Review: Stagecoach (1939)

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While the western hardly began with Stagecoach, one could go out on a very slight limb and say it became a more fully realized version of itself in the hands of John Ford; it all but grew in stature as a genre. This progression cropped out of the prevailing assumption of the day and age that the western was low-grade rubbish meant for no-name actors and meager productions. But Ford proved they could be ripe with so many more possibilities because he had greater ambitions from the outset.

We have John Wayne making a second go of stardom as the Ringo Kid, in what would prove a career bolstering performance, after some 70 films he’d already played in. He, of course, reemerged on the screen in a bold tracking shot and subsequent closeup that has all but impressed itself upon anyone who has ever witnessed the film. In this moment, Ford all but thrusts Wayne into the limelight as his star, for better or for worse, and Duke obliges thereafter.

Ford’s first excursion to Monument Valley proved to be love at first sight as he became so enraptured with the location — and why not — he would film there countless times in the future. It became synonymous with his finest work; he used it as the perfectly mapped canvass on which to express himself. One could argue that no director ever had a better setting,  more synonymous with his vision and sensibilities.

Forget the landscape and situation for a moment. Stagecoach might be one of the premier chamber pieces ever captured. Semantics aside, the picture relies heavily on a cast of characters filled out by archetypes and yet each actor involved is able to lend such credence to each individual role. We readily accept them as a whole ensemble almost seamlessly.

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Apaches stirred up by Geronimo are an excuse for the impending threat looming over the title vehicle. Because it’s true that the stage must make its journey at some point, though the slightly chubby, whiny-voiced driver, Buck (Andy Devine), is hesitant about such a perilous road ahead. Riding shotgun for him is the no-nonsense Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) who vetoes the other man’s blubbering.

However, if they were to go it alone with only some payload or mail delivery, Stagecoach would be robbed of some of its richness. Two of the first travelers to join them are both casualties of social prejudice and the snooty, self-righteous prigs of the Law and Order League. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is an ostracized woman of the street and then the scorned Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is constantly living in a state of drunkenness.

Contrasting with the other woman is a lady of high repute, Ms. Mallory (Louise Platt), who is pregnant and yet resolves to meet her husband at his cavalry outpost. Her presence coaxes a gentleman gambler (John Carradine) to come aboard as he holds some innate sense of duty in protecting someone of her breeding.

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We also have the impeccably named Donald Meek as Mr. Peaccock who is constantly having his name mispronounced while his samples of whiskey are continually finding their way into the Doc’s possession. He’s a calming force just as the entitled banker, Mr. Gatewood, protests just about everything.

If the types sound familiar it’s because you can draw a line between many of them and their progeny for years to come. But the beauty of the character dynamics is the evolution they undergo. We are not simply blessed by starkly different individuals brushing up against each other in close confines. In other words, of crucial importance is how they act toward one another and ultimately how they change over the course of this joint heroes journey.

Claire Trevor, fittingly, later remembered Ford’s chiding of Wayne, “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.” Watch the film and you understand his direction in actual practice. So much is said in unspoken looks and behaviors. Trevor seems especially adept in speaking with her eyes because everything she wants to say and can’t say comes through this very avenue. And whether John Ford would agree or not, The Duke’s eyes are equally telling.

Interiors are exquisitely framed and lit in such a way allowing the actors to be so expressive while space and staging are used to accentuate those same aspects. Take for example one sequence around a dinner table where two camps find themselves moving to opposite corners. You have the outcasts and the purportedly upstanding citizens opposite one another. Not a word is spoken but it is all played out through mere body language and positioning.

However, Whether the film completely realizes it or not there are other societal casualties, namely the Mexicans shown on the screen as well as the Native Americans themselves. Chris (prolific Mexican-American actor Chris Pin-Martin) at least has a voice but not much else. Meanwhile, it does feel as if the Indians are used essentially for a plotting device. There is no depth present in this regard.

However, the pursuit undertaken by the Apaches is filmed marvelously by Ford. In one particularly memorable long take, the stage lumbers into the distance followed by first four and then an entire wave of riders on horseback. It fluidly suggests immense menace and pace which never quite leaves the sequence.

They are reinforced by a couple shots that feel as if the stagecoach and the horses after it are all but trampling the camera. The sense of volatility is accentuated by the legendary stunt work of Yakima Canutt performing death-defying feats on horseback and hanging from the stagecoach. In the era before readily available CGI, it’s the kind of movie magic still capable of stopping a modern viewer cold.

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But the picture does not end there. The city offers other issues that must be resolved. Namely, Ringo’s final showdown with the men who killed his father and kid brother. Also, he must find out what Dallas really is or at least what she is perceived to be.

However, instead of milking the reveals for pure melodramatics, Ford does one better, creating an atmosphere of pure beauty. But within that same framework is a cringe-inducing tension. Pulling his camera away from moments to dwell on reactions as much as actions and movements as much as dialogue. Some of his actors are even given close-ups all the better for studying every expression of their faces.

Because we can write up all that happens in Stagecoach in a matter of sentences. That’s not the engrossing or remarkable part of the picture at all. It’s precisely the way Ford has cast it as only he could. It’s exciting and moving and genuinely light-hearted but it chooses when a certain mood is called for, succeeding in evoking each at the given time like the most visceral vessels of entertainment manage to do.

Thankfully we had many more outings between Ford and Wayne. The director might have given his friend hell on the set but there’s no debating the fact they crafted some of the most iconic westerns together. The collaboration was imperative. Stagecoach rides on the laurels of many people, not least among them Pappy and Duke.

5/5 Stars

Review: Hud (1963)

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“I’ve always thought the law was meant to be interpreted in a lenient manner. Sometimes I lean one way and sometimes I lean the other.” – Paul Newman as Hud

Hud is up for contention for the finest film Martin Ritt ever made and it comes down to a truly collective effort. When you survey the talent assembled, it plays like a hit parade by pairing the director with some perennial collaborators who would see him to some of his greatest successes.

Obviously, Paul Newman was a hot commodity and Hud‘s tagline gets it impeccably right. He’s the man with the “barbed-wire soul.” Raffishly handsome, a womanizer, and a drunkard, no less. However, though Newman plays him as a villain, there’s this wonderful dissonance in the man because after all, he’s played by Paul Newman who was forever more likable than a Brando or a Dean. He stretches us to the limits as an audience as we try and discern what to do with him. Dare we say he’s still charismatic without giving the wrong impression about his lecherous attributes? I’m not sure.

Irving Ravetch served as joint screenwriter and producer and his partnership (along with his wife Harriet Frank Jr.) would be one of the most integral to Marty Ritt’s career. The production boasts the inimitable James Wong Howe as the cinematographer, set design by veteran Hal Pereira, Edith Head overseeing costumes, and a well-suited score by Elmer Berstein. This list of names stands as another feather in the cap of the studio system.

It’s a horizontal even cloudless palette in black and white that captures the malaise hanging over the characters with monochromatic lucidity. Bernstein’s arrangement, in fact, is only minutes long but is supplemented by the equally fitting stripped down effect of a guitar.

