Parenthood (1989): It’s a Mess and That’s Okay

Parenthood_(film)_posterThere’s something apropos about baseball having such a central spot in the storyline of Parenthood because this is a movie wrapped up in the American experience from a very particular era. Yes, the euphoric joys and manifold stressors of parenting are in some form universal, but Ron Howard’s ode to the art of childrearing is also wonderfully indicative of its time.

What is more relatable than wrangling the whole family to go to a ball game together?  Gil (Steve Martin) and Helen (Mary Steenburgen) Buckman corral their family together, gathering all the stuff, and making sure the little ones don’t get run over by oncoming traffic as Randy Newman drawls his theme song. Piling into the family van and loading up to head home is a process unto itself. In one way, it’s a treat and an ordeal all rolled into one. A lot like parenting.

In fact, with its subject matter considered, this is not your prototypical Ron Howard movie, and by that I mean it feels more overtly personal in nature. Certainly, Clint Howard gets his usual cameo, but the story speaks more about experiences — experiences of the worries and the joys that overtake you.

They become a focal point of this story as the adults try to navigate life together with three kids and a large extended family.  To a lesser degree, Little League baseball also becomes an integral part of life with Gil coaching his son Kevin’s team. It’s a different indicator of life as his boy is constantly made fearful of messing up.

He’s hardly the next Ozzie Smith or Ryne Sandberg. And when you’re a kid, the respect of your peers makes or breaks everything. You don’t want to be the one to let your team down. Could this all be part of the issues Kevin has according to his teachers?

However, as the roving ensemble is introduced with a patchwork of interrelated stories stitched together, you begin to appreciate the problems visible everywhere. This is imperative. They are part of what makes us human, and the full-bodied cast is what makes the relational dynamics sing.

Helen Buckman (Dianne Wiest) is a single mother just trying to get close to her kids with a distant son (Joaquin Phoenix) who won’t talk to her and a daughter (Martha Plimpton) who’s gone and got shacked up with a real airhead (Keanu Reeves). It’s like her life is crumbling all around her, and she must learn to hold it together, the best she knows how. This is her life.

Nathan Huffner (Rick Moranis) and his wife Susan (Harley Jane Kozak) are raising their daughter to be some sort of savant and her IQ runs circles around her cousins. She’s also simultaneously missing out on all the joys of being a kid. Her mother becomes overwhelmed by their strict parenting regimen, and it begins to leave a toll on their marriage. It’s so very easy to forget your priorities — how you ever fell in love in the first place.

Then, there’s the rather cantankerous Jason Robards. He’s fond of his youngest child Larry (Tom Hulce), the black sheep of the family because he’s lively and fun. Even dad is surprised when his boy returns home with a young son named Cool and a raging gambling problem; it’s got him in bad with some dangerous thugs.

Can you imagine the family dinners that these people have? There’s so much going on and yet they’re probably not all that far removed from our own family holidays. At least the spirit is there — something we can latch onto — and probably relate to.

However, it’s the party scenes allowing Steve Martin to showcase his comic chops as he takes on his cowboy persona to captivate all the kids and earn their appreciation while upholding his son’s reputation. It’s an emotional high in the bipolar ride you go through as a parent. Like any parents, they dream their little darlings will be valedictorians, and other times they fear that they might just as easily turn into a shooter. Often reality strikes a middle ground.

It’s far from flawless in its narrative, but that’s the point. It gets so bad Martin is going batty lashing out at his wife and everyone else. His son’s emotional anxieties have him worried. He’s stressed by a workplace that feels totally opportunistic and callous. Now, his wife’s supposed to have a baby and the news feels more like a burden than a gift.

If life doesn’t radically change, then perspectives certainly do. Robards and Martin have a surprisingly poignant conversation while sitting in the Little League dugout. Father talks to son about how there is no end zone in life. Your children and the people around you are there for good. And you’ll love them no matter what. It’s one significant moment of sentiment among many others.

