Review: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

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Ernst Lubitsch made a name for himself and his “touch” in silents as well as leaving an indelible mark on the 1940s with the likes of Shop Around The Corner (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Cluny Brown (1946). But for me, no film better personifies his wit and sensibilities than Trouble in Paradise. It proves to be the most impeccable distillation of his directorial style.

The script is courtesy of Samson Raphaelson who would become a longtime collaborator with the director on future projects. Aided by uncredited edits by Lubitsch, the story is imbued with class in the guise of light comedy.

There’s a certain cadence to the cutting and the music. A constant winking that seems to be going on. And it’s simultaneously the height of refined elegance while being undercut with constant nudges and proddings of comic verve. What is noticeable is the economical sophistication of the filmmaking and a seasoned eye for how to tell a story by the best means possible. It’s not always what you would expect.

Consider the film in its early moments as a case and point. It could have started so many ways and yet Lubitsch chose something different. A trash heap, a shadowy fugitive, then a man knocked out on his floor and an almost incomprehensibly daring shot that moves us to another building entirely where we meet our protagonist. It’s all so very enigmatic and almost wordless aside from the bellowing of the gondolier. The man on the balcony rightfully asserts to the waiter attentively standing in the wings, “Beginnings are never easy.” So right he is.

Nevertheless, the film continues to put on a lovely charade concealing its finest secret until the perfect instant to milk the quarries of its humorous intentions for all they are worth. We are introduced to a tryst featuring two great romantics caught up in the rapturous trills of amour.

They sit down to a divine dinner that plays as an intimate tete-a-tete. But soon the curtain drops and they don’t skip a beat as she ousts him as the famed burglar Gaston Monescu and he comes back perfectly charming to accuse her of being a pickpocket herself. She tickled him when she nicked his spoils but her embrace was so sweet. He couldn’t help being touched.

In even these early interludes it becomes obvious that the talent couldn’t be better with Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins falling into their roles seamlessly with a certain amount of relish. Playing a romantic pair of thieves is a fine proposition after all. The world is their oyster and they’re in love. What could be better?

Meanwhile, Edward Edward Horton has an exchange with the police that I can’t but help compare with I Love Lucy’s famous language transfer. So much is lost amid the words and Horton always was an oblivious sort, God bless him.

However, the character who will prove to be the third in our triangle of cultured passion is Colet (Kay Francis) a glamorous heiress in control of a cosmetic empire. Francis embodies the ravishing role flawlessly even despite her well-documented speech impediment. It’s nearly imperceptible if you’re not looking for it.

Far from detracting from her performance it simply increases our sympathy for her. She may be rich — even out of touch with the world at large — but she’s hardly arrogant. She’s easily taken in and a bit cavalier with her money while two men are vying for her affection.

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Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles are both exemplary. I realized perhaps it was something moving deep within me telling me those voices were meant to go together. How right I was. Years later Rocky & Bullwinkle serials would have been a great deal less without them. Just as they make this picture that much better. Horton’s pitch-perfect quizzical look (tonsils, positively tonsils) is wonderfully matched by Ruggles own befuddled mannerisms. Still, I digress.

Of course, we see it already. It is Colet’s vast array of jewels that are of particular interest to a third man: Gaston. Except he’s a clever fellow. Instead of just stealing them at the theater he snatches them so he can give them back to her and in turn gain her confidence with his delicate preening of her ego and artful debonair flattery. He’s skilled and she’s a fairly easy mark.

Soon, he’s hired on as her secretary and it has little to do with his current resume, based on probably one of the films most remembered exchanges that pretty much sums up the tone:

“Madame Colet, if I were your father, which fortunately I am not, and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking – in a business way, of course.”

“What would you do if you were my secretary?”

“The same thing.”

“You’re hired.”

His wife AKA his Secretary is getting antsy and a little jealous providing one of the film’s other perfectly inflected quips (If you’re a gentleman, I’ll kill you!). Still, her hubby reassures her all of Colet’s sex appeal is in her safe, 1,000s of francs worth of it. But he’s not as impervious as he would like to believe.

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Lubitsch has the finesse to film an entire extended sequence of only a clock with the dialogue playing over it. The romantic interplay is understood without visual cues. We nod in acknowledgment. They’re also almost more romantic when they don’t kiss than when they do, floating inches from each other’s faces, eyes closed in a reverie.  Gliding on air. We begin to suspect whether this is still a put on or if it is, in fact, becoming real. Gaston is good but his wife is getting anxious and she has every right to be.

The family bookkeeper (C. Aubrey Smith) is skeptical of his qualifications and his identity. But the kicker is that Gaston is finally remembered by Monsieur Filiba and only time will tell when his cover is blown.

It’s time to get out of there and yet something keeps him back. He feels compelled to fess up to Colet and yet there’s no calling of the authorities or any of that. She’s far too wealthy to care. It’s what could have been that she will miss and he knows it too. In the end, he still goes out the door and she lets him. No consequences. No real drama.

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There’s no need because that’s not what the film hinges on. It’s the love story and not just the love but how it plays out in this theater of refinement which Lubitsch has incubated to perfection. Undubitably there is trouble in paradise, even wistfulness sometimes, but that doesn’t mean things cannot be resolved.

Husband and wife go out much as they came in — not able to keep their hands off each other — or out of each other’s pockets. Try and put a name to it if you must. It’s the “grift of love.” How sweet it is.

4.5/5 Stars

Los Olvidados (1950)

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The opening narration of Los Olvidados asserts that the great modern cities of the world including New York, Paris, and London all mask issues of poverty and delinquency amid their magnificent structures. This is a universal problem that plagues Mexico as well.

In Los Olvidados a test case is being proposed and the solution left open-ended because change is still necessary. There’s still need for some kind of resolution. Whether it’s completely true word for word is nearly beyond the point because it feels authentic. There’s little need to make up a world as dire and ugly as this one unless there’s at least a grain of reality in every frame.

