Mirror (1975)

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Andrei Tarkovsky has already left such an indelible impression on me even after only seeing a couple of his films. This already makes it very easy to place him atop that ever fluctuating, never quite established, constantly quarreled over, list of the greatest filmmakers of all time. He’s subsequently one of the members of the fraternity with the least recognition; the key is visibility or lack thereof. Because once you see his work, even if it doesn’t completely speak to you, something is released that’s all its own with a singular vision and the unmistakable brush strokes of an auteur.

There has never been a film more fluid and uninhibited in the distillation of memory than Mirror as it slowly slaloms between the past and the present, enigmatic dreamlike movements with unexplained conversations and encounters, spliced together with bits of wartime newsreels and spoken poetry.

In order to even attempt to ingest any of this rumination at all, there’s a near vital necessity to shed all the traditional forms and languages that you have been taught by years of Hollywood moviegoing.

Not that they are completely excised from Mirror but it’s never driven by logical narrative cause and effect. Rather it’s driven by emotion, rhythm, and feeling — what feels intuitive and looks most pleasing to the eye.

It’s precisely the film that some years ago might have been maddening to me. Because I couldn’t make sense of every delineation culminating in a perfectly cohesive, fully articulated thesis, at least in my mind’s eye. It’s far too esoteric for this to happen. But this unencumbered nature is also rather freeing. There’s no set agenda so as the audience you are given liberty to just let the director take you where he will.

To its core, Mirror gives hints of a very personal picture for Tarkovsky as it memorializes and canonizes pasts memories and shards of Soviet history. Because they are tied together more than they are separate entities. And yet, as much as it recalls reality, Mirror is just what it claims to be. It is a reflection. Where the world is shown in the way that we often perceive it.

The jumbled and perplexing threads of dreams, recollections, conversations, both past and present. Childhood and adulthood, our naivete and our current jaded cynicism, intermingled in the cauldron of the human psyche. Back and forth. Back and forth. Again and again.

Because what we watch is not simply about one individual. As with any life, it’s interconnected with others around it. A woman (Margarita Terekhova) sitting on a fence post during the war years in an interchange with a doctor. In the present, Alexei, our generally unseen protagonist, converses with his mother over the phone. We peer into the printing press where she worked as a proofreader. Rushing about searching for a mistake she purportedly made. Regardless, it hardly matters.

Back in the present Alexei quarrels with his estranged wife on how to handle their son Ignat. The fact that his wife is also played by Terekhova is more of a blessing than a curse. In a passing remark, he notes how much she looks like his mother did and it’s true that she is one of the connecting points. Even as she embodies two different people, the performance ties together the two periods of the film. Visually she is the same and that undoubtedly has resonance to Tarkovsky.

As the film cycles through its various time frames so do the spectrums of the palette. The color sequences have a remarkably lovely hue where the greens seem especially soft and pleasant as if every shot is bathed in sunlight. It’s mingled with the black and white imagery as the story echoes back and forth, past and present, between different shades and coloring. But whereas these alterations often provide some kind of cinematic shorthand to denote a change in time, from everything I can gather, Tarkovsky seems to be working beyond that.

Because there are scenes set in the past that are color, ones in the so-called present that are monochrome, and vice versa. It’s yet another level of weaving serving a higher purpose than merely a narrative one. If I knew more about musical composition I might easily make the claim that Mirror is arranged thus — the cadence relying more on form than typical cinematic structure.

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That and we have Tarkovsky’s long takes (though not as long as some) married with his roving camera that nevertheless remains still when it chooses to. The falling cascades of rain are almost otherworldly in their spiraling elegance. The wind ripping through the trees a force unlike any other though we’ve no doubt seen the very same thing innumerable times. Fires blaze like eternal flames. Figures lie suspended in the air, isolated in time and space. Each new unfolding is ripe for some kind of revelation.

We also might think our subjects to be an irreligious people but maybe they still yearn for a spirituality of some kind. I’m reminded of one moment in particular when, head in her hands, the wife asks who it was who saw a burning bush and then she notes that she wishes that kind of sign would come to her. If there is a God or any type of spiritual world, the silence is unappreciated.

I recall hearing a quote from the luminary director Ingmar Bergman. He asserted the following, “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”

The words are striking to me because you could easily argue Bergman’s films also had such an ethereal even refractive quality. Look no further than Through a Glass Darkly (1961) or Persona (1966) and this is overwhelmingly evident. And yet he considers Tarkovsky the greatest.

This isn’t the time or place to quibble over the validity of the statement. But it seems safe to acknowledge the effusive praise the Soviet auteur has earned for how he dares play with celluloid threads and orchestrate his shots in ingenious ways. He exhibits how malleable the medium can be as an art form while never quite losing its human core.

4.5/5 Stars

Badlands (1973)

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I’ve always maintained a great admiration for Terence Malick, even after only seeing two of his most renowned pictures, Days of Heaven (1978) and Tree of Life (2011). This a testament to his intuitive understanding of the image and how gloriously sublime it can be. It’s true his pictures seem to exist in their own strata, part reality and then this heightened stratosphere verging on the ethereal.

Now I’ve seen a third, his arresting directorial debut Badlands, and it remains obvious that though his career has progressed, his films at their very essence have remained the same. Malick is a Texas native who attended the AFI Conservatory and became a pupil of Arthur Penn.

It’s true you can see a cursory similarity in content between the likes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and this picture because we have the archetypal love-on-the-run narrative. But there’s hardly any confusing them in terms of execution.

Penn’s picture is upbeat, sensual, and almost flippant with these youths in revolt. It does feel like a kind of a statement for the 1960s. But Malick’s film is entirely matter-of-fact, a bit detached, and mystical. Even the music plays into this almost timeless quality that sets it outside of a specific timeline even as it functions as a kind of period piece.

We have a vacant serenity playing a backdrop to all the action with canvasses bathed with soft hues of light. As best as I can describe it there’s a dreamy, gossamer-like tint to the imagery. It feels warm and welcoming at first with a calm cadence until it no longer can exist as such.