In this way, Parenthood confidently modulates between drama and pathos, humor and romance, then circling back again. If little has changed from the beginning to end, then certainly their perspective evolves. It has something to do with embracing this beautiful chaos of life. Enjoying the ride as opposed to fearing every jolt of turbulence.  Sometimes the simplest wisdom can be the most profound if you let it.

Grandma says she’s always appreciated the rollercoaster to going round and round on a merry-go-round. Parenthood is the rollercoaster and that’s a compliment. It feels alive and idiosyncratic in a way one does not usually attribute to Ron Howard’s more recent work. It’s a refreshing take and probably a high point of his directorial career. I am not a parent myself, but I can only imagine how its observations would take on new resonance after becoming one.

3.5/5 Stars

Melvin and Howard (1980): A “Good” Samaritan and A Millionaire

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The opening sequence of Melvin and Howard takes on more and more meaning the longer the movie goes on. It’s very simple, really. We open up with some joyrider on his motorbike tearing through the desert, taking on every jump through the arid wasteland with reckless abandon.

As one might suspect, his foolhardy stunt bites him in the butt; he winds up in a spill, leaving him incapacitated in the middle of nowhere. It’s night and pitch dark now. Thankfully, there is a good samaritan who picks him up. As he gets closer and pulls the injured man into his car, we get a better look at him. He’s a scruffy-looking man well-advanced in years.

Here we have the inauspicious introduction of Melvin and Howard. Melvin (Paul Le Mat) is really a nobody, but he does have a sense of decency, picking up this old man without any pretense or sense of knowing who he is. Because Howard (Jason Robards), is Howard Hughes — the eccentric, aviating millionaire.

They talk and share something genuine between two people. Howard’s resistant at first. He doesn’t want to take part in Melvin’s friendly chatter nor does he go much for singing songs. Melvin nevertheless obliges with the tune he mailed into a music label for. They took his lyrics and supplied a tune. The outcome birthed a new Christmas classic, “Souped-Up Santa’s Sleigh.” Howard’s exterior cracks briefly as he relents and proceeds to hum a few bars of “Bye Bye Blackbird” in response.

The scene doesn’t look like much, but it plays extraordinarily well. Then, just like that, they part ways. At the request of Howard, Melvin drops him off out back of a hotel — the old man still hobbling and beat up. But he’s adamant this is where he wants to be, so Melvin relents.

We think this is just the beginning, and it is, yet we never see Hughes (or Robards) again (well, almost). But it’s this moment of initial connection and humanity that not only informs the rest of the story but sets the tone for Jonathan Demme’s free-flowing biography of a little guy.

If you want to think about it in such terms, it’s an off-center Howard Hughes biopic where the central character is a man named Melvin, who reflects a different cross-section of society. It’s the kind of story you wouldn’t think would get the Hollywood treatment and yet here it is, and the director gives it the kind of love and affection necessary to make it feel lived-in and sincere.

Here is a man who lives in a trailer. His wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) is a sweet woman and together they have a darling daughter who only sees the best in her folks even if their flaws are forever visible.

These are the flaws that keep the life of the Dummars in a constant state of disruption. Whether it’s money troubles, due to Melvin’s spendthrift philosophy, or Lynda’s working of the seedy nightclub circuit, there’s a great deal of dysfunction in their family life. But at their core is a near-oblivious simplicity and so even as their life is a bumpy ordeal, there’s something endearing them — making us wish the best for them.

He’s visibly repulsed by her work — he doesn’t want her flaunting herself in front of strangers. His home life is humble, but he gladly sits in front of the TV with his daughter feasting on pop tarts and bacon. Lynda never seems to dislike Melvin; she just knows it’s not possible to rely on him. So, over the course of the picture, they get divorced, then remarried, complete with one of those throw-em-together hotel wedding ceremonies for $39.

