Paris, Texas (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars

Road to Rio (1947)

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My dad has been and forever will be a fountain of pop cultural knowledge. I learned the little I know from the best, the difference is, he lived through most of it. Still, I must admit, at times I didn’t believe some of these touchstones of yesteryear when I was a kid. How could anyone have actually written a song called “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” and what in the world does “You’re in the Groove Jackson” mean? They can’s possibly be real.

Of course, for those more enlightened than I was back then, you would have already known that both these fantastical things were in fact true. Alan Sherman was quite the nut and the same goes for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. In that roundabout way, we get to the Road Picture that I’ve always cherished at least a little bit because of one particular gag. But let’s start closer to the beginning.

The wonderful thing about the Road films is the very fact that their two bozos know exactly who they are and they never stray from those characterizations from one picture to the next, even if the schemes change as do their names. There’s the same self-referential jabbing and fourth-wall-breaking executed in a way that later films would pick up on too. People loved Hope and Crosby and they enjoyed their onscreen buddy-buddy just as much. By the looks of it, they always seemed to be having as much fun as the audience and that’s the key. It’s contagious comedy.

I’m inclined to think that some of the greatest comics are the ones who come up with the lines on the spot. But whether or not Hope and Crosby actually ad-libbed any of their verbal jabs, to their credit, they had a complete handle on their personas and so every phrase comes off as genuine.

They’re always trying to pull off some get-rich-quick scheme only to wind up in some wild locale completely broke.  We’re always provided the enjoyment of Crosby’s ever-present condescending pet name “Junior” for his partner in crime. Because he takes on the mantle of the idea man and Hope unwittingly ends up doing the dirty work, in this case, a circus bicyclist up on a trapeze.

Crosby is also always playing the easily duped gentleman — a real sucker for the ladies — who’s not above throwing his pal to the lions except when it really counts. Plus you have to throw a little crooning in there to make all the ladies swoon a bit. We get an appearance by the All-American songstresses The Andrew Sisters performing “You Don’t Have to Know the Language” with Bing.

Still, everyone knows all that is “happening” in the world circa 1947 is in Rio so there the boys go as stowaways, of course, after getting chased out of town by an angry circus promoter. That’s what all the great comics do. Namely, The Marx Brothers, who were consequently also directed by Norman Z. McLeod in Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932).

Our two bunglers now aboard a slow boat to Brazil meet the ever-present Dorothy Lamour, the bodacious beauty in all their movies, as a grateful knockout, a damsel in distress. But something dastardly is going on as the gorgeous woman is caught in the hypnotic clutches of Gale Sondergaard who has a couple hired cronies (one played by a personal favorite Frank Faylen).

There are some real laugh riot moments not least among them watching the pals don their stuffiest British accents as they sway on the ship’s deck to snag an easy meal from a seasick patron or our heroes dressed to the tee doing their best impression of the samba. Of course, you have some tried and true favorites like “Patty Cake” or Hope’s sardonic one-liners such as affectionately calling his trumpet “Grable-bait.” Look it up if you don’t get it.

But the showstopper is the formation of their groovy band Americain made up of our hapless heroes and three Brazilian street musicians who earn a crash course in English. Composed of three universally accepted phrases: “You’re in the Groove Jackson,” “This is Murder,” and “You’re Telling Me.” Presto they’re Americans in a pinch and what follows is “Who’s on First” light.

The final charade is to break up an ill-fated marriage with a bit of safecracking and they bungle it immaculately.  The greatest surprise of all is that Hope actually gets the girl (like Road to Utopia) except this time he gets a little help.

3.5/5 Stars

The Big Steal (1949)

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Granted you have star power but it’s easy to assume that The Big Steal will be a no name picture. A minor triumph at best. Not so! This film fares far better than countless of its bigger competitors.

It proves to be a winking romp full of bedroom brawls, car chases, and twists and turns every which way that send us whipping through Mexico. Equally important to the pace of the action is the levity of the script from Daniel Mainwaring (under a pseudonym) that gives our stars something to do and they do it effortlessly.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (partnered again after the undisputed classic Out of the Past) meet as the two obvious foreigners in a sea of locals as Mitchum is getting accosted by a street vendor to buy a parrot. He’s one of those foreigners coming off as a buffoon navigating other cultures and the languages that go with them. Though I can’t ride him too hard as one of those blundering Americans myself. Still, his Spanish is mediocre at best and she is aghast at his cultural insensitivity. So right there you have the needed romantic tension and things only get better going forward.

