The Irishman (2019): Painting Houses Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The_Irishman_poster.jpgNOTE: I’m never too concerned about spoilers but just be warned I’m talking about The Irishman, which will come out in November. If you want to be surprised maybe wait to read this…

The opening moments caused an almost immediate smile of recognition to come over my face. There it is. An intricate tracking shot taking us down the hallway to the tune of “In The Still of The Night.” We know this world well.

Martin Scorsese does too. Because it’s an instant tie to Goodfellas. In some sense, we are being brought back into that world. Except you might say that The Irishman picked up where the other film left off, filling up its own space, coming to terms with different themes. This is no repeat.

A day ago if badgered about the film I would have said it’s about a hitman named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who had ties with the Buffalino crime family (Joe Pesci) and worked alongside Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The famed union teamster disappeared without a trace, only to become one of the most mythical unsolved cases of all time.

And yes, I had to take a few moments to get used to a de-aged Robert De Niro, although I think it might have been the blue “Irish” eyes, so I quickly accepted it and fell into the story. On a surface level, these are the initially apparent attributes. However, it’s a joy to acknowledge it’s so much more. Because all the greatest films offer something very unique unto themselves — and to their creators — in this case the world of organized crime.

We’re so used to having Scorsese and De Niro together; it’s staggering to believe their last collaboration was Casino (1995). Meanwhile, Joe Pesci came out of his near-decade of retirement to join with De Niro again and continue their own substantial screen partnership together. Some might be equally surprised to stretch their memories and realize Pacino and Scorsese have never worked together. Both have such deep ties to the American New Wave and the crime genre. The pedigree is well-deserved on all accounts.

But there’s something ranging even deeper and more elemental, resonating with us as an audience. This is not Sunday school truth but a type of hazy mythology with flawed titans going at it in a manner that feels almost bizarre. There are no pretenses here. If you are familiar with Scorsese’s work from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, this is an equally violent and profane work. And yet how is it we begin to care about characters so much that their relationships begin to carry weight? Especially over 3 and a half hours.

It is a monumental epic and that opening tracking shot I mentioned leads us to a white-haired, wheelchair-bound man who has seen so much over the course of his lifetime. Voiceover has a hallowed place in the picture akin to Goodfellas, but again, the man at the center of it all has such a different place in the story.

What’s more, The Irishman really is a full-bodied meditation on this lifestyle of organized crime. Yes, it’s placed in a historical context, but Sheeran is a man we can look at and analyze. He is a sort of case study to try and untangle the complexities of such an environment.

Steven Zaillian’s script lithely jumps all over a lifetime woven through the fabric of popular history, aided further by the music selections of Robbie Robertson (of The Band acclaim) and real-life touchstones ranging from the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Assassination, Nixon, and Watergate.

Thelma Schoonmaker makes the action accessible and smooth with ample artistic flourishes to grapple with the societal tensions and cold, harsh realities. Still, the majority of the picture is all about relationships. Everything else converges on them.

Sheeran didn’t know it then, but the day he met Russell Bulfino (Pesci) on his meat trucking route, would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Because he’s a man with clout and connections. Everyone comes to him, he expects other people to pay deference to him, and he looks kindly on those who carry out his favors.

In his company, Sheeran has a formidable ally, and he starts rising up the ranks even running in the same circles of the acclaimed Jimmy Hoffa. Being “brothers” as it were, it’s as if Sheeran and Hoffa understand one another intuitively and in a cutthroat world, they have a deep-seated, inalienable trust in one another.  Who is the man Hoffa comes to have in his room to be his friend, confidant, and bodyguard if not Frank? You can’t help but get close to someone in that context.

Al Pacino just about steals the show blowing through the film with a phenomenally rich characterization of the famed teamster, because he willfully gives a tableau of charm, charisma, warmth, humor, mingled with a ruthless streak and utter obstinacy. His loyalists are many as are his enemies. It’s facile to be a mover and a shaker when you’re an immovable force of nature.

Even as Sheeran is busy, mainly on the road, his first wife and his kids (and then his second wife) are always present and yet somehow they never get much of a mention, rarely a line of dialogue, always in the periphery. This in itself is a statement about his family life.

One recalls The Godfather mentality. Where family is important but so is the family business and never the twain shall meet. Womenfolk and children are protected, shielded even, and the dichotomy is so severe it’s alarming.

In that film, the cafe moment is where Michael (a younger Pacino) makes a life-altering decision. For Frank, that mentality somehow comes easily for him. Michael was the war hero and thus stayed out of the family business for a time. Frank’s involvement in “painting houses,” as the euphemism goes, is just an obvious extension of the killing he undertook in Europe.

It’s curious how everyone mentions his military experience, the fact that he knows what it’s like, and how that somehow makes what he’s called to do second-nature. Again, it’s business. It’s following orders. If you do a good job, if you do the “right thing,” you get rewarded.

There are some many blow-ups and hits and what-have-yous, it wears on you to the point of desensitization, especially when you’re forced to laugh it off uneasily. This is very dangerous but again, it’s anti-Godfather, which was a film where these were the moments of true climax and meaning and import for the psychology of the characters. Where Michael evolves and takes over the territory. Where his older brother Sonny is killed and his other brother Fredo gets killed. There’s meaning in every one of them.

In the Irishman, it could care less. Everything of true importance seems to happen around conversations, in dialogue, between people. To a degree that is. Because dynamics are set up in such a way and the culture and the unyielding ways of men make it inevitable, opposing forces will rub up against one another.

The complicated realms of masculinity, pride, and respect make minor tiffs and bruised egos the basis of future gang wars and vendettas. Phone calls are testy and people are pulled aside to get straightened out before more serious action is taken. It’s a social hierarchy where go-betweens come to mediate everything.

As time goes on, we come to realize Sheeran is the wedge bewteen two of these unyielding forces, and he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Between his “Rabbi” Russell, as Hoffa calls him, and the man he’s been through the trenches with — the man he asks to present his lifetime achievement award to him. He’s deeply loyal and beholden to both.

Is this his hamartia — his fatal flaw — that will become his undoing? We never quite know if he was able to make peace with any of it. All we know is something has to give…But I will leave it at that.

The unsung surprise of the film is the load of humor it manages end to end. Everyone is funny. The exchanges get outrageous to fit the larger-than-life characters and situations. It’s the kind of stuff you couldn’t make up if you tried. But the jokes play as a fine counterpoint to the grim reality of these men and their lifestyles.

In the later stages of life, as he prepares himself for death, Sheeran meets with a priest, which prove to be some of the most enlightening moments in the film. When asked if he has remorse, he matter-of-factly admits, not really, but even his choice to seek absolution is his attempt at something.

Scorsese continues in the stripe of Silence with some deeply spiritual and philosophical intercessions in what might otherwise seem a temporal and antithetical affair.  The truth is you cannot come to terms with such a life — or any life — without grappling with the questions of the great unknown after death.

In another scene, Sheeran seeks out a casket and a resting place for his body muttering to himself just how final death is. That it’s just the end. It’s curious coming from a man who knocked off so many people, but somehow he’s just coming to terms with it himself. Perhaps it’s what old age does to one.

This is not meant to be any sort of hint or indication (we want more films), but if this were to be the last film this group of luminary talents ever made, I would be all but content. The film taps into content and themes that have been integral aspects of Martin Scorsese’s career since the beginning. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and even Harvey Keitel are all synonymous with the crime film — they share a common thread — a communal cinematic context and language.

