By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist March 29, 2013 at 4:24PM
As we noted in our recent feature on Elia Kazan, the emotional fabric and texture in the seminal filmmaker’s pictures was always “intense, raw, painfully naked, unsettling, ugly, and almost always tragic.” That’s very much the case in “East of Eden,” Kazan’s emotionally bruising film about fathers, sons and the love and approval patriarchs can give or deny. Set in Salinas Valley, around World War I, ‘Eden’ centers on a pair of Cain and Abel-esque siblings. The black sheep Cal Trask (James Dean) feels he must compete against overwhelming odds with his brother Aron (Richard Davalos) for the love of their father Adam (Raymond Massey). Desperate to trying to win the favors and affection of his father, the angry and vulnerable Cal is frustrated at every turn and can never seem to do right (or stay out of trouble). And when he tries his hardest, the effort seems to only earn him deeper scorn from his dad; Cal learns the hard way that he cannot even buy his father’s love when he loses his fortune. Worse, a dark family secret about their mother is uncovered and it leads to tragic consequences when finally unveiled. Featuring an extraordinary moody intensity (it earned four Academy Awards including James Dean's first for Best Actor) this is the type of family drama Derek Cianfrance was probably imagining when he made “The Place Beyond The Pines,” an uncompromising, painful and scorching examination of fathers and sons, their discord and irreconcilable conflicts.
“If you build it, they will come.” Over the past two decades, that sentence has become an oft-quoted mantra for self-helpers everywhere. What's often forgotten, though, is that it was said by a voice in a cornfield, which could easily be a higher being, or for the skeptics, an Iowan farmer’s hallucination. That farmer, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), decides to heed this advice and overturns his cornfield to build a baseball field. The Voice goes on to tell him to “ease his pain.” In a sort of proactive Midwestern take on “Waiting For Godot," Ray continues to build the baseball field and ghostly players begin to show up at the field, although not everyone can see them. But then one player in particular turns up: Ray’s father, who he had not seen since he was 17. As the film ends, Ray is able to resolve his issues with his father by playing catch with his ghost. Although it sounds corny (see the pun?), Phil Alden Robinson's film gets the right balance of sentimentality and smarts, so the ending does pull at the heartstrings and the audience will get teary, even if you just watch the three and a half minute scene on your laptop.
Parental bonds are central to many animated films, but none more so than in Disney and Pixar’s 2003 adventure "Finding Nemo." The story follows overprotective father Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) who is willing to overcome his fear of everything in order to save his son, Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould). “Finding Nemo” is not afraid to present the harsh truths inherent in the growing-up process (not least in an opening scene as traumatizing as anything since the death of Bambi's mom) by focusing in on the anxieties parents have towards letting their children go out into the world without them. Marlin’s intentions are good, but his coddling of Nemo pushes the young clownfish to act out, which causes the kidnapping that brings about the trajectory of the narrative. As the movie goes through its paces, Marlin eventually comes to the understanding that he has to let his son lead his own life or else create a bubble in which Nemo‘s life is plotted out with nothing exciting to look forward to. As Marlin’s doofy companion Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) says, “You can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.” In other words, life is about knowledge and experience. Just as Marlin doesn’t know nothing bad will happen during his journey to save his son, he does it out anyway out of love, and later bonds with his son over the adventures they‘ve mutually shared. Marlin and Nemo both grow through being on their own, as opposed to living a sheltered life of monotony. Marlin doesn’t simply “find” his son, but they both find their identities in the process. While the film's gags and gorgeous color might have been for the kids, the message was very much for their parents.
Whether or not its influence on "The Wolverine" turns out to be noticeable (and the trailers don't exactly suggest so), we're glad James Mangold has been talking up Yasujiro Ozu's film, if only because it might encourage a few geeks to check out one of the best films from one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium. A remake of Ozu's 1934 silent "A Story of Floating Weeds," it stars Ganjiro Nakamura as Komajuro, the head of a traveling theatre company who arrive in the seaside town where he has a son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), who isn't aware of his parentage. But any bonding is disrupted when Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), Komajuro's current lover, becomes jealous, and pays Kayo (Ayako Wakao), another actress, to seduce Kiyoshi. Ozu was another filmmaker who dwelled on family in virtually all of his films, and while the web of relationships in "Floating Weeds" is a broad one, it's the unspoken parental bond between Komajuro and Kiyoshi that's at the very center. As atmospheric, generous, calm and controlled as any of his other films; if anything, it's even more subtle and low-key than the silent version, the filmmaker having refined his craft substantially. Truthful, beautiful and incredibly moving, it's as illustrative of the human condition as anything (and everything) the director ever made.
One of the first mega-blockbusters (and a decidedly classier kind than what we get nowadays), the gargantuan critical and commercial success which followed the release of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" still ripples today. The series runs a gamut of audiences few films can compete with; serving as a cultural touchstone for everyone from teenage hoodlums to mid-western grandparents to North Korean dictators. One reason for this is that at the core of this mafia universe is a soaring fraternal-paternal succession drama which would be at home in any classical work or Shakespeare play, and yet centers on characters almost anyone could find common ground with. Hardly any film bears quite up as well to repeated viewings; over the course of its 3 hours, a rich tapestry of power and family politics builds towards public tragedy with increasing violence, but it is the domestic dramas -- Don Vito in the garden with his grandson, sons trying not to disappoint fathers -- that draw out the true heart of Coppola’s mafia epic. Family had been featured in crime dramas before (think of Cagney's relationship with his mother in "White Heat"), but Coppola placed in front-and-center, with Michael's desire not to become his father, and yet his steady transformation into him, being the beating heart of the movie, and it's an approach that's influenced almost everything in the genre ever since.
Spike Lee’s 1998 "He’s Got Game," perhaps his most personal and least political film since his 1986 debut "She’s Gotta Have It," stars Denzel Washington and NBA pro Ray Allen as a semi-estranged father and son. Lee is a regular presence at Madison Square Garden and few directors can match the fluency with which he engages with and writes about the game, and as such, the basketball sequences of "He Got Game" have a degree of verisimilitude not often seen in sports films and anyone who has seen one of the plethora of excellent documentaries about young basketball prospects will recognize the gauntlet of temptation, ego-massage and expectation that the young Jesus Shuttlesworth has to run. The father-son melodrama, which sees the jailbound Shuttlesworth Senior paroled for a week to persuade Jesus to sign with Big State College, the governor’s alma mater, might have been just another syrupy melodrama were it not for the quality of Denzel Washington’s performance. On paper, it’s a role with the potential to draw out the typical Washington’s persona, anger-driven, bombastic and sentimental. But Washington wisely chooses to underplay Shuttlesworth and it makes one of his most muted performances, every bit as magnetic as his shoutier, shootier work. The father/son pairing make a believable duo, not least for a performance of real intelligence from Allen, a high point in the not-especially well-regarded area of pro-basketball acting. It’s not a film without its issues, especially with length and resolution, persistent issues in the Lee oeuvre, but it remains nonetheless an excellent and entertaining piece of social and sporting melodrama and a strong entry in the peripatetic director’s back catalogue.