Where boys break out of reform school, stone blind beggars in retaliation, and form gangs as a kind of social safety net to lash out at their environment. Beating up the poor and the helpless. They too are poor but this band of theirs allows them to be less helpless and prey on others instead. That’s their main tactic of survival in their life of impoverished vagrancy.

It proves to be a harrowing exhibition in social realism and though defamed in its day, its candid and at times brutal depiction of juvenile delinquency has gained it a spot as one of Mexico’s most prestigious pictures. There’s no doubt that it’s a violent picture seething with adolescent rage. The only question is how much is environmental and how much is a product of the individuals?

As much as this film is disquieting and repulses me to the core of my being, I cannot deny its place as an important commentary and cinematic landmark from Luis Bunuel. The Spaniard is a master who always makes my skin crawl and challenges my very convictions. Los Olvidados succeeds in doing the very same thing again by forcing us to acknowledge the loathsomeness in the world that we so often want to brush under the rug. It’s there. There’s no denying it. Man left to his own devices will send the world hurtling towards malicious chaos.

There’s an intent to every moment with action streamlined but never feeling rushed or forced in its everyday rhythms that provide a seamless illusion of real life. Luis Bunuel still finds space to imprint Los Olvidados with his own surrealist vision as a young boy, Pedro, is haunted by a grinning corpse to mirror the dead body now laying in a ditch where he served as an accomplice. However, his disquieting nightmares are compounded by a mother complex. He wants her love and yet seems to do everything to receive her ire.

In a world such as this where we see the brokenness and the sheer depths of poverty, it seems like it would be easy to empathize and yet this film makes it rather difficult. Because some of these boys are so boorish. So violent and dirty-minded. There’s no sense of decency even if they wanted it and their leader Jaibo is the worst of the lot.

But there are two boys that I do have some lingering sympathy for. Pedro is not unlike the others. Out on the street getting into trouble and the like. And yet there’s something in him that is trying to reform. He looks to find work and he wants the love and affection of his mother once more. The problem is she’s already given up on him. There is no love in her heart. And his pals are constantly impeding his road to reform. That’s as much as an indictment as the city that has no effective system to give these boys a better life or the boys themselves who live wayward existences.

The second sympathetic figure simply goes by “Eyes” and he’s been waiting patiently for his father to return. He hasn’t. Instead, he becomes the guide to the ornery street musician who makes a living in the town square when he’s not accosted by young gangsters. “Eyes” gets pulled into the drama too but there’s an innate integrity that’s lacking in most of his contemporaries. He generally treats the old man well and respects the pretty young ingenue Meche. That cannot save any of them from an awful existence.

The final image is grotesque. Not for the graphic nature of the imagery but the metaphoric juxtaposition. A body thrown into a trash ditch like a bag of flour. There’s no value to it and the people who do it while not the perpetrators are further implicated in this societal problem. They trade pleasantries with the mother as she searches for her son — a son she never seemed to love — until he’s in trouble. The issues run so deep it hurts to watch. The finger can be pointed in any direction.

The problems must fall on the parents, adults, and peers who do not find it within themselves to speak up or to continue loving or fighting for change. Complacency and hard hearts are just as bad a problem as juvenile delinquency. Put them together and you sow nothing but generations upon generations of human beings damned before they even have a chance at a decent life. It’s over 60 years on and we’re probably still searching for many of the answers to these very same issues. As much as I would like to admit that this film is outdated, to make such a statement would be heedlessly ignorant.

Because of course Los Olvidados in English is literally translated to “The Forgotten.” There’s part of your problem right there. As humans we so easily forget. We brush problems under the rug, pass the buck, and so on. Before you know it years have gone by and a new generation of youths are all but forgotten. The deadly cycle begins again and never ends until someone champions radical change. Until that day they will continue as the unnamed, unwanted, forgotten foes of society. Los Olividados.

4.5/5 Stars

Counselor at Law (1933)

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The law offices of Simon and Tedesco are at the core of this film but it’s really George Simon who’s of particular interest to us. Based off a play by Elmer Rice, Counselor at Law is a self-contained office drama of great energetic verve. It’s handled assuredly by a young Hollywood director on the rise named William Wyler — a man who continued to make quality films throughout the 30s and by the 40s and 50s became lauded among Hollywood’s finest filmmakers. Here you can already see him reining in the chaos to hone in on a lucid story that’s witty and at times admittedly tragic.

We’re quickly introduced to an office positively buzzing with activity which sets the scene nicely. There are frequent coming and goings from office to office, mail deliveries, telephone lines crisscrossing this way and that with a reception area full of people.

It soon becomes apparent that there’s a head-spinning regiment of phone calls, appointments, and anything else you can imagine going on in this busy beehive on any given day. It makes a day at work seem like the most rewarding social experiment that you could possibly conduct in that revered tradition of people watching. Because as an audience that’s what we get the privilege to do as Rice’s adapted script constructs the beats of the story as a delightful web of interactions.

John Barrymore gives a frenetic performance as the whirling dervish of a lawyer Mr. Simon. And it feels like a stroke of genius that we never see him enter a court of law but only observe the various people and types he must work with to get his job done. It makes for an engrossing human drama that puts us in touch with a myriad of narratives all at once.

Instead, we get to know so much about his makeup and personal character. He receives multiple visits from his kindly mother who he playfully ribs or from his wife who he lavishes with affection constantly while she remains notably aloof. But that’s simply his way. He’s a mile a minute generally magnanimous soul who does his job well. Many folks in the town are indebted to him and though he’s successful, you get the sense he hasn’t forgotten about the little fellow on his way to the top.

This sentiment lays the groundwork for the film as a piece of commentary. It gets its source from a boy from the old neighborhood who got brought in by the cops for spewing communist sentiments on a street corner. Now his poor mother is asking a favor of Mr. Simon. He obliges only to get ridiculed and belittled by the proud young man.