My final thought is only this. The Irishman feels like Martin Scorsese’s Citizen Kane. I don’t mean it in the sense it’s his greatest film or the greatest film all time. Rather, in a thematic sense, they are kindred. Although Scorsese’s version includes crime and violence, the ends results are very much the same.

You have a man with a life crammed full of power and money and recognition, whatever, but at the end of the day, what did it get him? He clings to dog-eared photos of his kids whom he probably hasn’t seen in years.

When the priest tells him he’ll be back after Christmas, Sheeran looks up at him pitifully, acknowledging he’ll be around. He’s not going anywhere. He has no family. He has no one to care about him. All his buddies are gone, and he’s the last of them holding onto secrets that do him no good. It’s all meaningless.

It’s a striking final image. All I could think was, “Oh how the mighty have fallen.” Whether or not any of it was true or not (as the film seems to validate), what’s leftover is a paltry life. It’s a testament to everything we’ve witnessed thus far that we feel sorry for him.

4.5/5 Stars

The Florida Project (2017): The Antithesis of Hollywood Escapism

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When we run in different circles it’s easy to have a conveniently jaundiced view of our society. On a personal scale, I’m talking about our neighborhoods, our towns, our community institutions. We turn a blind eye to those things that do not concern us — maybe they’re below our station in life — and so we live unclouded by the hardships around us.

We form tribes and often do our best to stay separate whether it’s along social, ethnic, political, or religious lines. Though we have an innate desire to pair off and form communities, it can have detrimental side effects. At our very worst, we become polarized units totally at odds with one another. To a lesser extent, our enclaves remain insulated and never interact or acknowledge those outside our social bubble. Places like the Boys and Girls Club, Food Banks, and churches slog on without vibrant community support systems because heaven forbid we lower ourselves.

The Florida Project is a sobering portrait and an altogether necessary one because it offers an uncompromising glimpse at a lifestyle that’s easy enough to disregard. This is an issue needing recognition.

Because just down the road from Seven Dwarves Ln and Disney World, the purported “happiest place on earth,” there are signs of degradation and malevolent poverty. We are met with the garish purple and pinks of the low-rent hotels.

But there are two obvious camps. Tourists who are only passing through and the locals who have set up camp long-term living week to week on the money they scrounge up. Spend some time there, even during a seemingly carefree season like Summer Break, and you see the deleterious nature of the ecosystem. Such activities see endemic.

Front and center are Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) and her band of friends. They’re like a merry band of precocious little terrors. If they were older we might call them hoodlums but now they have the pretense of being cute. Except they’re hardly innocent. Spitting on someone’s car from a second story for “fun” and getting in any type of conceivable mischief they possibly can. Like turning off the power in the throes of summer or panhandling.

They are the epitome of the cliche “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” And yet their behavior is indicative of their parents (or lack thereof). Because a lot of what Mooney does feels reinforced and learned from her role models. It becomes equally evident her imagination is always vibrant out of necessity. It shields her from the world and her constant state of want. It is her only avenue to something better.

But we must ask where will the buck stop? Is it the social systems being flawed or non-existent? Halley (Bria Vinaite), Mooney’s young and disaffected mother, looks to sell perfume for a profit at a nearby resort just to eke by a day late on rent. She has trained her daughter up to scrounge for change to buy ice cream. Mooney always shows up at the back door to receive handouts of free waffles and extra maple syrup with a friend.

The kiddos go on a demolition rampage and when they’re bored of that they divert themselves by lighting a house on fire. Of course.

It grabs the attention of the entire neighborhood and necessitates the local fire department coming out to quell the flames. It’s like a block party the way the locals congregate, drinks in hand, whooping, and snapping pictures in front of the conflagration. The kids don’t seem to realize until after the fact, the effects of such a serious form of arson.

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Through all these ordeals, Willem Dafoe is the Most Valuable Player. Because as the local manager of the Magic Castle, Bobby, he provides some semblance of well-meaning humanity in an otherwise unfeeling and incredibly tense wasteland. Because the crusty exterior reveals a genuine concern for kids and even when he’s disgruntled his hard-working, good-natured spirit shines through. He extends the same care to a trio of inbound storks that he does the tenants who are constantly harrying him.

There so many hardships and yet the people resigned to this life have issues of their own. There is a pervasive disrespect shown to everyone and lifestyle choices are a bit dubious at times. The saddest aspect is impressionable children being subjected to so much that is objectionable at such a young age.

Halley has left her former career choice as a stripper behind, but she seems less than enthused about applying for new work. She also shows attitude toward anyone who will not immediately bend to her requests or even those who try and stay on their side. Her retaliation can be utterly malicious, at times, even as her sense of entitlement is trying.

Likewise, she teaches her daughter posing for hypersexualized selfies while her smoking, drinking, and male company with no sense of commitment, only prove detrimental to her daughter. These are the exterior issues that make themselves plainly apparent.

My only concern or minor reservation is the fact we never get much of the interior life of these adults. I would like to get to know Halley and Bobby better. But because this is very much Mooney’s story, grace can be extended. Her point of view is the most applicable to this narrative because it is not able to comprehend everything or even bring it to a succinct resolution. There are so many unresolved issues. It should not be on a child to have to solve them.

It’s the realization, in the end, Mooney is just a kid. She doesn’t know the situation her mom is in. She isn’t completely liable for all the behavior she perpetrates.  In many ways, she’s oblivious and yet all the negative influences affect her even implicitly. She cannot comprehend the nuances of her mom’s situation because to her it’s simply the way life is. There is no other example to match it with. It starts with the social environment around her.

In a final twist, Sean Baker deems to cap his film with a Disney ending with the girls running off from the dizzying world around them for some type of oasis. Make of it what you will. It’s a bit like running off to the movies because you want to escape life. But The Florida Project is not Hollywood escapism. It’s immersive, yes, but in a way that will make you reconsider the current cultural landscape. If it does not make us open our eyes and carry a dose of empathy for those residing in our own communities than few things will.

The Florida Project does not cast blame and yet it draws us inward to ask the honest questions. How is our society failing? What might we do to fix this? On the smallest, most personal scale, what can each of us do to promote human flourishing? Because one thing is for sure, even if the movies normally coming out of the industry reflect otherwise, this is not an isolated occurrence.

Our society is full of Mooneys and if we learn anything from this film it should be to appreciate their worth as human beings even as we grieve their unfortunate circumstances and life choices. If we are more fortunate than them, it is solely a gift and we were blessed so that we might be a blessing to others. To those who much has been given, much is expected. I’m saying this as much to myself as anyone else.

4.5/5 Stars

Days of Wine and Roses (1962): Alcoholics Anonymous

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I had always heard Days of Wine and Roses was shown to members of AA. It’s no small coincidence the co-founder Bill Wilson served as a technical advisor. But I never realized how integral it is to the very integrity of the plot.

Jack Lemmon had the penchant for playing lovable losers — the corporate schmucks who are a bit sleazy but have just enough charm to make them relatively endearing. In this one, he’s Joe Clay, a public relations man who nevertheless finds himself to be “a eunuch in a harem” and a glorified pimp for businessmen.

To some, he may feel reminiscent to C.C. Baxter who was an ambitious fellow with a similar conundrum. Because he has a conscience in this callous corporate jungle. Clay likewise, is a character with a decent streak. He feels uncomfortable with certain duties thrust upon them.

He gets off on the wrong foot with the bosses secretary Kirst Armeson (Lee Remick), followed up by rejected peanut brittle offerings in an attempt to make amends. Though ultimately his persistence and a certain amount of candor straighten things out between him.