Aided by Sissy Spacek’s innocent gaze of mundane wonderment in the world, it’s a southern story of the grimiest sort, which somehow winds up being a fairy tale romance in her eyes. Her voiceover is what holds the film together and never allows it to lose this illusory quality.

Loosely based on The Starkweather case, Kit Caruthers (Martin Sheen) is a high school drop out who collected garbage for a time and fashioned himself after James Dean’s rebellious reputation. He introduces himself to the hesitant, naive Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) who nevertheless finds him intriguing. Though many years her senior, they start accompanying one another, much to her father’s chagrin (Warren Oates). He knows the boy is no good.

Kit was never someone to let others dictate his life for him and with cool calculation, he moves forward with a plan, taking Holly with them as he goes out on the road. They commence a life together out in the open and it feels a bit like Robinson Crusoe. It’s no small coincidence they read Kon Tiki while lounging in a tree house they have constructed by themselves. It’s a far cry from its predecessors at this point.

Like Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands is a film depicting killings dotted across the land and yet they are, again, matter-of-fact, even forgettable, which seems terribly callous to admit. But there simply is not the same blatantly violent, in your face, bloodshed of the earlier picture. Continually any amount of drama is replaced with a trance-like dreamscape, aided by the fact writer, producer, director Terrence Malick was never one for intricate, pulse-pounding plotting.

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He is a filmmaker and he gifts us indelible panoramas of America. A billboard set up against rolling prairies and the most glorious of cumulonimbus clouds. Naturescapes cultivated with luscious greens that might be found in Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970) and frolicking easily at home in the works of Renoir. Conversely, we have a house burning that feels like an otherworldly funeral pyre. The old must burn to give way to the newfound promised land Kit and Holly are embarking for.

While the image is always paramount in a Malick film, one could argue the music also has a hallowed place with Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer” adding this oddly tinny, adventurous note to the score. Then, Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell” provides an immaculate encapsulation of romantic ideals whether our fugitive lovers are driving, dancing, or just taking in the scenery. It’s perturbing to have something so melodious play in the wake of such brutality.

To say the film reaches a conclusion is slightly deceptive. More so, it simply fades away. Finally, some local police catch up with them. First, they send a helicopter and then a police car is dispatched. Holly is left behind and caught. She recounts how she moved on with her life after Kit, getting off on her charges and marrying the man who defended her. And Kit was caught too but it came on his own terms. He accepts it with his usual unemotional equanimity.

Watching Martin Sheen in these moments is riveting because he seems content with how things have run their course. As friendly and personable as you might expect and yet capable of such dehumanizing evil. It’s the dissonance of these scarring acts of aggression followed by him pragmatically fielding questions with the media and then being shipped off to his execution with his guard wishing him well. How can such a man exist?

There is no reason to Kit. He simply commits to actions, which are completely detached from any feeling. And yet he is simultaneously capable of some amount of human connection and camaraderie. It leads me to surmise he is a character who could never exist outside the context of celluloid. There you have part of what makes him such a compelling study. Because other films have already filled out the contours of disillusioned antiheroes and killers to our heart’s content.

Like any admirable filmmaker, Malick provides us with a novel distillation of age-old themes. He makes the accepted paradigms feel fresh and perplexing again. Thankfully for us, he’s never ceased going down a road paved with his own vision and personal preoccupations. Because at its best, his individuality is capable of speaking to willing audiences in fundamentally unique ways.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Pather Panchali (1955)

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Pather Panchali is one of those films that instantly helps you to recognize the merit of the cinema. It’s a cultural artifact allowing us to come to grips with the fact there is a world far larger than our little pocket of existence. Satyajit Ray does that for us here in his affecting debut by relating India to us through stark realism. It pierces to the core and captivates its audience through simple beauties. Simultaneously, he manages to touch on universal truths that prove our very commonalities as human beings.

I must admit to being fairly ignorant about many of the nooks and crannies of international film and so I needed this movie just like I needed the work of Ousmane Sembène and no doubt the films of many other directors still yet to be discovered.

In this particular instance, I deeply appreciated Pather Panchali because this is not a story told by Rudyard Kipling about a British Colony or even a Hollywood adaptation of an albeit heartwarming tale like Lion (2016). This is Ray’s picture. For all intent and purposes, told from his perspective as he so chooses. He has agency if we desire to use the terminology. It allows this to be a truly intimate portrait crafted by a budding Indian visionary as a showcase to the world abroad.

Ravi Shankar is best remembered for his connection to George Harrison but his score featured here, consisting solely of his virtuoso sitar playing, adds a strain of traditional instrumentation, further blessing the film with a sense of native identity.

Maybe this is a highly romanticized portrait. I cannot personally speak to this either, but there is a paradoxical even spellbinding quality to the imagery as it unfolds. We are seeing the everyday lives of this family. We see them in their humble means, their poverty even, and yet though we are cognizant of it, somehow it doesn’t completely register because their world somehow manages to be so rich.

The reflections in a stream reminded me of the images in Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) when he captures the light through the trees. Ray is equally content with documenting the immaculate construction of nature at hand. Delicate as it is magnificent.

But against this backdrop, he unfurls a perceptive slice of life that’s its own brand of neorealism — never rushing the ordinary moments — allowing them the space to unfold of their own accord. It methodically seeks out the fascination in these common things such as the whistling of the wind, passing trains, water lilies, and incoming rainstorms.

Still, it’s about the people too and they make up the glut of the story. The most mundane of these moments made me smile with fond recognition. Two boys playing tic tac toe on their slate instead of doing sums at school. A dog and cat pawing at one another. A little boy combing his stringy locks of black hair or running around his family’s rickety home with his homemade bow and arrow as his mom chides him to finish his food.

Instead of an ice cream truck, they have a traveling sweet seller and they always beg their father for money when they see the man off in the distance. Sometimes they get it but more often they follow him to their neighbor’s to see if their playmates were so lucky as to get some sweets.

