Sunday, November 17, 2019

Review - Days of Youth

November 17, 2019

Days of Youth – Japan, 1929

Rooms must have been hard to come by in Japan circa 1929. At least, that was my conclusion upon seeing the number of people who are practically ecstatic at the sight of a makeshift “room for rent” sign in the opening scene of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1929 film Days of Youth. One man even barges in and looks perfectly giddy as he enquires as to room. Alas, he is told it is already rented – the lucky occupant, a student named Watanabe (Ichiro Yuki), simply forgot to remove the sign. However, a moment later, there Watanabe is putting up another sign with an identical message, all the while adorning the kind of smile that usually telegraphs that someone is up to something, and indeed he is. Yet before you start thinking this is an early version of the now-standard tale of a tenant and a new roommate - think either The Odd Couple or Single White Female – it should be said the Watanabe is very much like many other young men his age: He’s looking for love. How exactly he settled on this approach is anyone’s guess, though.

It makes even less sense as the film progresses. Soon a young child is at his door, proclaiming his certainty that Watanabe will like the next one – She’s a real looker, he tells him. And sure enough, in walks a young woman named Chieko (Junko Matsui), whom Watanabe immediately approves of, so much so that soon he actually packs up his things and moves out, despite having no place to actually go to. You can see how this defies logic, but Watanabe is not known for his great ideas. He’s more of the class clown, the joker who livens up the party, but who puts off the truly important things, such as studying for his exams. In his eyes, he has accomplished his goal, to meet a member of the opposite sex and make a good impression on her – although one can reasonably assume that since she thinks he is leaving of his own accord, the notion of being indebted to him probably never crosses her mind.

We are soon introduced to another student named Yamamoto (Tatsuo Saito), We meet him as Chieko is on her way to retrieve her belongings, and it is soon clear that they are on very friendly terms. She is even making him a pair of socks, apparently a sign of affection back in the day. Clearly, Yamamoto has feelings for her, and she does not reject his subtle advances. Later, who should show up at Yamamoto’s room looking for a place to stay? You guessed it, and just like that, our love triangle is complete. In no time at all, Watanabe and Yamamoto go from being jovial buddies to fierce competitors.

Days of Youth is the earliest surviving Ozu film. Prior to it, he’d made 2 shorts and five feature films, all of which have been lost due to either old age, World War II, or the great purge of supposedly “extra” copies of films that occurred during the years the United States occupied Japan. Not having those films to reference makes it impossible to say with any certainty whether Ozu had develop what we now refer to as his signatures techniques and themes: the low camera angle, the shots taken from a distance, the emphasis on family, and the toll that the passage of time has on tradition. Here, we get a pretty straightforward comedy without any overt comment on modern society, and Ozu’s camerawork is much more traditional.

The comedy is hit-and-miss. Ozu excelled at presenting situations that were humorous because of their sweetness and authenticity. For example, in Good Morning, it is easy to accept that two kids would go on strike until they get a TV. Here, it is similarly believably that a young man would try to hide the paint on his face from the woman he is interested in. Less credible is the aforementioned plan involving Watanabe’s room, and a scene in which Yamamoto goes down a ski slope after a runaway ski adds slapstick to a film that previously based its comedy on the situation its characters find themselves in. As for the plot, it’s pretty razor-slim, so much so that screen time is devoted to ski jumps, shots of nature, and long walks in the snow. Even at 99 minutes, the film doesn’t really earn its running time.

On the plus side, the film ends with a surprise, reminding us that part of youth is enjoying the attention of others and having fun before one settles down, and that these experiences are not exclusive to young men. It also reinforces the notion that youth is a time of heartbreak and recovery and that both play an important role in shaping the kind of adult you eventually become. Ozu would make better films in the future, and he would return to some of these themes later on. Here, we get a mere passing glance at a master at work, and for some, that will be enough. (on DVD as part of BFI’s DVD set The Student Comedies; it is Region 2)

2 and a half stars

*Days of Youth is a silent film.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Coming Soon

FYI: Coming on December 10, 2019 to Blu-ray from Kino


*Hitchcock films included in the set: The Ring, The Farmer's Wife, Champagne, The Manxman, and The Skin Game                                                                                           

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Miscellaneous Musings

November 9, 2019

On When Reflection Diminishes Appreciation

Some time ago, I read a column by a film critic in San Francisco who had recently seen and written a review of 2013’s Man of Steel. The review was to be published in the upcoming Friday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, but he confessed to being conflicted: The review he’d written was mainly positive - he’d given the film three stars - yet as time passed, he was finding himself increasingly critical of the film, and it had became harder for him to justify what he’d written. His question was this: Should he still give it 3 stars, or should the rating reflect his newfound reservations?