In many ways, Hud‘s a modern western like a Giant, The Misfits, or even The Last Picture Show documenting the evolution of a certain type of life whether it’s cattle being replaced by oil rigs, the onslaught of personal tragedy, or the debilitating nature of generational divides. There’s a certain dustiness and degradation proving itself to be a far cry from the glory days.

Melvyn Douglas gives a generally gray and emotionless performance that somehow fits the visual landscape. It grows on you minute by minute for its steady cadence, continuously exact and unhurried. Patricia Neal just might have the finest showing of the lot because she has to do battle in a man’s world. She’s both a housekeeper and thus, maternal but then also overwhelmingly assured in her independence. Staving off Hud’s advances and taking care of the two other Bannions — somehow remaining folksy, hospitable, and a bit sensuous too.

Meanwhile, Brandon de Wilde is crucial for the part he plays as the film’s most impressionable bystander. Though he is no longer the precocious little lad from Shane (1953), he is still the clean slate on which the world at large must rub off on.

The film’s first disruption comes from a state veterinarian (Whitt Bissell) with a verdict that the Bannion’s stock might be stricken with foot and mouth disease. Until they can get more conclusive information, the narrative is all but a waiting game and waiting makes the relationship between Hud and his father (Douglas) all the more contentious. They hold each other in contempt and it’s not simply for Hud’s cavorting reputation. There’s some other buried grievance that has never been resolved between them.

Pay attention and you’ll witness many recognizable small town trivialities. Lonnie (De Wilde) carries his transistor radio in his breast pocket. He and grandpa take in a comedy at the picture show complete with a rousing performance of “My Darling Clementine.” There’s the chasing of greased pigs at the Kiwanis Club event and boisterous brawls with the jukebox whirling away merrily. It’s a galvanizing moment of male bonding that fosters a might bit of camaraderie between Hud and his nephew Lonnie.

In the next pivotal sequence, Hud opens up candidly about his brother’s death in a car crash. Then, Hud has it out with his father and in his ensuing rage, fueled by a drunken stupor, makes aggressive advances on Alma. Clumped together like this, the turn of events either don’t sound impressive enough or don’t carry the air of lurid drama out of a drugstore novella. But watch the scenes themselves and they make sense and wield a resounding power in their cumulative effect.

Hud’s animal brutality is only matched by the slaughtering that is undertaken with the infected cattle. It’s a sickening image. Killing becomes so easy even as the long hard process of cultivation takes years and is subsequently snuffed out so quickly. It doesn’t seem right.

Each of our main characters seems destined for a slice of tragedy — every one of a different size and shape. But it never comes off as melodrama, at least not in the end, even as the misfortune strikes. More so, we are reminded that life is tough and at times merciless. Sometimes people are too. But Ritt never seems to leverage that to get a rise out the audience. He lets it play out. He lets his actors act and if that’s how we label it, then they do a commendable job, each contributing their piece to the ensemble.

Because what we are left with at the end of the road is a lot to mull over. I’m not sure what the conclusions are supposed to be and that’s not because this is an esoteric picture by any means. It’s for people and I think people can resonate with it for the very reason that it is affecting and the performances carry weight while never being overburdened by their own importance. Martin Ritt was an actor’s director and he cared deeply about their performances. It shows in just how beautifully they work together.

One of the truly resonating scenes is right near the end. Hud comes sauntering down the street in his cowboy hat and boots, sporting his starched white shirt like always. He gives someone a “hey” and comes around the corner to the bus stop.

We know who is sitting there and yet Wong Howe stays on his back momentarily as he turns to notice this person sitting out of sight. He sees the person and says a few words. It almost feels accidental but even in this, there’s a purpose. Because another film might have built this final interaction into a confrontation. Instead, Hud and Alma share an amiable conversation underlined by no hint of malice. It is what it is and they’ll move on like they always have. It does, however, accentuate a certain wistfulness. In an alternate reality, things might have been far different; they could have been better.

Granted, Hud doesn’t seem like the definitive source for wisdom and yet he might not be far off the truth when he tells Lonnie, “This world is so full of crap, a man’s gonna get into it sooner or later whether he’s careful or not.” It’s all but inevitable.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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While I might not consider it one of the finest films ever produced, Cool Hand Luke features one of the most mythic characters ever conceived for the movies. He’s one of those figures who can seemingly only exist on celluloid. Luke Jackson comes out of a certain turbulent period in American history even as his story remains indelibly timeless.

Paul Newman realized some greats throughout the 1960s from Fast Eddie Felson to Hud and then Butch Cassidy. However, this monumental role is one of his most iconic regardless of all the others that came before and proceeded it. Newman stretches himself to the edge of the frame and then some. It’s difficult to even begin to consider who else might have managed the feat if not him — furnishing both a constant resiliency and the trademark gleam in his eye.

It’s that placid demeanor and vaguely smug attitude which is above all prepossessing. A near relentless self-subjection to suffering and malevolence follows and for the most ridiculously absurd offense. Luke was bored and so he went about town slicing the tops off parking meters while inebriated. For that, he’s given a two-year sentence on a chain gang. For that, he willingly takes on the ills, disdain, and wrath of a whole community of people without hardly batting an eye.

It begins when the “fresh meat” comes to town. They’re jeered by the veterans led by the hulking southern boy Dragline (George Kennedy) and filled out like all the quality prison movies with a bevy of talented character actors. Some fairly prominent names including Dennis Hopper and Richard Davalos as well character parts for Wayne Rogers, Lou Antonio, etc.

The new faces quiver in this foreign environment, among them Ralph Waite and Harry Dean Stanton. Meanwhile, Luke Jackson sports a stellar war record though he left the military with the same rank he had going in. He was just passing time.

There’s a mild disinterest, a silent bravado, and subtle anti-establishment slant to him. He doesn’t flaunt it necessarily but it does come out. The guards and the camp’s proprietor (Strother Martin) are wary of him and the inmates don’t believe he’ll ever come to learn their pecking order.

That’s what’s so appealing about the Luke character. He could care less what other people think. He never has to prove himself. He just does what he wants and as a result, makes himself an idol of the entire chain gang without ever trying to do so.

The script, penned by the story’s original author Donn Pearce as well as Frank Pierson, is adept at creating individual moments and bits of dialogue that are in themselves so distinctive, showcasing a remarkable ability to stand on their own merit. Even now over 50 years later.

“The Night in the Box” monologue might have its imitators but it has no equal, setting up the monotonous drudgery that makes camp life, backbreaking and yet somehow strangely comforting to some men. Strother Martin famously sums up his relationship with the troublesome prisoner as a “failure to communicate” while in another sequence the girl (Joy Harmon) saucily washes her car, tantalizing all the sex-crazed men on the job.

Dragline and Luke have a boxing bout that cements the new man’s reputation as well as a budding friendship with the camp’s resident top dog. He bluffs his way through poker games to earn his iconic nickname, “Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand” Luke grins almost matter-of-factly. Everyone else howls with delight at his exploits.

Next, overtaken by a surge of giddy energy he spurs on his compatriots turning their assignment of tarring a road into a game that captures the imagination of all involved. They are taken by his spirit which never seems to sour. It’s the same temperament that will lead him to eat 50 eggs in under an hour just for the heck of it. Whether he meant to or not the whole cohort feeds off of him, even as some spurn his attempts at individuality — most gravitate toward the man. From thenceforward, outstretched on a table like a Crucifix he is cast as their Christ-like figure.

