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Pete 'n' Tillie

A winner on my list
No, it's not a comedy, though there's some classic Matthau/Burnett wisecracking in the beginning, during the courtship. Once their son Robbie is born, life goes the course it often does in Peter de Vries novels (it's adapted from "Witch's Milk"), chronicling the ups and downs of suburban American life. There are some splendid turns by René Auberjonois and Geraldine Page. And check out Tillie's devastating undermining of Pete's shallow paramour over cocktails.

Spoiler: when their son Robbie comes down with terminal leukemia, the story takes somewhat predictable turns, morphing from what might at first have seemed a comedy into a reach-for-the-hankie melodrama.

I give it a ten, though, because of the performances and the mise-en-scène.

2 Days in the Valley

Interwoven stories without unnecessary titles (as in Pulp Fiction)
This is a minor gem with a cast to die for (and many do). The Tarantino influence seems unmistakable ("Pulp Fiction" came out two years earlier). It's good to see James Spader in a sinister role. My only criticism is that it doesn't really give a sense of The Valley: it could be anywhere. It has the requisite weirdness for the Valley (though "Laurel Canyon" does it better), and the stories are hilarious. So forget the Valley part of it and just enjoy (nobody would understand Susan's "I'm from Reseda" anyway). (This is a Valley Boy speaking: nobody has got it, so far, though "American Graffiti," shot in Northern California, has much of the Valley feel.)


Women surviving in the American west
This is a first-rate film, based on the letters of its heroine, Elinore Pruitt Stewart (and published in the book Letters of a Woman Homesteader, in print 2003), supplemented with material gathered from other frontier families. The film follows the life of a widow with a young daughter who arrives in Wyoming (in actual life, Colorado) in 1910 to serve as housekeeper for a rancher. The film is inconclusive, as it should be: this isn't a story so much as a slice of life. And what a life! Regardless of whether the character represents Elinore's true nature, this is a wonderful woman: strong, self-determining, and courageous. She's not your usual impossibly slender, pretty young thing--Hollywood seems to think mere wisps could survive these hardships and keep their Mary Kay contact visiting regularly--but a sturdy and practical woman who never flinches at what life throws at her. One scene to watch for (among many): taking down clothes from the clothesline. I won't give the game away, but Elinore Stewart was one hell of a human being. I'd have felt honored to know her.

Bad Day at Black Rock

A bad day, a superb film
John Sturges directed this quintessentially tight-constructed masterpiece. This is how it was done in the good old days: nothing falls by the wayside. Tight, clear characterizations, with minimalist dialog, costume, manner, and facial expression all reflecting the inner lives of people in their self-constructed hell. Check out how Hector (Lee Marvin) uses the word "boy" to suggest racial overtones well in advance of the slowly-revealed background plot; how Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) in his dark suit and no-nonsense manner contrasts with everyone else's casual dress and edginess, perfectly reflecting his role as avenging angel; how Coley (Ernest Borgnine), trying to run Macreedy off the road, resembles (probably unintentionally) Joe McCarthy, especially as caricatured by Walt Kelly; and of course how the arch-villain, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), suggests limitless power with his inimitable smirk and almost languid movements: he controls the town without actually doing anything overt--until Macreedy forces his hand. Nicely turned performances by other major players, too: Dean Jagger (the drunkard Sheriff Tim), Anne Frances (nervous Liz), and Walter Brennan (loquacious, self-justifying Doc). The suggestion that one man can--literally single-handedly--make a moral difference is inspiring (and how that one hand utterly confounds Coley is a nifty, low-key precursor of Bruce Lee-inspired acrobatics). This is a keeper.

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