Archive for the 'drama' Category

06
Apr
14

Sea of Grass

hepburn tracy

Kathryn Hepburn plays Lutie, a St. Louis woman who falls for Spencer Tracy, an older rancher named Jim. She marries him despite warnings that life on the prairie won’t be easy, nor will living with Jim may be hell. Tracy’s character is a real so and so. He drives homesteaders off government land. He owns plots that dot the area and wants his cattle to graze wherever. The town folk consider him irascible and bull headed. His cattle hands and cook seem deeply loyal. Marriage to this taciturn loner soon gets hard. While Jim occasionally gives in to Lutie’s requests, his indifference to their suffering neighbors and his schemes to keep homesteaders out, is at odds with Lutie’s beliefs. Besides there’s little for her to do and no one to talk to on the ranch. She loses her one friend due to Jim’s hard hardheartedness.

Eventually, Lutie gives in to temptation and has romantic encounter with a sympathetic lawyer who’d warned her about Jim. She gets pregnant and has a son. Her infidelity becomes public knowledge.

I liked the film as it offers a different look at life out West. The ranch is pretty comfortable and Jim gets Lutie a piano and gets the furnishings she’s used to. The challenge isn’t the tough living quarters or manual labor (Lutie does none), but rather the barren emotional life. The way infidelity and illegitimacy are handled seemed novel, even by today’s standards.

I wouldn’t say this is a “must see,” but it is compelling and held my interest. Hepburn and Tracy always do though, don’t they?

29
Mar
14

Mr. Selfridge

mrselfridge-harrygordonselfridge-itv-selfridges-07012013-jpg_103642

That sign is the spitting image of Marshall Field’s sign

I never saw Mr. Selfridge last year. I’d left the US and just didn’t get hooked. Friends thought it wasn’t up to Downton Abbey and no one I knew followed it. From the promos the show seemed more brash, than Downton so I wasn’t drawn to it.

However last year I loved The Paradise, a period drama covering the same exciting era of the development of department stores, which affected women’s rights and freedoms. Shopping was revolutionized (a mixed blessing) as now it wasn’t just a task, but a creative, imaginative endeavor. With a lull in programming for the Anglophile who likes history, I gave Mr. Selfridge a try.

At first I really didn’t like it. Though he was inventive and a caring employer, Harry Gordon Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) is a womanizer, drinker and a bull in a china shop. Though he’s married to a beautiful, smart woman who is portrayed as having no problems in the bedroom, he prefers to frequent girly shows and pursue Eva Love, a burlesque singer. Granted this girly show is PG by our standards, it wasn’t then and it’s hard to get drawn into a show about a pig, after watching Downton Abbey where high standards predominate.

mast-selflridge-twitter-hires

I’m not sure why, but I did stick with the show and liked it more as time went on. The female characters in this era of suffragettes and working women drew me in. We’re supposed to identify with Agnes (Aisling Loftus), a shop assistant who gets sacked for letting Selfridge behind the counter in the first store she worked in. The stern floorwalker saw this and saw her exchange with friendly, American Selfridge and gave her the sack saying “We’re not that kind of store.” Out on the street, unable to find another job with a younger brother to support, Agnes summons the pluck to ask Mr. Selfridge for a job. Pluck’s Selfridge’s life’s blood and he hires her. In the first season Agnes’ growth has been as compelling as watching Selfridge succeed. She’s been promoted to lady’s fashion, fallen in love (though she doesn’t call it that), escaped a drunken, abusive father and shown her talent for design and retail. She’s not as interesting as The Paradise’s Denise, whom I think has more spark, but her rags to riches story entertains.

In the first episodes it was hard to watch Rose Buckingham Selfridge (Francis O’Connor) put up with her philandering husband. That hasn’t gotten easier, and I cringe when Rose gets too close to a starving artist, who later tries to come on to her teenage daughter, but Rose’s scene when she puts Harry’s lover, Eva in her place showed grace under pressure. Rose is complex and it can’t be easy to be married to Harry, not just because of his carousing but also due to his personality.