A flurry of escape attempts is spawned by the news that his mother has died. The outcome was all but inevitable. Still, that doesn’t make it sting less. The conversation shared between the two of them earlier is only one minor scene of dialogue, and yet together Newman and Joan Van Fleet make something impactful out of it. Thus, when Arletty dies, off camera, it has critical implications for the man. For once, he shows some type of emotion; he cares about something.

Luke can be found strumming away at a banjo singing “Plastic Jesus.” Not being able to get away for the funeral he resolves to sing her a dirge of his own. The rest of the film is backed by Lalo Schrifrin’s score laced with a down-home country meandering melody contributed to by an arrangement of guitars, banjos, and harmonicas with more traditional string and brass sections. It’s the soundtrack of Luke’s exploits as he gets some jackrabbit in his blood and looks to jump the coop.

His Fourth of July escape runs the hounds ragged or else he’s “shaking the bush” to take a leak only to scramble off into the underbrush. He’s away long enough to even send the boys a souvenir from the outside featuring him gussied up with two bodacious gals. His smile lights up the page and the picture gives them something to keep their blood pumping; it’s really something to live for.

But multiple times he is brought back to confinement and “the box.” The bosses, having just about enough of his impertinence, subject him to neverending ditch digging and refilling after long days of work. They’re not about to let him forget he’s a prisoner. While his inmates helplessly watch him get worked to death in the camp yard, they sing “Ain’t No Grave” in solidarity with him. Throughout Stanton can be heard belting out Gospel spirituals accompanied by his acoustic guitar.

Director Stuart Rosenberg in his first movie after a career in TV at least ably conveys the pervasively sweaty grime of the day-to-day in such a world. Nothing is clean. Dirt clings to everyone and everything. It permeates every inch of the screen.

However, some of his visual choices come off rather clunky in execution. “The Man With No Eyes” constantly has his reflective sunglasses put on display as metaphor and the choice to end the picture in a clip show gives one last upbeat note but undermines what could have been an uncompromising ending.

Contrast Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1976) and on an external level, you have nominally similar dramas about a group rallying around one man to stick it to the institution. But there is little comparison between Randle McMurphy and Luke beyond that point just as the endings choose their own alternative resolutions.

As it is, Luke is smiling to the end of his days and Dragline canonizes him as a saint for all posterity. He becomes the vehicle for all their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. He is their Savior but he’s a fallible Christ-figure — never perfect and he never can be perfect — but they put there hope in him nonetheless. After all, he is a natural world shaker to the very last grin.

However, In his final hour, Luke can be found talking to The Man Upstairs in an abandoned church building. It is his version of Gethsemane:

“It’s beginnin’ to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all them rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end?”

Surely the implications are twofold. He maintained a failure to communicate with his fellow man as a perennial outsider turned-savior but the issue extended to his relationship with God too. He is all but alone. He’s an outsider without ever trying to be. That’s simply his God-given temperament. But that can be a wearisome existence and we cannot smile at Cool Hand Luke‘s ending without harboring a residual sense of pessimism as well.

5/5 Stars

The Search (1948)

The_Search_posterAny knowledge of director Fred Zinnemann only aids in informing The Search. Formerly living in a Jewish family in Austria, he would immigrate to the bright lights of Hollywood in the 1930s only to have both his parents killed in the Holocaust. So if you think he had no stake in this picture you would be gravely mistaken.

Like Carol Reed’s Third Man of the following year, Fred Zinnemann’s film does an impeccable job in its opening moments placing us in a landscape that feels all but tangible. Improved by true post-war locales, The Search gives audiences a fairly frank depiction of the trauma and destruction left in the wake of such an all-encompassing wave of carnage like WWII.

At least in this area alone, there is no sense that this is a facade or something fake and done up to look real. There’s little of that. Not least among the casualties are children displaced from all different nations and backgrounds. Subsisting without families through much of the war.

Now, with the clouds dissipating there is work to be done. It’s the task of understaffed personnel to begin sorting through all the pieces to try and get everyone back where they need to be. It seems an insurmountable job but they get on as best as they can.

Mrs. Murray is one of the workers we get to know, a woman with both a sense of pragmatic industry but also an underlying warmth. She knows if her job is done well, there will be many children given far better lives. She does everything in her power toward those ends.

Carrying a few points of reference from Aline MacMahon’s early career, it truly is a joy to watch her fall into this role which is a stark departure from the likes of One Way Passage (1932) or Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Certainly, it’s less flashy but no less meaningful. She makes it count.

The pure ambiguities created by language barriers is made palpable and for American viewers, there is a narrator but little in the way of interpretation. So much of what goes on is either left unsaid or must be taken with a grain of salt. That’s compounded by the fact the reticent children are afraid men in uniforms might be SS troopers or any word they let slip will be subsequently used to send them away to a concentration camp.

While it’s near impossible to take on two viewpoints at once, at any rate, we begin to understand not only Mrs. Murray’s predicament but also the well-founded fears of these displaced youths. That’s what leads one group of children, crammed into an ambulance marked with an ominous red cross, to scatter at the first opportunity. One includes a pale-faced boy named Karel who has remained all but silent during his initial questioning and yet his will to survive is insurmountable. Still, one needs food to survive and he doesn’t have any.

This problem is what prompts the initial meeting of the two figures who we might consider our heroes. It actually happens 40 minutes in and it nearly doesn’t amount to anything at all. Sitting in his jeep, lazily kicked back, eating a sandwich, is an army engineer named Steve (Montgomery Clift) who is soon being shipped back home.

He sees a small body pop up behind some rubble obviously eyeing his lunch. The boy’s afraid to take a handout and so the soldier puts his jeep in gear to drive off but thinking better of it, he turns around and tosses the boy his sandwich. Here we have the genesis of their curious relationship, at first tenuous, because Karel has learned to fear other people and their lack of formal communication lines makes mutual understanding even more difficult.

Though not as intense as his most revered parts, Monty Clift provides a genuine charm to the role, an all but effortless job at character building. Young Ivan Jandl knew no English going into the shoot but this same undoctored quality makes the opening sequences all the more imperative. He and Clift build a rapport that’s right there in front of us.

Initially, Karel lashes out thinking he is being held prisoner again. Steve tries to get him to understand his newfound freedom and when that is established, next comes the acquisition of language which the bright boy picks up quickly. One could say that The Search is at its finest when the pair is stuck in a space together. I’m not sure about others but I resonate with these scenes. The moments where a language barrier necessitates some form of universal understanding. Words have no meaning. Like in Film itself, actions can be far more universal than any amount of exquisite dialogue. For example, chocolate tastes “good.” Alcohol smells “bad.”

Together the soldier and the boy form a bond to the point Karel follows him around like a lost puppy. He doesn’t want to be abandoned. Not again. Of course, we know Steve must ship out soon… Meanwhile, Mrs. Murray enlists the help of a concentration camp survivor (Jarmila Novotná) who is looking determinedly for her son — the dramatic irony all but apparent, if it wasn’t already.