I imagine most critics have had similar experiences. I remember watching Roger Ebert’s opinion of the 2004 film In My Country go from thumbs-up to thumbs-down within minutes after hearing Richard Roeper criticize the film, and back in 1993, a reviewer essentially proclaimed that he must have been temporary insane when he gave Another Stakeout 3 stars. That review remained unchanged, but would he have been wrong to ask his editors to reduce it to 2 and a half stars in subsequent publications?

Back in the early days of this blog, I reviewed the first two versions of Ben Hur, and in the ensuing years, I’ve come to consider William Wyler’s 1959 version as being undeserving of the accolades I bestowed on it. (I gave it 3 and a half stars.) The film now seems bloated and simplistic, its creators unwilling to take any real risks. There are also long stretches in which nothing of significance happens, and its most famous sequence is unnecessarily prolonged, much like the pod race in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and concludes with a completely foreseeable outcome. I even recall – or at least I tell myself I do – being relieved when the film reached its conclusion, and if asked today, I doubt I would recommend it.

Recently I went back and reread my review. (I must admit that it is one of the worst reviews I’ve written. It contains very little critical analysis of the film, the majority of it reading like a summary of the first thirty to forty-five minutes of the film.) I found myself tempted to edit the review in order for it to reflect my current opinion of the film, but I stopped myself. Then I considered adding a second rating and labeling it Upon Further Reflection, but this didn’t seem appropriate either. I ended up leaving it the way it was.

Ben-Hur, of course, is not the only example of films that I no longer appreciate as much as I did when I first saw them. Here are a few more and a brief explanation of why they fell from grace.

Hannah and Her Sisters - 1986

Watching this again after so many years, I was struck by the sheer convenience of it all. While Michael Caine’s storyline still resonates, it’s wrapped up too nicely with a throw-away line about how he much he indeed loves his wife. As for the Woody Allen storyline, it works until his character just happens to be walking past a record store where a woman whom he was once set up on a blind date with is shopping. They get to talking, and a scene later, they married and expecting a child. If you know Woody Allen’s films, the pattern isn’t entirely surprising. He has a tendency to throw in a convenient encounter as a way of providing a fairy-tale ending, and knowing that, it was harder to see this early use of the technique as innovative or sweet. I still liked the film, but it’s just a 3-star like.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - 2015

Like many, I wanted to like The Force Awakens, so much so that I think I subconsciously blocked out the parts of the film that didn’t work and amplified the impact of those that did. Therefore, I talked about how great it was to see Han Solo after so long and to see that he hadn’t changed all that much. I liked the introduction of the new characters, and I particularly enjoyed the rescue attempt that makes up much of the last part of the film. However, as time went by, this appreciation began to be dwarfed by the film’s more questionable elements – the map to Luke Skywalker, the confusing status of the Rebel Alliance, the borrowed plots and scenes from previous movies, the helmet that we saw being reduced to ashes in Return of the Jedi. And as time progressed, the older version of Han Solo made less sense. Here, after all, is a man whose son has turned to the dark side, endangering everyone he knows and cares for, and he just leaves. Not only that, he adopts the carefree role of a man with no worries and a great sense of sarcasm. Sure, he gets serious later, but when you finally understand all that’s happened, it’s inconceivable that he would just pack up and leave. And doesn’t he know that nothing good ever comes of walking along a narrow lane toward a young man carrying a lightsaber? Everyone in the audience did. Needless to say, I like the movie much less than I initially did upon leaving the theater.

