his comedy. He goes to the furthest extreme to make this feel like a real Ken Burns-esque documentary complete with talking heads giving their dry, poorly lit commentary from the present. They lend this credence, this seemingly real-world ethos, to something so utterly ridiculous. This juxtaposition gets at the humor precisely.

The story itself isn’t much of anything at all, loosely tied together over the course of an hour. Zelig (Woody Allen) is a generally non-descript Jewish man (Allen’s usual archetype) with a curious tendency brought on by an undying need for approval.

Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) is intent on helping him and confirming her findings that he is indeed suffering from a chameleon-like disorder, causing him to transform his appearance to assimilate with whoever he’s with. It could be politically, socially occupationally, even racially, as he is found speaking Chinese and frequenting an African-American jazz club in two separate instances.

In the good doctor’s presence, he conveniently thinks he’s also a psychologist trying to do therapy with her, even having a fine approximation of the vocational jargon. But this is just a cursory sign to a much deeper-seated issue.

It turns out he’s unwittingly duped tons of people with wives married, babies delivered, and all sorts of other feats and accomplishments undertaken in different lives. He’s the most interesting man in the world who consequently has no idea about any of his accomplishments.

The laundry list of real-life icons is too delightful to pass over from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bobby Jones, and the list keeps on going and going. William Randolph Hearts himself (a Kane archetype) and his mistress Marion Davies show up along with Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Carole Lombard, Marie Dressler and a host of others I failed to mention. You get the idea. It’s among the ranks of all these folks, Zelig was able to take on his chameleon-like personality and win their friendship.

It also occurred to me that Allen always makes his admiration for Ingmar Bergman fairly obvious. Like the other director’s films, which are always inhabited by interesting female characters, Allen settled on his own muses in Dianne Keaton and Mia Farrow. Farrow in this picture, captured completely in black and white, even gives a striking visual approximation of Liv Ullmann in Persona. I’m not sure, but it seems too close not to be an obvious nod, albeit with a typical Allen twist. The added punchline is that Farrow’s character ultimately falls for her highly neurotic patient. It’s of little surprise.

Like many of the New York-based auteur’s work, Zelig doesn’t leave me with any nuggets I want to hold onto. Conceptually, it’s somewhat arresting and the execution is phenomenal. I can understand with all the credits to his name why Gordon Willis might have considered this to be one of the most difficult he ever undertook.

If I were the director of photography, I would want to pull my hair out too. But his work and attention to authenticity is probably the greatest takeaway from Zelig. Modern films pale in comparison when it comes to mimicking the past. There’s little to no contest. If nothing else, Zelig stands as the crown jewel of Classical Hollywood mimesis.

3.5/5 Stars

Note from September 2018: I did not address the allegations to Allen in this review, but I must acknowledge they now linger over any film of his we watch, especially those seen in retrospect. It’s a topic I do not know enough about, and I do not feel privy to the conversation, so I will leave it to others at the moment.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019): Tarantino By Way of Model Shop

Once_Upon_a_Time_in_Hollywood_poster

To his credit, Quentin Tarantino will always and forever be a divisive creative force. There is no recourse but to either love or dislike his work. I fall closer to the latter category though I’m not as vehement as some.

At the core of this fission are his own proclivities. Tarantino has always been a profane filmmaker reveling in gushing blood capsules and wall to wall pop-cultural references. His knowledge is dizzyingly Encyclopedic even as it leans toward all the deliciously lowbrow delights he can indulge in. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize his nods to Leone and the Spaghetti western or his love affair with everything as diverse as pulp-infused noir and Hong Kong action cinema.

He eats it up voraciously and practices it devotedly. It’s not too far a stretch to say cinema is his religion — or at least the most important entity in his life — and yet even his obsessions are indulgent and so every movie he’s taken on has those traits. In essence, nothing is sacred. As he’s made quite clear, he makes movies he would want to see. They fit into his vision.

Remarkably, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is probably the most personal picture he’s ever made — the one touching on something the most human — where there is even a hint of authenticity and something real that does not need a wink or an undermining remark.

I think of Sharon Tate in this picture as portrayed by Margot Robbie. I understand some people taking issue with how she is established. The vocal weight of her part holds nothing comparing to the bromance of her male counterparts.

But in the context of what has been manifested, it feels warm and humane in a way we very rarely see from the director. He is giving Sharon a few days of her life back, in a sense, and pays her another honor by not removing her actual image from the footage or the posters we see (ie. Don’t Make Waves or The Wrecking Crew). It’s all her. Right there in front of us to be appreciated again and not merely gaped at. She simply exists for a few solitary days in the summer of 1969.

However, the same respect is not paid to Bruce Lee or for that matter, anyone else because Tarantino never operates that way. He’s beloved for his very irreverence of everything even as everything in his films is saturated with reference and homage.

It makes Once Upon a Time‘s most relevant points of departure all the more surprising. Model Shop (1969) is an unhurried slice-of-life film distilling The Sunset Strip and the surrounding area much in the way Tarantino does. And yet Jacques Demy is on the complete opposite spectrum of a Tarantino.

His films are full of fantasy as well but more whimsy, romance, and an almost innocent naivete. For instance, I could never imagine Tarantino being able to pull off a non-ironic musical; Demy imbibed their magic.

But Model Shop was a departure for him as much as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is slightly different for Tarantino. At any rate, it finds them drifting toward a central thematic world — Hollywood of the late 60s — where there is golden sun to match the melancholy and the music.