As such Counselor at Law has a bit of a socio-economic angle as well suggesting the longheld stratosphere that was imposed the day that the first Europeans came off the Mayflower. Any following party has a harder time making it and yet some of the more assiduous ones do. It’s staying there that can be difficult.

But the attacks come from the bottom too. From the fiery youths who look at a self-made man such as Simon as someone who has sold out on his kind; he’s a dirty traitor. There’s no way to win. The American way seems a tough road to traverse and still come out a winner.

One such passing interaction with a past client, in particular, changes his entire day for the worse and a crucial fact that went unbeknownst to him could spell curtains to his career. In a matter of minutes, disbarment seems to be looming over him. He can’t take it.

But the film also has another layer. Love stories are playing out and there are two levels to it. Obviously, there is Simon and his wife who he adores and her “other man.” Then, there’s Rexy (Bebe Daniels), Mr. Simon’s faithful secretary constantly brushing off the frequent advances of a bookish but persistent Mr. Weinberg. But there’s also an unrequited love that’s unspoken and seems the most devastating of them all.

Ultimately, we are privy to the blessing and the curse of the workaholic. By the end of the film, Simon’s true love is still his work even if there’s a hint at something more. Whether or not he can maintain his lifestyle is left to the imagination and perhaps it is better that way. We leave him on the upswing but with questions still to ask. It suggests that the American Dream isn’t always quite what it seems. It can be equal parts joy and tragedy. The question is whether or not it is worth the risk.

4.5/5 Stars

Imitation of Life (1959)

220px-Imitation_of_Life_1959_posterWhen I was watching the film I distinctly remember one instance I threw my head back in the air and just smiled to myself. How I love Douglas Sirk. He gives us something seemingly so superficial and decadent that plays so perfectly into those expectations and simultaneously steamrolls them with a not-so-veiled indictment unfurled on multiple fronts.

This was Douglas Sirk’s final film in his U.S. career. It’s another gorgeously rendered picture. A harsh social satire of the ambitions of an American Dreamer but also the inherent fissures that run through our society to its very roots. These issues have hardly changed with time or if they have changed, it’s simply the same problems given a facelift. The core wounds remain the same.

Imitation of Life is a story that starts in New York, of all places, at the beach. For the first time, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) crosses paths with the kindly, God-fearing Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) who looked after Lora’s daughter when she got lost in the crowd of vacationers.

In less than a comfortable position herself, Lora nevertheless offers her home up to Annie and her fair-skinned daughter Sarah Jane who strikes up a fast friendship with Susie while showing early signs of vehemently despising her African-American identity.

Those are the core aspects of the story as the glamorous single mother follows her aspirations to star on Broadway first with commercials and then small parts that lead her to something more. She finds an agent (Robert Alda) and ultimately earns the respect of a noted playwright (Dan O’Herlihy) who soon writes all her roles. The demands on her time mean that a fledgling romance with a photographer  (John Gavin) falls to the wayside and she hardly sees Susie.

Meanwhile, Annie remains a faithful friend by her side who keeps her house in order and looks after the girls as they slowly begin to mature into womanhood. And as they grow into women their own personal crises come to fruition. Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) continues to try and pass as white while denouncing her mother. It gets so bad that she leaves home and changes her name to perform at dive bars where her mother hopefully won’t follow.

Susie’s (Sandra Dee) problems are of a different nature. She feels so alienated from her mother, the lady so often absent in her life, that she decides to attend college far away in Colorado. When Steve Archer (Gavin) drifts back into Lora’s life things are complicated by Susie’s obvious crush on him.

On both fronts of mother-daughter relationships, the film showcases its many themes playing out in vivid fashion. In fact, Imitation of Life feels all too resonate given the state of affairs in Hollywood and our world right now.

There’s this ongoing temptation to cheapen who you are for the sake of success. In this case, it applies to the theater and the career of Lora Meredith (Turner) but it could be in, let’s say, Hollywood or the corporate sector or any other endeavors. The jobs change but the people do not. Where you are forced to feel awful for not lowering yourself to other people’s level of sleaze and impropriety.

It’s a film about the fame monster and the industry dominated by a patriarchy where you are coaxed into making certain concessions so that people will like you and give you what you want. Just to maintain a career and your ambitions, your familial relationship, in this case, with a daughter is led to the point of deterioration. To this day, money and opulence, nice things and social standing, do not make up for an actual relationship. There’s no contest.

Ironically, only after the good fortune strikes and you have years of success do you begin to realize amidst the rush that the pinnacle has been reached and still something is missing.  That’s Lora’s realization. But just as fervently this can be a film of idealism and dreams. Seeing things the way they are and making them more and more into what you want them to be. Being the change. That’s Annie’s part.

It is also a film about racism — a fixture of society — and a troubling one that is still opening up innumerable wounds in the fabric of our society and they are wounds that must be acknowledged. There is a painful scene that while a girl is being berated and slapped by her alleged boyfriend a playfully jazzy score dances in the background and it’s this disconcerting contradiction — the kind of contradictions that are often easy to pick up on if you’re willing to see them.

People loathe themselves for the color of their skin and the stigma society puts on their personal identity. Someone’s life is driven by shame instead of an unswerving pride in who they were created to be. And whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all part of the problem where being white is seen as being normal or the status quo or what have you.

One of the most striking moments in the film for me is when Annie is recounting the Christmas story to the girls and they ask a very honest question. “Was Jesus White?” or “Was Jesus Black?” Because it seems like a question that devises some way of relating to this historical figure. But it also forces you to see the astronomical error in such ideologies of a  “white savior” or a “white man’s burden.” It simply cannot work. Nor does it work the other way.

