A Soldier’s Daughter

Season 2 of Victoria opens as the queen is ready to get back to work after a month of confinement (i.e. rest after childbirth). At first she must fight her way to get the reins back. The British army has just suffered a huge defeat in Kabul. Albert and some of the nobles have kept this from her. I expect the lords to keep things from her, but Albert? He should know how hands on she wants to be. It’s her country. He’s just lived there a few years, at most. He’s not a Prince.

Albert keeps crossing Victoria such as the time he decides not to approve an appointment of a courtier’s brother. He thinks he knows better. He also doesn’t realize that he’ll have some explaining to do if Victoria, as she’s bound to, finds out.

Second seasons usually bring new characters. With Victoria we have Diana Rigg as the Duchess of Buccleuch, who’s added as a version of Maggie Smith’s Violet on Downton Abbey. In the first episode it doesn’t work well. The Duchess makes annoying comments about how women shouldn’t read novels and how her niece has a red, strawberry-like face, but the wit is missing. Time will tell. In the two hour episode we Yanks got, The Duchess didn’t add much.

There was a bit of comedy about the chef Francatelli having left. The new chef’s food tastes and looks horrid and at one point he’s about to stab someone who made a mistake. Penge insists he hand over the knife and upstairs the queen insists Francatelli returns. Skerett, who’d turned down Francatelli’s marriage proposal has no luck getting him back. The royals can’t very well starve so his new boss is forced to fire Francatelli, who’s soon back in the palace kitchen, very much annoyed. I expect we’ll see this romance continue, though it wasn’t that thrilling last year.

The Green-Eyed Monster

In the second episode shown in the US, Albert is enthralled with mathematician Lady Ada Lovelace, who invented a calculating machine and early computer programming. Caught confusing pi and pie at a social gathering and frustrated that she can’t understand Thomas Mathus’ idea population increasing geometrically, Jeremy Victoria feels threatened by Lovelace. She’s certain that Albert will start an affair with her.

To seek some counsel, Victoria turns to Lord M, who’s a sight for sore eyes. As usual, he is wise and kind. Albert and Lord Peel don’t want her to see Lord M as he’s no longer in power as Prime Minister. Victoria argues that she’s just seeing him as a friend, not for political reasons, but Albert insists she’s naive, which doesn’t help the bumps in their marriage.

We glimpse Lord M as tired and not himself in his greenhouse, which foreshadows serious illness ahead.

Albert resists his father’s requests for money and ignores the reminders of his home region of Colberg’s many financial needs.

A young maid is hired, but must hide her Catholicism as Penge hates Catholics. This young girl gets spooked by a mysterious figure running through the house. Victoria’s undergarments have gone missing, which convinces the maid that the palace is haunted. By the end Victoria and Albert discover that a second child is on the way and we discover the ghost is really what Violet, I mean the Duchess of Buccleuch, calls a guttersnipe.

The costumes and settings were majestic and elegant. I enjoyed Jenna Coleman’s fiesty, yet vulnerable performance. The writing was good, though I hope the screenwriter could be freed from the need to add in Downton-esque elements. The show has plenty of its own merits it doesn’t need to pander to Downton fans. Downton fans are Masterpiece fans; let Victoria be Victoria.

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Victoria, Season 2 Begins

Stray Dog

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The first noir crime film in Japan, in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) rookie detective, Murakami, gets his pistol stolen while he’s riding a crowded bus. Humiliated, Murakami (Mifune) takes responsibility for his carelessness and begs his boss to fire him. The pragmatic boss brushes his request away and pairs the rookie with a veteran detective (Shimura) named Sato. The two set out to track down the pistol.

Plagued by guilt, Mifune is obsessed with finding his pistol and disguises himself to search the black markets of aprés-guerre Tokyo. We see the squalor and darkness of these markets (which aren’t quite as bad as the poverty in Dos’ka den). These scenes are beautifully and masterfully shot to show this underworld full of hustlers, prostitutes, bums and drunks.

Aprés-guerre is a term Murakami and Sato discuss at length as Sato notices the difference between the pre-WWII generation and the aprés-guerre generation. A WWII veteran, Murakami expresses his sympathy and understanding for the culprit whom he imagines is a product of a rough society. Yusa, the thief, also is a veteran so Murakami identifies with him and knows how the war damaged the soldiers.