Like Downton Abbey, subplots and secondary characters like the sophisticated, conniving Lady Mae Loxley (Kathleen Kelly) who arranges Selfridge’s financial backing when his first partner pulls out, Mr. Grove the head of staff who’s wife is an invalid so he’s got a thing going with the strict head of accessories, Miss Mardle. I will criticize Mr. Selfridge for trying to spice up history for the sake of ratings. While infidelity is nothing new, it’s rampant in this drama and it comes across as a play for ratings. One philandering character is enough for an hour’s television. Give other characters other problems. (I doubt that request would be heeded.)

Henri Leclair (Grégory Fitoussi of Engrenage fame) lends savoir faire to the store as he’s a master of window design. He’s also a pillar for Selfridge, a loyal colleague and friend from their days in Chicago. He adds romance as towards the end of season 1, he turns to innocent Agnes to replace his French lover, a modern woman who always wears a tie and who works for J. Walter Thompson. I was sorry to see how Agnes got left and didn’t quite buy how stoically she let him off the hook.

The show’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. It could be better, but I guess I’m on board for another season. Some critics have pointed out that Piven’s not good with nuanced emotion. Close ups should stop. They fall flat. (Downton doesn’t use them.) I think that would help. That’s probably valid, still since Selfridge puts so much of his heart into his store, his work family.

27
Mar
14

Spies of Warsaw

spies warsaw It’s interesting seeing David Tennant in a role other than Doctor Who. He does a fine job as a French spy in Warsaw leading up to the outbreak of WWII. (Never mind that it would make more sense for a French spy to speak with a French accent, but I don’t blame Tennant for that.) Spies of Warsaw isn’t action packed, but it has its moments and kept me entertained. It’s got a bit of romance, betrayal, history and suspense. It’s not the greatest BBC production, but since it moves along and its set during an interesting time, I could forgive its flaws. Yeah, the romance didn’t seem to matter. None of the actors did anything spectacular, but the story wasn’t terrific, so they’re excused. Yeah, the last mission seemed rather out of the blue, but it was still better than a lot of what’s on the tube.

If a friend or relative really wanted to see this, it’s no big sacrifice to watch it with them.

Would I watch it again? Probably not. Do I regret watching it? No.

23
Mar
14

Lifeboat

Lifeboat-(1944)---Tallulah-Bankhead,-John-Hodiak,-Walter-Slezak-715067

I loved Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and am so glad I’ve embarked upon this challenge to watch one old movie a week. With Tallulah Bankhead and Hume Cronyn in an ensemble of survivors whose ship has been sunk during WWII, Lifeboat blends tension and morality. In Hitchcock’s hands, there’s ambiguity and sophistication in every scene.

The film opens with the high class Connie Porter, a self-absorbed, jaded newspaper columnist, sitting alone in a lifeboat. Not a hair out of place, she looks bored as if she’s waiting to board a first class flight to Paris. One by one, other survivors make it to the boat. In its 1944 review, the New York Times describe the cast as

Within their battered lifeboat are assembled an assortment of folks who typify various strata of a free, democratic society. There is, first, a parasitic woman, representative of the luxury fringe, who is opportunistic and cynical—a picturesque trifler in every respect. Then there is an American business tycoon, likewise opportunistic and cynical; two meek and pathetic women and four men of the torpedoed ship’s crew. These latter are two tough but aimless fellows, a Cockney dreamer and a pensive Negro—all of them clearly indicative of an inarticulate class.

While one character has a British accent, I wouldn’t call it cockney. The African American character doesn’t say much and is rather stereotyped, but I wouldn’t call his class inarticulate. He didn’t talk much and allegorically I suppose you could say his group has been silenced. Since the War’s over and won, viewers won’t share The New York Times’ concern about showing the German as more capable than the others. He was their prisoner in many ways and they chose to defer to him at times, but weren’t under his control exactly.