Because their association doesn’t end there. Of course, it doesn’t. Duke Halladay is out to nab the man named Fiske (Patric Knowles) who absconded with some of his hard earned cash and Joan had a similar job pulled on her — the man of questionable integrity also just happened to be her boyfriend.

The unlikely partnership is formed after Mitchum leaps for the running board of the other man’s fleeing vehicle and winds up dragging Greer in front of the Inspector General to explain the public disturbance.

The Inspector General (Ramon Novarro) happens to be a budding pupil in English as his second in command (Don Alvarado) attended the University of California which while being convenient for the story also manages to make our Mexican characters into actual individuals who are endowed with an animated quality all their own.

If the main chase is our leading couple trying to track down Fiske, who gives them the slip on multiple occasions then the scenario simply gets more convoluted as Duke’s superior (William Bendix) is tailing him. They have some unfinished business to attend to because Blake believes the other man took part in a theft of his own. Thus, The Big Steal is just that. Even the soft-spoken John Qualen (probably best remembered for Casablanca) gets in on the party and flaunts a bit of a villainous side.

Some of the finer moments are the lighter ones. There’s the ongoing patter of the dialogue firing off between Mitchum and Greer which couldn’t be better and it comes from the days where a guy could call a dame “Chaquita” and it’d stick. But the beauty of their relationship is Greer with that quizzical look of hers can dish it right back in Mitchum’s direction.

Likewise, during a winding car chase, the same character can quite seriously exclaim “Watch out for the cow” only to turn right around and create a livestock blockade of his own. Or because we are in rural Mexico cars can get stuck behind a caravan of hay wagons ambling along leisurely. They have no respect for the drama at stake. On another note, I’m flabbergasted that the cars involved survived at all with the dubious amount of off-roading they managed. I guess in the 1940s they built things to last.

There’s one hilarious roadblock in particular where Jane Greer uses her Spanish and Mitchum’s obliviousness to tell a local road worker (Pascual Garcia Pena) that they are madly in love and running away from her disapproving father. They must get through at all costs and it just so happens that Captain Blake is right behind him and receives a fine welcoming committee.

But the key is that the film ends not on the downward plunge but on the upswing as our two lovebirds observe the local mating rituals and give it their own twist. What a great picture and sure, it’s no Out of the Past but no one needs it to be. We already have one of those and The Big Steal is a leisure ride of its own making.

Set this against a backdrop beyond the Mexico border, a spliced together version of on location atmospherics and studio shots, and you are blessed with the wonderful patchwork of authenticity and artificiality that old Hollywood was known for in the 40s and 50s.

What’s more fascinating is that The Big Steal at least in this form might never have been. Robert Mitchum was hot off his notorious jailtime term because of marijuana possession, an event that undoubtedly solidified his reputation as an antihero. Meanwhile, not too happy with Jane Greer, RKO studio head and temperamental mogul Howard Hughes gave her this role out of spite.

How could a picture this small be any good with a leading man saddled with bad publicity? I cannot speak to contemporary audiences but today The Big Steal plays quite well. We have our stars and screenwriter to thank as well as a young up and coming director named Don Siegel who started out as a montage man and transitioned into B-pictures.

What makes him a wonderful worksmith is how he always seems to have a pulse on the action and he turns situations into truly dynamic entertainment even when it’s on a small scale. He didn’t need a big budget to still make a rip-roaring good time. The Big Steal is a stellar testament to what the Classic Hollywood studios were capable of with meager means. It’s an absorbing effort.

4/5 Stars

Thelma & Louise (1991)

thelma__louiseposterThemla & Louise hardly feels like typical Ridley Scott fare but then again, neither is this a typical movie. It pulls from numerous genres that have been depicted countless times before from buddy movies to caper comedies, road films, and the like. But perhaps the intrigue begins with the two leads.

It’s not simply the fact that they are two women sharing conversations together although that is often not a common enough occurrence in a world where the Beschel Test is often a stumbling block, but it is the fact that the two women are played so exquisitely by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

They start out as two people stuck in a deadend world and they feel like the heirs to some of Altman’s heroines in films like Nashville and 3 Women. In fact, it’s a rather ironic development that screenwriter Callie Khouri went onto another project called Nashville. Still, when we look at their lives one is a small town waitress with a gruff boyfriend (Michael Madsen) the other a bit of a bubble-headed subservient housewife married to a grade A jerk. It’s easy to pity them and to want something better for them–at least some kind of escape from their everyday monotony. In one sense, that’s what the entire length of the film gives them and much more.