As Steve begins to teach “Jim” English lessons, he and his buddy Jerry (Wendell Corey) try and get some news on the boy’s origins. And all they have to go on is the telling tattoo on his forearm. It’s the arrival of family from stateside that sets something off. A switch goes on inside of Jim’s brain and he realizes he needs to find his “mother” because he comes to understand what that word means and that his is missing.

The Search endangers itself with a melodramatic turn of events and to a degree, they do come. Speaking for myself, I was a most agreeable recipient if that’s what it was. With the trills of angelic voices and a final maternal embrace — the conclusion the entire film has been charted for — some emotional manipulation might be on hand. However, in a period of rebuilding, though the past must not be forgotten, nevertheless, there is a deep abiding need for hope.  I would like to think that The Search is a film acknowledging precisely that and offering some solace.

Out of all the bombed out buildings, emaciated children racked with trauma, and horrors upon horrors, there is still something that can and must be clung to. When we are lost and alone, we can be found and returned to the place where we belong. There is no need to wander aimlessly because we have a home. Whether or not you believe this picture to be a purveyor of authenticity, Zinnemann has provided a revelatory parable of genuine sensitivity. I for one admire its aspirations greatly even if they might be imperfect. Such a time calls for this kind of hope.

4.5/5 Stars

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

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With the opening number “We’re In The Money,” this musical sticks it to The Great Depression and gives their audience a respite from the poverty waiting outside the theater doors. The tone is set as Ginger Rogers, surrounded by rows of scantily clad coin-covered women, sings out one of the song’s lines in Pig Latin. It’s one in a million.

Like its predecessor, the smash hit 42nd Street (1933), this is yet another hybrid of backstage drama and semi-extravagant production numbers. An incoming rapid-fire line of close-ups featuring Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers all giving the camera a mouthful is a delightful portent of all that it to come from this bevy of talent. The sass meter goes through the roof.

But we never forget that it’s the Depression, though it would be an unnecessary reminder for audiences already living through the reality. As Carol quips when she hears the timeliness of their newest project, “We won’t have to rehearse that.” Because they’ve been living through it along with everyone else.

It means that they share a measly flat together. Get by from swiping milk bottles from the upstairs neighbors and fighting over clothes to make at least one of them look presentable for the prospect of an audition. There’s a lightness to it all as much as there is a camaraderie. They’re all in it together and that allows the picture to work. Otherwise, it would be too depressing. There needs to be that assurance and resolve driving our characters. They never get too low.

Ruby Keeler has time to fall for Dick Powell yet again, this time by simply sticking her head out the window to swoon over his piano ballads. Of course, things hit the pits when they find out that despite a swell idea, their backer and potential savior Barry (Ned Sparks), still is broke and so his visions of a showstopping triumph are all for naught. The insouciant joking of Powell has everyone a little hurt until he actually comes through in shelling out $15,000 just like that. He was never more serious.

So there we have it. Another stage production is in the works. Everything is coming together dandily but in a role reversal of 42nd Street, it is Powell’s Brad who is called upon to fill a void in the production when he’s needed most.

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The original juvenile lead is not able to make the cut due to lumbago and so despite his continuous rejection of the part, he finally folds realizing so many folks are counting on him. We’ve already said it and we’ll say it again. The show must go on!

Their first number, “Pettin’ in the Park” is a near-surreal exhibition in sauciness utilizing a midget dressed as a baby, a studio orchestrated rainstorm, and women donning metal garb to foil their male suitors. Weird but it’s an unequivocal smash.

So big in fact that news gets out. Brad’s family hears he’s been moonlighting in the theater and is appalled. Because you see, he comes from a well-to-do family. Such a line of work would never do. Cavorting with chorus girls and acting is out of the question. He returns home but to no avail as his older brother Lawrence (Warren William) and the family’s lawyer Fanueal H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) agree to come out to put an end to Brad’s career — not to mention his romance. After all, showgirls are reputed to be parasites, chiselers, gold diggers…

They get far more than they bargained for when a bit of mistaken identity causes them to get whirled away by the streetwise sauciness of Carol and Trixie who have these rich boys pegged and know exactly how to capitalize. It’s like taking candy from two stuffy, overgrown babies.

Beyond being Fred Astaire’s supremely talented collaborator on taps, it’s easy to rate Ginger Rogers as a first-rate comedienne even in this earlier juncture of her career. However, it’s Aline MacMahon with the juiciest part and the greatest showing which ultimately upstages Rogers and gives the picture its greatest buoyancy of sing-songy opportunism.

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Joan Blondell does herself proud in her own right romancing Warren William. For the first time, I actually feel sympathetic toward the poor fellow. He’s got no defenses. Peabody is simply putty in the hands of a woman — especially someone as delightfully conniving as Trixie. But remember it’s all for a good cause as Brad and Polly are able to stay together and that’s just the beginning…

It’s almost a misnomer to call Gold Diggers of 1933 a musical outright. The way that Warner Bros. ran things, there were two units one for the romantic drama led by Mervyn LeRoy and then another headed by Berkeley for the choreography of his decadent visions. So what we have is the quintessential Depression-era drama filled in with some song & dance routines. It could be completely disjointed in its execution. But on both fronts there or moments of undoubted noteworthiness. It begins with a cast that does oh so much and the baton constantly gets passed between players who readily play their part one after another.

Then, the rest is pure Berkeley first taking his dreams and turning them into a reality. “In The Shadows” in an exquisite gift to the audience showcasing swirling hula hoop dresses with showgirls gracefully flitting this way and that. Then the lights go out leaving behind the contours of violins dressed with fluorescent light,s which make for another entrancing dance of shape and light. Here we have art where the result is so much more than a mere sum of its parts.

Once again it makes the pretense of a stage performance but right away Berkeley throws off those shackles and lets his camera fly to whatever vantage point it wants proving itself essentially unencumbered and subsequently reworking how musicals could and would be staged.

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But in truth, it’s a back-to-back show stopper and Berkeley sees the film to its crescendo by completely changing his tune with the help of composer and lyricist duo Harry Warren and Al Dubin. They all come through to deliver what can only be considered a timely eulogy to the universal figure alluded to in its title.

“The Forgotten Man” is emblematic of this entire picture and Gold Diggers of 1933 is very much an offering of thanks to the everyday American. The men who stand in breadlines scrimping over cigarettes. The men who fought in the Great War. The women who maintained the diligence and rectitude with which the country could battle poverty. The same people who line up to go see movies every day.

In the end, the movie pulls off this startling balancing act — a tightrope walk of comedy, tragedy, and above all pathos. Gold Diggers is the real deal and I cannot begrudge anyone who would deem it the pinnacle of the Hollywood dream factory sent to reach those in the throes of desperate times. Granted, some might question the merits of fantastical escapism but this effort looks to be more than a diversion — moving beyond that to be a hardy rallying cry of hope.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: My Darling Clementine (1946)

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The first time I ever saw My Darling Clementine I couldn’t get over how unimpressive it seemed. If nothing else it certainly didn’t give off any self-aware sense of its own importance. There was nothing that struck me as outright epic and monumental. And yet this western has been a heralded favorite since its initial release in 1946. People love this movie. I think this time around I understand it better.

Maybe it’s all those reruns of the M*A*S*H classic “Movie Tonight.” Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) eases the camp’s aggravations with a showing of his favorite horse opera which, of course, is My Darling Clementine.