The last person to make it to the boat is a Nazi, from the U-Boat that torpedoed the other characters’ boat. Should he stay or not? Should he be trusted or not? While their survival matters, the Nazi issue adds great tension and is, where the most drama rests. At first just the working class guy wants to chuck the German overboard. The others outnumber him. Later the German proves both useful and deceptive. The plot isn’t predictable and the ending isn’t what they’d do today.

My DVD came with a scholarly commentary, which was of interest, but since the film itself was so compelling, I turned it off. Perhaps I’ll watch again with it. I did learn though that Hitchcock and Bankhead got along exchanging barbs as they worked. He called her Baghead and she “pronounced his name like it began with a B.” Also, while Steinbeck received credit for the film, he didn’t write the script they used. He sort of put together a short story and wasn’t able to transition from fiction to film.

I enjoyed Bankhead’s wit and strength and will look for more of her films.

References

Crowther. B. (1944). Lifeboat. The New York Times.

Related articles

Gill. B. (1972). Profile: Tallulah Bankhead. The New Yorker.

12
Mar
14

Downton Abbey’s Finale, Season 4

rose

After being presented, Rose dances with the Prince of Wales

Hmmm. I so love Downton Abbey, that it’s hard for me to criticize it. Even when it’s not at its best, it beats a lot of the fare on TV (e.g. Selfridge or almost anything on the “big” networks). This was a low ebb for Downton though. I think a lot of opportunities were missed and the main story, Anna’s rape, while true to life, was so hard to take.

When the first episodes aired, I thought Julian Fellowes was lining up his characters to present great stories. Of course, it would take time for the audience to know the new lady’s maid or Rose, to give characters like Cora or Bates a new problem, mission or angle. I was disappointed that we never got to know what secret binds the new maid to Thomas. (The fact that I don’t know the new maid’s name suggests her character remained one dimensional.) Rose has been a flibbertigibbet and that’s fine. Some people were and are airheads, but though she had the romance with the jazz singer and a bit of intrigue with the Prince of Wales (no romance, but a slight drama), it all amounted to so little because this flibbertigibbet sort of dwells in her own orbit. She hasn’t been integrated into the family so we have little idea of how she gets on with them. That’s where drama lies — in the relationships between family members or colleagues, be they friend or foe.

Season-4-downton-abbey-35489123-500-392

I did wish Edith could have a career-related season, instead of this sad pregnancy cum lost love story. That could be season 5.

That’s the problem I have with Cora when her relatives appear. She’s barely in a scene with them. They are her family! She doesn’t have any business with them. Clearly, they come to see her, Mary and Edith. The mother has enough money for a hotel in London, where they’d have more fun. Yes, it’s dramatic, potentially for Cora’s mother and Violet to exchange barbs, but how about some sparks or something between Cora and her mother. Cora’s American-ness would probably surface with the Brits and her adopted British ways would chafe the Yanks, who knew her when. Cora has gotten so little story-wise since season one when she helped move the Turk’s corpse from Mary’s bedroom and when due to Sullivan’s machinations she lost the baby. Yes, have Cora host a luncheon or social event, but also give her some real problems. Make her more integral.

Now Edith did get a lot too deal with this season. I was surprised to jump from her being barely pregnant to having given birth and returned from Switzerland. I suppose that was plausible and for that era a good solution. I do think she’s made a big mistake bringing the baby back to England, but that is drama — making the audience tense when a bad decision has been made. I do think the Gregson storyline is hard to buy. His disappearance seems poorly planned. The explanation that Nazi’s beat him up seemed tacked on and implausible. Even in the ’20s I’d believe that the British were keeping tabs on the Brown Shirts and other beatings and disappearances would have been noted. It seemed contrived.

mary season 4

Yes, Mary the stories could be better

Now Bates must have killed the rapist. No one can take the stand to say he’s innocent. As horrible as rape is, we now see that Bates doesn’t trust the justice system and it makes me think he’s a thug when push comes to shove. I also now think he probably would kill his first wife. I’d have preferred Anna finally summoning the courage to report the crime and seeing how the legal channels and family would have dealt with it. Certainly, such trials were rare and the outcome probably unjust, but it would have been highly dramatic.