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If it’s not evident already, Melvin & Howard is a film that seems continually preoccupied with the desert backroads and small-towns of America. Where the country music is ubiquitous and people live simple, unadorned lives. Where Melvin’s chances to earn the mantle of milkman of the month get threatened or the car gets repossessed.

But there’s also an itinerant element — to pick up and go in search of new lives and new fortunes — and because the film chooses to stay with Melvin, the story itself takes on this antsy quality. Never being fully satisfied to dwell in one place. However, far from giving off a superficial impression, it winds up coloring a world with all sorts of genuine nooks and crannies.

It’s not a charmed life, but he meets it with continual candor. The reunited family gets by losing themselves in TV game show episodes of Easy Street, which become a kind of communal event for everyone. Lynda fulfills a dream by getting on the show as a contestant and feverishly tap-dancing her way through the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” to the prize of $10,000!

Still, the family splinters again. Melvin picks up and moves to Utah after marrying a Mormon girl. They set up shop in a gas station. The so-called focal point of Melvin’s life feels squeezed into the end of this movie, not that it’s shoehorned into the story by any means, but it shows how his life adds up to something more than the media frenzy that soon overtakes him.

Because he was the man who had the unsubstantiated will of the late Howard Hughes dropped on his gas station desk naming him as 1/16 beneficiaries of Hughes’s fortunes. That added up to approximately $156 million! In the aftermath, he found himself brought into court to testify as his story was heavily disputed. It does sound absolutely ludicrous. 

How this seemingly unextraordinary individual could find himself at the center of something so grand and earth-shattering is a real-life farce. However, what lingers is the import of the first scene. Demme does well to return there if only briefly, to remind us what this frenzy was about.

Lest we feel slighted that this movie wasn’t really about Melvin and Howard at all (or at least mostly Melvin), in some way it says as much about Howard Hughes’ life by leaving out all the trumped-up treatment. It’s the romantic in me, but I would like to believe that even our momentary interactions with one another can be blessed.

It is possible to touch someone else, adding even a little bit of goodness into their lives. It’s this kind of goodwill to strangers that can stay with them for a lifetime, whether or not they include us in their wills or not. Who knows, you might be entertaining angels unawares, or misanthropic millionaires, for that matter.

4/5 Stars

Divorce American Style (1967): Debbie and Dick Get Divorced

Divorce American Style starts out as a symphony of marital nagging, and it looks to build off this cacophony to make some sense of the current state of affairs in 1960s America. While the title doesn’t capture the same milieu of its Italian counterpart, it fits for a plethora of other reasons. It’s satire in the American mode and Norman Lear, who would become renowned for his brand of socially conscious comedy, is hard at work. In order to go about it, he hones in on one couple in particular: Richard and Barbara Harmon.

Off the top, it’s an important distinction to make. Creatively, it seems like a stroke of genius to cast Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds as this bickering couple slowly tearing apart at the seams. I say this purely from the likability factor. Their entire career trajectory thus far from sunshiny MGM musicals to crowd-pleasing family sitcoms all banks on their likability quotient.

Here is a picture that tests all of that built-up reservoir of goodwill and fuzzy feelings we have for them. If you only accept them as the picture of Cathy Seldon in Singing in the Rain or Rob Petrie in Dick Van Dyke, there’s a reason to vehemently oppose what Lear has done with them here.

While it’s not my favorite pastime to see two such actors put each other through such hell, some part of me understands why they wanted to take a stab at it. Because it’s not safe, and it challenges the status quo and how we accept them as performers. To their credit, in stretching themselves, it’s an attempt to get past one-note characterizations.

True to form, their first full scene starts with a fight. It’s postponed due to the party they are throwing only to reconvene after all the friends have shuffled out the front door. They can drop the veneer and all pretense is cast off again.

She bemoans the fact he’s critical of everything, and he just doesn’t understand her anymore. He’s frustrated that when they finally get some of the things they always dreamed about, his wife seemed to turn unhappy, and he can’t figure it out. It was another picture from 1967 that famously acknowledged a failure to communicate. This one gives it a whole new domestic context.

