The Village

The-Village-Series-1-34722_9

I just watched the first episode of the British drama, The Village . Set at the beginning of WWI, it’s a naturalistic drama and sort of an “anti-Downton Abbey” focusing on a lower class family struggling against poverty and alcoholism. It’s a compelling story told by the second oldest man in Britain, who’s getting interviewed, I’m not sure by whom.

The man, Bert, looks back to his youth, when he was a schoolboy, always getting in trouble and getting beaten at home and at school by the angry, frustrated man who rules the roost, i.e. his father and his teacher. Both men take out their frustrations on all around them.

A beautiful woman comes to town and catches the attention of Bert and his older brother who works at the “big house” filling bath tubs with hot water. So far the upperclass family are snobbish with no redeeming qualities, which makes it different from Downton or Mr Selfridge where there are good and bad eggs amongst each social class.

The Village is set in a drabber world, one of browns and grays, but I am curious about what will happen now that Joe goes off to fight the Germans and Bert is alone without his protective older brother. Also, what will happen with the beautiful vicar’s daughter, who seems to be one of two people in the village who owns clothing that is — not brown, white or gray — but a muted red.

The Village , as far as I can tell, is only available on DVD.

Charlie Chan: The Scarlet Clue

the_scarlet_clue-672x372

Since I still enjoy Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in their Sherlock Holmes films, I decided to try a Charlie Chan film for last week’s “old movie.” They are commingled in my mind as a local TV station used to rotate Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes films. I remember watching many Sherlock Holmes films, but had only vaguely remembered Charlie Chan. No I realize why.

Filled with stereotypes and wooden performances. Charlie is played by a white actor whom make up artists make to look Asian. While a Chinese immigrant would speak English imperfectly if he started speaking the language after age 14, this actor’s broken English was a bit much, very annoying. I’m glad we’ve moved to a time when this would be unheard of. The story was thin and weak though the means of poisoning the victims was rather clever. I won’t be watching more of this series.

The previous week’s “old movie” was It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic film that needs no introduction or review. I shared it with my students the last week of class.

Vanya on 42nd Street

julianne moore Vanya on 42nd StreetAndré Gregory, who starred in My Dinner with André, is certainly unique and directs like no other director. Vanya on 42nd Street is such a unique play or project and finally a film. He assembled a wonderful cast including Wallace Shawn and Juliette Moore to get together and rehearse Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for years. Several times a week the actors would perform this play — for 4 years. It wasn’t till the third year that they started to invite a handful of guests to watch them. Eventually, Louis Malle agreed to direct a film version of their play.

The story involves an extended family, who like the family in The Cherry Orchard, have money problems. On top of that several men in the story are smitten by Yelena, a beautiful young woman who’s married to an old scholar. There’s lots of conflict in the family revolving around personal grievances and what to do about their money problems. Because the actors performed this play so many times over a long period and thus became intimate with their cast members they reported that this story was like no other to them thus there’s a depth to this performance that’s palpable and like no other performance. The actors perform in a gorgeous abandoned theater in ruins, which resonates with the play’s theme. Both the play, translated by David Mamet, and the Criterion Collection interviews are engrossing. The interviews made me appreciate the meticulous acting this process afforded. I’d definitely watch this again and again for the story and fine acting.

Dear Kitten

Friskie’s cat food has a few ads on YouTube that are just hysterically fun. I laughed till I cried and I’m not a big cat fan.

Let me know if you think they’re funny.

The Sweet Smell of Success

sweet smell

When I made my 2014 New Year’s Resolution to watch one old movie (i.e. before 1960) I had no idea where it would take me. I’ve discovered so many terrific films due to this challenge and the limited, but good selection at my local DVD store.

A prime example is the 1957 The Sweet Smell of Success  starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a struggling, opportunistic press agent who’s both manipulating and manipulated as he tries to get the powerful J.J. Hunsecher played by Burt Lancaster to write about his clients. It’s a career based on lies, begging and creating an icy cool image. J.J. is based on Walter Winchell, a columnist who pioneered the celebrity beat. Here J.J. gets Sidney to break up a romance between his sister and a jazz musician. No one would be good enough for J.J.’s sister Susie. There’s definitely a weird one way vibe between J.J. and Susie, who’s in love with clean cut Dallas.