But while the reels are spliced and diced for poor Klinger (Jamie Farr), the audience still gets something impactful out of the experience spilling out into their shenanigans together which makes for a quality evening. Because for once My Darling Clementine is a western with many moments that feel unextraordinary in the most human of terms.

Surely there was no greater and more prominent mythmaker of the Old West than John Ford. The key is in the realization Ford need not push anything, allowing everything to unwind in a way that’s the cinematic equivalent of organic action. The director goes with his proclivities of narrative scope, pairing down dialogue, focusing the story instead around activity — and those moments don’t necessarily have to be the perfectly suited sequences for instigating incendiary drama.

Ford’s actual meeting with the real Wyatt Earp on a film set back in the 1920s was a seminal moment for him. One could say he was imparted the blueprint and the inspiration for this picture and that is enough. Because the western never thrived on facts but the embodiment of romanticized figures and ideals. Wyatt Earp was such a figure.

Here Earp (Henry Fonda) is herding some cattle with his brothers when they pass by the town of Tombstone and leave the baby of the family to hold down the fort. In the most simplistic terms, their cattle get rustled and there’s little need to guess who the perpetrators are. The grizzled Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) is right there with his boys, a most obvious culprit. He needn’t even bother denying it. He never does nor does Earp ever accuse him outright.

Instead, Earp decides to stick around for a while and takes up the tin star for marshaling in Tombstone, that illustrious hell hole, emblematic of western lawlessness. Straightaway he shows a bullish tenacity in running drunks and troublemakers out of town but there’s still something more to him.

Ward Bond and Tim Holt act as his brothers and his constant companions. They don’t have a whole lot to do but stand behind their brother at the bar or eat their vittles at dinner tables. But then again, you could make the case most everyone has a fairly unostentatious part.

There is no standout performance and that seems very purposeful. Surely Fonda is the glue holding it all together but it’s not due to flare so much as an ever-steady portrayal that never feels like it’s vying for attention. He leads by example and yet this does not mean the film doesn’t have moments that leave an impression.

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Linda Darnell gives him a slap and he proceeds to dunk her handily in the watering trough for her part in a crooked poker game. She’s the devious, saucy, and unfortunately named Latina Chihuahua. There’s the introduction of her man Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) that clears the bar and would have ended in a gunfight in most any other picture. Wyatt Earp smooths things over allowing life to sink back into the status quo.

A local theater production evokes a particularly rowdy atmosphere where Fonda gets a hat thrown his way which he promptly tosses right back while Darnell looks to whop someone over the head. The locals are aiming to make their displeasure known to the actor who has run out on them on multiple occasions. Earp and Doc go to fetch the man who is being harried by the Clanton boys. In one of the most articulate and entrancing sequences in a western to date, we are treated to Hamlet on the range. You know the words but never have they come out of a man such as Doc Holliday — suggesting that there is a side of him even an amount of breeding that we fail to comprehend.

Finally, Clementine comes to town (Kathy Downs) and we begin to understand. She was Doc’s girl back east when he was still practicing and known in circles as Dr. John Holliday. He’s different now, plagued by illness and alcohol-fueled demons while emphatically wanting her to go back from whence she came. It’s Wyatt who stands by with all sincerity. Getting up, tipping hats, and opening doors for her. The peaceful countenance she wears coaxes him in the direction of the church bells and a dance social.

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We know what must come in the end. It’s all but inevitable: The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In all truth, My Darling Clementine’s shootout is not the most climactic and I could readily name numerous others I prefer. But in capturing it the way he has, Ford has remained true to the essence of the narrative thus far. What strikes me is it is by no means a sensationalized picture. It never even feels like drama or caters to the theatrical. But John Ford has made it cinematic and though it might sound like some form of paradox, I do not think it is.

We are acutely attuned to the moments with no music intuitively because there is little auditory manipulation or further distraction. Everything of import is derived from figures placed up against Monument Valley or staged in crisp interiors. Likewise, few words need to be put to any of it. Because we are fully aware, almost subconsciously. We have just seen a microcosm of the West being tamed and made livable for common folk. The old world is being undone and churches and schools now find a place in the new social order provided by men like Wyatt Earp — embodied by the likes of Clementine as the new schoolmarm. All of this is evoked not by dramatic shifts but a near meandering rhythm of scenes stacked one on top of another.

Again, we go back to the indelible image that everyone instantly conjures up of Henry Fonda with his feet propped up against the post leaning back and just resting his feet a spell. And of course, he’s our hero and the same man who will enact this change. But Ford makes him a laconic figure and one he seems content as anything just to relax.

He’d rather get a shave at the Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor or carry the bags of a pretty gal than get into a gunfight any day. True, he can be ornery when he wants. Still, only as a last resort. Fonda’s the perfect man for the part because there’s nothing burnished about him but he comes off honestly with a straightforward sense of integrity. This allows My Darling Clementine to induce a generally optimistic portrait of the West from a picture that could have otherwise dwelled in the depths of near noirish cynicism.

However, even with its strains of the mundane — far from feeling prosaic — the film is blessed by Ford’s mastery of the image. Because what is Film if not a visual medium? The West was by far the most American canvass and Ford one of the finest masters of the art form. There need not be a better reason to relish My Darling Clementine. Aside from my expatiating, I would be amiss not to acknowledge this film as good old-fashioned communal entertainment. M*A*S*H 4077 is the case and point.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: I watched the Pre-Release cut which was restored by UCLA with slight differences from the theatrical release (arguably closer to what Ford originally intended).

Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

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I have long sought out this picture and all I can say is all hail the conquering hero! It’s everything that could have been hoped for in a Preston Sturges wartime comedy. But in order for the laughs to come along with a great deal more, there must be a setup — a watering hole for our main players to familiarize themselves.

Sure enough, we are introduced to a fairly somber nightclub scene or maybe it’s simply the face of the one man the camera chooses to focus on, sitting dejectedly at the bar. There slumps Eddie Bracken, slightly pudgy and round-faced. By no means classically handsome but he and Preston Sturges had quite a thing going for a couple years.

He got sent home from the Marines for chronic hayfever. I’m extremely empathetic to his condition as I’m sure innumerable others are as well. Anyway, he’s too embarrassed to go home and it’s been a year now and he’s still not returned. However, he has nothing except the highest regard for the Marines as his father gave his life serving his country. In fact, it was the very day our boy was born.

He pays it forward to a group of Marines on leave with no dough, thanks to the gambling habits of one of their pack. The act of charity isn’t lost on them and they get acquainted. Soon they find out the name of their benefactor. It has the be the most patriotic names ever invented: Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (sans the Truesmith).

Soon they are regaled with his story and stunned by his encyclopedic knowledge of the exploits of the Marines out on the battlefields. Their leader Sergeant (William Demarest) even finds out they have a lot more in common as he knew the elder Truesmith — Winky Dinky for short — before he perished.

The only place for the film to go from here is back to Woodrow’s roots and so without his consent, his mother gets called up and it’s announced that he’s getting sent home. Woodrow’s against it from the beginning but his new pals say there’s nothing to it. He’ll wear a uniform for a day, give his mother a hug, and take off the uniform soon after, completely forgotten. Of course, as they ride the train into town, they have no idea what’s been stirred up in preparation.