The story about the Prince of Wales’ scandalous letter getting stolen by the card sharp and Lord Grantham, Rose, Mary and Bates feeling responsible for stealing it back was too far fetched for me. Mary got it right when she speculated that it’s the Prince’s character and his own doing that caused the trouble and that in the end would cause him more trouble. This plotline bordered on farce.

I like that Tom fits in better at Downton and is starting to reignite his interest in politics. Early on his moping about not fitting in seemed overdone. Do something, Man! People have a lot worse problems over on the Emerald Isle. (By the way isn’t it a pity no one will invite his relatives to see their grandchild. Does he get an allowance for spending?) Yet Thomas’ storyline did improve by the end of the season.

I have still loved the clothes and am glad Fellowes didn’t immediately give Mary a suitor. I prefer Blake, the man who helped her save the pigs, but the sudden discovery that he’s rich and aristocratic again, seems contrived. Fellows seems to have lost his touch. I hope he regains it for season 5.

26
Feb
14

Downton Abbey: Presentation balls

rose mclareOn Sunday’s Downton Abbey finale, Rose finally was presented to society in a majestic ceremony with much elegance. I didn’t realize these women were presented to the King and Queen. I expected something like the presentation balls in the States (not that I’d been to one). I’ve read plenty of books and seen many BBC dramas, where this is mentioned, but I’m glad Downton showed us the real spectacle. Both Cora and Lord Grantham were stunning, as was Rose.

Thanks to my friendly, public library reference services, I’ve found out a bit about all this Presentation business:

From ABC-CLIO’s Daily Life through History website
http://dailylife.abc-clio.com/

debutante balls

The word debutante comes from the French, debut, which means, “beginning.” The young woman is said to be “coming out” when she is introduced, implying that she is leaving the sheltered world of family life to join a wider society. The tradition of formal presentation of a young woman is rooted in an old English practice where daughters of the aristocracy, who married within a very small circle of elite families, were presented to those of similar social standing when they reached a marriageable age. The practice continues to be associated generally with wealthy and socially prominent families.

In England, presentations took place during “The London Season,” which usually coincided with the sitting of Parliament. Generally, it began after Easter and continued until August when the grouse-hunting season started. Families of wealth and position made a mass migration from their country estates to London for “The Season,” to exchange their quiet life of limited entertainment for days of shopping, riding, and visiting; and evenings of theater, dances, and balls. It was regarded as the chance for young men and women of position to mingle and find a marriageable partner. Marriages were more likely to be made on the basis of social connections, eligibility, and finances than on common interests, compatibility, and love.

Before a young woman could join in the social activities of “The Season,” she had to be presented at court to the queen. This typically took place when she reached 18. Prior to that time the activities of a young woman of social position would be restricted to attendance at school and limited participation in any social functions. While the actual presentation would only take a few minutes, preparations for the event were extensive. There were rigidly prescribed rules for presentation that extended to dress and accessories. Unmarried women were expected to wear a white gown, although soft color over a white background was permitted. The gown had to have a train. The headdress had to have feathers and a tulle veil long enough to reach the train. The number and size of the feathers on a headdress varied with the whim of the monarch. Queen Victoria favored three large feathers.
Continue reading ‘Downton Abbey: Presentation balls’

24
Feb
14

Japanese Girls at the Harbor

Sunako (L) and Dora (R)

Sunako (L) and Dora (R)

I’m catching up with blogging. My last week in the US and first week of school have made it hard to blog.

