Ivan’s Childhood

I hadn’t heard of director Andrei Tarkovsky before. Nor had I ever heard of actor Nikolay Burlyaev. I haven’t seen many Russian films and I wasn’t particularly looking for a difficult film but something about Tarkovsky’s WWII film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) grabbed me though it took a while.

Around 12 years old, Ivan dreams of his idyllic childhood playing at the beach, chatting with his young mother, running freely. Then he wakes up. He’s in a dark, war-torn, God-forsaken landscape. He trudges through a murky river (which looks like a marsh, but it’s a degenerated river and a symbol the effects of war) before he’s captured by Russian soldiers. Back at the soldiers’ post, Ivan is fierce and orders the soldiers about. He orders the soldiers to call “Number 51 at HQ.” They try to put him in his place, but you’ve never seen a fiercer 12 year old. Played by Nikolay Burlyaev, Ivan is like no character you’ve ever seen. In the dream sequences he’s pure and innocence; once he’s orphaned and becomes an army scout Ivan’s transformed to a force of nature on par with a hurricane.

Ivan prevails in convincing his comrades in arms that he should continue his reconnaissance work and not get shipped off to the much safer military school. Viewing the film, I knew that the soldiers should not have agreed, but that’s where the suspense comes in.

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Tarkovsky gives us amazing images like none I’ve ever seen. He believed in using the environment like the murky river, a bombed peasant farm house and a white birch forest speak volumes. I’ll never forget the dream sequence when Ivan and a little girl are riding in a pick up truck filled with apples. The sky and trees are shown in the negative, which was mind-blowing.

There’s a lot of intense emotion. One example is a scene with an officer flirting with a female junior officer who’s very tentative. He wants her; it’s not clear what she wants. Without graphic nudity or direct language Tarkovsky gives us a powerful scene of cat and mouse in the birch forest that goes on forever.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with fascinating extras including an interview with the now grown (i.e. middle aged) Nickolay Burlyaev, who recalls how hard Tarkovsky made him work to get the part and then how kind and sensitive the director was during the filming of this emotionally intense story.

I found the film challenging to watch. It’s no day at the beach, which is fitting for a war film. Yet Ivan’s Childhood is well worth watching.

 

 

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Lucky Me

As Doris Day just passed away at the age of 97, I figured watching some of her films would be a good memorial. My library displayed their DVDs with Day and I chose Lucky Day at random.

In Lucky Me, Day plays Candy Williams an aspiring singer and dancer who’s very superstitious and won’t walk by a black cat or step on a crack. Any superstition you’ve heard of in America, she won’t test. Williams is part of a struggling troupe of performers led by Phil Silvers, who’s perfect for his part. Candy gets duped by a well-meaning composer and romantic comedy ensues.

Though Lucky Me isn’t Day’s finest film and there are no great classic songs I recognized, the film entertains. It’s a cheerful story which showcases Day’s optimistic style. It’s sure to make you smile. The supporting cast includes Nancy Walker, who I remember from the sitcom Rhoda. Walker’s dancing skill was a nice surprise and Silver was a wonderful father figure in this tale of old showbiz.

Choose Me

Sultry and jazzy, Choose Me offers an intriguing story with Keith Carradine as Micky, a pathological liar, who escapes from a mental hospital and makes his way to Eve’s bar in an unnamed city.

Geneviève Bujold plays Dr. Nancy Love, aka Anne, enters the bar to meet with Eve, her new roommate. All the characters’ lives are interwoven and they don’t realize it. Eve calls into Dr Nancy Love’s popular radio show to get wisdom and clarity about her relationships. Dawn Rae Chung, plays a young wanna-be poet, who keeps her eye on Eve because she knows that Eve’s fooling around with her husband, who keeps getting infuriated with Mikey after he loses to him at a poker game.

The look of the film honors film noir, while the theme examines psychology and broken people in broken relationships pushing on in spite of their struggles.

I saw the film when it came out in 1984 and again now. I still appreciated the structure and dialog, but this time I around I noticed how the darkness of the film and the jaded approach to marriage and relationships doomed the characters. I felt sorry for them both times I watched, but this time I also felt sorry for the filmmaker for needing to make such a skeptical film.

Nonetheless, Choose Me offers great performances and a wonderful soundtrack. It’s worth a look, though it’s not in the “must-see” category.

Cat’s Paw

Harold Lloyd’s talking Cat’s Paw (1934) satirizes dirty politics. Lloyd plays Ezekiel Cobb, the son of a missionary who grew up in rural China. Cobb comes to California to find a wife. He’s supposed to stay with a minister, who for years has run for mayor against a corrupt machine politician. The minister is a puppet who doesn’t realize he’s simply used   to make it look like there’s democracy in this town.

When the minister suddenly dies, his corrupt campaign manager needs a chump to run in his stead. He decides this naive newbie Cobb is just the man for the job.

Cobb’s an endearing character. He’s a fish out of water in America. Though he looks like he belongs here, China is his home. So he’s constantly bowing and has no idea what our slang means. He’s often mistaken for a “native” and this often gets him into all kinds of scraps. He lacks the street smarts and skepticism frequently found in corrupt cities.

Yet while the film never directly says as much, God helps the innocents and through a hilarious series of mishaps, Cobb is photographed punching the corrupt mayor and becomes a sensation. He’s swept into office. He’s as upset as anyone. He wants to return to China where everyone understands his references to the revered Ling Po, who’s wisdom he frequently imparts.

Cobb accepts his office and brings his innocent honesty into practice. He outfoxes the foxes and it’s a delight to see.