A homecoming like you’ve never witnessed has been hurriedly assembled by the local committee chairman (the frantically hilarious Franklin Pangborn) and it’s the true essence of cacophony with unrehearsed dueling brass bands; the mayor and any number of folks milling about in expectant anticipation. The show is just beginning to warm up now.

What many will find astounding is just how perfectly Hail the Conquering Hero has been constructed by Sturges, at least in the way it skirts its topics with simultaneous delicacy and verve. Here is a film striking an impeccable course between that very same comedy and then admiration for the armed forces because no one can forget WWII was still blasting away across the world.

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Likewise, the church service far from belittling the faith is a lingering visual gag as we watch the dueling reactions of the two sides of the pews. First through the hymns and then a very sincere homily from the preacher culminating in yet another rousing display of goodwill. By now Woodrow has little hope to derail any of the fanfare with the erection of a commemorative statue christened “Like Father, Like Son” soon in the works. All his newfound Marine buddies are good for is stoking the fires and applauding the sentiment.

The next great sequence is cued by the music and Mother answers the door and mentions that the Judge (Jimmy Conlin) and some other civic leaders want to see Woodrow. Immediately his mind leaps to the worst possible scenario. The game must be up and all his Marine buddies inconspicuously grab household items in case of a tustle that might take place in the drawing room. Of course, their intentions are nothing of the sort. Far from it. The lead up makes the outcome into yet another outrageous reveal.

Just around this juncture, it becomes increasingly apparent that all the characters appear to move in packs and Sturges crams the frame gladly with bodies and faces and more appendages. Woodrow does his best to avoid the spotlight, flubbing his speech to the masses, and trying to downplay the bid for mayor thrust upon him only to be thwarted at every turn by a cheering crowd of well-wishers. One man even proclaims his was the greatest speech since William Jennings Bryan’s “Crown of Thorns!” Already we have the swellest giggle-fit inducer I’ve encountered in some time.

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I wracked my brain only to realize I’d never seen Ella Raines in a comedy before and for much of this picture she’s in the periphery, her comely smiling features on the screen with a whole host of others. But there are a few moments that, far from playing merely humorously, prove deeply moving as she is split between the man she is betrothed to marry and the one she truly loves.

The family she’s caught up in includes a quibbling father and son. The incumbent mayor (Raymond Walburn), who ponificates incessantly, attempts to dictate his speech in his latest bid for reelection only to get annoyed by his dim-witted boy (Bill Edwards) who nevertheless corrects his grammatical blunders. She’d do well to get out of there. Nevertheless, they are a bounty for humorous dialogue.

The stakes are set for a reversal of fortune with a number of parties having a chance to oust our hero. One man who’s buddy-buddy with the Mayor, the cool and collected Jake (Al Bridge) is mighty curious about Woodrow’s service record and he sends a wire to the Marine Base in San Diego. He gets the incriminating news shortly.

But ultimately it comes down to Woodrow himself and Sturges puts the perfect words in his mouth that Eddie Bracken then utters with an assured conviction. Riffing off the Biblical epithet he notes, “My cup runneth over with gall” and proceeds to pour out with veracious intent all the lies and masquerades he’s been too scared to admit to his own town. His guts are laid out right in front of him. Yes, his mother cries. The townspeople look on somberly and his Marine buddies can do nothing to dispel any of it. Even the words of the Mayor and his pal mean nothing now.

With such a showing you would think it was all over for Woodrow and he tells his mama that he’s going to leave again. He cannot stay. Not like this at least. But his girl comes back to him because she at least loves him unconditionally.

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At the train station the parlor games look like they might commence again but this time the whole town is involved, a lynching all but imminent. The Marines this time wrap up their belts inconspicuously to prepare for combat once more. Of course, the mob is there for a very different reason altogether.

The film has the foresight to see what so many of its contemporary war movies were, only made plainly obvious with the luxury hindsight: Light-hearted and good-intentioned yet still mawkish propaganda pieces. So Sturges took up his pen and tackled such hero worship and smalltime jingoism and yet settles on a resolution proving to be as venerating as it is satisfying.

Hail The Conquering Hero is a miracle assemblage of poignancy and humor; I don’t know how it comes away still intact and with my heartfelt laughter and deepest respect no less. It’s not an easy road to traverse by any means. Only a few have managed it. Chaplain in The Great Dictator (1940) distinctly comes to mind and Preston Sturges here.

4.5/5 Stars

Stars in My Crown (1950)

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It speaks not only to the man but to this film, that Joel McCrea rated Stars in My Crown among his personal favorites. (Hint: It’s not because of the imminent reunion of two cast members in Gunsmoke). The story is framed by the nostalgic recollections of an old man and it’s a singular story in the way that one life is a story. There are constant offshoots, revelations, and daily interactions with other human narratives.

John’s life (Dean Stockwell) could have been very different; it could have been drama because he was orphaned at a young age. Except he had Parson Gray (McCrea) and Mrs. Gray (Ellen Drew). Much like this film, his life was generally a joyous affair growing up as a young lad. Certainly, it was not without its roadblocks, disagreements, or minor quarrels but what remains is generally uplifting and good.

Stars in My Crown for much of its run is a vignette-driven tale but that proves to be the utmost blessing for this particular film. That inevitably brings us to Joel McCrea and why he must have relished this part. He’s a man of faith and no shame-faced Christian. There’s no denying his spiritual leanings. Still, while he’s not a spineless pushover, there’s not a condemning word that leaves his mouth either.

What keeps him upright and a pillar of the community is a quiet boldness and a genuine care for his parishioners. But that means not simply calling on the people who enter into his church on Sundays. I’ve heard it said before that it’s easy for anyone to love people who are just like them or who they like already.

What’s truly a test of someone’s heart is whether or not they are willing to reach out to those who seem alien and contrary to their station in life. The Parson is such a man. Not only does he care for the physically sick or the self-proclaimed churchgoers who are sick in the soul, he is there for those on the fringes too.

He faithfully calls on his boisterous war buddy (Alan Hale Sr. in his final role) who is larger-than-life with a strapping clan of sons (including James Arness) and a penchant for joking about religion. He’s waiting for the Parson to get God to plow his fields for him.

The good-natured Gray gently ribs him about his coming to church. But what strikes me is the worth he sees in his friend. In one resounding instance, when the local gamekeeper Famous (Juano Hernandez) has his land trampled by local bigots, it’s not the Christian folk but Jed who immediately comes to his aid. His beneficiary rightfully proclaims with all candor, “You’re a real Christian.”

Parson Gray’s rounds never seem to cease though in one instance they meet with opposition. Dr. Harris (Lewis Stone) has long been the town’s apothecary but with his ailing health, his intelligent yet rather brusque son (James Mitchell) is taking over the family business. Though more than capable, what the younger fellow is lacking is a genial bedside manner, at least upon first glance.

He does show a certain sensitivity to the local school teacher (Amanda Blake) and the certain tightness in Mitchell’s voice is stellar for articulating the feelings of a man who is hardly unfeeling — he just has trouble opening up. In fact, he’s adamant that the religious leader stays out of his way because he sees no place for such ritualism when he has practical science to help people.