A single weekend away in a single irrevocable moment of decision evolves into not simply a gripping film but a rather astonishing adventure where they get to step out in ways that they never knew possible. True, there is murder and armed robbery involved but what makes the movie work at all is the very fact that we still care a great deal for these individuals. They tiptoe across boundaries but it never feels brazen. It’s accidental, brought on by necessity, fear, and the like. Even to the end,  it’s as if Thelma & Louise naively believe that they are a notorious pair of outlaws but they don’t quite know how dark a place the world can actually be. It’s neither Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands. For good reason, they are simply Thelma & Louise.

One of the most memorable sequences involves Davis robbing a gas station register just as nice as you please using the pithy monologue she learned from the charismatic charmer J.D. (Brad Pitt in a key role early in his career) who always sports a cowboy hat and also ran off with all their dough. She feels completely out of place committing such an act, waving her gun around as the attendant empties the cash register into her waiting bag. But still, she does it and it epitomizes the inhibitions the two women begin to cast off.

But it’s also the same rascal J.D. who rats on them as they look to make their way to Mexico away from the authorities they believe are hot on their tail. Louise is paranoid of such things and Thelma is still just looking for fun but they’re together and that’s the important thing. Except the authorities on the other end of the line, digging around for answers, are actually led by a cop with integrity (Harvey Keitel) who seems generally worried about their well-being. He sees so clearly that their situation is atypical. They are not criminals even if they want to be.

Importantly Thelma & Louise remain friends to the end, even going so far as to visit the grand canyon together one final time. And that brings us to the film’s conclusion. While not wanting to sound too cryptic and simultaneously not wanting to spoil the experience for others, I can only say I wish Ridley Scott would have chosen a more brazen denouement or otherwise done away with his conclusion altogether. What he comes to is a compromise of an ending that lacks any satisfaction. But then again, maybe it reflects Thelma & Louise. They thought they had so much–that they were such big, bad people–except what did they end up with? Nothing at all aside from a polaroid picture to forever immortalize the craziest of road trips.

4/5 Stars

Review: Red River (1948)

redriver1Any conversation on quintessential American Westerns certainly has to at least consider Red River. It has genre mainstay John Wayne in one of his most stirring performances, a moody precursor to The Searchers. It boasts the debut of the often criminally under-appreciated method actor Monty Clift. Moreover, it’s cinematic space is filled out by a colorful array of prominent Western stock players. You have the always ornery Walter Brennan, pudgy Noah Beery Jr., Harey Carey Jr., Hank Worden, and numerous others. For a second you can even forget that this isn’t a John Ford film, but instead, the story is placed in the ever-adept hands of Howard Hawks, who knows how to craft compelling stories no matter the genre he’s working in.

In 1851, before Tom Dunson (Wayne) settles on a new plot of land near the Rio Grande and begins to raise his cattle with the brand of the Red River D, he loses the love of his life to an Indian raid, while also picking up an orphaned boy in the aftermath. That young man, Matt Garth (Clift), would become like Dunson’s adopted son and his right-hand man when it comes to running his ranch. The rest of Red River is essentially a road film that chronicles the first cattle drive along the Chisolm Trail. It’s bound to be a gritty, sweaty, and undoubtedly smelly road ahead as Wayne and Clift take the reins on this journey. The intrigue comes with power dynamics because when you put two or more people in a confined space sparks are bound to fly at some point.

redriver2When Dunson begins the massive journey to sell his cattle in Missouri, many wranglers sign on for prospects ahead, but they don’t quite know the degree of hardship that they will face. Soon enough, a stampede leaves one man dead and the company without one of their chuck wagons of provisions. Dunson is a hard taskmaster, who expects his hired hands to finish their job. Morale in the band begins to sink from lack of food and fierce downpours that leave most everyone dejected and distraught.

Then, when Dunson prepares to hang two deserters to make an example out of them, Matt must finally step in. He’s always the subservient one, always backing Dunson with his gun, but for the first time in his life, he crosses the will of his mentor. All the wranglers are quick to continue the journey as they change course for Abilene Kansans and the prospect of the railroad. But Garth leaves a brooding Dunson behind, vowing to kill Matt if it’s the last thing he does. It’s this act of the story which brings to mind the Biblical vendetta of Esau as he pursues his kin for stealing his birthright.

redriver6Garth and his contingent do end up getting to Abilene and are met with open arms by the kindly Mr. Melville, however, perhaps, more importantly, Matt falls in love with a fiery beauty (Joanne Dru) and must leave her behind. Days later Tess Millay also meets Tom Dunson, the man she has heard so much about, and he’s far from being dissuaded from his mission.

