Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Make-way-for-tomorrow-1937It seems like Leo McCarey and this film for that matter often get lost in the shuffle. In his day he was a highly successful and well thought of director of such classics as The Awful Truth and Going My Way. However, his moving drama Make Way For Tomorrow is now often overshadowed by a similar film that used it as inspiration, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953).

I will not pass judgment on which film I like more. In fact, to even begin to make a decision I would have to go back to both. However, this film opens by restating the 5th commandment. Honor thy father and thy mother. After all, this film is certainly about the gap between generations, parents with children, grandparents with grandchildren, but at its core is this main concern. Honor thy father and thy mother.

The film opens in the home of Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi). 4 of their 5 grown children are gathered together on the request of their parents who have something to tell them. Because their father has not been able to work, the bank is taking their house and so they will be displaced. Thus, the story is set up as the kids worry about what to do, because no one feels capable of taking both parents. Finally, it is decided that eldest son George (Thomas Mitchell) will take Mother, and one of the sisters will take father.

It is difficult for everyone. The old folks are split up for one of the first times in their 50 years of marriage. Meanwhile, grandma disrupts bridge lessons, makes life more of a nuisance on George’s daughter, and forces the maid to take on more hours. It does not make anyone angry at first, but it begins rubbing and chafing. Creating bitterness and annoyance which is arguably worse. Things reach the breaking point when George’s peeved wife finds out that her daughter is rendezvousing with men, and she is not happy at all when grandma confesses to knowing about it. She loses her temper and grandma apologizes. Seeing a letter from a retirement home she quietly decides it would be better for all if she simply moves there.

Her husband does not fare much better, and the harsh New York weather is taking a toll on his health. Furthermore, his daughter is obviously getting tired of him as her patience continues to wear thin. Mr. Cooper does make a friend in a kindly old shop owner (Maurice Moscovitch), but he soon is turned off as well. Finally, his daughter decides to send their father out of California. She says it’s for his health, but the real reason is she wants him off their hands so her other sister can deal with him.

With this new turn of events, Barkley and Lucy have one last meeting set up so they can spend time together before he is sent off to California. This is the most touching part of the entire film because underlying this oasis is the doubt that they might not see each other again. In the wake of that proposition, they have sort of a second honeymoon. They ditch the kids and have a magical evening just the two of them, reliving their youth and remembering the olden days. The miracle of this sequence is that everyone seems to finally understand them, appreciate them, and really honor them. They are offered a ride in an automobile and are met by the hotel manager who offers them drinks and listens to their wonderful stories of times past. Even the conductor plays a slow waltz just for the two of them. It’s a beautiful extended moment that is made especially moving in contrast to the earlier scenes. These are two people who, despite their advanced years, are still very much in love. It speaks to the importance that marriage holds in the life of some people. In certain circumstances, it is not a shallow event, but a lifelong friendship that carries so much weight.

When the time comes, the two lovebirds say goodbye at the train station and we don’t know what happens to them. We can guess certainly, but McCarey leaves a sweeter taste in our mouths before finishing with a realistic ending. It’s beautiful, moving, and tearful, but not in an overdramatic sort of way. In the mundane, sorrowful way that seems to reflect the rhythms of real life. Beulah Bondi was featured in some many great films, but I’m convinced that this was her greatest performance as an individual. Victor Moore was a worthy companion for her as well. However, my favorite character was probably the shopkeeper Max, because he was such a personable man in a sea of grumbling and annoyance.

5/5 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

Late Spring (1949)

latespring1Late Spring is a film that I found in some ways more rewarding than Tokyo Story, another acclaimed classic from Yasujiro Ozu. Both films share a few of his trademarks. They are home dramas with basic, everyday plots, termed Shomin-geki. Also exhibited are a stationary camera and low camera angles that Ozu often used to focus on his characters while sitting. In this way, he invented the quintessentially Japanese viewpoint known as the “tatami shot.” We see it most certainly in Late Spring as the daughter Noriko interacts with her widowed father or when they have friends over in their home. It may look somewhat similar to Tokyo Story, but it does differ in subject matter.

Late Spring is a film about fathers and daughters. Marriage and divorce. All the things that make up a life that remain the same whether you’re in modern America or post-war Japan. Noriko is a pretty young woman who is devoted to her aging father through thick and thin. He likes having her around and she likes being there for him.

It’s the culture, namely aunts and friends, who tell Norkio that she must get married. She’s 27 years old, and she needs to find a husband before it’s too late. Her father won’t be around forever. She’ll need to make a new life for herself. But Noriko is content with not listening to the voices trying to sway her. Only when her father talks to her about marriage does she finally begin to listen. He makes conversation about getting remarried and encourages her to think about an arranged marriage that her aunt has waiting for her.

We never meet this man who supposedly looks like Gary Cooper, but Noriko seems to genuinely like him. And yet there still is something that isn’t quite right. In Japan there is great importance in “reading the air,” and it seems like some of the characters in Ozu’s film fail at this or they see only what they want to see.

latespring3In the end, Noriko gets married and it should be no surprise because it was what was ultimately expected of her. Her father, on the other hand, acknowledges to a friend that he had no intention of getting remarried, it was only to prompt Noriko. Professor Somiya took on a great sacrifice in the eyes of society and goes home alone.

This is a bittersweet tale that is surprisingly funny on many occasions, but it is also topped off with human tragedy. Not death or dying, but something potentially worse in loneliness and discontentment. It is only a thought, but it seems like Noriko and her father would have both been happy with the status quo. However, their sensibilities and society said otherwise, so they acted as they were expected to. From this simple drama comes one of the most powerful films on father-daughter relationships ever.

I must admit, at first, I really was not fond of Chishu Ryu’s character, but over the course of the story, he grew on me. As for Setsuko Hara, she is an amazing example of kindness and servility, but also the undisputed muse of Yasujiro Ozu.  Late Spring also plays off the conflict between the old and new not to mention the traditional Japan and western culture. It’s not a blatant presence, but the allusion to Coca-Cola and Gary Cooper reminds us that this is a post-war Japan still recuperating from an awful war. That’s the backdrop of this film and its part of what makes Ozu’s human drama all the more striking. Despite, where it is situated in the historical context, Late Spring is a timeless film giving calculated insight into human relationships.

4.5/5 Stars

Tokyo Story (1953)

42390-tokyo_story_posterThis critically acclaimed Japanese film directed by Yasujiro Ozu has a relatively simple plot having to do with a kind elderly couple going to Tokyo to visit their adult children and extended family. They are excited to see the big city but it is not quite like they had expected. Furthermore, all their relatives and family have very busy lives making it difficult for them to spend time with the couple. The eldest son who is a doctor and then a daughter who owns a salon decide to send their parents off to a spa. Unhappy, the elderly couple return to Tokyo but they feel like they are imposing. Finally, the two of them head home and there the wife becomes ill. Because she is dying, her children do decide to visit. However, after she has passed away it seems they all too soon forget her and go on with life. This film is an interesting study of the void between generations. It also uses realism and focuses on the manners of the Japanese without fully criticizing them.

4.5/5 Stars