However, Sato tells him that thinking is generational and won’t help a cop do his work. If a cop’s philosophy views a criminal as being without choice or responsibility, the officer just won’t be able to work as he should, Sato asserts. Sato reminds Murakami that he’s chosen law and order, while Yusa’s chosen exploitation and crime. There is a difference, a big one.

As time passes, the missing gun is used in robberies and a murder. Murakami knows the pistol had all seven bullets and the plot becomes a race to get to the gun. In this race, the heroes’ search takes us through Japanese society from local watering holes, to a packed baseball field, to a burlesque hall, to a filthy shanty and to Sato’s simple, loving home. Along the way we’re treated to Sato’s wise practice.  It’s fascinating to see him deal with each subject, be it a showgirl or a pickpocket, with just the right approach. His understanding of people makes chasing and shootouts unnecessary.

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I learned about Stray Dog from the commentary feature with the Drunken Angel DVD. Mifune and Shimura starred in Drunken Angel. Here they both play completely different characters. Mifune moves from angry gangster to exemplary rookie cop and Shimura shifts from righteous drunk doctor to wise, veteran cop. Another pivotal performance was given by Keiko Awaji, who plays a showgirl, an uncooperative witness. In the extra features, Awaji explains how she didn’t want to be in this or any film. She wanted a career in operettas, but she got talked into this role. She was terribly pouty and unpleasant about the filming process and this difficult attitude made her performance work. Go figure.

I never intended to get into Japanese films as much as I have. I now have been so impressed with the stellar performances that it’s clear that it’s high time I learn the names of these actors.

Here’s a compilation of Mifune’s performances:

That Night’s Wife

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Who agrees that the father’s acting too much?

Directed by Ozu, That Night’s Wife is one of his early silent films. The film quality is often blotchy, which was distracting at times and the it does seem that Ozu is figuring out his craft, so this isn’t a “must-see” film.

The story is about a man who’s pursued by the police for a robbery, which we don’t see. The man evades the police and gets home to his family, which consists of his wife and his young daughter, who’s critically ill and may not make it. They live in a small, squalid apartment, which for some reason has several old movie posters with English and Russian titles leaning against their walls. I suppose this was a homage to Ozu’s idols, but I’m not sure.

Clad in a kimono, the wife talks with the girl’s doctor. If Michiko, the daughter, makes it through the night, she’ll be fine. The devoted father does get home and gives his wife the money for Michiko’s medicine. The wife figures out that the money’s stolen and there’s some disagreement about that. However, the dispute’s not resolved as a police officer comes to the door. The husband hides, but is found. The night wears on as they all watch sleeping Michiko hoping she lives. The cop is sympathetic to the family but also has to do his duty.

The film was quite melodramatic and by 1930, I’d have thought any director would seek more subtlety, but no.  All in all, there were some surprises, but this was done before Ozu hit his stride. While the wife takes some surprising action, I’m still not sure why this movie is entitled This Night’s Wife.

The Kindergarten Teacher

I never really wanted to get caught up in someone else’s obsession. When I watched The Kindergarten Teacher, (2014) I was a witness. The film was engrossing and well-acted, but rather disturbing. (After The Minutes, I could do with a some drama that wasn’t.)

The Kindergarten Teacher is about Nira, a teacher who becomes obsessed with Yoav a student who’s a poetic genius. Poems come to him from out of the blue, poems with words like “banality.” Poems that describe the complexity of love with more wisdom than most adults can muster. The teacher is a would-be poet and she starts passing off Yoav’s work as her own in her poetry group.

Nira becomes obsessed. So focused on Yoav’s genius, Nira ignores most of her other students and while she has a fine marriage and two children, none of this matters much compared with Yoav’s poems.

Soon Nira has gotten Yoav’s nanny fired and has disregarded every boundary in her profession or commonsense. Watching this film is like watching a train wreck. You know it will end badly, but I was surprised how.

The Kindergarten Teacher is compelling, and I was able to believe that Yoav did write the poems. I would certainly watch another film with the star, Sarit Larry, who played Nira, bu for a time, I need to watch drama that isn’t disturbing.

FYI: There’s going to be an America version released in 2018.