Thus, the expected showdown comes with Dunson riding into town with his hired guns, the alarm being sounded, and Garth waiting for him. Dunson draws and Garth will not. It’s a fitting moment, but Howard Hawks develops it in a fabulous way. He fills it with tension and ultimately a hint of humor. The addition of Joanne Dru shifts the power dynamic and she says what everyone else is thinking while angrily packing a pistol.

redriver4Because if Red River was story alone, it would not be the preeminent Western that it is, and I think I made that mistake before. Hawks is a master at using all his actors to perfection in not simply the climactic moments, but also the lulls. With such a substantial ensemble, even the way he positions all his players in the scene holds importance. His scenes are continually interesting from talk of Walter Brennan’s false teeth to complaints about the abysmal quality of the coffee.

My only qualm with the film is the rather shoddy transitions, and so I am interested in getting a look at the theatrical cut with narration from Brennan. John Ford famously quipped that he never knew that Wayne could act until this film, and it’s true that he gives a darkly vengeful performance. But in many ways, Clift proves himself as a worthy co-star. There’s always a tightness, a lilt to his voice, that signals an earnestness and vulnerability. It starts coming out in this film right when he knows that he’s no longer going to follow Dunson. It took two starkly different actors to make the narrative work as well as it did, and Hawks added yet another classic to his catalog. On a side note, the music of Dimitri Tiomkin was noticeable, because the refrains can be heard verbatim in Rio Bravo. If something’s good why change it, right?

4.5/5 Stars

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

itsamadmad1It’s easy to forgive this sprawling comedy for a weak script because it does a wonderful job of playing to its strengths and delivering a hilarious payload of laughter. Stanley Kramer (known mostly for his social dramas) drops this raucous comedy full of bone-shattering slapstick and violently wild antics. It also assemblies arguably the greatest comic ensembles with some of the biggest names you could ever hope to see on the big screen. Everyone seems to come out for a who’s who of comedic talent in roles big and small. Half the fun is recognizing a familiar face on the screen for a quick cameo, giving a nod of approval, and then grabbing hold of this rip-roaring comedy once more as it hits breakneck speed. There’s nothing sophisticated about it and that’s part of its charm.

The film opens on a mountainous road when a car goes careening off the side of the cliff. Some onlookers go to see what they can do, but little do they know they’ve stumbled on to a gold mine. It’s not hidden under Jimmy Durante’s big nose, but a giant “W” in Santa Rosita State Park. It’s all very suspect, and everybody gets ready to head their different ways. However, a little old-fashioned, All-American greed sets in and they begin to high-tail it down the coast. The prize of a $350,000 payoff is too much to disregard.

After a harrowing car chase the treasure-seekers break off as follows:

Sid Caesar and his wife Edie Adams charter a prehistoric bi-plane and wind up spending the majority of the film trying to escape the basement of a convenience store using any means possible. Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney find a plane of their own, the only problem is that their pilot (Jim Bachus) gets a little tipsy mid-flight, leaving landing duties in their inept hands.The long-suffering Milton Berle constantly is being berated with the incessant babbling of loud-mouthed Ethel Merman. Poor Jonathan Winters is ditched by everyone else, then double-crossed by Phil Silvers, before he’s finally is able to hitch a ride. Berle finally loses all patience and teams up with buck-toothed Brit Terry Thomas. Spencer Tracy the wry police chief Culpepper watches all these events unfold with a play by play being fed his way. Meanwhile, his life begins to fall apart, but that pales in comparison to the gas station that Winters demolishes with his bare hands. That’s not the only destruction this gang leaves in their wake either. They total cars, destroy buildings, and do every type of damage you could ever expect. It’s great!

When everyone finally happens on the treasure they’ve picked up a couple cabbies played by the venerable Eddie “Rochester” Royal and Peter Falk. The mayhem leads to an excavating party and a final chase as Culpepper takes the money and runs with the gang hot on his heels. It all ends thrillingly from the top of a fire escape with a precariously situated ladder. The boys all end up in the hospital, but it’s still a laughing matter thanks to a stray banana peel.