Of course, as Annie sees so clearly, neither of these distinctions matter or any type of distinction because this was not a figure concerned with race or wealth or gender or respectability or any of that, at least in the sense that it holds importance to us. For him, as she sees it, it seems to have no negative effect on the relationship you could have with him. It doesn’t seem to matter and yet simultaneously it does immensely. Because it reflects our unique human identity.

Annie reflects those same types of ideals all throughout the film. You might take aim at her for being subservient or have qualms with something she does but it’s hard to question her sincerity or goodness. She has a prodigal daughter but just like the parable her maternal arms are always open and her daughter is never too far away for her to love Sarah Jane unconditionally even unto death.

I must admit it rubbed me the wrong way because Annie felt like yet another iteration of the mammy stereotype. One of Sarah Jane’s colleague even notes, “You had a mammy,” led to believe that the woman was simply an old housekeeper. But that’s the key. Annie Johnson is actually her mother. Aside from adding a searing undercurrent to the scene, it confirms she is not just a sideshow attraction for some southern charm. She is a parent and a friend and a person. In fact, the best scenes in the entire film belong unequivocally to Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner.

The original story the film is based on came out of a very different time in American history during the 1930s. Here it is updated and aware of the changing mores and difficult roads still to traverse thanks to the likes of Thurgood Marshall and his landmark case Brown v. Board in 1954 and the increased rumblings of the Civil Right Movement with the Bus Boycott and other peaceful initiatives spearheaded by Dr. King.

In the film’s closing moments Mahalia Jackson brings down the Lord’s house with her mournful dirge for Annie. And it is a bitter, heartwrenching moment of agony but that is not the final word. Because Annie was a tremendous person with an extravagant capacity for love.

Like Dr. King once orated in vivid Biblical imagery, “[I have gone] up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” That is the hope. Even in this embittered world of ours there is still something to be longed for.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Written on the Wind (1956)

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Douglas Sirk’s films are always lovely to look at, almost to the point of making you sick. The panoramas swell with color. They’re too perfect. The sets are gaudy — the cars the same — to the point of almost being unsightly in their over the top artificiality. Try to find any amount of authenticity and you will most likely fail.

The people within the frames are even more glamorous than the rooms they fill and arguably more colorful.  Namely the dashing Rock Hudson, a Sirkian mainstay and then Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone, and Robert Stack, all Hollywood talents playing character types with names and dialogue straight out of a trashy romance novella. We wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s exquisite.

Because everything is played with the utmost of seriousness from starting credits to the closing shot and yet it just doesn’t take. Sirk seems to be working against his material and that’s where the enjoyment of this picture really lies. It makes Written on the Wind the zenith of the soap opera tradition.

Like any good melodrama, it begins with a shooting, it ends with a murder inquest and the in between is filled in with drunkenness, romantic interplay, familial strife, impotence, fist fights, childhood dynamics, and anything else you can imagine in such a sleazy affair. Still, when everything has run its course, our leading man and his leading lady are able to drive through the pearly mansion gates off on a perfect life together.

Though Rock Huson and Lauren Bacall are arguably our stars, it is their fairly typical and straightforward roles lay the groundwork for the true show put on by Malone and Stack as the Hadley siblings.

Malone sheds her librarian role in The Big Sleep (1946) for the performance of her career as the uninhibited, diabolical, sex-crazed platinum blonde. And Stack is a far cry from Elliot Ness. He lives like he’s never even heard of prohibition as he lets his characterization go completely off the rails in a fantastic manner.

Their father (Robert Keith) is one of the richest oilmen around and they’ve grown up as brats accustomed to wealth and yet their lives are an utter shambles with flings, booze, and personal demons leaving a wake of tumult that rips through the tabloids.

Mitch Wayne (Hudson) and Lucy Moore (Bacall) meet in a boardroom as nice as you please. You would guess that romance is kindling except that the impetuous Kyle (Stack) inserts himself in the situation trying to win her over with jet flights and a steady stream of charm. Somehow it works and they are wedded soon thereafter. It has all the signs of a trainwreck given Kyle’s track record but miraculously it works for a while. But he’s devastated by some news from his local doctor (Ed Platt) which drives him back into a constant stupor and drunken tirades.

Meanwhile, his sister relishes watching him falter because they’ve never seen eye-to-eye on anything. Her main focus is seducing Mitch their lifelong friend who has never allowed himself to fall prey to her wiles. In retaliation, she looks to search out any man who can show her a decent time. She doesn’t much care who it is. But Mitch is hardly jealous for her, only protective, and his eyes are set on Lucy nee Moore anyways. If the entanglements aren’t clear already they present themselves obviously enough.  It’s gloriously sensationalized nonsense.

Still, so many others owe an undying debt to this film and those like it. Fassbinder came from here as did Todd Haynes. Dallas, Dynasty, or any other 80s soaps found their roots right here too. After all, this is the original version of “Who Shot J.R.” Thus, the debt must be paid to Sirk’s films and people have.

Because his style is very easy to admire. Contemporary audiences undoubtedly ate it up and we do now years later. The artificial interiors and the airbrushed Technicolor palette helps define what many people deem to be 1950s Hollywood. It’s luscious, easy on the eyes, decadent, all those apt superlatives. But if that was all that he had to offer, Sirk wouldn’t be as interesting to a great many people now.

It’s the very fact that he seems highly self-aware and he’s so wonderful at staging and creating this environment, beautifully photographed by his longtime collaborator Russell Metty, that the whole composition tells us something more. It’s rear projections and painted backdrops. Sets and stages that accentuate this piece of drama. It’s all sending us a collective wink to see if we get the joke. Those who do will be greatly rewarded.

4.5/5 Stars

 

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

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The people making the decisions, at least some of them, undoubtedly knew that this title implied some sort of sordid melodrama, a Douglas Sirk picture anyone? And yet I do admit despite the emptiness in the title, there’s some truth to its implications. Hollywood often is this gaudy, outrageous, maniacal monster looking for people and things to gorge itself on.