The individual characters we meet are no less intriguing and all of them, as far as I know, are amateur performers. The big sister Durga takes fallen fruit from a neighbor’s yard to give to her old auntie. But such practices get her accosted and labeled a nuisance. Auntie meanwhile, moves creakily, her face weathered by a tough life, hunched over and missing most of her teeth. Yet there’s still fight left in her and an indefatigable spirit.

The husband, though he struggles to provide for his family and oftentimes doesn’t even get paid regularly when he is working, aspires to write in his few idle hours because his forefathers were authors in their own right.

His wife has her own fears about being alone so often as he’s off at work or trying to find work. It leaves her by herself taking care of their degrading home and watching over their kids in a society with a poor support system. She has no one to turn too aside from the humiliating charity of neighbors.

Then, last but not least is little Apu and while he might not be our main character — all the family play equally important roles — it’s his point of view that’s most accessible. Ray clings to his face with soft zooms or closeups catching his reactions to all sorts of events. Young Apu peers at the world inquisitively with steely eyes. Very rarely does he speak but he’s a constant observer of the everyday.

He’s the herald of letters which come few and far between when his father is away. He and Durga frolick around the train tracks as the belching locomotive passes by. He gets into his sister’s humble cache of foil in her toy box to craft a prince’s crown. Then shares sleeping quarters with his sister in their meager lean-to that looks like it will all but collapse in the wake of the rainy season.

Certainly, there are dramatic turns in the broader story of this family unit but they are rooted in the real-life events that we experience in the day-to-day. Debts to pay off. Saving face with the neighbors who needlessly gossip. Family members passing away. Husbands gone with barely a word because lines of communication are difficult. The innate desire to want more out of life even if it’s a simple home to call your own and a better future for your kids.

What makes Pather Panchali resonate to the very last frame as we watch this family move on to the next stage in their life, is not how different they are from us. It’s how similar. Because, yes, this is a picture of an impoverished Indian family but it no doubt can speak into any person’s life who is willing to be open to its story like an inquisitive child. Ready and willing to see the world for all its innumerable complexities both the sorrowful and the joyously light.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: The Quiet Man (1952)

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When you think of the combination of John Ford and John Wayne, it’s only normal to conjure up the quintessential western pairing. It’s true there are so many films that we could pay a nod to like Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), etc.

Thus, when considering such company The Quiet Man always felt like an obvious outlier and yet I’ve always been taken with it for those exact reasons. John Ford was an Irishman through and through. He made The Informer in 1935 and though How Green was my Valley (1941) was based around a Welsh family it might as well be considered an analogous world.

But with this picture, we see Ford’s final venture into such a country — the homeland of his people and there’s certainly an idealized quality to it. Where the Catholics priests (Ward Bond) pretend to be Protestants when the local magistrate comes through the village to inspect the parish. Where the colorful figures of the village, despite small stature, are painted with bright and jovial strokes that nevertheless seem larger than life. There’s nothing lackluster about them and no harm in that.

Stereotypically wrought or dated by today’s standards you might say but Ford is undoubtedly paying a final homage to the lore of his ancestors. A history that stretches further back than many of us might be able to comprehend. There’s a surprising affection that courses through the picture. If not simply in the people than certainly through the capturing of scenery as well.

Exterior sets aside, the on-location imagery is on par with John Ford’s most  resplendent scenes from Monument Valley. There couldn’t be a sharper contrast either in Winston Hoch’s photography of rolling hills with the arid plains that define most of the indelible visuals from Utah. Again, that makes them all the more resonate, the true epitome of lush mise en scene.

Because The Quiet Man is a film that is continually blessed by a big screen where the Technicolor tones overwhelm you with their fervent grandeur only surpassed by the feisty fire bursting forth from Maureen O’Hara. Ireland has never looked more gorgeous and the same can be said of the bonniest lass I did ever lay eyes on clothed in red and blue. Victor Young’s score proves to run the paradoxical gambit between utter serenity and majesty with playful dips to match the film’s own backbreaking brand of broad comedy.

Sean Thorton (John Wayne) makes the pilgrimage to the little community of Innisfree intent on buying back his childhood home and finding himself a local bride. He’s reticent as to why exactly he’s decided to return. But regardless, the yank is not accustomed to the way the world works in the old country. He is in need of some sagely council.

Sean’s main guide is the bright-eyed leprechaun in human form (Barry Fitzgerald) who becomes his matchmaker, the liaison between him the and barrel-chested bully Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen). Though Sean is taken with the man’s sister, he can’t call on her until the squire gives his consent and a squabble over some real estate makes their relationship tenuous at best.

There are certain sensibilities. Certain customs that are unspoken law of the land. Life moves a little slower too.  But when it does move it rolls down the roadways with a blistering pace of good-natured thunder. Local horse races become the arena for men to exercise their prowess and win the favor of the local ladies through feats of athleticism leading to a bonnet-lined finish.

Sean finally gets some consent and the courtship begins though Flynn constantly warns against any amount of “Paddy Fingers.” And they get on well enough until Mary Kate, being the proud woman that she is, demands her husband collect the dowery that is rightfully hers. He could care less about the money or her hulking brother and yet he declines. She figures him a coward and not to be touted as such, he finally relents, ready to have it out with his rival onece and for all.

To make his point, he deals with both of them setting up The Quiet Man’s exemplary showdown. It’s a final fist-throwing wallop fest that’s all spectacle. The whole town runs rampant across the countryside as the two men (Wayne and McLaglen) wail on each other. Back and forth. One decked. The other pushed, kicked or whacked. They’re on the receiving end of a face full of water and start it all over again. In the end, its all in good fun and that’s how this movie would have it. There’s little need to take it too seriously. The pure enjoyment factor is one of its most laudable virtues.

It’s also the stuff of legend what Maureen O’Hara was coaxed by her director to whisper to Duke in those last moments. The words are said michievously and his face lights up with sheer incredulity. For me, it doesn’t matter because his expression says it all and the way she playfully leads him off into the distance, enticing him to follow her across the row of stones, is so candid.