The days roll ever onward with young boys lazily kicked back in a hay wagon surmising what they’d do if they were God. Namely, have it always be summer. Even Christmas would be in summer. Another time a Medicine Man (Charles Kemper) and his Carnival Show pay a visit and bring the town out of the woodwork for an evening of magic tricks and showmanship.

Then come the bad times when the typhoid hits and people are dropping like flies. First, John is sick then a whole host of others. The Doctor criticizes Gray for potentially infecting the entire population of school children and for the first time in a long time we see the normally even-tempered man angered.

However, the Parson is man enough to consider that he’s wrong because he very well could have been. He’s also humble enough to give the doctor room to work. For the sake of the people, he becomes isolated and as a result poor, bereft of his usual resources. Because all he had was out of charity and the tangible blessings of those around him.

He even goes so far as closing the church for the first Sunday service as far back as anyone can remember. It soon becomes evident how very humble and meager his portion is without the bulwark of community around him.

But it’s one of those things, out of the Parson’s seemingly selfless act comes a reciprocal act from the young doctor — the man who shed his rough exterior and became one with the people knowing full well all their suffering as well as their joys. It was this chance in the trenches with the lack of the sleep and onslaught of the slow fever where he realized there was a need for something else that he never thought was lacking before. If Ordet (1955) has the most striking resurrection scene that I can recall perhaps Stars in My Crown has the most gorgeously understated.

The final stand that the Parson is compelled to take is also weighty with significance. The townsfolk have repeatedly threatened Famous and now they’ve reached the end of the road. Stringing him up and taking his property is all that’s left to do.

When they leave that burning cross and the note, cloaked in white like cowards, it somehow brought the same realization that floods over me far too often. In some ways, this film is meant to be so archaic, reminiscent of a bygone era far removed from our present. And yet as much as we might try and move away, it sadly remains relevant.

So the Parson goes to Famous’s home alone knowing what is coming for them. He forgoes the guns of his good buddy Jed. That’s not his way now. Instead, he speaks to them resolutely as they get ready to take Famous away. He confronts them with the man’s own words and in the most piercingly moving moment of the entire picture we see how one man can be so selfless in the face of so much hatred. He can boast so many riches even if his worldly possessions seem totally inconsequential. His character speaks for itself.

Years later Atticus Finch would have a confrontation akin to this one and yet it came to an impasse. Here the Parson is able to speak the truth into each of these men’s lives and make them human again. All thanks to Famous.

So while the picture might fall too easily back into place (Klansman aren’t rooted out forthwith for instance) there’s no begrudging such a gentle and virtuous film its closure. Because these are as much the fond memories of a young boy grown old as they are the tale of one man who left an indelible impact on a life and on a community. I’m reminded that perhaps a church is not so much a building as it is a people. Though the picture is capped by the proud moment where the Parson sees his old war buddy welcomed into the fold, I would like to think he doesn’t see that as the ultimate victory.

If anything his life reflects the outpouring of an existence lived outside of the Sunday framework. He does not have compartmentalized faith — the kind of religiosity that makes people hypocritical and prideful. I can respect a man like that even if he doesn’t pack a gun.

4.5/5 Stars

I am thinking today of that beautiful land
I shall reach when the sun goeth down;
When through wonderful grace by my Savior I stand,
Will there be any stars in my crown?

Will there be any stars, any stars in my crown
When at evening the sun goeth down?
When I wake with the blest in the mansions of rest
Will there be any stars in my crown?

In the strength of the Lord let me labor and pray,
Let me watch as a winner of souls,
That bright stars may be mine in the glorious day,
When His praise like the sea billow rolls.

O what joy it will be when His face I behold,
Living gems at his feet to lay down!
It would sweeten my bliss in the city of gold,
Should there be any stars in my crown.

Roma (2018)

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Alfonso Cuaron is always a director whom I’ve admired from afar whether it be Harry Potter or Gravity (2013), but I would stop short of saying I’ve felt a connection to any of his work. Not that it is not there, I simply have not been affected in a specific way.

Roma, right from the outset, is vastly different from those other titles. Here is a man who has carved out success for himself in Hollywood along with his fellow countrymen like Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Inarritu, and Emmanuel Lubezki. Still, by taking stock of his life, stepping back, and returning to his roots, instantly I have a more profound understanding and subsequent appreciation of Cuaron.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for monochrome and Roma is by far the most gorgeous movie that I’ve seen from 2018 in this regard. Also, the world being documented intrigues me. The only film I recollect existing in a comparable space is Machuca (2004) and even that story was very pointed in putting the social and racial elements front and center.

Roma somehow manages to work wonders by bringing those normally existing outiside of the spotlight into the forefront, while nudging usual focal points to the periphery and yet they are no less a part of this world. It’s a deeply admirable endeavor to try and pull off and it generally succeeds.

Because this is a story of a family living in the Mexican quarter of Roma but if it is about children, a grandmother; a husband and wife, then it is more specifically about their in-house maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). It’s made plain she is the glue to hold everything together in this story and within this splintering family.

The camera itself follows suit, with Cuaron making a concerted effort to keep his visions broad and encompassing (He served as cinematographer as well as director and screenwriter). We still know we’re being guided albeit by someone coaxing us to observe and take in scenes at a certain distance. It’s the overall impressions and a sense of the gestalt that is more important than mercilessly driving our focus. Soft pans at times turning a full 360 degrees make all the space fair game. I’m not always a fan but they generally work.

The freedom is exhilarating and at the same time pensive because it allows space to really sit back and relish scenes unfolding at their own pace. I can’t help but be reminded of Tati’s Playtime (1967) where so many things might be going on in the frame and you are given license to enjoy all or none of them at any given time.

Beyond these shots, the most gratifying are the tracking ones moving right to left along street corners. Maybe it’s a pair of young women running to their favorite lunch shop to get a torta for or little kids scampering ahead to get to the movie theater to see the new movie Marooned (a Gravity inspiration perhaps). It’s not simply a technical appeal but a complete immersion in the landscape that we can appreciate.

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But the drama is also evident, especially following a tumultuous one-two punch instigated by rioting and blood in the streets, an outcome of the notorious Corpus Christi Massacre. The historical moment gets personal and the sheer volatility of it all feels palpable. I cannot help but remember the rumblings of unrest and chaos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. For Mexico’s people, it was far more than a pair of black power salutes.

This is augmented by a moment that proves equally bleak. It feels like a dream out of 8 1/2 (1963). Stuck in a traffic jam — not moving an inch — except this is very real and disconcerting. There are some real issues with not only the social and economic unrest but the very infrastructure of the nation.

Cleo is on the verge of pregnancy and yet they are not moving anywhere. The hospital seems desperately out of reach. When they do finally arrive it too is full of tumult. Pulling strings, they manage to get Cleo to the doctor. However, nothing can prepare us for the devastating drama with the birth of Cleo’s child.

The news finally drops that father is not gone away in Canada. He’s simply not coming back. In the aftermath of all this excitement and the family vacation, life settles into a new equilibrium. Cleo tries to get over her heartbreak as the family accepts that dad is not coming back and they must be brave and move forward with life.