Getting along is not their main problem anyway. The issue which will become most troubling is his penchant for a little merriment after hours. In other words, he likes to drink. “Booze makes you feel good,” he says. Something to let off a bit of steam like any extracurricular. In a way, it’s kind of endearing when they’re standing on the water’s edge reminiscing together, Joe’s a bit tipsy.

From these moments onward, Days of Wine and Roses is capable of contending with some of Wilder’s comedies like The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie while being superior to Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, despite being less well-known. It’s hardly going out on the limb to say this offering is his best work. Because whatever his plethora of comedies might say about him, beloved as they are, Days of Wine and Roses shows a capacity for completely different material. He does it justice juggling tones.

Maybe it’s a matter of how she carries herself or her hairstyle but Lee Remick never felt more mature and self-assured than in Days of Wine and Roses. It’s as if she has aged — still beautiful and alive — but there is something more to her now.

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She lives in “The Roach Kingdom” and begins a romance with Clay, which ends with marriage on the fly. She takes him home to her daddy (Charles Bickford) and he doesn’t approve exactly but he gives them the benefit of the doubt. They seem happy.

But you don’t cease to be your old self and suddenly become someone new once marriage is decided upon. As is the case in all scenarios, you bring your baggage along with you and it can either make you a more steadfast couple or be the millstone around your neck drowning you mercilessly.

If he is a flawed husband than he is a flawed father as well. Alcohol-fueled giggle fits are endearing at first but when they turn heated and verge on the uncontrollably violent the destructiveness of alcoholism becomes overpowering

Their daughter feels like a casualty as their parenting suffers. First, Joe comes home swacked one evening and wakes the baby in a fit. Then, slowly Kirst gets pulled down with him. Her own dive toward alcohol dependence ends in a house fire of her own creation.

The effectiveness of the storytelling has to do with the alcohol not being front and center as it insidiously moves in on a man’s life. Here are a man and a woman. This is a love story. But it goes horribly awry.

What follows is a horrifying cut to Jack Lemmon in a straitjacket. Grimace-inducing. We have gone far beyond a mere mealy-mouthed drama. We have reached the point of positively no return. No film thus far, not even The Lost Weekend has managed this low before, so it seems.

Unfortunately, it’s a result of countless appreciative viewings of  Some Like it Hot and The Odd Couple that causes me to often label Jack Lemmon a comedian rather than a “real” actor. But what an oversight that is. He is absolutely phenomenal without a shadow of a doubt. Like Peter Sellers, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey, it does seem funnymen are often capable of extraordinary dramatic performances because it’s so true there is an inherent polarity between comedy and tragedy. Yet they are so closely tied together.

Jack Klugman (another future Odd Couple veteran) appears as an AA man who acts as Joe’s anchored lifeline providing tough love with pragmatic advice. “Just one more” is a lie. And assuming that we have enough willpower to overcome it is equally pernicious. Pretty soon we’re content to live in spiraling cycles.

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Meanwhile, Kirsten balks about joining AA. She doesn’t want to degrade herself in front of a group of people. She deems herself better than that and goes on living the lie, getting by on willpower.

There comes a time in everyone’s life where the bottle is God. Joe is finally made to realize that but now his wife is so tainted. He pleads with her, “There’s just room for you and me, no threesome.” His wife proceeds to go out the door.

He looks out the window and watches her disappear into the night. Then, he looks out the window again and the street’s empty. The only thing there is a neon “Bar” sign flashing in the night. He looks at it grimly knowing that it took his wife away from him.

In a manner of speaking, they were unfaithful to one another. No, not with another person but another thing — an obsession that ripped apart their marriage with a canker that cannot be easily eradicated. Days of Wine and Roses manages to document it all with a harrowing lucidity hardly pulling a gut punch. It also conveniently forgets to tack on a happy ending.

Is it any wonder that Blake Edwards, Jack Lemmon, and Lee Remick, who had all struggled with excess alcoholism at a time, eventually all quit the habit? There is no more potent indicator. If it does its job, there will be at least several moments where your insides will squirm and you will be repulsed. For people so amiable, Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick do an astonishing job.

4.5/5 Stars

Do The Right Thing (1989): The Legacy of MLK & Malcolm X

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The opening images are charged with the beats of Public Enemy matched by a provocative palette and a vibrant kineticism. One is reminded up a very particular point in time and a particular subculture — rap music is a part of it, certainly — but it’s indicative of so much more.

Because Do The Right Thing is shot on Spike Lee’s home turf in Brooklyn so there’s no denying the intimacy he has with the material. However, it was actually the obligatory “all persons and places” disclaimer that instilled the idea this film could be about any city. This could be Watts. This could be Detroit. This could be Ferguson. And unfortunately, in another year or two, it might just as easily be another city we’ll have to reckon with, whether due to prejudice or police brutality.

The film overwhelmingly succeeds in developing a world — that is a neighborhood — with the players who live within it. And in this regard, it does feel a bit like the Hollywood movies of old (which Lee is well aware of) where people have their types and their shtick. Take, for instance, the three stooges who shoot the bull on the street corner.

The stuttering Smiley is always making the rounds to pass out his personalized pictures of Dr. King and Malcolm X. The swaggery Radio Raheem does his own version of Reverend Harry Powell’s love-hate performance art for the benefit of the audience a la Night of The Hunter. It makes him as much as a thematic symbol as he is a larger-than-life character.

These relational dynamics feel authentically lived in, even going so far as casting his sister as his sister in the film. Likewise, the real-life couple Ruby Dee (Mother Sister) and Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), play out an antagonistic autumn romance on screen.

It gives the impression of minimal camera movements (aside from a few pans) because Lee cares about focusing on his characters head-on, photographing them in an often stylized manner with low angles. It’s not quite as precise as Ozu but having people placed up against their backdrops so overtly, it is hard not to remember. His own distinct visual language stands out emblazoned with color and the patois of his town.

Samuel L. Jackson is the groovy, smooth DJ, Mr. Senor Love Daddy, part Magnificent Montague, part Wolfman Jack. He provides the atmospherics — the soul — for the entire community, even as the heat hits record temps. It’s a portent of future attractions.

One doesn’t always think of Spike Lee as an actor per se, but it’s fitting he’s central to the action in Do The Right Thing because this feels like an extremely authentic context for him. Mookie’s current job as a lax pizza delivery boy allows him to mosey his way around the neighborhood.

Again, it acts as an invaluable narrative device to keep the story moving and yet it never feels totally manipulating. Each beat brings a fresh scenario worth discovering with every chocked sidewalk or spewing fire hydrant. Because this is a film about people and their relationship to one another.

Up until this point, the majority of the characters mentioned beforehand are African-American though that doesn’t necessarily suggest they have an entirely shared point of view. However, what gives Do The Right Thing it’s inherent conflict is bringing in a menagerie of starkly different individuals.

The prime example is Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, a pillar of the community’s social and economic scene, run by an Italian-American (Danny Aiello) and his two sons. There are the Koreans “fresh off the boat” running the grocery store across the street. Then the Puerto Rican subset of the community including Mookie’s put upon girlfriend and mother of his baby son, Tina (Rosie Perez).

Their problems and their passions feel like real 9-to-5 reality we are privy to. And the police who patrol the streets come off a bit oblivious, if not completely fat-headed. What’s gripping is how each one conveniently points their ire in another direction manifesting this never-ending cycle of bigotry.

Mookie can always be found repping number 42 (Jackie Robinson) and one of his street corner chums wears Magic Johnson’s 32. These are obvious cultural touchstones just as the white guy clamoring into his apartment wears a Larry Bird jersey. They represent the current social moment impeccably.