The chemistry between them is as real as anything I’ve ever seen on screen. He whips her around and drags her along, gives her a slap, and yet she’s got fire enough to face off against him and give him a run for his money. She keeps him on his toes and he goes to great lengths just to be with her. The Quiet Man works because that central dynamic is robust and still equally passionate. Their natural affinity for one another cannot be counterfeit. It’s too sincere. It’s what made them so iconic together and it’s part of what made John Ford’s The Quiet Man an idiosyncratic and still thoroughly luxuriant classic.

5/5 Stars

Paris, Texas (1984)

Paris,_Texas_(1984_film_poster).pngIt occurs to me only someone with an outsider’s perspective would choose to make this movie, which is void of any typical Hollywood flair. No American would have thought in a million years to cast Harry Dean Stanton (a lifelong character actor) and Dean Stockwell (an all but forgotten child star) while capturing such a cross-section of America. Therein lies a moderate amount of the allure in Paris, Texas

We must begin with the locales. There’s little doubt they are indeed as American as they come and yet director Wim Wenders, backed by a joint French and West German venture, has embarked on something distinctly his own. The film’s title perfectly reflects this blending of Americana with European sensibilities. 

Of course, the Heartland of the U.S.A. is evident as well. Anyone who has trekked across Middle America stayed in a cheap motel or found the nearest rest stop knows it well because it turns up so many other places aside from Texas.

It is a film reflecting the degradation of America as much as the austere beauty. Cinematographer Robby Muller captures rundown junk, forgotten turn-offs, billboards, and roadside diners because they are just as much a part of the American experience as any amount of decadence. One might say they are even more indicative of the generally accepted cultural status quo. 

Especially in its opening moments, Paris, Texas readily evokes a bit of the ruggedness of the Old West. What others might envision as the mystique of America with one of its distinctly original mythologies. It is the kind of imagery at home in a Ford picture who was himself one of the foremost purveyors of the American mythos.

The hard-edged twang of Cy Cooder’s utterly distinctive slide guitar score gives us a very concrete inclination of our world. The only time I can recall anything similar might be the minimalist music to go along with Murder by Contract (1958).

Travis materializes in our story almost like an extra-terrestrial life form. He wears his iconic ensemble of a red baseball cap with his suit and tie. Red tones course through the entire film in fact. There’s no missing it again and again. However, in these opening moments, it does feel like Travis never had a true beginning just as he merely dissipates in the end. This almost otherworldly quality readily dictates the entire conventionality of the landscape.

When his brother Walt (Stockwell) receives news of his whereabouts he goes to fetch him. He and his wife (Aurore Clement) are the ones with feet firmly placed in a sort of reality. He is a billboard ad man and they have taken in Hunter (Hunter Carson) as their own son.

Stanton is catatonic and yet there is a near robotic purposefulness to his steps. He has a bit of Forrest Gump but this is not quite right. He undoubtedly is plagued by some form of amnesia, which nonetheless is never fully acknowledged. Walt expects his brother to talk after four years off the grid and he rarely obliges. 

As they travel back to Los Angeles, the movie rolls along leisurely, content to be almost cavalier with its runtime. Because it wouldn’t be a road trip if you didn’t take your sweet time but it’s certainly a European strain of road film.

As such we might easily segment Sam Shepard’s story it into three parts. The opening moments in Texas set the scene, there’s the interim in Los Angeles, environmentally so different, and then the final odyssey back into the heart of Texas.

Surely the film lacks pure authenticity but instead, we are met with a spellbinding subtlety equal parts poetic and mundane. We must only watch the characters a few moments to know they hardly function as we would.

It starts with Stanton and radiates out from there down to his son and finally his long-lost wife Jane (the exquisite Nastassja Kinski ) who is the object of his journeying. There is parental negligence going all but unquestioned. They never seem to cling to bitterness even the little boy seems mature beyond his years, ready to embark to the ends of the earth with his recently arrived father. It’s as if this one quest galvanizes their relationship without question. There is no need to put words to it. They intuitively understand each other as flesh and blood, no matter the years that may have gotten between them.

Stanton himself is a walking corpse who nonetheless never seems in need of sustenance or sleep. And the extraordinary phenomenon, thanks to time, is the establishment of a new status quo, a slightly modified version of the world, which we readily come to accept. Maybe it’s the foreigners perspective I mentioned in passing or a more pensive contentment with the world. I cannot say exactly lest the film loses some power.

Regardless, the final act by some piece of cinematic ingenuity manages to be gripping. Perhaps as an audience, we become more attuned and simultaneously conditioned to the pacing. Because while the journey might seem slight it’s no less of a journey. 

With one concrete lead — a bank in Houston, Texas — father and son set off to find the third member of their fragmented family, staking out the bank with walkie-talkies and waiting for her to arrive. Finally, she does and Travis finally makes contact in a garish back alley peep show.

However, ironically, despite the sullied outer layer, it’s in this environment of anonymity provided by a phone connection and a two-way mirror that allows him to communicate with her in the adjoining room. The pretenses of such a place fall away as the film manages to unearth a tragic intimacy of heartbreak and melancholy in the wake of lost love.

The immaculately staged climax is made up of a monologue — a moment shared between a man and a woman — as he recounts their story. It’s a single scene that must go on for 10, 15, 20 minutes. Except we never realize it. She thinks she is providing a service to the person on the other end of the line, being a listening ear, and she is. But then he solemnly recounts their romance and recognition begins to don on her face.

He pours out his heart matter-of-factly and honestly, turned away from the glass as not to see her in this compromising world. It makes it exponentially easier for the words to leave his lips as she listens captured in every painful recollection just as he is. But there is no emotional outbreak, breaking of glass, or the like. This is purely an exercise in loneliness and regret.

Not until after the fact does the boldness of this scene set in because it’s so easy to get caught up in the moment. We understand the implications and yet we’re desperately trying to perceive the situation, wanting to know if she recognizes him. Even more so we want to know what they will do.

Striking the perfect note of resolution and continued inscrutability, mother and son are finally reunited in a maternal embrace and just as he arrived into the world, Travis fades into the night just as easily.