Except this is no Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Ace in the Hole (1951) for that matter. It’s not quite as biting or even as tragic or twisted as Wilder’s films but that’s what comes with having Vincente Minnelli at the helm. But rather than critique that decision in any way I think someone like Minnelli thinks about such a picture in a way that Wilder never would. That in itself makes for interesting creative deviations.

First, the camera setups feel impeccable, like a Hitchcock or Ophuls, finding the perfect moments to bring attention to a shot and the precise instances to sit back and allow things to unfold. It’s utilizing a bit of a flashy framing device like a Letter to Three Women (1949) or All About Eve (1950) but in this case, it relates the story of one Hollywood producer through the eyes of the people who worked with him.

Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) is a man whose father was one of the most hated men in Hollywood and also one of the most successful. Jonathan buries his father and with hardly a penny to his name looks to rise out of the ashes his dad left behind. He just might make good too. So as such, it’s another exploration of Hollywood top to bottom, starting very much at the bottom.

That’s part of what makes this story compelling as we watch an ambitious man claw his way from poverty row and B pictures using a joint partnership with another up-and-comer (Barry Sullivan) to slide his way into a gig as a big-time producer. It’s at these beginning stages where they succeed in making a name for themselves under producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon).

For Sullivan, he is so closely tied to the business, it’s almost as if he’s wedded to the picture industry.  It’s both his life and obsession every waking hour. So when he’s done with one and waiting for the next he has what can best be termed, “the after picture blues.” He’s still trying to adopt his philosophy for women and apply it to his films — love them and leave them.

In passing, we get an eye into the bit players and the small-timers working behind the scenes just to make a decent day’s wage whether assistants or agents or pretty starlets moonlighting as companions at night. There’s even a very obvious current of sexual politics where women are naturally assumed to be at the beck and call of any higher up to pay them any favors. It’s the grimy, sleazy side of the business that continues to reveal itself in due time with connivers and drunks and suicidal wretches conveniently hidden by bright lights and trick photography.

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Further still, there are screen tests, meetings, rushes, and sound stages, makeup artists, and costume designers each a part of the unwieldy snake that makes up a film production. All the nitty-gritty that we conceive to be part of the movie-making whirly gig churning out pictures each and every year. They say if it’s not broke then don’t fix but what if it is broken and no one is fixing it? I write this right in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s ousting due to a laundry list of accusations against him.

One of those involved in this beast receives a stellar introduction of her own. We meet Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) with her feet hanging down from the eaves of an old mansion that belonged to her deceased father. She like Shields comes from Hollywood royalty and she like him is also looking to get out of her father’s shadow.

Jonathan is derisively called “Genius Boy” and maybe he is but opportunistic might be a more applicable term. Still, when he makes his mind up, he cannot be stopped and when he deems this smalltime actress will be his next star, he makes it so.

The same goes for novelist turned screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) who Jonathan is able to coax out to Hollywood albeit reluctantly and works his magic to get him to stay along with his southern belle of a wife (Gloria Grahame) who is completely mesmerized by this magical land out west. Again, Jonathan turns his new partnership into a lucrative success but not without marginalizing yet another person.

One of the most interesting suggestions made by the film is not how much Jonathan ruined his collaborators — alienated them yes — but he really helped their careers. In some ways, it reflects what happens with great men who are lightning rods and always thinking about the next big thing. They’re obsessed with ideas and connections, finding those relationships that will lead to power, wealth, acclaim, and awards. Any amount of honest-to-goodness friendship goes out the window.

But for all those who felt slighted, there’s almost no need to feel truly sorry for them because they bought into this industry with its promises and they bit into the fruit. Sure, their feathers got ruffled and their egos bruised but it goes with the territory.

For everything we want to make it out to be, it’s a tooth and claw operation and those who get ahead usually are the most ruthless of the bunch. Whether we should feel sorry for them or not is up for debate. But maybe we should because a mausoleum full of Academy Awards means nothing. A life of power will be ripped from you the day you die as will the wealth, elegance, and extravagance. It will all be gone. Then, you’re neither bad nor beautiful. You’re simply forgotten. In that respect, this films has meager glimpses of a Citizen Kane (1941) or even real-life figures like Orson Welles and David O. Selznick.

Except in the sensitive hands of Minnelli, this picture is neither an utter indictment of Hollywood nor does it take a complete nosedive in showing how far the man has fallen. It even reveals itself in the performance of Kirk Douglas who while still brimming with his usual intensity chooses to channel his character more so through the vein of charisma.

So if we cannot love or admire his dealings there’s still a modicum amount of respect we must hold for him. Everyone comes out with a shred of dignity and the film’s end is more lightly comic than we have any right to suppose. But then again, we’re not in the moviemaking business and they are.

4.5/5 Stars

Little Women (1933)

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I still remember visiting Louisa May Alcott’s home in Massachusetts and of course, my sister read her magnum opus innumerable times when we were younger but for some reason, maybe it was a fear of what the title suggested, I still never cracked it open during my childhood. But I’ve always been intrigued by the story usually brought to me in snippets or in bits and pieces from films (namely the wonderful 1994 version).

Here we have a quintessential Cukor picture that embodies the nobler side of humanity — the little women as represented by the March family — and it’s a winsome charmer, where the world seems vibrant and gay.

Despite their humble state, the March girls are cultivated by love and affection. They grew up playing at John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress when they were children and now as they become young women they have real burdens.

And yet their lives are still fortified by hope and the pure optimism of youth is captured within this picture. It provides access to that time of life which you wish you could hold onto. You see it most aggressively in Jo (Katharine Hepburn) — young, wild, and free as she is — her life full of frolicking and exuberance. She sees the world as perfect bliss surrounded by her mother and sisters — her father to return from the war at some point, a hero in her eyes.