The Dark Knight Rises

When I saw the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, I liked what I saw a lot. Well, let me quantify that. I liked a lot of the first half. Films about the physical toll that being a superhero can take on someone fascinate me. For example, Logan was a stronger film because the lead character was a weaker version of himself; likewise, The Dark Knight Rises. Seeing Bruce Wayne limping and walking with a cane made the character human; making him shun billions because a creation of his could be used for nefarious purposes gave him a conscious. Add to that an interesting debate about the wealth gap in Gotham City and contrasting perceptions of Batman and Harvey Dent, and you had the potential for a different kind of superhero movie. I gave the film three stars because of all this.

However, the more I reminisced about the film, the most I focused on the extremely unfocused and poorly scripted second half – with Bruce Wayne being visited by Ra’s Al Ghul in a dream and being given a clue that turns out to be false; Bane’s shifting schemes; the odd way both Wayne and Bane travel to and from Gotham rather easily despite Bane’s proclamation that no one and nothing enters or exits the city; the ludicrous idea that the entire police force is sent to one place and then trapped there for who knows how long, yet still emerges in well enough shape to march into the center of town and wage war with both Bane’s henchmen and the apparently scant number of prisoners he released earlier in the film; and then there’s the ending, which no amount of repeat viewing will ever be able to clarify. These are the things I focus on now, and were I to rate the film today, it would be in the 2 to 2 and a half star range.

And that’s the peculiar thing about time: It clarifies, and the more we look at some things, the less sense they make and the less appeal they have.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Review - The Lost World (1925)

November 3, 2019

The Lost World – U.S., 1925

Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World just missed being the first “summer film” by three months. I say this not because Hollywood had conceived of the modern-day concept of a summer film at a time when studios were producing a film a week, but because The Lost World has so much in common with what has come to be associated with a film released between May and August – thinly-drawn characters, impressive special effects, and an action-packed finale that, like King Kong eight years later, brings danger to the streets of New York. And in an eerie sense of déjà vu, its star bares a striking resemblance to Richard Attenborough, who played the man responsible for bringing dinosaurs back in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.

To some, this may seem like a put-down. I certainly don’t intent for it to be. Instead, it is meant as an acknowledgement that Hollywood has always been conflicted as to its overall purpose. Are movies meant to simply afford the audience a venue through which to pass the time happily, or are they meant to be bigger and better than that? Just two years later, this split was reflected in the awarding of the first Best Picture award to two films – one, Sunrise, which was artistic and shed light on the fragility and imperfection of regular people; and Wings, which told the tale of two pilots in love with the same woman. This debate continues today in the current arguments over whether superhero movies are cinema, which of course they are. It’s just that they are in the vein of Wings, well-constructed, but soon-to-be-forgotten crowd-pleasures, and many cinephiles see that as an inferior genre.

So, The Lost World does not aspire to be Intolerance or The Kid; not every film has to. What we should therefore ask of a film like it is for there to be a story that makes sense in its established reality, performances that make us feel as if the events are really occurring, and characters whose fates we care about enough to watch as they embark on an adventure that is – if we’re honest with ourselves – fairly silly. Jurassic Park had this in spades. The Lost World, on the other hand, is hit and miss.

The Lost World begins with a man named Ed (Lloyd Hughes) asking his long-time love, Gladys, why she won’t marry him. She explains that the man she marries has to be daring and make his own chances. In her words, “you can’t hold him back.” Immediately, he dons a look of determination and sets off to ask the newspaper he works for to send him on an assignment will enable him to prove that he is indeed a man unchained. Soon we find him begging a professor (Wallace Beery), appropriately named Challenger, to be included on an expedition to prove the existence of modern-day dinosaurs in South America. He succeeds, of course, and even convinces his employer to finance the operation under the guise of rescuing the father of a young woman who became trapped in the land that Challenger claims is inhabited by prehistoric beasts. It’s not long before he and four others are staring up at the Amazon’s majestic tepuis and taking in their first view of a living Pterodactyl.