I can imagine Paris, Texas is a place that is meaningful to Travis just as Nevers and Hiroshima hold importance to the lovers in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). It’s really not a place at all but a part of his identity, a destination he is hoping to get to, a dream he is doggedly pursuing on earth. He is ever searching, always wandering, but in the midst of it, he maintains an unswerving capacity for love. Even though he’s made mistakes we can hardly comprehend, family remains his guiding compass.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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From its opening motif of a man nitpicking the arrangement of reindeer in a shop window, Miracle on 34th Street skates away on a delightful journey that evokes both fanciful whimsy and a liberal amount of holiday sentimentality. However, it’s also one of the finest examples and greatest purveyors of holiday cheer ever and that’s in spite of an original theatrical release that Daryl Zanuck slated for the summer of 1947.

Still, all of this aside, the major heartbeat and the effervescence of the picture falls on the shoulders of that precocious gentleman Edmund Gwenn in the most iconic performance of his career. No matter your leanings, be it a sentimentalist or a pragmatic realist, at the very least, he makes you want to believe in Santa Claus. And what’s striking is how he embodies such a man.

Because we could get into a debate on whether he is the real thing or if he truly is delusional and thus, we would have to be alarmed by this entire ordeal. Yet the results speak for themselves as do the fruits of his labor which help to uplift an entire city.

It’s true that he lays down a trail of hints from the outset at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade about his origins. If you’re paying attention and know the score they are easy enough to notice. However, he’s never pompous in proclaiming his exploits.

What draws everyone to him is this genial charm that cannot be fabricated. It’s all him.  There is no shred of an egomaniac or a mentally disturbed person. In fact, he feels the complete antithesis of many of the adjectives we might toss out to describe the commercialized Christmas so prevalent today (and even back then).

Alfred, the young janitor, and a personal favorite expresses the sentiment aptly. “It’s all about, Make a buck. Make a buck. There are a lot of bad “isms” to choose from but arguably the worst is commercialism.”  And it’s Kris who helps to rail against that holiday status quo when he finds himself working as Macy’s floor Santa.  In fact, it almost feels like a necessity that all these things come to pass because not only are people forgetting about him but more importantly, they are forgetting the core tenets of the season.

There are several scenes in particular that put a heartbeat to a little bit of the magic that courses through this picture — a picture that director George Seaton dearly wanted to make as did John Payne. Because it exudes something so remarkable that has proved timeless in years since. Even Maureen O’Hara, though initially skeptical of returning to Hollywood from her oasis in Ireland, relented because she was taken by the story.

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As someone always interested in the periphery, one of my favorite moments involves Thelma Ritter. It’s only a small sequence but she plays a harried mother who wants to go home and soak her feet after struggling to find her son a toy fire engine. The joy is watching Santa put the color back into her face when he incredulously evokes the spirit of giving. She’s flabbergasted by this unprecedented piece of goodwill. It’s the calling card of a true Santa.

Then there’s the little Dutch girl who pleads with her foster mother to see Santa. And it’s pure magic, again, because they form a connection when Santa breaks out into her mother tongue and they’re able to sing a Christmas song together. There’s so much underlying context made beautiful by the fact that we have to read deeper to extract the meaning. Surely viewers knew this girl was a casualty of WWII but beyond that, the fact that Santa is able to cross this perceived language divide is in itself a near miracle.

As someone who does not speak Dutch, I’m not privy to the precise conversation but it’s easy to empathize because here Santa Claus has made someone on the outside feel known and loved. It’s telling these precise events strike a chord with young Susan (Natalie Wood) also.

Certainly, it’s about time to fill in the story’s nucleus and of course, sandwiched in between this broader narrative, involving so many people, is a very personal one. It really is a case study and it’s noted as such by Kris Kringle and his devoted follower Fred (John Payne). They fight a two-front war to work on the most obdurate, rational minds in New York, Doris (O’Hara) and her pragmatic little girl Susan (Wood) who has been trained up by the best.

Ironically, Kris’s war on commercialism very much subverts the longheld spirit of capitalism as we watch the foremost toy companies, namely Macy’s and Gimbel’s pitted against each other looking to outdo one another in the realms of helpfulness and good cheer.  It’s simultaneously hilarious and downright uplifting.

But there must be more because goodness very rarely moves forward wholly unimpeded. The antagonist in this scenario is a curmudgeon, insignificant company psychologist named Sawyer (Porter Hall in a particularly testy role) whose own misgivings about holiday cheer cause him to suggest Kris be put in a mental institution. The case of the holiday season begins when Santa is put on trial.

There is a logical conclusion with a respected judge (the character journeyman Gene Lockhart) presiding but don’t expect it because this is a story about miracles and a film about intangibles and a jolly old man spinning his spellbinding magic for the good of mankind.

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To the last knowing wink, it tests our faith in the man but even today it never seems like a picture to outright shirk reality. Instead, it’s more founded on cultivating all that is good and life-giving when you tone down the hard-edged pragmatics that leave no room for imagination or faith of any kind.

Because oftentimes, when those reservoirs are sucked completely dry, you are left with people who lack joy, contentment, charity, and goodwill for their fellow man. From such wastelands come the Mr. Sawyers. If you close yourself off completely to this season or this film, you might just feel yourself left a little empty inside.

More than anything else, Miracle on 34th Street is a story of childlike faith as this is much of what the season is supposed to be indicative of. The ultimate gifts of love, joy, and peace require an openness in order to receive them fully.

All there is left to do is to close with an excerpt of prose far more learned and impassioned than my own, penned to an inquisitive girl named Virginia. Because this film very well could be the proof behind the words:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished…Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

5/5 Stars

The Narrow Margin (1952)

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The Narrow Margin is comprised of tight and lean drama where every bit of film is used judiciously. This should rightfully earn it respect as one of the preeminent shoestring budget films of all time within any genre.

Because it’s easy to admire films that do a fine job with a plethora of resources and financial capital but what about those pictures working with very little? It seems like concocting something special with limited resources should be considered even more impressive. If you follow this logic, The Narrow Margin is an unrivaled success — a micro-budget masterpiece — that does a great deal to separate itself from the pack of lesser B-grade crime pictures.