It’s as if everyone has misconceptions of everyone else. They are driven by ignorance and small-mindedness and no one is immune to this disease. In a telling conversation over the jukebox, Sal’s oldest boy, a general malcontent fed up with working in his father’s business (Richard Edson), talks to Mookie about how his favorite athletes and musicians like The Michael Jordans and Princes of the world aren’t just “black” they’re more than black.

Let’s put this straight. I think his assertion is totally absurd and yet I found myself thinking just before how ironic these African-American young men wearing Robinson and Magic because their lives and reputations feel so contrary to the young men who idolize them. That should hardly be seen as an offense against them.

Regardless, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) feels affronted because there are no brothers on the “Wall of Fame” next to Pacino, De Niro, and Sinatra in Sal’s. He wants to start a boycott and at first, it’s an admittedly ridiculous idea.

No one takes him seriously because most everyone loves Sal’s pizza pies. And in his softer more hospitable moments, he doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. But this is one of the greatest revelations, even normal people — especially normal people — can seethe with hate, anger, and fear. Because the heat is not only about upping the temperature, it proves to be our dramatic barometer. We know at some point the story must blow its top.

Sure enough, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem are talking each other up and wander into Sal’s ready to make a stand. It’s utter idiocy. They’re being a pair of punks. They know full-well what they’re doing and yet in the same sense, I don’t think they do. It’s as if they don’t see the writing on the wall. No one does.

And everyone is once again on a different wavelength. Like Cool Hand Luke, we have a failure to communicate. Violence ensues. The fuses blow and the images are relatably chaotic and terrifying as they verge of the brutal and tumultuous. It’s insanity.

Fire shoots up the building and there’s something deeply affecting about seeing the portraits of the likes of Sinatra and Sophia Loren being licked by flames. Again, they feel like odd figures of collateral damage. All of this destruction feels directed across racial lines but surely it’s misdirected. What’s the real problem? What caused such an evening?

Is it merely angst and discontentment with the situation? Are they really mad at Sal? Are they mad at his establishment? Did he really want this boy dead? Were the police acting out of pure malice, fear, or both?

In the aftermath of the violence, I couldn’t help but bemoan the Twitter age we now live in. If this film is any indication, physical violence and confrontation is not the answer. However, I feel social media has polarized us even more — making our communities even more fragmented and our modes of communication either echo chambers of like-minded enlightened people or rival camps we can so easily demonize.

I must even admit one of the ones exacerbating this problem is President Donald Trump himself. It seems almost prescient he gets a mention in the film because some would say he is emblematic of where our country has gone in 30 years’ time. Surely, a country coming out of the Reagan years would never have guessed the future ahead (including a black president).

Ultimately, to say this is a film about racism is too vague. It needs some unpacking, some grappling with what it really brings to the fore. The issues run deep. They are partly economical. There’s de facto segregation. They have to do with police and deep-rooted traditions of tension. Racism is something taught and learned creating a feedback loop or closer still a vicious cycle. I am hardly the person to explain them all. But I’m willing to listen to others — to dialogue.

Do The Right Thing is the most unnerving piece of cinema I’ve seen in some time and I mean that only as the utmost compliment. It’s a bold expression full of energy but also more profoundly still the unmistakable threads of humanity. It’s as ugly as it is honest. Honesty, in a sense, it feels like Lee is making a valiant attempt to call out the inhumanity while still empathizing with all sides.

This even is reinforced by the two contrasting quotes he fittingly pulls from Dr. King and Malcolm X, a final testament to the picture’s message.

I must admit I wasn’t surprised by the substance of Dr. King’s quote but I do acknowledge being slightly taken aback by the sensibility of the second quotation. It’s this same duality visible in the film. Where there is a problem. Each of these men and their stances and the worlds they come out of have inherent flaws. The issue is how we get together and solve them. History has shown how messy and complex they have been and will remain if we fail to do anything. Strike that. If we fail to do the right thing.

4.5/5 Stars

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”–Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self- defense, I call it intelligence.”–Malcolm X

A Face in the Crowd (1957): Lonesome Rhodes is No Andy Taylor

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It begins unobtrusively enough. In a backwater Arkansas jail, a drunkard plays his guitar on a radio segment of “A Face in the Crowd” being broadcast from his cell. They don’t know it quite yet but soon the host who found him, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), and Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) capture the public’s imagination. Far from just plucking Rhodes out of obscurity, Jefferies also rebrands him with an off the cuff remark and uses her daddy’s radio reach to broadcast him all around.

With such a platform, Rhodes does the rest with his wild whoops of down-home charm and strangely beguiling magnetism. He’s a natural performer and showman who knows how to form a connection with the folks at home. Soon they have created a following or as is popular in the lexicon these days a “tribe” giving him real media presence in the cultural conversation.

Someone asks him the question, “How does it feel to be able to say anything that comes into your head and be able to sway people?” But it’s true. He’s at the forefront of a grassroots democracy turning into a television phenomenon.

Meanwhile, Jefferies watches it all unfolding with bright-eyed awe and deep enthusiasm. It’s absolutely rich seeing it sweep over the country. One of the cogs in the machine is a jaded writer named Mel (an early Walter Matthau) who watches the unfoldings with grim amusement. Meanwhile, Lonesome’s ever-ambitious and cutthroat promoter (an even younger Rip Torn) positions his man to continue broadening his success. Everyone’s trying to get a piece of this new pie. Because what’s more American than pie?

Rhodes keeps up his side of the bargain by purveying his own brand of “authenticity.” On one show he brings on a destitute African-American woman and gives a call-to-action and the money comes pouring in, in response. Another week he crosses a mattress sponsor and subsequently raises the man’s sales all across the country simply by belittling his product.

Soon he’s brought on to promote the product of the stuffy Vitajex company and he takes their pride and joy, disregarding their focus groups and tradition, selling the pill straight to the public. By the time he’s done with them, the public’s buying them up by the barrelful.

He also captures the imaginations and the fancy of all the young girls all across the nation — soon has them all swooning over him — but one lucky girl wins out (Lee Remick) with her baton twirling during the Ms. Arkansas Majorrette competition of 1957. Of course, Lonesome Rhodes is made the judge and after getting mobbed by the girls, he takes a shine to Betty Lou.

Marcia gets pushed further and further into the periphery of his life as Rhodes weds the frisky twirler and sets his sights on the next domain to be conquered. Politics have entered a new stage — the television age — and no man is more beloved than Lonesome Rhodes. “You gotta be a saint for the power the box can give you,” as Mel notes, and in the wrong hands, this immense power is dangerous.

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Rhodes throws his support behind a stodgy old lawmaker giving him advice in the process. The film was already predicting the famed televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy. Where campaigning is about punchlines and glamor; it becomes a popularity contest and an advertising endeavor as much as a smear campaign. He uses his Cracker Barrel Show to promote the senator in a more relaxed atmosphere and has the position of Secretary of National Morale waved in front of him.

He even notes his candidate should get a dog, observing that it didn’t do Roosevelt any harm or Dick Nixon neither (referring to the well-received “Checkers” speech in 1952). Because these events begin to hint out how corruption, even double talk, begin to make the general public question “authenticity.”

In one off-handed remark, Lonesome crows, “This whole country is just like my flock of sheep.” However, like Arthur Godfrey, his downfall (though more rapid) occurs after an onscreen incident that removes his mask and undermines his image before the people. They can never see him the same way. The saboteur, as it were, is Marcia for she cannot bear to see the people taken in.