We see their bedtime rituals and there’s something almost mechanical to them because there’s no intimacy between them even in this highly intimate space as they open cupboards, plug in razors, and do their bits of business…without a word and still somehow in perfect cadence.

By day, Barbara continues seeing a psychologist and Richard begrudgingly gives it a try, although he’s uncomfortable sharing his feelings with a stranger; the way he was brought up it just isn’t done. If we wanted to add something else to their marital complications, it’s their kids. Normally, their two boys would be trapped in the middle, but there’s a pollyanna-like understanding about them. They are so easy-going and well-adjusted as their own parents continue to go down the tubes.

One call to a lawyer and all of a sudden it’s like the trip wires have been set off on both sides. There are trips to joint bank accounts and friends on both sides supply their two cents worth, not to mention their respective legal counsel. It’s not a new phenomenon, but we are reminded how these things can escalate; this is divorce taken to outrageous proportions.

They sit at a table in the law office as their lawyers casually settle their case, mixing in chit-chat about their latest golf games and shared business associates. Then, Richard is taken under the wing of Nelson (Jason Robards), a fellow divorcee, who gives him advice about alimony and how to survive. His life is fairly abysmal and pretty soon Richard is going down the same path moving into his new digs and trying to find romantic direction.

Meanwhile, Barbara tries to make her own way with an oft-married family man (Tom Bosley), getting to know all his children. It devolves into another madcap orchestration, reminiscent of the opening prelude. This time we have the notes of parents and step-parents, kids and step-kids all being assembled for a day out.

With the robust cast, it’s rather curious the film was not better known in its day because it gradually introduces other familiar faces including Joe Flynn, Lee Grant, Robards, Jean Simmons, and Van Johnson.

In the epochal year of 66-67, it does make sense Divorce American Style never received the same plaudits as Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate or Two for the Road. If not altogether a sitcom episode, it’s the American counterpart to its more high profile continental brethren starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.

Again, there is the sense of the middle-class malaise where things and stuff and cars are in one sense inconsequential compared to the relationship. And yet they mean everything when it comes to comfort and status.

To the very last frame, there’s something subversive about seeing sweet Debbie Reynolds and lovable Dyke Van Dyke as divorcees with a marriage hitting the skids. But if this is true, there might also be a kind of catharsis for Reynolds when a hypnotist puts her under on a stage in front of a whole host of people. She’s been through so much and there she is throwing off the shackles of all our preconceived notions. She heads off stage and goes to give Van Dyke a big ol’ kiss, effectively rekindling their romance.

The film hasn’t aged particularly well, but then again, what better way for it to remain as a testament to the social mores of the times and the prevalent anxieties? It’s probably better for it. Because all the fracturing, recoupling, and suburbanization of society definitely created a new kind of landscape.

It’s all there in the later scenes as all the stars couple up uneasily. Van Dyke is with Simmons who was Robards’s former spouse. He’s trying to marry her off so the alimony doesn’t break his back. Then, Robards and Simmons try and set up Reynolds with Johnson — a genial used car salesman — because that makes Van Dyke even more unattached.

I tried to make this all needlessly convoluted but hopefully, the point has been made. Love is strange. Love is messy. Love is complicated. If that’s true of love American style, then it’s true of divorce even more so.

3/5 Stars

All the President’s Men (1976)

allthepresidentsmen1You couldn’t hope to come up with a better story than this. Pure movie fodder if there ever was and the most astounding thing is that it was essentially fact — spawned from a William Goldman script tirelessly culled from testimonials and the eponymous source material. All the President’s Men opens at the Watergate Hotel, where the most cataclysmic scandal of all time begins to split at the seams.

And Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) joined by Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) were right there ready to pursue the story when nobody else wanted to touch it. The Washington Post went out on a limb when no other paper would. Because if we look at the historical climate, such an event seemed absolutely ludicrous. Richard M. Nixon was the incumbent president. Detente had led to cooled tensions with the Soviets. And Democratic nominee George McGovern looked to be on a self-destructive path.