Lloyd is delightful. It offers satire with a clever story that still entertains. There are times when supporting characters use words like “Chink” which are derogatory and wouldn’t be used in a film today, but the characters who use such terms are portraying prejudiced people in contrast to the hero who respects and understands Chinese culture.

Cobb does search for a wife and looks for an idealistically innocent, poised woman. Pet Pratt, a woman in his boarding house is a worldly woman who tricks him by taking him to a nightclub with 1930s adult entertainment. She’s just the woman to help Cobb govern. It’s an added twist to the film, especially since Harold Lloyd films usually feature American sweethearts. Pet Pratt does not fit that mold and is fun to watch.

I was amazed by Cobb’s plan to clean up the city. He wasn’t the goody-two-shoes he seemed at the start.

Cat’s Paw was a fun film, which shows 1930s views of China.

Blow Up

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About as exciting as it gets, i.e. not very

Michelangelo Antonoini’s Blow Up has an intriguing end, but the almost two hours leading up to it were painfully boring. It’s the story of a jaded, nihilistic, rich photographer who happens to photograph what appears to be a couple of lovers in a park. After blowing up the photos he sees what looks like a shooter lurking in the bushes. What’s really going on? The photographer returns to the spot and finds the man’s dead body.

So far that sounds like an intriguing plot. My concise description leaves out the scenes of vapid, sexy girls whose characters are no more developed than a mannequin’s and the occasional dull conversations the photographer has with his agent or the woman in the photos who tries to get them back once and then never follows up when she doesn’t get them.

Everyone in the film is tired. The young people, whether they’re at a concert or having sex appear dead bored with life. A couple of girls practically stalk the photographer hoping to do a shoot and get famous. None of that pans out.

Don’t waste your time. There’s a clip on YouTube of the film’s end which includes a bunch of mimes who play tennis and it’s a clever mini-film on our perceptions. That’s worth a couple minutes. Otherwise, the film is too esoteric for me. I don’t want to spend two hours watching a bored, passive lost generation.

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Lucky Partners

I’d never seen a Ronald Colman film, though I’d heard the name. I ran across this title and thought I’d get the DVD from the library. (Note: the DVD has much better quality than the blurry trailer above.) Starring Ginger Rogers and Ronald Colman, Lucky Partners is a romantic comedy filled with style and wit.

Walking down the street one day, David Grant (Colman) wishes Jean (Rogers), a pretty passerby, “Good luck.” She stops and asks him why the “Good luck” and he smiles and they chat about her practical engineer fiancé before she goes her merry way.

When she arrives at her destination to drop off an order of books, she lucks into a free $300 (in 1940’s value) dress. Hmm, meeting that dapper fellow was lucky. Jean decides to take advantage of the luck and buys an Irish Sweepstakes ticket and convinces David to pay her half. That should increase their luck.

Lucky_Partners_film_posterDavid places a condition on his going in on the ticket. If they win, which is highly unlikely, Jean will accompany David on a fabulous trip prior to her marriage. She’s unsure. What will people think of an unmarried woman traveling with an unmarried man? David sees it as an experiment. When Fred, the fiancé turns up, his assumptions and attitudes, compel Jean to go along. Besides, it’s unlikely the ticket will win, so there’s no real risk, right?

Well, next the ticket does win the first round of the sweepstakes. Now Jean and David need to decide whether to cash in for $12,000 or to hold and wait to see if they can win the full $150,000. There’s some back and forth and mainly dapper David just aggravates Jean, but then so does flat-footed Fred. In the end they decide to risk it all and Fred holds on to the tickets.

But rather than do as he was told, Fred sold Jean’s half of the ticket, so after they lose the sweepstakes, Fred proudly presents Jean with her $6000. He’s shocked that his independent-minded fiancée is livid that Fred went behind her back. Jean grabs her money and storms across the way to give David the money. He then insist that they go on a pared down version of the whirlwind experimental trip. Now Jean’s nervous, but a deals’ a deal.

Based on a film by Sacha Guitry (the French writer/actor who made films like The Pearls of the Crown  or Le PoisonLucky Partners delights with a zany situation that dances around feminine virtue, trust, and whether one should marry a safe guy or the dashing artist with the mysterious aura. As is true of so many

The Kid Brother

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I’ve added a new film to my collection of absolute favorites. It’s The Kid Brother (1927) by Harold Lloyd, which Criterion collection has just released on a 2-DVD set with plenty of extras like expert commentary and interviews of Lloyd and Lloyd’s granddaughter.

Poor Harold Hickory. His big brothers, and they are big, outshine him at home. His father the sheriff views Harold as too young and weak to participate in town meetings or fight for good when the community needs strong men. Harold reveres his father and these slights hit him hard. No one sees how ingenious, loyal and hard working young Harold is.

When a group of charlatans arrive in town, the same day as Harold’s dad is entrusted with the town’s money to pay for a new dam (so quite a sum), Harold gets duped into letting them put on a medicine show. Dad never would sign off on such a deal, but the Kid Brother was fooled. Harold soon realizes his error and what a disaster it will be.

Catastrophes come one after another and the gags are inspired. I laughed out loud and was amazed at the film’s charm. In one minute, you get more humor than in 5 minutes in any other comedy.

Not only is the film placed with comedy, there’s also romance. Jobyna Ralson, who starred in The Freshman, appears as an orphan girl, who’s linked to the medicine show conmen and she soon captures the hearts of Harold and his brothers. Their meeting and relationship is sure to make you smile.

The Kid Brother qualifies as a must-see film for all ages. I enjoyed watching with the commentary on to get all the background on Lloyd and the making of this four star classic. This is an amazing mood-lifter.