Although the laughs slow down a bit in the second half, this film is a wonderfully good time. You have cameos from everybody like Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, William Demarest, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, and even The Three Stooges. Since there so many people who did make the cut I’ll be a glass half empty misanthrope and list off a few names who did not end up joining the film’s cast. Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, Stan Laurel, Bud Abbott, Lucille Ball, Peter Sellers, and of course Don Rickles who never let Kramer live it down for not inviting him. Quite the list, but mind you I’m not complaining too much.

The film takes on a personal note too because my dad actually saw the movie being shot on highway 73 back in the 1960s, and he remembers it rather fondly. To me, the film takes on deeper significance due to the crisscrossed palm trees which also became the iconic symbol of Inn-N-Out Burger all across California. What’s not to love about such a Mad Mad Mad Mad World?

4/5 Stars

Nebraska (2013)

Nebraska_PosterDirector Alexander Payne tackles his native Nebraska in this character study that is part road trip movie, part father-son drama. Honestly, I never knew much about Bruce Dern, but at well over 70, I think it is safe to say he gave one of his great performances as Woody Grant. In this story, he is convinced that he has won a million dollars. It’s not a scam to buy magazine subscriptions like everyone seems to tell him. Including his weary, but good-natured son David (Will Forte). Woody’s ornery wife Kate is fed up with his behavior. He’s feeble, absent-minded, and not as sharp as he used to be. In fact, David and his older Ross (Bob Odenkirk) are thinking of putting their dad in an old person home sometime soon.

However, Woody is bent on getting that money, even if he has to walk all the way to Lincoln Nebraska, from Billings Montana where he lives. It’s utterly ludicrous and everyone knows it except Woody. But instead of fighting it, David sees it as a chance to spend some quality time with his dad away from his job in an electronics store. So the two of them set off to Nebraska to spend time with Woody’s family in his old stomping grounds.

Now Woody’s not much of a talker similar to his brothers (including Rance Howard), however, David and the audience soon come to realize that despite a rough exterior and alcohol problems, he really is a kind man. He’s a giver. That’s evident whether it was his family or his former partner, the opportunistic Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach). Because when all of these folks catch wind of the money, Woody becomes somewhat of a local celebrity and no one will believe that it’s not the case. They think it’s simply a dodge to avoid sharing the wealth.

Really most of the townspeople are petty, opportunistic, folks looking to gain from somebody else’s good fortune. However, it also revealed the shallowness of some, who were quick to ridicule when the money turned out not to be real. This film made me appreciate my own family in the Midwest and some of the more good-natured characters did strike a chord with me. There’s something so attractive about a community that remains so close-knit with each other over the years. I can never have the experiences of my grandparents. Even if I manage to be married for 50 or 60 years, I can never have that wonderful small town feel of returning to my roots and seeing all my classmates from bygone years. Although sometimes I suppose it can be a blessing and a curse because in small towns people will talk and that’s not always conducive to quality relationships.

That’s why when David lets his dad ride through town in front of all his old friends, it is such a poignant moment because he gifts his father one final moment of freedom to relish in front of his friends. All he got was a stupid hat that reads “Prize Winner,” but his son sold his car to allow his father to live out his dream one last time.

Because if you strip it down and take out all the white noise, this is a father and son film. It’s beautifully stark at moments with its modern black & white visuals. Yet it still has intimate scenes between father and son, that sometimes are incredibly sad, but also have a shard of hope attached to them. It took reading several other articles to latch onto the fact that this is seemingly Payne’s nod to the great Japanese director Ozu. Or at least he shares a lot of the same issues in this film and in some respects very similar pacing. It’s not some high-speed action flick, but it cares about deeper issues and reality. This is not California, but Nebraska and still relationships are universal. They look a shade or two different wherever you go, but never lose that personal meaning. It breaks through time and place, to speak to each of us on a personal level. Honor your father and mothers, because those relationships have great value even when they are a struggle.

4/5 Stars

The Sure Thing (1985)

Sure_thingposterThe Sure Thing is one of the early works of both director Rob Reiner and young teen star John Cusack, and it proved to be a success for both parties. In the film, Walter Gibson and his friend Lance are heading off to college. Gib is heading to a stuffy school on the East Coast, while Lance is venturing off to the sun-soaked southern California shores with the female prospects at an all-time high. It doesn’t help Gib who has recently been striking out with the opposite sex, because, to put it bluntly, they don’t buy his astronomy inspired pick-up lines. He’s just too much of a jerk.