So the final trajectory is obvious — the ascension and the dethronement — but that can hardly neutralize what we have already witnessed. A Face in the Crowd lingers with fair warning, relevant to any analogous situation in the modern landscape, only magnified to the nth degree.

Earl Hagen’s down-home waterhole tunes fit The Andy Griffith Show just as this arrangement from Tom Glazer gels with A Face in the Crowd. Speaking of, I must insert a thought on what I know more about, as I grew up watching countless hours of The Andy Griffith Show.

The character of Andy Taylor obscures the fact of what a fine actor Andy Griffith was. To some extent, the same can be said of No Time for Sergeants because like the early seasons of his show, he’s just playing a bubble-headed hick. Later on, he became more of a straight man and after Barney Fife left, he settled into a more irascible role so there was an evolution.

Regardless, Lonesome Rhodes turns the overarching stereotypes of the man on their head. You can still see him as the benevolent Sheriff of Mayberry but this certainly lingers in the back of your mind. Take away the moral integrity and others-centric mentality of Andy and you wind up with Lonesome.

Given its themes about media and television, which seem like a cutting-edge indictment in their contemporary age, it seems logical to lump A Face in The Crowd with Network. Similarly, though technology and advertising continue to become more advanced and invasive, the themes explored feel not less relevant but more so.

We simply have to magnify them. Instead of television, we have Twitter and smartphones. Instead of people who willfully hide their intent, we have people in power who seem to blatantly disregard moral uprightness.

I want Lonesome Rhodes to be outdated and immaterial but to make such a claim would be an immense act of folly. It would cater to the same sense of ignorance and sway in all sectors of society, which led to the rise of such a person in the first place. Then and now…

4.5/5 Stars

Gentleman Jim (1942): Biopic by Marquess of Queensberry Rules

Gentleman_Jim_-_Poster.jpgBoxing movies and biopics are a mainstay of Hollywood. It’s an established fact so naming names is all but unnecessary. The affable brilliance of Gentleman Jim is its agile footwork allowing it to sidestep a myriad of tropes attached to biopics and the schmaltz that Old Hollywood was always capable of serving up.

Certainly, a great deal of credit must be heaped upon Errol Flynn who seems to relish the very opportunity to portray such a magnetic man as James J. Corbett — always perceptive and driven with a bevy of tricks at his disposal to get ahead. I can’t help but hear Butch Cassidy’s words in my ears, “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals. Corbett could live by that credo too.

Authenticity is to be trodden upon softly and so there is a sense Flynn has taken the “gentleman” moniker of his namesake and fashioned the role around his own roguish charm, good looks, and irrefutable charisma. Thus, it becomes almost second nature for him to play the part because there’s this sense that he’s playing what he knows best, and loving every minute of it.

He’s meant to come from hardy Irish stock with a jovial father (Alan Hale), two boisterous older brothers, an awestruck sister, and the ever maternal mother figure. Around all these types Flynn and Jim feel like outliers. They’re not meant to fit into this family and yet it somehow manages to work — Marty McFly anyone?

The script, co-written by Vincent Lawrence and Horace McCoy, begins by drawing up the story in a most agreeable fashion that takes into account our hero’s life but also considers any number of stray antecedents that led to his rise in the boxing world.

Boxing in its most barbaric forms is being outlawed across the nation. Jim and his hapless buddy Walter (Jack Carson) spy the prominent higher-up from their bank at a fight only to have the police raid the event. Soon they’re all in prison with their prominent friend and Jim sees it as the perfect opportunity to earn some favor. Soon Judge Geary has brought on his young protege as a new brand of fighter: one with class.

Being a fast worker, Jim gets himself into the elitist Olympic Club doing his best to look the part of a  well-to-do gentleman, despite hardly having a dollar to his name. Concurrently he begins annoying the gentleman around him with his constant stream of boys sent around paging him.

It becomes quickly apparent that Gentleman Jim exists in a world, not unlike that of Walsh’s Strawberry Blonde (1941), where America seemed to have acquired a newfound propriety. Nasty pugilism had been replaced with marquess Queensberry Rules and someone like Jim Corbett was able to become something.

He soon is acquainted with Ms. Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith) who along with her family are members of the social elite and patrons of the bank. I must admit that the Canadian actress has all but slunk under my radar aside from her part in Conflict opposite Bogart.

But I have rectified the oversight because she gives a lovely turn opposite Flynn allowing the sparks to fly in the most vehement way possible. High-class respectability can only get you so far. Sometimes you just want to see someone get wailed on for their own good.

She has just about enough of his conceited ways finding him utterly infuriating with his faux polished manners and overblown head. He has the gall to criticize her idol worshipping of such an eminent legend as John L. Sullivan. Corbett being an utter nobody himself. But he’s got ideas and the fancy feet to go someplace.

Upon leaving their little tiff, he dances his way back down the street zigzagging through oncoming passerby. He’s got John L. Sullivan (an impeccably cast Ward Bond) on the mind now. Because there was no bigger national hero, icon, and legend than John L. Sullivan. The film even evokes the famous phrase, “I just shook the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan!” He was that big of a celebrity.

Backed by William Frawley in his corner, Corbett is soon on the rise taking on anyone who will get him some visibility. In the ring, the suave-looking Irishman is a model of agility and impeccable footwork. Though Flynn, to his credit, stood in for most of the scenes his flying feet were spotted by world-class former welterweight Mushy Callahan.

Many of the sequences capture the immersive even suffocating atmosphere of a boxing match through fairly furious cutting, especially for an old film. Inserting shots of the ring, mincing feet, and a flurry of audience reactions throwing together a swirling experience.

The most frenzied is a back and forth river barge slugfest with haymaker after haymaker flying through the air. Corbett and his hulking opponent wind up decking each other flat again and again.  Flynn takes a plunge into the water only to lay out his competitor for good minutes later.

The victor is finally raised as the police arrive on the scene to crash the proceedings and all the spectators jump ship in the most tumultuous and mayhem-filled denouements to a fight you’ve ever witnessed. The beauty is we get an almost birdseye view of the madness from the cheap seats and we see on what a large scale everyone is frantically escaping. Jumping into the drink. Screaming and shouting. It’s the kind of bedlam that’s contagious and a real enjoyment from reel to reel for some inexplicable reason.

Surely the fight to top them all is Jim Corbett against John L. Sullivan. But just as important as the actual bout is the skirmish going on outside the ropes. As the telegraph lines are flooding the country with news round after round, Corbett’s clandestine backer watches expectantly for him to get clobbered.

Meanwhile, Ms. Ware’s father with a glint in his eye eggs her on very tenderly toward the most antagonistic man in her life and subsequently the most important. In the movies at least, the people who detest each other the most wind up making the most passionate romances.

Aside from love, Gentleman Jim is refreshingly light on heart-wrenching drama or needless sentiment for that matter. It slips up in one solitary moment where a gracious Sullivan looks back wistfully at an illustrious career and pays his respects to Gentleman Jim. If anything it shows that Flynn can play genuine just as he can slather on the charm.

For contemporary audiences, it no doubt carried a sardonic edge as the actor was simultaneously embroiled in a scurrilous court trial that all but ruined his reputation for months on end.

Regardless, standing on its own merit, Gentleman Jim might just be one of my new favorite boxing exhibitions and the key is that there’s seemingly no agenda. It ebbs and flows around a life and characters without concerted realism or a need for continual heightened drama. And yet we still find it compelling and jovial with all sorts of moments worth telling the folks at home about.