The post-Kennedy, Vietnam-era malaise is upon us even as it clashes up against the rock ‘n roll soundtrack supplied by the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, The Mama and The Papas, and Paul Revere & The Raiders.

The representation of 1969 on its own is impressively immersive as if Tarantino is recreating his childhood — the way he used to remember things — and no doubt he is. I only know secondhand and still heartily appreciate the likes of 93 KHJ and The Real Don Steele, all but ubiquitous, with the static whizz of the radio bathing the listener in jingles and audio AC. The lit-up signage of The Sunset Strip, billboards and advertisements, stretching out across the horizon.

Products like Velveeta, Kraft, Hormel Chili. I know those too. And that is part of the enjoyment of this movie, to be given a couple hours to bask in the nostalgia of the past, whether it’s the Westwood Theater, drive-in movies, and certainly the myriad of era-appropriate posters we catch glimpses of.

And the sprawling — some would say lethargic — runtime allows for these day-in-the-life type scenarios we would not get in your typical film. However, Tarantino also has the task of inserting his own vision into the tableaux put before him.

Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) character is an extension of the issues I have with these types of pictures: a fictitious character in a real world. To be honest, the writer-director fully commits to inserting him into the bygone era from co-starring with Telly Savalas, being up for The Great Escape, and now in his downward spiral guest spotting in FBI and Lancer.

And against these ready-made touchstones, Tarantino can employ his own fanciful riffs off history. Whether the amalgam of Bounty’s Law — take your pick of any 50s or 60s shows (Burke’s Law and Wanted Dead or Alive spring to mind) and you’re there. As Tarantino has already acknowledged, this prevalent career decline during the mid to the late ’60s was indicative of many of the tough guy idols who could not transition. This arc is not made up.

However, I find myself grappling with the same problem I had with Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, though to a different degree. Because, of course, everything Tarantino’s ever made is couched in pulp and totally self-aware. It’s the real with the fiction. It just so happens I find the real far more compelling. For instance, Sharon Tate, the depictions of the L.A. milieu, even the glowering menace of the tripped-out Mansion Family, these elements engage with social context head-on.

Whereas when I watch the spoofed scenes out of his own Inglorious Basterds parody or Dalton’s latest guest appearance as a heavy in the real-life — albeit obscure — Lancer, there’s not the same thrill. It’s not so much that we know we are watching a movie; it has to do with knowing we are watching Tarantino play out his own reenactments with all his tongue-in-cheek (and sometimes spot-on) parody.

The moments of Dalton that get at something more complex are the doubts that plague an actor in his position. For an extended scene, he sits in a casting chair with his precocious costar (Julia Butters) recounting the two-bit western paperback he’s been reading. Through rather overt terms, he and the audience realize the downward spiral of the book’s hero describes him to a tee. And he sobs.

Otherwise, I find most of these interludes to be dead ends, only useful for watching Tarrantino avail himself of his own personal pleasures. The one exception is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) because his function is less about parody or homage.

He fits into this world but it feels more organic — not like Tarantino is pasting his creation into the boots of several other men. Like Gary Lockwood in Model Shop, or even Sharon Tate in this film, he is also afforded the luxury of meandering around town to make the most of the mimesis Tarantino has employed.

He resides in a Jim Rockford-like trailer hitch, beer in hand in front of the TV with his closest companion, his salivating dog Brandy. It instantly provides us something else delectably dilapidated. There’s nothing wrong with DiCaprio but I am drawn to Pitt’s characterization especially.

His loyalty feels indicative of some indestructible set of values and common decency. One might surmise his type of people are representative of all that was simultaneously right and wrong with America. Because it’s true you can start saying that about just about everyone. We all bring our share of good and bad into the world.

Even his detour to the old Spahn Movie Ranch — coaxed to the sketchy commune by Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a coquettish member of the Mansion family, as he is — keeps with his sense of right and wrong. And even in a foreboding arena such as this, he walks toward it more like Dirty Harry than Jim Rockford. He seems indestructible and for all intent and purposes, he is. We know any attempt on him will be negligible as he casually makes his acquaintances and checks in on the old man (Bruce Dern).

The ending Tarantino wanted to keep hushed up is rather ironic for how unsurprising it really is, when you get right down to it. I hardly mean it as a spoiler. If you’ve seen even a bit of any of his oeuvre, you know what’s coming. The instant tip-off is the song  “12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming to The Canyon)” because if I wanted to make a film about Cielo Dr. or Laurel Canyon there’s no other choice. It’s one of the few instances of near on-the-nose song selection.

The lamentable thing is he somehow leaves behind all the best moments of Once Upon a Time behind — the fairy tale moments even — and winds up with something far more Tarantino-esque. His fans will be praising the glories of his name because he has done it again. That much is certain.

However, others of us will rue the potential wasted. What could have been a far more honest portrait than we might have ever thought the man capable of is like all the rest, a provocative, messy collage of ambitions and years of cultural relics skillfully sutured together.

But it feels again like Tarantino is more a gifted fanboy than a man with a genuine cinematic heart and soul. His aesthetic is cutting all of his heroes into something outrageously bombastic; because he boasts many, both high and low.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this style but after the momentary glimpse into something else, more promising even, it falls short of what could have been. Maybe it’s this reality that plants his dashed fairy tale most firmly in a problematic past we can never have back, even if we wanted it. What’s more, he had to bludgeon the magic out of the movie with an utterly Tarantino crescendo. Nothing can be taken seriously. Nothing is sacred.

3.5/5 Stars