But the facts remained that these “burglars” had ties to the Republican Party and potentially the White House. It was tasked to Woodward and Bernstein to figure out how far up the trail led. And to their credit the old vets took stock in them — men made compelling by a trio of indelible character actors Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, and Jason Robards.

Woodward begins hitting the phones covering his notepad with shorthand and chicken scratch, a web of names and numbers. With every phone call, it feels like they’re stabbing in the dark, but the facts just don’t line up and their systematic gathering of leads churns up some interesting discoveries. Names like Howard Hunt, Charles Colson, Dardis, Kenneth H. Dahlberg all become pieces in this patchwork quilt of conspiracy. The credo of the film becoming the enigmatic Deep Throat’s advice to “Follow the money” and so they begin canvassing the streets encountering a lot of closed doors, in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

allthepresidentsmen3But it only takes a few breakthroughs to make the story stick. The first comes from a reticent bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) and like so many others she’s conflicted, but she’s finally willing to divulge a few valuable pieces of information. And as cryptic as everything is, Woodward and Bernstein use their investigative chops to pick up the pieces.

Treasurer Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins) stepped down from his post in the committee to re-elect the president based on his conscience, and his disclosures help the pair connect hundreds of thousands of dollars to the second most powerful man in the nation, John Mitchell. That’s the kicker.

It’s hard to forget the political intrigue the first time you see the film. What I didn’t remember was just how open-ended the story feels even with the final epilogue transcribed on the typewriter. The resolution that we expect is not given to us and there’s something innately powerful in that choice.

allthepresidentsmen4Gordon Willis’s work behind the camera adds a great amount of depth to crucial scenes most notably when Woodward enters his fateful phone conversation with Kenneth H. Dahlberg. All he’s doing is talking on the telephone, but in a shot rather like an inverse of his famed Godfather opening, Willis uses one long zoom shot — slow and methodical — to highlight the build-up of the sequence. It’s hardly noticeable, but it only helps to heighten the impact.

Furthermore, some dizzying aerial shots floating over the D.C. skyline are paired with Redford and Hoffman’s voice-over as they are canvassing the streets to convey the type of paranoia that we would expect from a Pakula film. Because, much like the Parallax View before it, All the President’s Men holds a wariness towards government, and rightfully so. However, there is a subtext to this story that can easily go unnoticed.

The name Charles Colson is thrown around several times as a special counselor to the president, and Colson like many of his compatriots served a prison sentence. That’s not altogether extraordinary. It’s the fact that Chuck Colson would become a true champion of prison reform in his subsequent years as a born-again Christian, who was completely transformed by his experience in incarceration. And he did something about it starting Prison Fellowship, now present in over 120 countries worldwide.

It reflects something about our nation. When the most corrupt and power-hungry from the highest echelons of society are brought low, there’s still hope for redemption. Yes, our country was forever scarred by the memory of Watergate, but one of the president’s men turned that dark blot into something worth rooting for. It’s exactly the type of ending we want.

4.5/5 Stars

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

27ccb-once_upon_a_time_in_the_westStarring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, and Jason Robards with director Sergio Leone, this is another memorable Italian western. The film follows a recently widowed beauty (Cardinale), the villainous killer who is after her (Fonda), a anti-hero bandit (Robards), and of course the man with a harmonica who is looking for revenge (Bronson). The gunman Frank commits murders, turns on his employer the railroad tycoon, and forces the widow to auction off her land. However, “Harmonica” comes to her aid and then he is confronted by Frank several times since he wants to know the man’s purpose. After a flashback we know what “Harmonica” wants and another gunfight ensues. The ending is bittersweet but the town’s future looks bright thanks to the railroad and the radiant widow. The long opening sequence sets the tone nicely for this visually beautiful film. It moves at its own pace and it has a good score and great characters including an evil Henry Fonda!

5/5 Stars