Richard Fleischer gets lost among the big-named directors tagged to the big-named productions but when it came to small pictures he made some pretty decent ones and The Narrow Margin just might be one of the finest B pictures, period. But I think I already said that. Still, it’s worth saying twice.

If we had anything close to a star it would be Charles McGraw as a cop named Brown who has been assigned a case along with his veteran partner (Don Beddoe), an assignement neither one of them particularly relishes. They’ve been burdened with the task of protecting the widow (Marie Windsor) of a notorious gangster who has agreed to be the key witness before a grand jury.

It’s an extremely dangerous proposition as there’s a whole network of syndicate members who don’t want their names to get out. They’re ready to stop this mystery dame at any cost and by any means necessary.

The opening lines of dialogue come off as idle patter but they set up the entire scenario as the two policemen get ready to pick up the woman who will cause immense complication in their professional lives.

It’s a simple question really: What kind of woman would marry a gangster? Meanwhile, there’s a tension in the air and conflict pervading the film. Every waking minute is blessed with an air of constant confusion. Identities of everyone are all but in question. We don’t quite know what’s going on. We’re in the same place as the cops and that’s the key.

What follows is an astonishingly intense and immersive storyline that has no right to be either of those things. Still, it’s an undeniable fact. Faceless criminals in fur-lined coats lurk in the shadows ready to fill men full of lead. Tails loiter ominously at train stations for their mark. Men snoop around train cars trying to find out secrets. Lives are constantly in jeopardy. There’s not a moments peace for the chronically paranoid cops or the audience.

The majority of the picture takes place aboard a train bound for Los Angeles with the danger being crammed into a limited space with good guys and bad guys constantly trying to evade and outwit each other. They all vie for the upper hand in this continuously see-sawing game of cat and mouse. Because in simple terms that’s what it is. A cinematic game of cat and mouse.

But The Narrow Margin proves to be a fine train noir for the contours it develops to help strengthen this basic premise. It’s a rumbling ride complete with a fat man to stop up all the passageways, acerbic dames, and suspicious young boys wary of train robbers. It has character beyond a rudimentary crime film and that’s immeasurably difficult to convey in 73 minutes of celluloid. But Earl Felton’s script manages this near impossible feat.

For other films, the limited space would cause the action to become stagnant even tepid whereas, in this picture, those precise elements are turned on their heads as a true advantage. Though the film is starkly different, the original Alien (1979) similarly used consolidated space to hike the tension to uncomfortable heights. You get the same sense here.

But the great films also aren’t completely straightforward. Their rhythms might look familiar but they play against our preconceived expectations, thus allowing us to enjoy their bits of intrigue and the added payoffs they’re able to deliver. However, whether are not you’re able to predict everything that gets thrown at you is beside the point because the true satisfaction comes in the overall rush of the experience. This one is a gem, a diamond pulverized under filth and grime only to come out scintillating. Enjoy it for what it is.

4.5/5 Stars

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

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The making of Aguirre, The Wrath of God might be as rich in myth as the film itself which charts a semi-fictitious story of Francisco Pizarro’s expedition to discover the golden kingdom of El Dorado. Not only was it the beginning of director Werner Herzog’s notoriously stormy partnership with Klaus Kinski, but it was also shot entirely on location in Peru — a logistical nightmare in its own right.

Herzog purportedly penned the screenplay in a matter of days while riding the bus with his football club. Meanwhile, many of his resources including his camera and film stock had been purloined from Munich Film School years earlier as required tools of his trade.

In conception alone, it proves titillating as a piece of Spanish history from the point of view of a monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, traveling in a pioneering convoy led by the crazed adventurer Aguirre. But it is colonial history by way of West Germany circa 1972.

The opening images are some of the most breathtaking in the film or maybe in any film. We are instantly hooked as angelic tones herald from above and shrouds of mist engulf the mountaintops. Legions of men and natives weave their way down through the treacherous territory. It feels instantly recognizable.

Because I recall hiking up the side of a mountain one Christmas vacation with friends. As we wound our way up and I could see the edge and the drop off below, I realized rather matter-of-factly, “I really don’t like heights that much.” It comes with playing minds games. Caring too much about where you’re feet are and imagining yourself taking a false step and ending up in the chasm. Tossing some biodegradable object down there is certainly invigorating as it spirals down until you think to yourself that might just as easily be you.

Some of those same friends, more adventurous than me would actually go on to hike Macchu Pichuu the next year. Long story short I wasn’t available but I’m not sure if I would have joined the trip. Far from simply being a long-winded illustration of my cowardice or lack of adventurousness, I think it somehow makes sense in relation to the mesmerizing introduction of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

There are those same perilous heights presented here simultaneously awesome and equally harrowing. For good measure, we watch a container of what looks to be chickens dropped and go hurtling down to the rocks below with a crash. We half expect a couple of people to follow.

This trailblazing along the Amazon River totally embroils them in the muck and the mire. Slaves are seen clumsily carrying a cannon and a lady’s litter in the most forsaken of places. It’s absolutely ludicrous. Next, they tackle the rapids on hastily constructed rafts. If you’re prone to seasickness don’t even dare watch the sequence which is yet another instance of fully enveloping cinematography.

The camera spattered with water is continuously bobbing up and down enough to make even a viewer queasy. The incredulous thing is we are only an outside observer and yet we get impacted so. It becomes increasingly apparent Werner Herzog will readily allow himself to suffer for his art. Not just in this picture but from everything I know Fitzcarraldo (1982) too. He doesn’t fudge on any of the locations. Why do this to himself? Just look at the results for your answer.

Green screens, CGI, studio lots. None of those methods could give us anything half as real as this picture. They seem positively quaint and nondescript compared to the astounding atmosphere he’s able to capture. It’s the same authenticity here validating such laborious works as Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Revenant (2015).