Dodes’ka Den

Kurosawa’s 1970 Dodesu ka-den (どです か でん) was his first color film and the first film he released in five years after going though a rough experience directing a film for 20th Century Fox, a studio that didn’t trust him and spread rumors about him having had a nervous break down. To prove his detractors wrong, Kurosawa brought a collection of short stories to life on film.

Set in a post-war slum, Dodesu ka-den follows a group of beautiful or actually mainly grubby losers, most of whom aren’t regulars at the public bath. The story begins with a boy we’d now consider on the autism spectrum. He begins his day praying with his mother who’s distraught by his behavior. Every day, this boy, who lives out the fantasy that he’s a trolley driver by pantomiming every action of one. The actor’s skill would give Marcel Marceau a run for his money. The boy meticulously follows the rules of trolley service and scolds anyone who’s accidentally sitting on his “tracks.” Of course, he’s the prime target of taunting neighborhood boys.

There’s a group of half a dozen housewives who spend their days overseeing the comings and goings of everyone in the surrounding shanties. They gossip about the two women who’re married to men seemingly competing to be the town drunk and who casually swap their husbands from night to night. These women are little better than their husbands in terms of temperance or temperament.

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Another woman has five children and another on the way. Each child has a different father. She’s selfish and doesn’t care for anyone else. The scene when her current “husband” comforts the kids who’re crying because their pals have told them that each one has a different father and that this good-natured guy is not their “real” dad, was a highlight.

The scenes with the homeless dreamer who has his son beg for food and helps the young boy keep his spirits up by sharing his imagined view of the glorious house they’ll one day have with a English gate, a Scottish living room, and a swimming pool, were poignant and touching.

One of my favorite characters was an engraver who was the one sensible person in the neighborhood. He quietly made the right decision or said the right thing whenever someone was on the brink.

The film doesn’t have a typical story structure where people are facing a defined problem and its resolved by the end. Most of the characters had bleak existences that would make a Dickens character look privileged. Yet the film does offer respect and hope. Sometimes that hope was the charactes’s greatest flaw.

With William Powell of The Thin Man movies, I was looking for a suave, witty detective story. If The Thin Man is an A movie, The Kennel Murder is a C+.

The film opens with detective Philo Vance, played by Powell, at a dog show where his dog loses. At the show there’s a rich man, Archer Coe, with plenty of enemies. His niece resents his control over her, his cook, who’s Chinese, resents his Coe for selling his collection of ancient Chinese porcelain, his secretary resents Coe for forbidding him to marry his niece, his lover’s been cut off after a jealous Coe finds her with an Italian lover, who was supposed to buy the Chinese porcelain collection . . . . No one seems to like Coe.

When Coe is found dead in his bedroom with the door locked, the inept, comical police sergeant assumes it’s a suicide. But Vance doesn’t buy it. When Coe’s hapless brother’s found murdered, murder is suspected, but who did it?

Powell is clever and stands head and shoulders above the police force who all provide comic relief. It’s an entertaining movie but not as witty as The Thin Man films and better 1930s films. With Myrna Loy, Powell had an equal to engage with; here he was the lonely brain. The other characters were stereotypes; and there are some flaws in the murder.

So I’ve seen better films and wouldn’t recommend this strongly, but The Kennel Murder did entertain.

The Kennel Murder

Interactive Television

Back in the 1990s, when I worked at DDB Needham, Kevin, my boss and friend, knew that I was interested in screenwriting and he suggested I create a show for Viacom, which had three networks: MTV, VH1 and at least one other channel at the time (whose name I don’t remember). This show would emulate an interactive book where at different stages a choice would be posed to the viewers and they’d have to decide what the character should do. Then they’d be directed to change the channel to see the consequences of that decision. I designed some stories. Kevin knew someone at MTV and soon we were in contact.

The executive was a bit curious, but didn’t understand what technology was needed. The answer was simple: their remote. People would just change the channel to see the consequences of their decision.

Well, fast forward to today. HBO and Steven Soderbergh have come up with Mosaic, an interactive story which uses people’s phones and an app to view this show. Soderbergh’s got a reputation for good story telling so it should be well written and more than just a gimmick. Computer games have been around long enough so people expect quality. However, I’m not a big fan of HBO’s cursing and dark view of life so I’m not sure I’ll watch. Well, maybe if friends say it’s worthwhile.