As for the first of my criteria, a story that makes sense in its established reality, The Lost World is mostly successful. It is logical that most people would disbelieve a story as crazy as Challenger’s, and many of the experiences of the explorers, from the threat of being eaten to that of being trapped in that land for eternity, are logical. Where the film falters is in the reactions of many of its supporting characters. One member of the expedition is black, and like so many such characters from films of this time period, he’s portrayed as a fool and a coward. It also appears that he’s played by an actor in blackface. Another character is a sixty-year old professor with an affinity for bugs. Normally, there’s nothing wrong with that, but when he stops to comment on a bug in the middle of a path rife with hazards, it stretches credibility. It was a reminder of how many great films have been somewhat weakened by the addition of a superfluous comic character.

The performances are generally good, yet they are slightly undone by several questionable plotlines. The first involves the great hunter in the group, John Roxton (Lewis Stone). While it is reasonable that one would be involved in the voyage, the choice to make him part of the film’s love triangle is a peculiar one, primarily because of the age difference between the hunter and the woman he wishes to marry – at first glance, he could be her grandfather. There’s also little chemistry between the two actors. One could argue that those facts make it logical that she would fall for Ed, yet the two of them share so little screen time together that when they began professing their love for each other, I found myself sighing. They literally go from saying I love you to planning their wedding in less than a minute.

And then there are the characters, and here is where the film mostly finds its strength. Resonating the most are Challenger and Roxton. It may be impossible for Beery to do wrong, and here he finds the perfect blend of belligerence, leadership, humor, and bravery to make you believe that Challenger would walk in the direction of animals that would look at him as their next meal. Stone brings a great deal of gravitas and nobility to the role of Roxton, and I loved the way the character reacts to the dinosaurs, always keeping his rifle handy, but cognizant that the weapon would have little effect on the enormous beasts. He also does better than most people could have with the love angle. As Miss Paula White, the daughter of the missing man, Bessie Love makes you believe her character is staring at the unthinkable, and Hughes is perfectly fine as Ed. Even Arthur Hoyt, playing Professor Summerlee, the bug lover, does reasonably well with a role that could easily have been removed from the film.

One other matter bears mentioning, and that is the number of scenes involving either wildlife or dinosaurs. As with many other films from the early days of cinema, viewers were not expected to have traveled abroad much, so part of their interest in films or documentaries set it other countries involved seeing the animals that roam those lands. Fortunately for them, Hoyt gives them plenty to marvel at. However, seen today, these moments drag, for they are not meant to establish an atmosphere or level of peril. (Hoyt actually accomplishes this through some pretty interesting work with colors.) The same can also be said of several scenes depicting battles between dinosaurs, three of which involve a triceratops and an allosaurus. With all the time and effort spent on their duels, I fully expected the allosaurus to factor in the film’s climax. He doesn’t, though, and there is a lot less at stake in the finale as a result.

The Lost World was certainly a revelation in its time. Removed from that context, though, the film suffers. Its love story is weak, its focus scattered, and its comedy only partly successful. The film succeeds due to Hoyt’s impressive direction, and the cast’s incredible commitment to selling the story and their characters. Seen today, the film’s impact is unmistakable. One need only look at the climax of Spielberg’s The Lost World to see the debt it owes Hoyt’s film. And so what if it resembles much of what we now consider a summer movies? There’s nothing wrong with striving just to entertain, and I’m happy to report that The Lost World, despite all its faults, continues to do that. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars

Monday, October 28, 2019

Review - Le Ciel Est A Vous

October 26, 2019

Le Ciel Est A Vous – France, 1944

I’m not a huge fan of montages. They’ve always seemed to me to be a cheap narrative technique used whenever a writer knows he has to get his characters from point A to point B but isn’t really up to the task. Thus, he simply advances time through a series of brief scenes which, taken together, are meant to convey maturity or advanced skills. The problem with them is that they “tell” instead of “show.” They’re the equivalent of a character looking at the audience and running off a laundry list of events that, taken together, give the impression of growth. (Then I passed the test, after that, I graduated, soon I became a success, and now we can get back to our main story.) Why not just let a character reveal all that’s changed in a conversation?  Have said all that, Jean Gremillon’s well acted, but uneven Le Ciel Est A Vous is in desperate need of a montage. Or two or three for that matter.