Even with the busy schedule, I’ve been able to keep up with my New Year’s Resolution to watch one old movie a week (except for finals’ weeks). I just haven’t been able to blog about them.

The week before last I tried Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor. I didn’t realize when I picked out the DVD at the library that it was silent. What’s more the DVD I had had no music sound track, though the box mentioned a new sound track. Not a big deal.

Japanese Girls at the Harbor follows two school girls,  Dora and Sunako, who promise to be loyal friends forever. The promise lasts for about three minutes. When Henry, a Japanese young man with a Western name, catches the girls’ eyes as he nears them on his motorcycle the friendship shows its fragility. Sunako waves at Henry and feels he’s hers. They talk briefly and soon Henry sees Dora, and she’s pretty (prettier, I’d say). When Sunako pouts, Dora promises to give up Henry. Then the girls go to a church for some reason and discuss their Henry problem. I wasn’t sure what to make of Henry’s Western name or the scenes in the church. The conflict over this boy was true to life, despite the girls’ apparently superficial loyalty to each other.

Eventually Dora and Henry marry. Sunako becomes a low level geisha. She dances with men in Western suits at an establishment where some of the party girls are in Western dress. Sunako’s acquired an admirer who’s something of a pet. He’s a Japanese man who claims to be an artist. He does paint her all the time and he wears a beret, so he must be an artist. He just hangs around her like a moon orbiting the earth. Sunako isn’t rude to him, but she doesn’t seem to care about him that much either. Sunako pouts a lot and Henry starts visiting her at the club. It’s unclear whether he’s there to watch over her or to take advantage of the sleazy (for that era) scene. I think it’s a bit of both. Henry and the man in the beret are a bit jealous of each other. Dora’s pregnant and unaware of Henry’s visits. In time she learns how Sunako’s life has gone down hill from her youth when she wore her innocent school uniform. Sunako smokes, pouts and looks sullen quite a bit. It’s amazing that her customers would spend time with her.

Sunako and a friend who works at the same bar

Sunako and a friend who works at the same bar

I can’t recommend the movie. It had potential, but was rather sentimental and dated. I think you could do a lot with this story even with the constraints of an era when sex wasn’t openly depicted.

Evidently, Shimizu is a popular director and contemporary of Ozu. I think Ozu’s a lot better. Shimizu was able to crank out films and made over 100 in 40 some years. I am more impressed by quality rather than quantity. To really decide what I think about Shimizu, I’d need to see a talkie and understand any themes or symbols I might have missed in this one.

21
Feb
14

The Most Beautiful

Akira Kurasawa’s second movie was a propaganda film for World War II called The Most Beautiful. He tells the story of a group of young women, teens most likely, who leave their hometowns to support the war effort by working in an optics factory. The factory has had to increase its quota and the girls object to the 50% increase and ask their manager for a 70% increase. From the start the Japanese cohesiveness is evident. While four or five girls’ experiences are highlighted often we see a large group of 50 or more marching, laughing and working together. The group is the star and how they react when one falls ill or leaves is so Japanese. So is the fact that in addition to their work responsibility, they must play volleyball and practice their drum and fife band’s drills. These girls are the Japanese equivalent of Rosie the Riveter, but they’re far more docile and group oriented. I know I would have balked at having to march and play volleyball. The minute the fun is mandated, it loses its fun.

Much of the story is predictable. One girl receives a letter that her mother’s ill and it’s easy to guess that outcome. The idea of self-sacrifice and following the rules is blatant. Yet, I enjoyed the cinematography and did cheer the girls on as they endeavor to meet the higher goal they insisted upon. I was touched by the kind dorm mother and the managers who truly looked after the girls’ wellbeing.

Band Practice After Work

Band Practice After Work

The film has its comic moments, for example at one point the camera focuses on various signs stating rules. We see a sign admonishing the girls not to stand on the roof and another saying they should air out their bedding daily. Next we see a girl playing on the roof as she airs out her futon. Of course, she tumbles off the roof. She breaks her leg and can’t work. It was fascinating, and I think truly Japanese, that no authority yelled at this girl for being a knuckle head. Instead, there’s an outpouring of care. Also, the animated graphs that show the girls’ increase and decrease in productivity made me chuckle as it’s quite dated.