Her next-door neighbor starts out a stranger and soon becomes one of her finest companions. Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) stirs up all her energy and welcomes being brought into the fold while his stately grandfather proves to have one of the most capacious hearts with which to bless the March girls with. Not to mention the fact that Laurie’s tutor Mr. Brook takes an immediate liking to Meg (Frances Dee) and she harbors a mutual fondness for his gentleness and good manners.

Even a life such as this is struck unmercifully by tragedy. Beth (Jean Parker) is stricken with scarlet fever after watching a neighbor’s baby die in her arms. These are the depths of woe. These are the moments for which the March family stands around the piano and sing a chorus of “Abide With Me.”

The shining moment arrives when the father of the house returns. He barely has any screen time in the entire picture because after all, this isn’t his film. But his presence is used exquisitely to aid how Cukor approaches the material. We look on as he sees each daughter and his wife until the camera’s focus turns completely on Beth bedridden and stricken with sickness as she is. Seeing her father the girl miraculously rises to her feet recalled to life after being incapacitated for so long. The miracle of the moment isn’t lost to us nor the imagery of her father arriving as a savior to lift her up. It’s deeply moving.

But it’s funny how life works. Things cannot and will not stay the same forever. Sisters mature. People grow up and share the company of men. We too grow and progress though we only seem to see it in others and not ourselves.

Jo cannot bear for her older sister Meg to get married – to be forced to watch things change within her household – still they do change and she must accept it. However, she cannot accept that Laurie is in love with her and she reacts to his professions the only way she knows how.

The final act follows Jo as she looks to pursue her career as a writer, Meg is happily married now, and Amy (Joan Bennett) is off to Europe with curmudgeon Aunt March. Time passes and old wounds slowly begin to heal, especially when Jo meets another person of peace in Professor Baehr (Paul Lukas). He is a man of great intellect but humble means and he encourages his “little friend” in her writing. Developing a relationship that they both cherish deeply.

Little Women has always been such a striking example of how life can end up so much different than we could ever imagine and yet in hindsight, there are hardly any complaints to be had. It’s never about the complaints but the difficult things that tear us apart only to tie us closer together. Because, at the end of this story, Jo has progressed so far and yet she still has her family and they love her as much as ever.

Katharine Hepburn feels perfectly at home in the role of Jo always the tomboy, independent, boisterous and such. She rumbles with “coarse talk” her favorite exclamation being “Christopher Columbus!”

I’ll try to head off any criticism that might suggest this adaptation is quaint or dated because I would argue that it’s recalling a different era that in so many ways boasted so much that we should yearn for today in our current world. People putting other’s before themselves — living only with what is necessary not in excess or in pursuit of some self-serving hedonism. These are people who cherish what family can give them and the simplicity of quality time and relationships.

Where Christmas festivities have nothing to do with gifts or monetary value but a spirit of giving and a joyful heart. The March sisters even have the original home theater putting on a performance of their own creation letting their imagination and creativity ignite.

What I respect deeply about this story is that it doesn’t feel like it has to be a romance. True, people get married and fall in love but that is not the pretense for the story. As their father entreats them in his letter, they are to “conqueror themselves.” Finding a man is not the point of their existence and this story makes it clear that life is so much more than that. It’s about love, selflessness, humility, and a great many other traits that we would do well to pursue.

4.5/5 Stars

Only Yesterday (1991)

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Only Yesterday’s opening images resonate with me because of their sheer familiarity. The reflections of urban life in a skyscraper. Office buildings with desks, computers, copy machines. All those necessities of the modern working world.  This is the personification of the status quo that many of us are used to, not simply in a place like Tokyo in the 1980s, but all over the world even right now. Many of us know that life intimately. It’s the first of innumerable moments where Only Yesterday will provide instances of immediate recognition.

From what I gather, Only Yesterday redefined what anime was capable of and really what was considered appropriate subject matter for the medium. This is not only a children’s film though it looks back at adolescence. It’s equally a film for adults and a female audience with its narrative fluidly cycling between childhood memories and current recollections; the point of view belongs to a single independent working woman named Taeko.

These are the two distinct time frames that Isao Takahata’s film works within. In 1966 Taeko was just a girl. And it’s true that all those remembrances of childhood only exist as wisps of their former clarity. Visually the flashbacks are composed of minimalist watercolor backgrounds that manage to capture the transient nature and washed out qualities of our memories. Often recalled fondly but never captured with the same vibrancy that we had in the moment.

And the mystery of the mind is that it can so quickly recall a moment based on a time, a place, a person, a thing, or for no particular reason at all. It could be a vacation floating in the baths of Atami. The novelty and the ultimate letdown of a pineapple not yet ripe. But there are cultural recollections too like the Beatles exploding at Budokan or your older sisters sporting miniskirts as members of the emerging pop culture generation.

Meanwhile, school life is full of your typical scenarios including landmark decisions about hall monitors chasing offenders through the hallways. Young romance is awkward and innocent, blooming around a baseball diamond.

After a single injudicious conversation, talk of periods blows up all across school with the subject becoming the boys’ new favorite point of humor. Taeko also shows off her talents as “Village Child A” in the school play, finding ways to extend her performance and make something out of nothing. She simultaneously looks to commit death by fractions. I must say that I relate. I never did like fractions.

Further still, there are sisterly tiffs over enamel hand bags and altercations with fathers who are normally calm and distant but in a single moment lash out in anger. They are the type of incidences that remain emblazoned on your mind. Meanwhile, mothers scold and chide their children.

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But the true fascination in these events come in the very fact that once more they are tied to the present and lay the foundation for who Taeko is. The same can be said for each and every one of us. However, in 1982 she is now a young working professional. Still, unmarried and quite content with that aspect of her existence even as she bonds with her distant cousin Toshio.