This is a matter of perspective, though, and that necessity may depend on when one saw the film. I’m sure that audiences in 1944 needed far less introduction to the tale of Pierre (Charles Vanel) and Teresa Gauthier (Madeline Renaud), which is said to be based on a true story; thus, what seem like gaps in the narrative to me likely posed no problem for audiences upon the film’s initial release. After all, 1937, the year in which the events the film is based on are said to have taken place, was not that far away; audiences could be trusted to fill in any left out details on their own. And while it is possible that audience in present-day France may be familiar enough with the story present in the film, I suspect that today’s moviegoers will not be so lucky; therefore, when a woman whose never been in a airplane before in her life suddenly decides to take a brash pilot up on his offer to take her on a death-defying joyride and then comes out telling her pilot husband that she’ll never tell him not to fly again, it’s quite a jolt that in the very next scene, she’s an experienced pilot with an interest in flying that borders on an addiction. So, yes, a montage would have been appreciated. It’s the least Gremillon could have done, and the lack of one – or any other form of explanation – hurts the film.

Le Ciel Est a Vous is primarily the story of a young woman who finds her calling in the cockpit and sets out to make a name for herself. Her journey begins as a wife and mother of two children, a role that she is not entirely unhappy in. It’s just that she seems to want more. Perhaps that is why she jumps at the chance to run a company in spite of the fact that doing so takes her away from her family for weeks at a time. Sure, the family needs the money, but we can tell that it’s more than that even if she can’t at first.

The film essentially has two parts. First, there’s the set-up. We watch as the family embarks on a new life after the government informs them that the land their home is on is needed for an aerial station. Some might grumble in such a situation, but the Gauthiers take it in stride. As a former World War I pilot, Pierre seems quite happy to make the sacrifice. We then see their early struggles to establish themselves in a new area and the success they find after a wealthy client stumbles their way and gives them a big neon sign as a token of his appreciation. Soon their finances are stable, yet there are lingering insecurities, and soon Teresa accepts the job mentioned earlier.

I liked this part of the film, as I generally like movies about ordinary people and everyday situations. They are easy to relate to. In the second half, Teresa falls in love with flying, and we have a different film. Gone is the talk of sacrificing for family, in its place an obsession with taking to the air. This part of the film focuses less on the family, so much so that their children practically disappear from the film. On the other hand, this part also asks the audience some rather complex questions about what parents priority should be. For example, is it acceptable for them to pursue their own passions at the expense of their children’s security? After all, one accident could leave them without one or both parents. At one point, Pierre openly ponders what the truer expression of love is: protecting what you have or allowing someone to chase a dream even if it could end in tragedy.      

Gremillon’s film has its fair share of memorable moments. Principal among them are Pierre’s passionate narration of the maneuvers performed during an aerial demonstration; Teresa’s emotional homecoming after being separated from the family for a while; Pierre’s reassuring rationalization for missing a chance at greatness; and his pained defense of his and his and his wife’s actions during a moment of great uncertainty and sorrow. There’s also a challenging scene in which Pierre explains to his daughter that they have to sell her cherished piano. In doing so, he is selling her dream to ensure that Teresa can fulfill hers. When the criticism comes toward the end of the film, I could see both sides.

That said, I must confess to being less interested in the film as it went along. There are too many jumps in time and circumstance to remain completely engaged, and since the film focuses so little on the kids in the second half, their experiences are made to seem trivial. Sure, the film gets more challenging at the end, especially when it comes to Pierre and a key decision of his, but it proves to be a red herring. The film ends not in realism, but in the land of forced happy endings. This is a place in which characters act in a way that is the polar opposite of how rationale human beings would, especially given the emotional connection that the two lead characters are supposed to have. And so the film is a tale of two halves, of majestic steps forward followed by unfortunate retreats, of great leaps ahead and narrative choices that diminish what came before. It’s the kind of film that infuriates because so much of it is praise-worthy. I really wanted to like it, yet the memory of the film’s frequent missteps is so strong that I find myself split. I suppose, then, there’s only one course of action - 2 and a half stars. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Jean Gremillon During the Occupation box set)