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Meanwhile, Kinski totters around the space half like he’s drunk, the other half pure craziness. The film benefits by this razor-thin dividing line between fiction and reality not simply in its environment but also in its actors. He reminds me of the animal magnetism of Toshiro Mifune in a picture like Seven Samurai (1954). You can’t help but keep your eyes on him for the next unthinkable thing he’s about to do.

The weight of Kinski’s crazed performance comes mostly out of the fact that we constantly expect him to do something completely unhinged. He treads dangerously right on the precipice of sanity ready to jump at any moment. Furthermore, Herzog never leaves him alone. His face is constantly being examined time and time again because personal space is all but nonexistent.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God settles into a status quo that is far more pensive than I was expecting. The narrative is full of insurrection but more pervasive is the ever-present dangers suggested by negative space, undoubtedly swimming with stealthy savages. And the fear of the great unknown never ends.

People are killed or die with little fanfare. Those soldiers still living suffer from fever and malnutrition. Their king propped up by Aguirre is an oafish lout. In the figure of Caravajal especially one is further reminded of the oppressive guise Christianity took in this age like many others before and after. Outsiders come in with such a hypocritical superiority complex.

In the end, the only thing Aguirre commands is a raft swarming with monkeys, frankly one of the most indelible images in the film and a fitting point of departure. Though it’s mere coincidence, I watched Terrence Malick’s film Badlands (1973) recently. What it shares with Aguirre which is so captivating is this illusory quality. We have a framework of a conventional tale, in this case, an adventure into the dark murky depths of uncharted territory. And there are moments when we have mutiny, death, starvation, momentary battles but what sets it apart from anything else is the imagery.

Like Malick’s picture, it verges on the dreamlike in a way that is utterly hypnotic. The power is not so much in the excess of things happening one after another but in this continual, unswerving articulation of near monotonous insanity.  In both films, a certain kind of madness takes over and becomes the new status quo. Somehow Aguirre manages to be so immersive and yet leave us still feeling so detached at the same time. The descent into hellish depths is a shared experience, as much documentary as it is historical fiction. But it is also a hallucination.

4.5/5 Stars

NOTE: This is my entry in THE GREATEST FILM I’VE NEVER SEEN BLOGATHON hosted by MOON IN GEMINI!

 

Review: In a Lonely Place (1950)

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Director Nicholas Ray customarily takes his material and subverts our expectations or better yet deconstructs the conventions that we often take for granted. But this is also matched with his penchant for showing a very raw and honest percolation of emotion. It causes every one of his movies to leave a perceptible toll on the audience because it’s difficult to have any other response. In a Lonely Place is another textbook example.

Here is a film with a murder plot which would normally be of primary concern. Instead, it ends up falling by the wayside to become nearly unimportant. It sounds almost callous to make such a claim since a life is at stake but then there is a bit of a detached quality permeating the picture.

A brooding Humphrey Bogart is at his most explosive as screenwriter Dixon Steele, a man with some talent, but a very odd way of exercising it. He’s an exasperating case for many in the industry, including his agent. Art Smith provides a wonderfully vivid performance as the agent nursing his ulcers while still faithfully standing by his client despite the turbulent nature of his temper. (Coincidentally Smith was featured in the earlier Dorothy B. Hughes adaptation Ride the Pink Horse).

It’s true “Dix” can be a tough man to figure out. Bogart may have played more appreciated, more iconic characters but there’s something especially raw about him here.

On top of Bogart’s performance, this is Nicholas Ray’s own examination of the Hollywood industry’s mechanisms, spitting out has-beens and flops as much as fame and fortune. There’s the continuous inner conflict between making a smash — the kind of trashy stuff that sells — and then trying to create something of worth on the spectrum of art.

If we had to draw up thematically similar films, All About Eve is a more flamboyant choice and Sunset Blvd. boasts the cynical edge but In a Lonely Place probably deserves to keep the same company with these noted classics from 1950 as a film of truly morose sentiments. It’s not simply cutting through the artifice of Hollywood. It’s trying to provide a deeper study of the people who are cogs of the industry.

After a precocious hat check girl (Martha Stewart) is found murdered it sets off an investigation by the police force. As Steele had requested the girl come over to his home to give him the plot summary of the low brow novel he is meant to adapt, just hours before her demise, he is placed on the top of the lists of suspects.

Conveniently, his neighbor across the courtyard, a bit part actress (Gloria Grahame at her most aloof and restrained), who he hardly knows, is brought in and vouches she saw him and it’s not a lie. He really was at home and he did not commit the crime.

If we wanted to, we could leave the story right there but that’s not all the film is working away at. It unravels in other ways too. In another world, this almost voyeuristic setting could have been made for Rear Window (1954) but this is not that film either.

Frank Lovejoy is the average cop with a thoughtful wife (Ms. Jeff Donnell) — a genuinely nice guy who knows “Dix” from back in their war days. He takes orders but he also has an inherent confidence in Steele as a human being. At any rate, he wouldn’t be prone to killing girls and so Brub helps to humanize this man in the eyes of the audience.

And yet there are still some troubling caveats on Dixon Steele. He owns a history of violent outbreaks but it goes beyond this. There’s a raging darkness that is part of his makeup as a character. He is tortured by hatred and by his own accompanying desolation. We can chalk it up to a number of things. His own personality. His lack of consistency. The often cruel industry that became his livelihood. It could be any number of these things or all of them.

In fact, for a film noir, the outcomes prove to be unique. It has murder but we never see it. There’s an actress who played countless femme fatales playing a slightly different iteration here. Even Bogart, though carrying a simmering temper that goes off on several occasions, is generally not a hardboiled heavy. Just a tormented screenwriter with demons to exorcize.

Beating up a college kid doesn’t go with the glorified and gritty brutality that might crop up in a Maltese Falcon (1941) or The Big Sleep (1946). It’s just callous barbarity in the normal world. Throwing phones or beating up friends in public is not normal behavior. There’s no other conventional excuse for it.

But this is Dixon Steele for you. He’s just a troubled man. Not an archetypal noir antihero. As much as we fear for the people in his stead, there’s also a mild pity reserved for him. He shows himself capable of love. He simply proves to be very ill-equipped for the endeavor.