Her aspirations are to spend more time in the countryside — a  countryside blessed with tranquility and gorgeous panoramas — situated in sharp contrast to her life in Tokyo. Because it is in the said countryside where she begins to find a life that somehow feels far more fulfilling. The work and the living are simple but the people are kind and it somehow feels more purposeful. It’s also a prime environment to gather yourself and reflect on life.

Only Yesterday exhibits truly breathtaking imagery that captures both the minutiae and the exquisite scenery of Japan with this fascinating mode of realism. It is only improved upon by the fact that it is a drawn world capable of gravity-defying feats that nevertheless personify authentic emotions. And yet it fits the film on the whole because this is a story that seems to find a rooted contentment in what we would term the mundane. As this is a film that evokes memory, it’s fitting that such a thing would be so.

One of the great mysteries of the world even today is that it’s these very things that are most meaningful to us as human beings. Sure, we remember the big life events but oftentimes equally important are the other times. Because what is life if not a series of small incremental events connected together through experience, jubilation, sadness, wistfulness, pain, and contentment? Each of us carves out a road for ourselves that cuts through the past to the present to a future that we have yet to discover.

The original Japanese title translated is “memories come tumbling down” and somehow that resonates with me far more, being the nostalgic person that I am. It’s true. Certain memories will always be attached to a distinct time and place. Some good, some bad, but all a single element in this patchwork of life. Here is a film that deftly navigates the past and the present through various fragments, assembling the shards into a story that derives satisfaction in all its diversions. Taeko is able to get nearer to the life that she longs for. In that respect, Only Yesterday is in one sense an enchanting film but also a sincerely fulfilling exploration of humanity.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Grave_of_the_Fireflies_Japanese_poster.jpgAnime is very much a Japanese art form denoted by its style, the visuals, and even the depiction of its characters with wide eyes all the better to convey emotions. Oftentimes the images onscreen are a great deal more stagnant than the real-time action that American animators try and replicate with a greater frame rate.

Maybe American animation is more “realistic” but what the Japanese films have is an unrivaled beauty almost like watercolors or as if canvases of actual paintings are making up the backdrop for our characters to reside in. There’s even a line of inspiration that can undoubtedly be drawn from Japan’s own rich tradition of vibrant scroll and woodblock paintings.  Far from being derided as childish fare, cartoons are given a platform as art and they are executed as such.

Thus, it’s fitting that Grave of the Fireflies brought to us by renowned Ghibli Studios and the acclaimed director Isao Takahata would utilize this very Japanese style to tell a native story full of pain, suffering, chaos, and survival. His canvas includes exquisite landscapes that glorify the Japanese countryside but more often than not provide a muted even sobering lens to view the ashes and destitution that war sows. The wounds and the scars. The dead bodies left in the streets and the dirtiness that pervades daily life. It’s offensive to the eyes. All of this because American planes drop fire bombs to break the will of the enemy.

In western minds, it almost seems like an incongruity that a film can be both a stark war-torn drama and an animated picture but Grave of the Fireflies proves emphatically that this simply is not the case.

There are very few films brimming with so much emotion, so powerful and evocative and so fully invested in the human experience. There is an innate understanding of the pure destructiveness in the totality of war. It breeds very little that is good. Ripping families apart, causing children to grow up too fast, and subjecting mankind to excruciating loss and indignity.

But in my estimation, it remains far too simplistic to simply state that Grave of the Fireflies is an indictment of the carnage of war or that it is an anti-war picture because its scope is so much greater than that.

Notice what Takahata doesn’t do. He doesn’t make the Americans into dehumanized monsters or anything else. They are just absent, faceless individuals that we will never know. However, he does give us a front row seat to the events through the eyes of two other people.

I think it’s an especially uncomfortable and maybe an important perspective for Americans because instead of seeing ourselves front and center of this epic story of WWII amid both its victories and tragedies, we are only a distant force. This film causes us to take on the viewpoint of those on the other side of the Pacific. This wasn’t just an emblematic figure like Tojo or some crazed, inhuman killer that we were looking to take down.

It becomes clear from the outset that the people being displaced from their homes by firebombs and struggling with rationing and families getting split apart by conflict are not so unlike us.

Takahata brilliantly gears us up for a story that could not be more universal. It doesn’t take place on a battlefield. It doesn’t involve war rooms or army barracks. It’s about two siblings. An older brother Seita and his little baby sister Setsuko.

Together they provide the core of the film. Because Setsuko is one of those precocious little kids who undoubtedly does not comprehend the gravity of all the chaos that swirls around her. All she knows is that she wants to see her mother or that she’s hungry or that she wants her favorite Sakura fruit drops. And her brother provides for her and sticks to her closely with fortitude and faithfulness that makes their bond one of the most affecting connections between cinematic siblings.

I would be hardpressed to guess how old Seita is but there’s no doubt that he’s forced to act quite a lot older than should be necessary under normal circumstances. His father is gone in the navy. His mother is debilitated. He must be his sister’s keeper and everything else for her. Her friend, her playmate, and her protector from a traumatic world that she cannot begin to understand. Since they only have each other and as they skrimp by, as an audience we realize just how abhorrent their conditions are and how no child should ever have to know a life of malnutrition or obliteration.

It’s easy to marvel at the animation because whereas normally we would probably take care in depicting actions of great consequence, a picture such as this finds time to articulate the little things that feel so human. Fiddling with a piece of clothing, scratching an itchy mosquito bite, or simply frolicking along the shoreline for the sheer relish of the moment.

It’s these smaller interludes and touches that give even greater import to the larger ones. A childhood home burning down with a whole host of others so that an entire town looks drastically different. A brother and sister who are forced to live on their own thanks to the glacial welcome they receive from distant relatives. And ultimately the inevitable comes knocking: death.