2 and a half stars

*Le Ciel Est A Vous is in French with English subtitles.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Miscellaneous Musings

October 19, 2019

On Six That I Hope Are Not Forgotten

Roger Ebert once wrote that he had forgotten the plot of most of the films he had reviewed over his storied career. I know the feeling. Sometimes I don’t recognize the name of a film I’ve reviewed and have to read a little of my own assessment to jog my memory. So, I think it is significant when we remember a movie years after we sat down to watch it. Sure, we may remember a film because of the circumstances under which we viewed it. Personally, I would like to forget the movie Disclosure, but it was the first movie I saw with a young lady I had a ten-year relationship with, and as such, it is indelibly etched in my memory, even that particularly repulsive moment when Michael Douglas’s character has a nightmare that his boss, played by Donald Sutherland, tries to kiss him. And there are movies that I remember because of the sheer amount of disdain I have for them. (Please, don’t get me started on Titanic or Gladiator.)

However, I’d like to think that the majority of the movies that I can vividly recall are ones that rise above the others in either quality or influence. They struck a cord with me. Many of these I’ve written about before, but with technology changing and physical media in its final years, I fear that many films will simply disappear, once again relegated to the dust bins of history because studios deem them unworthy of being added to their streaming service. The rights to many of these will lapse – if they haven’t already - and who can say for sure what happens after that. So without further ado, here are six films I hope are not forgotten and a short description of their current state.

The Day the Sun Turned Cold – China, 1994

Back in 1994, this obscure film hit a few independent movie theaters, and if you blinked, you missed it, which sadly, I did. Fortunately, it was released on home video, and I could finally watch this interesting tale of a young boy who suspects his mother of murdering his father. The film follows two tracks. First, like The Story of Qiu Ju, it is a legal drama, so there are references to an investigation and several updates by investigators. More interestingly, the film explores the relationship between mother and son as this process unfolds. The son wants to be proven wrong, yet his actions risk setting in motion a series of life-altering events. The film is said to be based on a real incident.

I remember being mesmerized by the film, and it soon became one I intended to add to my collection. There was only one problem. It was priced for rental, which meant it carried a $99 price tag, and it never went down in price. Such was the fate of many films by smaller companies in those days. Alas, despite its distributor, Kino, entering the DVD and Blu-ray markets in subsequent years, this film has never been released in any format other than VHS and VCD, a victim possibly of the film’s relative obscurity or an expired copyright. It is currently out of print. It’s really anyone’s guess when or if we’ll ever see it again in a physical form.

Currently, the VHS sells used for $20 and new for $85. 

The Lizard – Iran, 2004

The makers of The Lizard thought they were in the clear and were being rewarded for a job remarkably well done. They’d made a movie that had been approved by government censors and was playing to packed houses in its home country. There was only one problem: The audience was laughing in the wrong places – at least, according to the clerics. For example, in one scene, the film’s hero, an escaped convict masquerading as a mullah, attempts to hitchhike, only to have water splashed in his face by a series of passing cars. Audiences howled; the government was shocked. In the midst of a successful run, the film was quietly pulled from Iranian cinemas. In Los Angeles, the lone theater showing the film found itself under immense pressure to cease its run. Interestingly, much of this pressure came from the film’s director, who insinuated that he’d made a mistake in making it and wanted it removed from public view. He got his wish.

The film is currently available from persianmovies.com and at least one streaming service, although I can’t vouch for its legality or quality, and the film’s Amazon page lists it as “currently unavailable.” There’s even a review that claims that the DVD was made from a print smuggled out of Iran, and this doesn’t surprise me. I got my copy from a seller whose stock consisted almost entirely of pirated DVDs. So be it. The film is a masterpiece.

Red Sorghum – China, 1987

Red Sorghum was a game changer. Perhaps not since the silent era and the films of Ruan Lingyu had audiences of Chinese cinema seen a character like Jiu’er, a woman who embraced both independence and sexuality and was the driving force for justice after an incident of truly inhumane brutality. Add to that the film’s beauty and impressive cinematography, and you’ve got a remarkable achievement. The film made Gong Li and Zhang Yimou worldwide celebrities and a power couple, and it was the start of a remarkable partnership, the first of five remarkable films that challenged long-standing gender roles and broke taboos left and right. It also brought Chinese films into the limelight in a way that no film before it had, and it paved the way for other films from the Fifth Generation of Chinese Filmmakers.