In fact, that might just be Raoul Walsh’s finest attributes making every scene, action, brawl, what-have-you, totally immersive, effectively involving the audience through his array of shots. While Flynn and Smith are finally in each other’s arms, Jack Carson makes one final call straight to the camera shouting that the Corbett boys are at it again, duking it out in the parlor. Some things never change and the beauty is that we’re in on the joke as much as anyone within the frame. What a delightful biopic. Shamelessly fun to the very last word.

4.5/5 Stars

Captain Blood (1935) Starring Flynn and De Havilland

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To a certain stratum of society — namely classic movie fans — it’s nearly impossible to imagine Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland not being paired together or not being box office draws, for that matter. However, on both accounts, in 1935, the studio was taking quite the risk, still undoubtedly reeling from the heart of the Depression Years and shelling a hefty sum of money for a vehicle essentially starring two unknowns.

Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle, and it remains for all posterity. Scoring, again and again, is quite another matter entirely. The pair would be placed together in an astounding 11 films in total!

This initial entry opens in England in 1685 and a band of patriotic rebels has taken it upon themselves to depose the current tyrant James II. Though he chooses to forego involving himself in the fighting, physician Peter Blood nevertheless goes with them in spirit and is ready and willing to operate on a fugitive who is mortally wounded. However, in the process of attending to the man, the king’s guards burst in upon him and all involved are arrested.

Their future is decided in a trial of pomp, circumstance, and unyielding justice. There are few figures in the legions of contenders as charismatic as Errol Flynn, beginning with his attempt to exonerate himself and extol his own noble profession. Even that fails to keep him from the executioner though the king fancies himself a humanitarian and decides to send the lot of traitors on slave ships to the West Indies instead.

There is a blatant irony in the depictions of white slavery while the deep wounds of black slavery were still being felt in our country through the oppression of Jim Crow Laws and racial injustice. This continues on the island plantation prison where the lads find themselves.

There they are sold on the auction blocks like chattel though much to his shame, Blood finds himself indebted to a pretty matron Arabella Bishop (Olivia De Havilland) who bought him for 10 pounds. Their relationship begins on the rockiest of soil and life thereafter is hard. Though eventually, Dr. Blood gains favor when he cures the hissy hypochondriac governor of his gout, earning himself greater freedom.

And with that the good doctor bides his time, planning an escape to coincide with a timely interruption on the outpost by Spanish Pirates. In the drunken escapades that follow, Blood gathers his men together, switching places with the invaders and a new band of pirates is born. They are a hardy lot including Blood’s faithful pilot and friend Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander), the sturdy gunner Hagthorpe (Guy Kibbee), and one Bible-spouting mate who has a bit of scripture for every occasion (And then the whale came and the whale swallowed Jonah. I hope!).

Their acclaim grows to such an extent that they fall into the company of a band of French Buccaneers led by a salty lady’s man named Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). He and Blood draw up a loose pact which quickly falls apart as they quarrel and end up dueling for the company of their esteemed “guest” Ms. Bishop. Laguna Beach, California ends up filling in for the Caribbean as they have it out in stirring fashion. Flynn and Rathbone were the best of foes when it came to crossing swords, even when they were purportedly allies.

In the final act, the outlaws are redeemed (like Robin Hood anyone?) taking up the banner of the new king William of Orange to fight a valorous battle for the glory of Merry Ol’ England. Thus, in spite of the tumultuous path he traversed, Captain Blood and his boys reach the pinnacle. He’s a hero and, of course, he gets the girl. There’s nothing her indignant uncle can do about it now as he’s been replaced by a far more benevolent governor.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ruefully admit how much I yearn for the epic swashbucklers of old. Captain Blood was the beginning of great successes to come and the type of Hollywood entertainment that is sorely missed today.

Although I hardly can remember their lips even touching, nevertheless, Flynn and de Havilland are fire together, all but cementing a screen partnership that would continue for many more. Even in the final scene together what becomes apparent is this genuinely contagious brand of fun. If anything they make it seem like a blast for the audience.

There’s a splendidly pulsating finale at sea where it’s convenient enough to cast inconsistencies overboard and instead be overwhelmed by the sheer mayhem of 2500 extras called on to do battle and make a show of it. They take to it handily clashing their cudgels, swinging from the yardarms, and falling into the drink, casualties of pistol fire.

Captain Blood is blessed with laughter as much as action and romance. The tenets of quality adventure filmmaking mean the picture enthralls us as much today as in its day because it knows what it means to have a good time. The seriousness can be shed for the sake of light-hearted, invigorating, no holds barred entertainment.

Because in the assured hands of Michael Curtiz, with a dashing new screen idol in Errol Flynn, Captain Blood never loses sight of what makes movies communal and thoroughly gratifying. Movies of old had a habit of being all things to all people, and it’s true this one has it all, I’m delighted to say.

The final testament is a smile imprinted on the face of the viewer as big as Flynn’s jaunty grin. Oh, what we wouldn’t give to be on the deck of that ship brandishing our cutlass and romancing a pretty young maiden just like he does. Maybe that’s my boyhood imagination speaking, but he really is the ideal action hero.

4.5/5 Stars

Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

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This is my entry in The Vive la France Blogathon. Thanks to Lady Eve and Silver Screen Modes for having me!

I recently read some excerpts out of Soren Kierkegaard’s “Attack on Christendom” and the Danish philosopher makes the case “Even when you don’t live by a Christian reality you live in a Christianized world. You know when you offend the collective consciousness.”

Although this context is changing in the present day, it very much fits the world of this film from Jean-Pierre Melville. There is this sense of propriety and a propensity toward specific ways and lifestyles as dictated by the prevailing cultural forces. In this case, the church. Though some choose to kick against the goads and challenge the status quo. That’s where our story commences.

The substantial backdrop of World War II also ties Leon Morin to Silence de la Mer (1949) and then Army of Shadows (1969), which came well after. Because, of course, before his days as the idol of the New Wave and a craftsman of pulp gangster classics, Melville actually worked as a member of a French Resistance himself. You cannot take part in something like that without it totally impacting how you perceive the world.

But there is still an important distinction to be made. This is hardly a war movie. Instead, the war serves as a background for the human experience — a human relationship between a man and a woman. Their relationship starts early in the occupation and stretches beyond the boundaries of V-E Day.

However, the terms seem very suggestive and in an unrefined exploration of the material this would be the case. Still, by some marvel, Melville manages to conduct an astute yet still spellbinding examination of spirituality. The woman: a militant communist. The man: a humble priest of a French parish.

It is two years after Hiroshima Mon Amour. Alain Resnais’s film is one of the most poetic meditations you will ever see on the likes of love, war, and memory. Leon Morin, Priest is certainly different. It is a different kind of cadence and rhythm developing its own sense of a world and the related themes to go with it. But it is supernally evocative in its own right.

Emmanuelle Riva is Emmanuelle Riva, immaculately beautiful with eyes so bright they speak a language unto themselves. The moroseness is evident and yet they flit even momentarily between the cheery and the slightly provocative.

If Riva had her ascension on Hiroshima Mon Amour, Jean-Paul Belmondo was her equal as a nascent shooting star coming off of Godard’s Breathless. In this context, what a curious crossroads to descend upon Leon Morin, Priest. Such a quiet, tranquil picture seemingly more inclined toward the past than any manner of forward thinking. Neither is there a flashy, jazzy lifeblood to it.

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However, in another sense, it could not be more fitting. Melville, as alluded to before, was the Godfather of many of the Nouvelle Vague talents — certainly Godard — and even if it’s only in particular instances, he still has a flair unto his own.

