Archive for December, 2009

Harry and Tonto

December 9th, 2009

S: Back in the day, I read all of the Carlos Castaneda books, the first ones about peyote and then later about self-actualization without an altered conciousness. In his third book, “Journey to Ixtlan,” he talks about being impeccable, about living an impeccable life… being exactly who your are, without confusion or pretense. Being here now – as the philosophers of the time suggested. I always wondered what that really meant, what was it like to be impeccable. Then I saw this movie and I finally understood what Castaneda was talking about.

In some ways it’s a road movie/buddy movie. Harry is an old man who is being ejected from everything he knows – his comfort-zone is literally destroyed. Tonto is his best friend and is, at times, his most sane companion, even though he is a cat. Harry is forced out of his home by a wrecking ball. A long-time resident of New York City, he has worn a path from his apartment, to the market, to the park and back, never veering off of his course. He looks and feels old. You get the feeling that someone would have found him in his apartment dead for 3 or 4 days and wouldn’t have missed him or noticed. But, he is forced out, and forced to move on. It seems a disaster to him and he refuses to go – even though in the end I think it is the best thing for him. One of my favorite moments is when they are ejecting him from his home – he’s sitting in his easy chair with the cat in his lap while the cops are bringing him outside (carrying him in the chair) just as the wrecking ball starts to tear down his home. And in some ways, it’s a bit prophetic as he shouts, “Blow winds, Crack your cheeks” from King Lear, because Harry has three children and his journey will take him to each one in turn. (I also love that he quotes Shakespeare a lot)

As in any road move, there is a journey. Harry’s physical journey is to move in with his son, then – due to some unpleasant circumstances – he moves on to his daughter in Chicago, and then on to his youngest son in California. He and Tonto have many adventures along the way, hitchhikers, getting thrown out of an airplane, thrown into jail, off of a bus, reminiscing about his wife – he’s a widower, and his old girlfriend Jesse. When you read that last sentence, you might think this is a screwball comedy and it does have it’s funny moments. But Harry’s journey is a profound one. It’s an emotional journey that he takes as he faces each of his children. He has to come to terms with his own aging, accept who he is, and also accept who his children have become. In some ways, he realizes that his children are not going to save him and in doing that he comes to terms with his parenting mistakes and the imperfections of his relationships. It’s like he reconnects with each of them, just to be able to let them go, and move on with what’s left of his life.

And what a life it is. Harry is one of the greatest characters in any film I’ve ever seen. Harry is played by Art Carney. I was never a big “Honey-Mooners” fan and all I ever thought when I heard Art Carney’s name was goofy Ralph Cramden. Harry is nothing like Ralph. He is funny, angry, and real. He’s not always nice, but he is always fair, and Carney’s performance is subtle and perfect as he moves from being a grouchy set-in-his-ways old man, to someone who is really alive. He won an Oscar for his performance and it is well-deserved! The film was directed by Paul Mazursky and it is funny at times, poignant at others, and always emotionally rich. To me, Harry seems to get younger as he moves West and when you see him playing chess on the beach in California and talking about Buddhism he hardly seems like the same man thrown out of his home at the beginning of the story.

His oldest son is played by character actor Phil Bruns and Josh Mostel plays his nephew Norman (who has taken a vow of silence, LOL). His feminist daughter is played by Ellen Burstyn, and his youngest son, the sad swinger, is played by Larry Hagman. Hagman in particular is amazing and nails his performance. Again, when I think of him I think of JR – but his performance in this film is a revelation. Some of the best scenes in the film are between Harry and his son Eddie.

This is one of those films I would take to a desert island with me. I can watch it again and again, crying and laughing, but always feeling like I’m in the presence of something meaningful and lovely.

Director: Paul Mazursky
Harry: Art Carney
Eddie: Larry Hagman
Released in 1974 (I saw it on HBO in the late 80s)
Bill Conti wrote the score and Paul Mazursky wrote the screenplay

Trivia from IMDB: James Cagney was originally offered the role of Harry. Other people considered for the role were Sir Laurence Olivier and Cary Grant before Art Carney was finally cast. Paul Mazursky’s words to Carney were “You’ll win an Oscar,” which turned out to be prophetic.

Sadly it is hard to find on DVD – but there are used copies around. I recently picked it up on my DVR from TCM.