However, of all of the films that Zhang Yimou and Gong Li have made together, Red Sorghum has been the hardest to find, and like The Day The Sun Turned Cold, the reason for that has a lot to do with the company that handled its initial release on VHS, New Yorker Films. New Yorker Films was a small company, and as such, its films were priced for rental and rarely went down in price. I bought my copy for $79.99. Eventually, the company began releasing films on DVD, and although their releases were sporadic and often delayed, a lot of truly great films were available for purchase as a result. Red Sorghum was not one of these, and for quite a significant part of the DVD era, the film was awfully difficult to find. Currently, the film is available in the UK (on PAL), but reviews have not been kind, with many faulting the quality of the print and the subtitles. There does not appear to be a US release. It’s a shame, really.

The Quiet Duel – Japan, 1949

The Quiet Duel is one of Akira Kurosawa’s lesser known films, and it is the only one of his not released by the Criterion Collection (Madadayo is out of print, but rumors are that a release is in the works.). While it is sometimes labeled as “lesser Kurosawa,” I was immensely impressed by the film. It tells the story of an army doctor (played by Toshiro Mifune) who is exposed to syphilis during a life-saving operation. (He has a habit of grabbing knives with his bare hands.) The Second World War complicates his efforts to be treated, and when he returns home, the disease is pretty firmly entrenched in his system. Adding to his plight is the fact that he’s engaged, and this creates a dilemma in him: whether give in to his urges or do the right thing and continue to deny himself love and pleasure. I found the film incredibly moving.

Like so many other films, The Quiet Duel appears to be out of print, and currently sells on Amazon for $80 new and about $35 used.

The Ice Storm – U.S., 1997

 
My father once described the adults highlighted in Lee Ang’s masterpiece The Ice Storm as being lost in the middle of two impactful generations. Too young to have taken part in World War II and too old to play an active part in the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, they were in search of something to give them either the prestige and honors associated with the Greatest Generation or the personal freedoms suddenly available as a result of medical breakthroughs, the Civil Rights Movement, and countercultural movements.

In The Ice Storm, we see two of these families trying hard to combat the monotony they associate with suburban life and perhaps coping with a mid-life crisis or two. One engages in petty theft, another has an affair, and then there’s the party they attend toward the end the film. And they do all of this while their children are going through their own trying times. There’s puberty, their first crush, lust that confuses them, and an immaturity that prevents them from protecting themselves from harm. It’s a situation that can only end disastrously.

The Ice Storm is still available, yet my concern is that time will take it out of people’s consciousness. These days, Lee Ang is making films that often emphasize the latest technology over the narrative, and it’s possible that a generation will only know him for cinematic spectacles like Life of Pi and Gemini Man. I hope people get to know his heart, and that, I believe, can be found in his earlier work, in particular, The Ice Storm.  

Grand Canyon – U.S., 1991  


Like The Ice Storm, Lawrence Kasden’s Grand Canyon is not in danger of disappearing from physical media any time soon. It’s simply not a film that’s talked about much anymore. Perhaps it feels dated to some, offering a simplistic or stereotypical look at race relationships, or maybe some people are turned off by its multiple narratives. I think the film has actually become more relevant over time. Its storyline involving Kevin Kline’s affair with his much younger employee is relevant in this time of Me Too and Time’s Up, and I suspect newer viewers will see it differently than older ones. The friendship that develops between Kline and Danny Glover is much more than just the African-American character “saving” the Caucasian one, and its ending is a reminder to take advantage of the time we’re given, especially the time we have with our kids. After all, we live in a time when children have much less time to be “kids,” and as Glover’s character reminds us, there’s only so much time before children feel too old to go on vacation with their parents. And then there’s the film’s final line, a note of optimism that has stuck with me and that resonates even more in these trying times: I think it’s not all bad.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review - In Between (2016)

October 10, 2019

In Between – Israel, 2016

There are three kinds of directorial debuts. There’s the kind that makes us marvel at the level of talent unfolding before our eyes, there’s the type that makes us think the director needs to find a new profession, and there’s the kind from which we see potential amid their film’s many flaws. In Between is an example of the latter. Its creator, writer-director Maysaloun Hamoud, obviously had the best of intentions, and there’s no doubt that the film goes where many other films from Israel and the Middle East avoid. It simply has too much going on to do any of its storylines justice.