Sidney has few scruples about setting up Dallas. The one time he objects to J.J.’s plan, he capitulates. Anything to further his career. Sidney lives on the edge in a corrupt world with edgy, witty dialog and high stakes. The few times his maneuvers don’t work, like when he tries to blackmail one of J.J.’s rivals, it backfires. Sidney never thought that someone in his field might prefer to come clean to his wife than to do his bidding. Sidney’s doomed as he’s neither as powerful as J.J. or honest like Dallas or the clean-when-forced-to-be columnist.

The Sweet Smell of Success is set in a kind of hell, a hell with witty reparteés, stylish women and men in sharp suits sipping martini’s. It’s fun to watch, but I wouldn’t want to come within a mile of any of the characters.

I’m now re-watching with the Criterion Collection commentary to eke all I can from the film.

A few quotes:

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 1.50.21 PM

Ugetsu Monogatari

What a powerful movie! I just bought it because I thought a geisha film might be interesting. I had no idea that this Mizoguchi (see Life of Oharu ) film would be so entralling.

A fusion of two Japanese ghost stories and a story Guy de Maupassant, Ugetsu Monogatari tells the story of two brothers with obsessions that bring their families to ruin. One brother, low class farmer, dreams of becoming a samari; the other, a potter, dreams of making a fortune and showering his wife with luxurious presents. Given their low social status and the hierarchy of the day, both dreams are ridiculous.

Set in a time of civil war, pursuing these dreams results in the families’ destruction, one wife’s murder and the other’s rape and eventual fall into prostitution. Both men are shown as foolish and obsessed and they fall prey to ghosts as they ignore the warnings they receive.

Mizoguchi’s cinematography is exquisite and the composer’s music alluring. Mizoguchi uses cameras as no director I’ve seen does. Viewers are taken to a dreamy sometimes crazy world as they follow the brothers’ obsessions. The story is haunting, and acting, especially the actresses’ performances is quiet and powerful.

ugetsy

I watched with the Criterion Collection commentary on, which helped me appreciate the story and production. I might not have realized that the princess was a ghost till the end as I lacked a knowledge of how Japanese ghosts operate. A Western ghost would not have been so subtly portrayed. This is definitely a movie I’d watch again.

The 39 Steps

39 steps

This week’s old movie was Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935), which reminded me a lot of Ministry of Fear and North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film. Still 39 Steps is compelling and moves quickly as it shows a man who mistakenly gets caught up in spy intrigue and is innocent of a murder for which the police suspect him. I’d never seen the leading man, Robert Donat, but liked him in the role of Mr. Hanney. Dona’s charming and attractive, but not an Adonis so he can come off as an everyman.

After a strange, beautiful woman asks to go back with him to his apartment. Once inside she hides in the shadows, fearful of being seen. Men are following her. She claims to be a spy who must protect military secrets. She’s a mercenary and her tale is hard to believe. Hanney really doesn’t put much faith into her story, but he doesn’t kick her out either. When she comes to him in the middle of the night with a map and a knife stuck in her back, Hanney’s convinced. Knowing he’ll be suspected of murder he flees all the while having to elude the men who killed the beautiful spy.

Like many Hitchcock films it’s the tale of an innocent man, wrongly accused. Roger Ebert told a film class I took with him that as a boy, Hitchcock’s father wrongly suspected the young genius of some childish misdemeanor and punished him by sending him to the local police where an officer locked him up saying, “This is what we do with naughty boys.” Hitchcock believed he was 4 or 5 at the time.

The 39 Steps moves briskly in part to keep the audience from pondering unexplained questions like how did the killers get into Hanney’s apartment so quietly and why didn’t they do something to Hanney since they saw the pair enter the building.  The film delights with wit and light comedy sprinkled in with the suspense and danger.

As usual, the Criterion Collection offers a trenchant essay on the film. Well worth reading.