Snow Falling on Cedars

December 9th, 2009

S: Back in the late 1990s I read a really wonderful book that was suspenseful, romantic and moving. I read it in the dead of winter (which was appropriate since most of the book takes place in a very cold town, in a very cold courtroom). It’s the story of two generations of people who are united and divided by race, culture, and war. I loved the book.

When the movie came out, I was apprehensive. Sometimes films just can’t capture a movie  and I’m usually disappointed. But – this movie is lovely. It captures the essence of the book and has amazing performances by Max Von Sydow and Sam Sheppard, as well as one of the most beautiful scores there is; I watch this every chance I get.

The only word of warning I have is that I read the book… so the movie made sense to me. The entire film is made up of flashbacks, just like the book, and they come up as memories to the various characters in the story. They aren’t all in chronological order. Since I had read the book, it all made perfect sense to me. In fact, I appreciated that they didn’t over-explain, or ruin the dreamlike quality of the book. However, if you haven’t read the book, it could be a bit confusing, and you might have to watch it twice to really get it. (You can’t go wrong reading the book first, it’s a wonderful read, especially in the wintertime.)

The story is a basic courtroom drama involving the possible murder of a fisherman out in a foggy channel in the Pacific Northwest. It is set in post World War II Washington state, and the townsfolk are still not over the trauma of the war and the difficulties the population endured. When a local Japanese American man is arrested for the murder, many twisted relationships and long-forgotten memories surface. The flashbacks involve two people, Ishmael (Hawke) and  Hatsue (Kudoh), who shared a secret love when they were young, a love that was ripped apart by the war.  He is the son of the town’s progressive newspaper editor, she is the daughter of Japanese immigrant farmers. Ishmael becomes involved in the court case because he has taken over the newspaper upon returning from fighting in the war and Hatsue’s husband is the man charged with the crime.

Ishmael is faced with hard choices as he remembers and comes to terms with his own pain and suffering. By  facing his demons, he redeems himself and those that were torn apart by the war and heals some of the racial scars in the community. While this is no fairy-tale, it’s sublime and profound in its way. A quiet story – the snow that falls throughout the film ads much to the ambience, and the Pacific Northwest scenery is like a supporting actor in itself. Max von Sydow is just right in his portrayal of the defense lawyer – he’s such a huge talent and I was sorry he didn’t get an Oscar nod for his supporting performance in this film. It’s is a great story, a beautiful, haunting, winter movie. I’m sorry my Father never got to read the book or see the movie, I’m sure he would have loved them both.

Released: 7 January 2000
Director: Scott Hicks
Ethan Hawke – Ishmael Chambers
Youki Kudoh – Hatsue Miyamoto
Max von Sydow – Nels Gudmundsson
Sam Shepard – Arthur Chambers
Score: James Newton Howard
Book: David Guterson

Role Models

December 7th, 2009

S: Okay, I have a secret. On the weekends, I hang out with people that dress up and hit each other with stuff. I have to disclose this, because I understand Augie’s world really well, and sometimes I get swept up in it just like he does, and other times, I think it’s just as goofy as Danny does. While we don’t have a dude dressed up like a Centaur, we do have our eccentricities. One of the things I loved about Role Models, is how it both makes fun of misfits, and sympathizes with them, even appreciates them.

Danny Donahue (Paul Rudd) is finding that being a cynic is making his life more and more difficult. He is grouchy and lacks enthusiasm for his job, his life, and his relationship. His co-worker, Wheeler, is a “dude” who thinks he’s Danny’s friend and is always on the lookout for a good time. When Danny freaks out at the breakup of his relationship and gets in trouble with the law – and takes Wheeler with him – the only option they have is jail, or going into community service (a big brother/sister organization called Sturdy Wings).

Of course, they get paired with two kids that are misfits in their own way. Augie, who is in a live action role-playing group, and Ronnie, a foul-mouthed kid who likes boobies and has gone through numerous “bigs” until paired with Wheeler. At first Danny and Wheeler are just trying to log enough hours so that they can stay out of jail, but eventually they care about their charges and get involved in their lives. The end is a big war with all of Augie’s role-playing allies and enemies, and the only way they can succeed is to work together. The movie is in the same vein as 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and The Hangover, and even though those movies are hilarious, this movie has something more. I think it has a heart – as the boys learn something from these two seemingly worthless adults, the adults learn things from the boys as well. In a world where none of these four people can depend on anyone, they learn to depend on each other – but instead of it being some Disney-like feel good movie, this one is full of profanity, fart jokes, and Kiss makeup. I love it.

I can recommend it heartily!!!

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