The film is about three young Palestinian women living in Tel Aviv, which is shown to be the center of independence and freedom to some and the axis of sin to others, in particular, parents. In truth, it’s a bit of both, adding a double meaning to the film’s title. First, there’s Leila (Mouna Hawa), a hard-partying lawyer. She lives with Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a restaurant employee who is quieter and a bit rougher around the edges. The trio is rounded out by Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a relative of Leila’s who is much more traditional than her hosts, yet not so traditional that she would sacrifice her education and economic status for her ultra-conservative fiancé.

Early on, each character’s conflict becomes fairly clear. Leila falls in love with a man whose lifestyle choices are similar to hers, yet we wonder how accepting he truly is. Salma is mostly reticent, yet has a quick temper, indicating there is something eating at her from within, and pretty soon, a bartender recognizes it and makes a move. Nour, for her part, is juggling her own desires with her fiancé’s attempts to control her.

Each of these storylines would probably have made for an interesting film on its one. However, thrown together, it is impossible to do any of them justice. As a result, Hamoud takes unfortunate short cuts. Leila’s courtship is reduced to just a few scenes of her and her new love taking drugs and getting romantic before we see Leila declaring how great it feels to be in love again. It is implied that Salma has been alone for quite a while, yet when she finally is pursued by someone, it takes only two scenes for her to be declaring love for her pursuer, and then it has her throw caution to the wind in a way that is inconsistent with someone who knows the danger of doing so. Only Nour’s relationship is firmly established. However, that is simply because she is already engaged when we first meet her. In other words, we can believe that the honeymoon phase is over and that doubts have started creeping in.

The film’s strength is its portrayal of sisterhood. Sure, there are conflicts between the three roomies – the bathroom is a constant source of tension – but it is remarkable just how accepting the three of them are. There are no conversations about how Nour could go along with what must have been an arranged marriage, no loud condemnations of what Nour likely feels is Leila and Salma’s “unladylike” demeanor. Instead, there’s mostly acceptance and camaraderie. In one powerful moment, the three of them sit together after tragedy has struck and provide the only comfort they can. They’re simply there, for, in truth, words are truly inadequate at times. I could have watched an entire film of them just talking to each other about life and their views on the world.

That is not the film we have, and Hamoud’s insistence of focusing so intensely on their pursuit of love diminishes the film’s strengths. For example, Salma’s storyline is hardly developed, and Nour’s fiancé comes across as more of a villain of convenience that a fully developed character. As for Leila, she does something late in the film that I did not buy, as it is not consistent with someone in her profession or with her personality. Sure, it’s justice, but it’s the kind of justice that only exists in movies, kind of like all of those scenes in which a teenager serenades the girl he likes from outside her window or someone who isn’t a professionally-trained agent goes undercover to get evidence of inappropriate behavior. It either works, or it doesn’t, and here, I feel it doesn’t.

In the end, the film is a mixed bag. The cast is generally strong. Leila and Nour are fascinating characters, and I rather enjoyed their scenes together. I thought Salma was underwritten and could have used either more screen time or a lot of editing. However, there is an additional explanation for why the film does not work for me, and that is that I’ve seen too many movies for In Between to feel truly novel. I’ve seen love stories involving drug users, closeted individuals like Salma, and women arranged to marry men who turn out not to be the nicest of people. In Between didn’t show me a situation I hadn’t seen before; it just added a new location to those areas I already knew had these conflicts. Perhaps, like Deepa Mehta’s Fire, In Between will resonate more with filmgoers in its home country. For me, I’m afraid it was only a partly successful case of been there, done that. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

*In Between is in Arabic with English subtitles.