But just as the titular fireflies fill young Setsuko with a certain awe and wide-eyed wonderment, even in death there seems to be some distant even elusive sense of hope. In a world that can hardly be fathomed, Seita and Setsuko are reunited; no longer plagued by their suffering, their path illuminated once more by nature’s shining beacons of light. While we might have slightly different views about the afterlife, there’s no doubt that we share a desire for such an outcome after death.

Where graves will be emptied. Death will be no more. Pain will have ended. War will be over. Families will be restored. Wounds will be healed and peace will be the final resounding note. Do not let your flame be extinguished by hate, burdens, or dissatisfaction but know that there is so much more to life. In their enduring innocence in the face of such devastation, Seita and Setsuko are a stirring reminder.

Because life is not simply upended by tragedy. It is also fortified by hope. That’s part of what makes it worth living. As Dylan Thomas once eulogized, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Do not let your youth be quelled. Do not let your optimism be forfeited. Do not give up your capacity for love. It’s well worth the fight.

5/5 Stars

Review: Back to the Future (1985)

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Back to the Future zooms at us as a lovely mishmash of sci-fi thrills and 50s nostalgia that feels like pure happenstance. The one purported flaw, the fact that Marty McFly has no right to be in his family, is partially understandable. As Michael J. Fox wasn’t even slated to appear in the film. He was a last-minute replacement that just happened to pan out. But what a bit of serendipity it was all the same.

Without question Back to the Future clocks in as one of the most enjoyable adventures of the 1980s for delivering unadulterated audience satisfaction. It has all the great hallmarks we yearn for starting with rewarding characters, inventiveness that makes up for any corny interludes, and a pulse on what’s fundamentally entertaining.

Our introduction to the story tells us as much about Doc Brown as it does the teen rolling in on his skateboard, if not more so. Marty, the plucky kid with a penchant for rock n roll, finds Doc’s workspace in complete disarray thanks to an extended period of neglect. More on that later.

For now, the iconically cool vibe of “The Power of Love” underscores Alan Silvestri’s own cinematic orchestration on the project providing a fitting anthem for everything that is Back to the Future. McFly coasts around town on his skateboard using each passing car as his own personal lift. Rock is his main passion while his girlfriend Jennifer remains his main distraction. Meanwhile, Mayor Goldie Wilson looks to get reelected a la Nashville (1975) and Marty is accosted by locals championing the “Save the Clock Tower” campaign.

In fact, Hill Valley is a bit of a mythical city. It’s part Middle America, part fantasy, where the local principal is out to get our hero, his closest friend is a mad scientist, and he must battle against the ultimate affront of all time that he might not amount to anything just like his old man. Those are the stakes and this is the world. The perfect place for time travel. Doc in all his scatterbrained kookiness makes an appearance to introduce a DeLorean time machine into the storyline as well as the main conflict. The rest is in Marty’s hands as he whizzes away into the past.

The fact that it paints this world as a caricature as well instead of reality, far from being a weakness, becomes one of its bolstering charms. Refrains of “Mister Sandman” play throughout town. The local marques boast the star power of Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan (wink wink) in Cattle Queen of Montana (1954). Further still, the local five and dime features the tunes of Nat King Cole, Pattie Page, and of course, Tennessee Ernie Ford. Everyone gets a plug to set the scene.

A few good-natured jabs at incumbent President Reagan are also in order. After all, who could ever believe that an actor could become a president? Of course, nothing is all too surprising in this day and age. Still, the 50s via the 1980s were in many ways both simpler times. Star Wars and Van Halen. Chuck Berry and Jackie Gleason. That was the life.

It devolves into a glorious unfolding of circumstances as worlds collide and Marty’s cause begins to unravel at two ends. First, he needs to get back to the future, hence the all-encompassing title but in his haste, he accidentally tampered with the natural order of things – namely the initial meet-cute of his mother and father. It subsequently instigates one of the most awkward cinematic mother-son relationships known to mankind.

Having done irreconcilable damage to their relationship, Marty must do all he can to get his parents back on track. The problems are innumerable. Namely his mother’s infatuation with him, the dreamy out-of-towner Calvin Klein, his father’s undeniable dorkiness, and of course the bullies to end all bullies Biff. In fact, he’s been a thorn in George’s side for 30 years.

Still, with Doc’s aid (the quintessential secondary helper), Marty looks to right all that is wrong. It proves difficult as he attempts to set his parents up to attend the Enchanted Under the Sea Dance together – the fateful dance where young love kindled. Yet Marty watches his life slowly disappearing moment by moment as his parent’s union seems a slight chance at best.

With a few riffs of “Johnny B. Goode” and an imminent date with Doc at the old clock tower in town, a happy conclusion seems possible if not for the Libyan Terrorists still waiting for Doc in the future. After all, Plutonium doesn’t grow on trees and there are consequences for swiping it. Thankfully he doesn’t necessarily listen to his own advice about altering the future and Marty returns to a world that is strikingly different to the one he used to know. It’s strangely rewarding even if it does feel all too perfect in this third world.

While it becomes one of the most obvious films to shamelessly set up and plug its sequels (ultimately two other offerings), there’s no doubt that Back to the Future makes each a rewarding prospect. Not only is it boosted by a winsome performance by Family Ties favorite Michael J. Fox in a now defining role but Christopher Lloyd’s turn is equally laudable even if it easily typecast him in future tech nerd projects. There are certainly worst places to be.

Furthermore, under the tutelage of executive producer Steven Spielberg, director Robert Zemeckis became one of the great successes of the 80s and 90s with Back to the Future being yet another reason why Spielberg remained at the forefront of popular entertainment throughout the decade.

For their part, whether they like it or not Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd will remain pop culture gods in the hearts of nearly everyone. Bless them for that. Doc and Marty are as memorable now as they were back then and no doubt even years into the future. That’s right, a movie about a time-traveling DeLorean has staying power. There’s a bit of the magic of the movies for you.

4.5/5 Stars