The layers go deeper still and more personal as Gloria Grahame’s marriage with director Nicholas Ray was splintering and was finally absolved quietly during filming.

Beyond that, you get the sense, Bogart who financed the picture is playing someone, not unlike himself. Perhaps it’s the closest he ever got. Like the film, he found love in a woman, Lauren Bacall, many years his junior who nevertheless made him very happy. Sure Bogey was a success but it took him a long time to get to the top of the summit. He was a hard-drinker with a notoriously white-hot temper to match. Still, he was a romantic and an idealist in such a way we sympathize with. He’s ardently beloved today as he was in his heyday.

The contents of the story take on an entirely new spectrum of meaning with this personal context. In a Lonely Place wasn’t just an examination of Hollywood and the lives of people who could be real. In a Lonely Place feels far more transparent. It is Hollywood and these are the very people who find themselves caught up in its disillusioning grip.

Loneliness is there’s to have and to hold. They don’t need the prototypical genre conventions of graft and crime — the brand we conveniently label as film noir. There’s really little need for the more darkly cinematic overtones. They have themselves. That’s dismal enough already.

4.5/5 Stars

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

Review: Duck Soup (1933)

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Up until this point in time, The Marx Brother’s all-out assault on humanity had still mostly been geared at the likes of stuffy socialites, gangsters, college campuses, authority figures, etc. Albeit entertaining but fairly straightforward worlds where there was not that much to be navigated beyond what we already knew to be true. All that was necessary was to sit back and enjoy the boys at work and cue the rolling in the aisles.

Their audiences by now had been conditioned with a certain type of environment. The framework is still somehow familiar in Duck Soup as well — at least on first glance. There we have Margaret Dumont at the center of it all surrounded by a bunch of stuffy bespectacled chaps with beards. She is calling for the resignation of one of the leaders of the nation of Freedonia.

Her choice to fill the position is none other than that progressive visionary Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho). Why she thinks he is anywhere close to being qualified is slightly beside the point. We just want a chance to see Groucho and he receives the usual majestic fanfare rushing down the fireman’s pull to see what all the hubbub is about.

Meanwhile, Louis Calhern of the adjoining nation of Sylvania is simultaneously conspiring with a cunning mistress to ignite a revolution and take over the country from within while also attempting to woo the prominent Mrs. Teasdale.

Two spies are tracking Firefly right as they speak. In fact, they’re a lot closer than they might think. They’re his brothers. Scratch that. They’re Pinky and Chicolini sent to scrape together some dirt to discredit him with the people. Little does their ringleader know that Groucho, errr, Firefly has been doing a good enough job being disreputable all by himself.

Only when Margaret Dumont has returned back in the fold do you realize how much she improves Groucho’s jokes. Years later the man said himself that the key to the magic was the fact that she never understood any of his barbs — much less why they were funny. However, in this particular outing, Louis Calhern and the demonstrative lemonade vendor Edgar Kennedy do much the same for the other two conniving troublemakers, Chico and Harpo. They’ve never truly had such a good foil as Groucho had in Dumont.

The picture segues into a scene where Groucho sticks his head out the window overlooking a peanut vendor and pretty soon Chico is being offered a spot in Groucho’s cabinet. Sounds about right. Likewise, Harpo gets in on the action and the most surprising discovery is that his body is covered with art in the film’s next truly surreal interlude.

Now with such crucial positions so close to Groucho, who coincidentally would have probably offered positions to a chimpanzee if given the chance, the two infiltrators are called upon to steal Freedonia’s war plans. Again, who cares?

Crucially, their little escapade sets up The Marx Brothers’ next iconic gag with three Groucho’s dressed in nightcaps and pajamas. The mirror scene is the most remembered bit and it’s fun but it’s only a segment of a whole drawn-out sequence that plays on the brothers’ mistaken identities. This in itself could be another commentary if you wanted to make it into one.

Personally, it struck me for the first time that though physically the sequence revolves around Groucho, much of it takes place in Harpo’s world without any dialogue. Furthermore, there are times when we don’t actually know who is Groucho or who is not until we are given cues whether Chico’s trademark accent or Harpo’s hat.

First, the mirror is shattered and then reality when one Groucho steps out and is replaced by another only to be joined by a third. Regardless of what you want to say about this realm of the absurd, it’s a great gag.

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Then there’s the final sequence which is the actual escalation of the war between the two belligerent countries but it’s done with the typical tongue-and-cheek manner you might expect from the brothers where war is equated to a minstrel show and Groucho breaks out into a slightly doctored spiritual, “All God’s Children Got Guns.” From thence forward let the surrealist nonsensical nature of war take over.

For me, Groucho sums it up in sending Chicolini off to battle, “While you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.” This was no grand anti-war statement. If anything it was a cynical statement. Of course, that doesn’t take into account Groucho’s constantly changing military garb from Revolutionary War attire, Civil War uniforms, a coonskin cap, etc. It was comedy pure and simple.  

In my mind, it’s no small coincidence that one of the Brothers most reputed films was also directed by Leo McCarey who in some respects still remains criminally underrated. Certainly, he was more a Cary Grant director than a Marx Brothers one but there’s a sense that he could focus their comedy into something utterly electric.

The irony of it all is that The Marx Brothers really hadn’t changed all that much but the way people perceived them and by extension, how they perceived their comedy, had provided this new context that surrounds Duck Soup. So people could start placing all types of assumptions and beliefs onto the film in ways that were most alarming and subversive.

I think the brothers themselves may have even admitted that they unwittingly rather than consciously made this departure. But the implications were great and cultivated the soil for a film that’s legacy would only grow year after year. And it’s true that there really is no superfluous scene. There’s no real chaff as it were even if it is all utterly marvelous absurdity.

However, it made just enough sense for Mussolini to ban the film on grounds of pointed satire. One last time let’s turn to Groucho who would have been overjoyed by such a response but pointed out, “We were four Jews just trying to get a laugh.” That was all. But it was so much. Duck Soup is a pinnacle of comic nonsense.

4.5/5 Stars