While the film is sentimental and the unquestioning support of the war, troubling to modern pacifists like me, I enjoyed the slice of life, which made me understand wartime Japan much better.

12
Feb
14

Barbara

Thank you Netflix! Thanks for recommending Barbara, a German movie about Barbara a doctor in East Germany in the 1980s. Because she tried to defect to the West, the heroine, Barbara is exiled to a small town in the sticks. She’s assigned to a hospital and given a shabby, bare bones apartment. Taciturn and distrustful, Barbara keeps her distance from her new colleagues, even the friendly doctor André, who does turn out to be making reports on her.

I didn’t catch why Barbara was exiled to this outpost, but did read online it was because she tried to leave East Germany. Due to her attempted defection, Barbara is under scrutiny. One false step and officials will ransack her apartment. Though we don’t see who’s following her, when she rides her bike to a remote spot where her beau has hidden some money for her, she finds someone’s moved her bicycle and let the air out of her tires. In this atmosphere of Communism and surveillance, it’s no wonder why a person wouldn’t trust or open up.

The film works well offering tension and understanding as we see Barbara reach out to her patients, sacrificing for them and offering them more care than doctors usually do. That’s how Barbara and André connect–through their dedication to patients and their adherence to medical ethics.

Nina Hoss as Barbara

Nina Hoss as Barbara

On her off time, Barbara manages to rendezvous with her West German, beau, a wealthy professional who plans to get her out of East Germany.

The movie has minimal exposition, but there’s enough to know what’s at stake and to create the feeling of living under Communist rule in the 1980s. It drew me in and made me care.

Available on Netflix.

10
Feb
14

nebraska

nebraska film

The bland, flat small town culture of middle America (if you buy into that as a reality) is the setting for Nebraska starring Bruce Dern. Dern plays an old codger who believes he’s won a magazine sweepstakes. He’s intent upon collecting his $1,000,000 in person as he doesn’t trust the mail with that much money. So he starts walking from Montana to Nebraska, the headquarters of this promotion company. His wife and oldest son think he’s lost it and that they should put him in a home. They’re tired of the police picking the old man up on the road to Lincoln.

David, his more sympathetic son, who works at a big box electronics store and whose life is going no where, agrees to drive to Nebraska with his father. What follows is a drive through flat, bleak countryside with humor, sometimes wry, sometimes hokey. As is true of any road movie, the men encounter mishaps. In Nebraska the father wanders off and gets hurt. They then decide to spend a few days with family in small town Nebraska. The wife and oldest son, who were dead set against this trip, show up for a visit too.

When I worked in Hollywood, I met so many people who viewed their hometowns with disdain. It seems like that feeling fills Nebraska. Now I’m sure there are hokey, drab losers in Montana and Nebraska, not everyone fits this stereotype. I know people in both states, one from a tiny town in Montana and they can be educated, witty, and adventurous. So this reductionist version doesn’t do much for me.

NEBRASKA-Official-Film-Clip-What-a-Whore-YouTube

It’s dull to watch even “beautiful losers” for two hours or more. What is the point? Now this movie didn’t bore me, but it did drag and it’s not a must see. I’m glad I just paid $5, any more would irk me.

Nebraska has some good jokes and touching moments but it minimizes the strengths of the people and places it shows. The black and white cinematography reminded me a bit of Ozu or the photos by Dorthea Lange, but not as good.

Bruce Dern does a capable job as the cantankerous father, whose past keeps popping up, but most of the other characters are so one dimensional. It was rather weird how many of the townsfolk talked in long paragraphs to people they didn’t know at all. I can’t see this as earning many awards, though it’s been nominated. Go figure.




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