We might note a stripped-down peer like Robert Bresson as reference, but there are abrupt dashes of pizzazz here that feel like the youth of the New Wave, whether in an implied slap to the face or a jarring jump in continuity. The persistent use of fade-outs allows the passage of time to be conceived at a leisurely pace.

The city is such an extraordinary space brimming with character imbued by the sheer amount of years being lived in its midst. At first, the shroud of war is almost a comical distraction. In its early days, solemnity has not set in. Then, the feathered garb of the Italians gives way to the no-nonsense domed blitzkrieg of the Germans.

Families have their children baptized to conveniently hide their Jewish lineage from any prying eyes within the incumbent authorities. Because soon enough, they start deporting undesirables en force. Paranoia and anti-semitism set in, even within our heroine Barny’s own workplace. Fugitives seeking asylum call on her charity in need of ration stamps and a place to gather themselves on their road to freedom.

Then, one afternoon she resolves to give a local priest a piece of her mind during confessions. She settles on the name Leon Morin as he seems like he might be the most receptive party given the peasantry pedigree of his moniker. If we were to label this decision we might label it as nothing short of Providence.

On first impression, Jean-Paul Belmondo feels like an unconventional casting for a member of the cloth. I often allude to his coming out of the tradition of Bogart but could Bogey have played a priest? Hardly. Still, Belmondo pulls it off with a candor, still blunt and true in its implementation. Because he cares deeply for others nevertheless, aided by his plain features and pragmatic perspective which both suit him well.

His dour space with only a desk, a window, and a shelf of books prove a very inviting place. Because he is such a person. At first an unassuming but ultimately charismatic spiritual leader. His lending library is open to Bardy and she begins to visit him and read his books. Somehow battling her urges to doubt due to curiosity and her own desire to gravitate toward him.

She is adamant about scientific proof for God and we begin an interim period that feels like it might be a precursor to Rohmer’s dialogues from My Night at Maud’s. In subsequent days, all the girls start coming to call on the young priest. Whether it’s merely physical attraction or some other ethereal quality about him is never stated outright. This cynical viewer is reminded of the glib aphorism, “flirt to convert.” And yet with each visitor, he comes ready to share the hope that is within him.

Bardy’s assured coworker Marion is one caller and then another very attractive girl who plans to seduce him; it seems she’s in the business of it with a laundry list of conquests going before her. And yet the perplexing aspect of the priest is how impregnable he is even as he welcomes each woman in, cultivates their spiritual well-being, and deals with them in such a frank manner.

Likewise, from the pulpit, he does not spare his words for the congregation sitting before him any given holy day. Recalling much of what Kierkegaard criticized, he warns them not to be merely “Sunday Christians.” “Not living out a Christian life drives away the undecided” and this is nothing new.

Hypocrisy or closer still being little different from everyone else is often one of the greatest faults of people who are deemed “Christian.” He further extolls them, “They should each be an apostle in their own setting.” It is a fallacy that only a priest can do the work of God. So while he speaks with consternation, he wraps it up with a note of hope. Because according to him,  there is “A God whose grace is given to the heretics and believers alike, loved equally in his sight.”

We see even momentarily his guiding force. Why he pursued Barny and did his best to shepherd her. He’s no elitist. His time and services are extended to all people. He lives it out in the day-to-day of life together with others.

When Barny and Morin must finally say goodbye there is so much in the air, gratefulness, sadness, wistfulness — even as she has fallen in love for his righteous guidance and he remains resolved in his mission to tend after the souls of those in his stead.

To merely say this is a conversion story is too simplistic. To claim it’s suggesting the sensuality of forbidden love is off the mark. We already confirmed it is not a war picture. The brilliance of Melville is painting around these conventional lines with the utmost nuance. Of course, the performances are superb. The two cinematic saints in Riva and Belmondo make it possible. The fact we are fallen humans, ripe with warring desires and doubts, make it necessary. Dealing with spirituality in such a perceptive manner is nothing short of a modern miracle.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: Bogart actually did portray a priest in The Left Hand of God toward the end of his career. Thanks for those who pointed it out to me. Much appreciated!

Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Hawks’ Greatest Adventure Movie

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Howard Hawks always had a knack for creating worlds and subsequently building camaraderie between his characters simply by stringing scenes together one after the other. Only Angels Have Wings sets up a premise — revolving around a South American outpost — then settles in on two flyers.  But for all intent and purposes, Joe Souther (Noah Berry Jr.) and Tex Gordon (Don Barry) exist in the periphery of the story.

Despite all this, we’re instantly interested in what they have to do in this world and they’ve got their eyes on a woman (Jean Arthur) exiting a recently landed ship, only to strike up an instant connection as they’re a trio of Americans. A sequence that almost feels ominous initially does a rapid about-face to settle into something a great deal more amiable.

In truth, the introduction of a female heroine fresh off the boat in a foreign land hearkens back to Miriam Hopkins in Barbary Coast. She too was a tough character who was capable of surviving in a rough and tumble boomtown out west. Jean Arthur does much the same in Barranca. Except the difference is Arthur seems adept at showing her flaws with that quirky comic edge of hers.

The other added benefit is Howard Hawks seems about as invested in this picture as he could be due to his own intense preoccupation with big birds in the sky. His surname never seemed apter. The flight sequences follow in the path of Test Pilot exuding a certain authenticity while the narrative itself is unparalleled thanks, in part, to the entire framework built around it. The fascinating assemblage of characters is a testament to the best of what old Hollywood has to offer.

In 20 minutes he’s already enveloped you in an entire cinematic reality full of people, atmosphere, stakes, and danger. The genial owner Dutch (Sig Ruman) is slowly going broke trying to keep the establishment afloat. His last chance is to come through on a 6-month contract of mail deliveries without a failed drop.

Everything he has is riding on it but he’s a man who cares about people and their lives. It’s not merely a business endeavor. It’s about relationship and that’s why everyone likes the man. Even with this kind of impetus, it remains a harrowing life or death operation that Hawks documents with immense clarity.

Lives are still lost because flyers are foolhardy, proud, and daredevil types and yet when you put them up in a plane fighting against the elements and geography, they don’t always come out on top. Modern man and especially the modern aviator of 1939 is far from infallible.

But it’s one of the most gripping flight films buttressed by Hawk’s capacity for lulls and interludes which layer on character to the plotline. It’s imbued with the same spellbinding aura of a Casablanca or To Have or Have Not. There’s a certain ambiance pervading those classics of old and ironically, the moments that give us impressions of the world and the people walking around in them are the ones I’m most likely to imbibe. They speak in basic, visceral terms about men and women and how we cope with one another. How we emote: laugh, cry, get angry, and bury our emotions to avoid getting hurt.

Cary Grant is hard and fierce as ace flyer Geoff Carter who runs the airmail service for Dutch, willingly deferring to him in all matters due to Geoff’s history and expertise. We get the impression our protagonist is embittered by the years of such a tough vocation. His personality at times proves as severe as the brim of his hat.

When I watch Only Angels Have Wings I remember where Devlin came from in Notorious (1946). Because Grant reveals a side of his persona like a double-sided coin. There’s something different hidden under each side and he’s a tortured soul struggling to reconcile the life he leads with feelings he is so inept in expressing. Because the danger of any type of human attachment is that the same person could just as easily be taken out of your life a moment later. Far from despising him for his callous attitudes, it makes him all the more intriguing as a human being. Because every other character brings something out of him.