And so the two friends go off to their separate spheres and for Gib things do not end up too bad. His school’s not a bore, but he’s not getting the kind of action Lance has, not yet. That is until his friend tells him about a “sure thing.” The girl who is one out of a million and who is available, just waiting for Gib in California. So as any red-blooded American college student would do, Gib begins the cross-country trek over his Christmas Break.

The catch is this. He’s forced to travel with an overly enthusiastic couple obsessed with singing show tunes and that’s not the worst of it. His backseat companion is fellow classmate Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga) who happens to be very attractive, but she also hates his guts.

She and Gib happen to be polar opposites, and they did not get off to a good start at school. She already has a boyfriend. She is always on top of her academics, and she never does anything outrageous. Gib is a showboat, prone to wildness that includes shotgunning beers and trying to pick up girls.

Their constant bickering and nagging find them sitting on the roadside in the middle of nowhere trying to thumb their way to California. And so it looks like they will go their separate ways, but they end up traveling together, broke, wet, and starving. Somehow they get there and along the way they begin to genuinely appreciate each other. There does not have to be anything between them. Of course, right before they get to their final destination a disagreement leaves them at odds. However, after spending so much time with someone like Alison, a sure thing just does not have the appeal it once did for Gib. He proves to himself that’s he’s not quite as shallow as he thought he was. If only Alison could know that.

The enjoyment of this film is not so much in discovering the result because any Joe Schmoe who has seen at least a handful of romantic comedies knows how the story is supposed to end. The true joy of the experience is how we arrive there with these two characters. In the back of our minds, there is a kind of peace of mind, because although they seem so far apart and at odds, we know where they will end up. We can take a little bit of enjoyment out of every single moment they spend together mundane or not. In many ways, the road movie feel of The Sure Thing brought to mind other similar storylines like Train, Plains, and Automobiles as well as It Happened One Night. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this film. Cusack pulls off the lovable jerk well and despite her initial stuffiness Daphne Zuniga is a lot of fun too.

4/5 Stars

It Happened One Night (1934) – Updated

Hopefully no one holds this against me, but I have never been a big fan of Claudette Colbert. However, I will say that I am a Capra aficionado and Clark Gable is certainly a classic Hollywood star who is dynamic in this film. Thus, despite my hangups with Colbert, I can still thoroughly enjoy this romantic comedy, the so-called original screwball. It helps to have such comedic fellows as Roscoe Karns, Alan Hale Sr. (father of The Skipper) and Walter Connolly.

Peter Warne is the down on his luck newspaper man and Ellen Andrews is a socialite who feels trapped between her suffocating father and an upcoming marriage. Does this formula sound familiar? It undoubtedly is, but this was the original, all those following were impostors.

The unlikely pair begin a cross country trek towards the destination of New York. It includes uncomfortable bus rides, awkward overnight stays, a bit of hitchhiking, and eating carrots to survive.

Only in the movies could such a scenario play out and yet that is the fun because anything can happen one night or another. In this case all the caterwauling and antics lead to a happy ending. To think many people thought this film would not be very good! That was obviously proved wrong by numerous accolades. Just think this film came out 80 years ago and we are still watching it today! That is amazing. That is the power of the movies.

Peter Warne: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!
Alexander Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter Warne: Yes! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!

5/5 Stars

Road to Utopia (1946)

Starringc0cc6-roadtoutopia_1946 Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour in this fourth Road picture, this film begins in the present with an old marry couple who gets a surprise visitor. Then the story flashes back to the turn of the century where two lowlifes commit murder in order to steal the map to a gold mine. However, the police are on their tails so they duck into a vaudeville show where Duke (Crosby) and Chester (Hope) are performing. Eventually the two con men decide to part ways, but they double cross each other only to end up heading for Alaska on the same ship as the two killers. Through a bit of luck they get the map and take the place of the two killers, but trouble follows close behind them. The daughter of the man who was killed (Lamour) is intent to get the map back and she is unknowingly working with some undesirables. As always happen both hapless adventurers fall head over heels for Sal, who wants to get close to them for the map. However, the map is in two parts and then Sperry and McGurk are on the loose again. Duke and Chester’s real identities are revealed to Sal and now the trio must hightail it, with two killers and a multitude of others looking for them. Miraculously they escape by sled, but only two can get away so Duke heroically holds off the pursuers. This Road film is probably one of the best and all the stars are in fine form in Utopia.

4/5 Stars