These encompass many of the moments already mentioned but it seems just as necessary to mention hail storms, barking dogs, hanging up the washing, nights in front of the television, and the complete decimation of automobiles simply in an attempt to park them in the narrow family garage.

A story like this thrives on these moments just as much as the overt drama because Cuaron has pulled from his own memories — the personal recollections of his childhood — and so when we see these very mundane sequences there is an appreciation for the details.

The only caveat that should come with Roma is the necessity to be aware of the social structure in place within the context of our story. If we were taking an anthropology course we would probably call it hegemony. Because our central family is part of the middle class, the social elite, and their background shows connections to higher education and the world at large.

The first tip-off Cleo is different is simply how she looks and her occupation as the family maid. Even the fact she speaks both Spanish and her indigenous Mixtec. These are elements we would do well not to gloss over.

Then, we see the community she was raised in and it becomes obvious the poverty present. Everyone does not live like her employers because they are part of the privileged few who can manage with multiple cars, many vacations, a fridge full of Twinkies, and money for frequent trips to the movies.

Again, these stark contrasts cannot be taken for granted. We have this strange process of dealing with these complex relationships deeply rooted in the country itself. Cuaron is attempting to acknowledge an unsung hero in his life while coming to terms with his own past. It’s imperfect but I have difficulty finding fault in it because this is essentially his existence with the curtains pulled back.

It is not for me to pass judgment on the merit of his life or his upbringing. What I can hold onto and feel drawn to are the moments of pain and suffering that feel human. We have instances of quiet strength and dignity, affection and bravery. Cleo is a beautiful figure. That doesn’t make her station in life right or the world around her okay but she gleams with something powerful. There are deep reservoirs of emotion evident here but they are not of the conventional sort.

In my estimation, pulchritude will always hold precedence over ugliness. It’s not about being complacent or ignorant towards the dark tendencies of this world but it hinges on a resolute hopefulness. Roma is a meaningful ode even as it reminds us both the past and our current reality are deeply flawed.

4.5/5 Stars

The Only Son (1936)

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Tragedy in life starts with the bondage of parents and children.

The film opens with a single extended scene with the title card reading: Shinshu, Central Japan 1923. Ozu guides us in with his pillow shots framing the story’s sequences with images of his locales which neither serve the narrative nor reveal anything about our characters at hand. But he more than many directors is well aware of his environment and basking in its very contours.

The opening premise has to do with a young middle school-aged boy and his mother. The problem is whether or not he will go onto high school. You see, his father is dead and his mother must eke by a living. They don’t have much money. School costs money.

There are two stories going around. The one he told his mother saying he would not continue his schooling and then the one he told his teacher. His mother only finds out when the man comes by to acknowledge how happy he is for the boy.

Though distraught at first, from that day forward the mother vows to pay for her son to have schooling, first high school and then college. Likewise, he vows dutifully to become a great man so her maternal sacrifice is not in vain.

Flashforward to the present and the now elderly mother decides to pay a visit to her son in the big city of Tokyo. He’s grown now and has a job. But it turns out that things are not as she might have hoped.

First off, he has a couple of surprises for her. He got married and already has a baby son. Also, their home is fairly run-down and humble because his salary as a night school teacher is meager at best. So much for being a great man. It turns out such aspirations are difficult, especially in a metropolis like Tokyo. Look no further than his old teacher who has turned to running a butcher shop just to provide for his family.

However, despite these circumstances, the son throws out all the stops to make a lavish showing of hospitality for his mother’s benefit. After all, he can’t possibly let on how things are actually going. Because that would break her heart. He would have failed her.

So he buys extra chicken, offers small trinkets, and they attend the picture show. Things he probably never would have done if she were not present. Slowly he’s sinking under the surface, borrowing money from everyone who might oblige.

But of course, the truth always finds its way out. She worked so hard to get him to college and the hope of his successes kept her going. The revelation of his current situation pains her heart and she’s forthright in telling him precisely that. She is utterly ashamed as he explains how difficult it is to become a big man in Tokyo. Hard work does not always cut it.

This could be the end of their relationship right there and yet there is another moment. After a horrible accident, he gives all the money they have left to help a single mother pay for her son’s medical bills. It’s a meaningful gesture and right before she leaves, the mother tells her son that she’s proud of his integrity.

All he can think about is how unsatisfied she must be and how much he didn’t want her to come to begin with. His wife concurs he’s lucky to have such a good mother, because by the standards of Japan, she made her child her all so that he might succeed.

Meanwhile, the mother regales her solitary friend back home about her son who has become a great man and his lovely wife and how she can die now without any regrets. All the while we know the full truth but she must save face and so she makes up the most satisfying story she can. Hidden away from view her head is downcast in grief and shame.

What’s striking to the very last frame of The Only Son is the conflicting feelings it provides. It constantly flits back and forth between this false sense of security and contentment to moments of deepest regret.

It never quite allows you to rest on a single one of these emotions but instead requires you to cope with them in equal measures as the scenes are layered one on top of another. First, the mother is happy, then the son is anxious, then the mother is ashamed, then proud. Her son is regretful and finally spurred on to make another go of being a great man. So there’s this lingering sweetness, this not uncertain hope, and yet his mother is in the backroom head bowed, saddened by where she left her boy.

There is no easy answer. There is no definite category. There’s no way to siphon off this person’s emotions from that person’s because they all remain interconnected. That’s what allows this film to make sense and have such an emotional impact as it quietly whiplashes us back and forth between mother and son. We feel for both of them even if their hopes and aspirations seem somewhat misplaced. It’s a film that pains the heart of anyone who hates to see lives in utter distress.

I must confess that I racked my brain for the reason Ozu might spend so much time cutting to shots of the hanging laundry — a recurring motif throughout the film. Surely, there’s some intricacy that I am missing or some subtle symbolism. While that is undoubtedly true, I realized even more clearly that Ozu did not require an overt reason for his shot choices.

Just as our eyes stray to observe the world around us so his camera turns its lens in such a way. It is attracted to faces, rooms, and maybe even the mundane qualities of hanging shirts as the wind softly swirls past. There need not be more than this.

Likewise, I kept on staring at the image of the glamorous movie star up on the wall of their humble home. I was trying to decide if it was Joan Crawford or some German actress I am not aware of. Someone else might be able to distill my ignorance but I realized, again, it did not matter as long as I enjoyed the overall experience.

Ozu can be cast much in the way of the famed woodblock printer Katsushika Hokusai most famous for his “36 views of Mount Fuji.” Likewise, the Japanese director took similar forms and topics and unearthed the intricacies of temperament and interrelations which he subsequently revisited again and again.

If you notice, he has simply reversed his normal dynamic of father with daughter and it has become mother and son. Relatively similar origins and yet the outcomes are no less enlightening. So it’s not necessarily about the novel. There can be just as much relish in taking something that we are so used to, like parent-children relations, and recasting them in such a way that we recognize the situations with greater lucidity. Therein lies a space for growth and understanding.

Surely Ozu takes some getting used to. However, eventually his style will age on you and you will come to find the same fascinations he does until your tastes meld and it becomes second nature to see the empathy and beauty in his subject matter just as he seems to. Pretty soon it feels as if you are looking alongside him. If you let him, it can become a thoroughly symbiotic relationship between filmmaker and audience.

4.5/5 Stars