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Though his career had all but tanked after immense successes with D.W. Griffith in the silent era, Richard Barthelmess has a crucial role as a recently arrived flyer who has an ignominious history under a different name. In a single moment, he broke the unwritten code of the skies, never bale out and leave your copilot high and dry. It’s followed him everywhere he goes like a Scarlett Letter.

What makes it particularly volatile is the fact that the dead man’s brother, The Kid (Thomas Mitchell), a 22 year veteran of the business, is Carter’s right-hand man. This past tragedy causes the aging pilot to seethe with anger as his ill-will toward Macpherson burns under the surface. There is a great deal of unresolved ire between them waiting for release.

In fact, that’s the trait of many of these characters. Because Macpherson has picked up an attractive young wife in his travels. Though Rita Hayworth is in a smaller role as Judy, it’s still significant because most every player is given a piece of the pie. Her connection being the fact she knew Geoff in a former life. They don’t admit it right away but it becomes clear enough. And of course, there’s this uncomfortable chafing as Grant keeps the disgraced pilot in his back pocket to do all the dirty work. He’s handsomely paid for it but there’s no sentimentality or camaraderie.

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Everyone else is a part of Grant’s family as it were. MacPherson is just around for his usefulness. Carter’s relationship with the other man’s wife puts him in yet another position of power to show compassion. He surprises us incessantly and a dose of redemption explodes right out of an inferno of tragedy.

But we have yet to consider Grant and Arthur’s relationship throughout the picture, arguably the film’s most integral and constantly evolving asset. He is a man who can never be tied down; he does not share feelings or expect anything from any woman. And yet hidden away and shrouded from view are these threads of decency running through his life. Ways that he cares for people without letting his virile image slide. The final scene is a fine summation.

The pass is clearing up and despite all that’s gone wrong — he’s only got one good arm for goodness sakes and Bonnie’s about to leave him — there’s still a drive to finish what they started. But there’s a chance to make it through and save their contract and as he goes flying out the door he gives his girl a great big kiss and says he’ll flip her for whether or not she stays or leaves.

Of course, we know full-well the coin he tossed her is from “The Kid.” It’s marked with heads on both sides. She’s hurt at first. Injured by this flippancy and lack of commitment. But then she realizes, turning it over in her hands. In his indirect way, he’s saying he wants her to stay.

Why bring this up at all? As best as I can explain it, this individual scene is so beautifully restrained and nuanced in a way that surpasses other lesser films. Meanwhile, Only Angels Have Wings displays all the delectable glories of a deeply satisfying adventure film from Howard Hawks. There’s drama, romance, friendship, tragedy, and a simplicity to the action lines which nevertheless feels deeply indicative of the human condition.

4.5/5 Stars

The Court Jester (1955): The Brew That Is True

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Maybe I’m simply partial to Medieval forms of entertainment but it’s hard to imagine a finer vehicle for Danny Kaye than The Court Jester. It needs to be lithe enough to accommodate his goofy even acrobatic brand of song-and-dance buffoonery. What better arena for Kaye than the king’s courts, that laughable domain of a man in a dunce cap and tights?

However, equally important is some form of plot for the actor to hang his routine on. The production is complemented exquisitely by a lavish setting replete with fine costuming, bejeweled individuals, and everything from knights and sword fights to magic incantations, backroom treachery, and romantic entanglements.

The humorous tongue-in-cheek opening diddy “Life Could Not Better Be” sets the tone nicely. We are inserted into a storyline that is a decidedly genial Robin Hood knockoff. In his place is our righteous outlaw The Black Fox who is looking to install the rightful king to the throne, the infant with the royal birthmark — the purple pimpernel.

The malevolent, power-hungry King Roderick has usurped the domain and set himself up as the supreme leader of the land, surrounding himself with an array of equally loutish characters, namely Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone). The King is hopeful an alliance with a knight named Griswold will help him to vanquish his mortal foe, the Fox, promising to betroth his reluctant daughter (Angela Lansbury) as a sign of goodwill.

Ravenhurst, fearful that his place of prominence might be undercut, calls on the services of a Court Jester named Giacomo (John Carradine) to do away with the king’s other consorts. However, on the surface, it seems the perfect disguise for the minstrel Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) to aid the Black Fox in his raid on the castle.

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If Kaye is for all intent in purposes our Allan a Dale thrust into our Robin Hoodish role, then Glynnis John is his fair companion Maid Jean (aka Maid Marian) who also happens to be a trusted captain of the Foxes men (aka his capable Little John).

After they overtake the real Giacomo, the carnival showman dons the robes of a jester for the masquerade. He thinks there is only one agenda. To meet a contact within the castle on behalf of The Black Fox. Little does he know, he’s also got to look after the well-being of a precious baby in a basket while unwittingly making a connection with Ravenhurst who assumes him to be an assassin (“Get it?” “Got it.” “Good!”).

Meanwhile, the princess receives an oracle from her personal maid — a witch named Griselda (Mildred Natwick) — that a gallant man will soon arrive at the castle to have her hand. Little does the new Giacomo know he’s now caught up in a third complication as Griselda casts a spell on him turning him into a strapping and virtuous lover with the snap of her fingers — another one of the film’s recurring gags.

After his new entertainment arrives from Italy, the king also sends out an edict that all the fair wenches of the land be brought into his courts and, of course, the lovely countenance of Maid Jean gains the favor of the king, earning her a prestigious place in his company.

As he does his best not to bungle (by purposefully bungling) his floor show to earn the approbation of his master, Kaye must try and resolve the three plans of action put forward, though he’s conveniently forgotten them all.

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Soon our hero is ousted as an imposter and a cunning plan is enacted to red light him for knighthood so he will be eligible to face off against Griswold at the following day’s tournament for the hand of the princess. It’s all but inevitable. He’s a dead man without a chance at survival unless the Black Fox can come in time to take his place! Alas, it is not to be.

Their last-ditch effort is to try and poison Kaye’s formidable foe before they enter into combat. What it sets up is the film’s most beloved gag and one of the most heavily quoted routines there ever was: The Vessel with the Pestle and The Chalice from the Palace. In typical Kaye fashion, he struggles to remember which one holds the brew that is true or as he says it “the true that is brew.” Add the Flagon with the Dragon to the verbal shell game and he’s done for.

The extended hijinks is pure tongue-twisting, mind-boggling perfection, given an added exclamation point by his suit of armor becoming conveniently magnetized. This causes him to continually clunk into his adversary as they present themselves before the king. It couldn’t be funnier. And as a good belly laugh is often hard to come by these days, I was greatly delighted. The scene plays just as well as the first time I’d seen it.

But the antics in part give way to some genuine thrills as the jester leads a daring uprising against their would-be captors capped off by a counter-offensive by their friends. A merry band of little people sneaks in only to terrorize the courts and form a conveyor belt to fling their adversary away from the castle premises with a catapult. What follows is a storming of the castle by the rest of the rebels and a finale of the best comical homage to Technicolor Robin Hood there ever was.

A final duel with Ravenhurst showcases Kaye’s bipolar “dual” personalities. First, the frantic slap fighting of a craven coward, then the cocksure swordsmanship of a man with endless confidence, though it takes some support from his true love to send Ravehurst to his fitting demise.

There, in a nutshell, you have the impeccable concoction of the film reflected in Kaye. He’s a buffoon as much as he is a hero who nevertheless comes out on top thanks to another’s love. With a fairy tale ending such as this, life could not better be. Of course, The Court Jester is spruced up by the very fact it supplies a wagon-load of laughs to supplement a thoroughly agreeable adventure.

4.5/5 Stars