Death by Hanging

Oshima’s Death by Hanging has masterful cinematography and great acting. Loosely based on a real crime, Death by Hanging attempts to argue against capital punishment and prejudice against Koreans.

The director directly states statistics of Japanese approval of capital punishment, before introducing the story. Oshima believes if he shows his audience an execution they’ll come to oppose punishing murderers with death. The story begins with all the protocol of an execution. The criminal named R has been convicted of raping and murdering two school girls. R has a champlain, gets a last meal as the officials in charge go through the usual procedures.

However, when R is hanged, he doesn’t die. Now what?

The doctor finds that R is still alive and soon he comes too. But R insists he isn’t R, which means they can’t hang him again. (Evidently, in Japan if there’s a botched execution, they could try again.) Now begins the long process, mainly led by the Education Chief (not sure why someone with this title is part of this process — it seems he has to make sure the felon has understood why he’s getting punished and agrees that he’s guilty). The black farce is turned up to “high” as the film proceeds. It’s full of dark humor as well as the logic behind ending capital punishment or it’s meant to be.

The film goes down some bizarre rabbit holes, which are pulled off by an outstanding cast. The Korean-Japanese actor who played R should have won an award. It’s amazing how he maintains this impassive presence amidst madness.The story drifts back and forth between fantasy and reality and the plot twists and turns and is full of surprises till the last second. I sure did not expect the ending.

I applaud Oshima for presenting the injustice against Koreans living in Japan so directly and thoroughly. Usually such cultural faults are well hidden.

However, the film felt long and was confusing at time. When R’s sister appears from no where and her relationship with her brother takes an incestuous turn, Oshima lost me. The arguments that followed against capital punishment weren’t convincing and in fact made me think, perhaps execution is acceptable since these arguments are the weakest I’ve heard. So in that respect Death by Hanging, while an example of dark humor and powerful imagery, fails. Because it’s incredibly original, I do recommend the film, but I imagine some people will have problems with some of the foolishness of the officials, the sister or the logic. It is a film you’d want to discuss afterwards.

 

Flambards

flambardsLast week I watched an old favorite, Flambards, a British historical drama set in 1910. I first saw this 1979 program in the 80’s and I wondered whether it was available on DVD. Thankfully through my library’s network, I could get them.

In this post-Downton Abbey or Poldark era, I thought perhaps I wouldn’t like Flambards as much as I remembered. While the film seems fuzzy and the sets aren’t as dazzling, I love this program.

Flambards begins with Christina, an orphan who’s been shuffled from aunt to aunt, comes to her uncle’s home. Confined to a wheelchair, Uncle Russell is gruff on a good day. He wakes up and goes to bed barking orders. The rest of the day he’s usually shouting or plotting while drinking port.

When Christina arrives in town, no one’s there to pick her up at the train. Only her cousin William remembered she was coming. Will and Christina are kindred spirits, but Mark, Will’s older brother, is an egotistical, status-conscious, hard drinking churl. Christina’s horrified to learn that the plan is that when she turns 21 in six years, she’s to inherit her money and would then marry Mark so her money may be used to prop up the Flambards estate.

A major conflict in the story is between Mark, the churl, who lives for fox hunting and drinking, and William, the younger brother, who’s fascinated by flying machines, and all things modern. Christina feels both challenged and safe around William, whereas Mark frustrates and maddens her.

Another crucial character is Dick, a stable worker, who teaches Christina to ride. He’s sweet on her, but well aware of his place. Christiana treats Dick as an equal forgetting the class difference. Will tries to get Dick to stop calling him “sir” because he doesn’t support the rigid class structure, but Will sees that such a gesture doesn’t really change anything. After helping Christiana save her old horse from getting eaten by the hounds, Will’s dismissed. The injustice is clear and swift. Though Christina owns up to her part, i.e. she came up with the plan and participated in it as much as Will or Dick, Dick is the online to pay a price. We see how cruel men like Uncle Russel could be, how they used their power.

Flambards has romance, history and conflict, i.e. all the ingredients I need in a good drama. Based on a novel by K.M. Peyton, Flambards is an ideal candidate for a remake. It worked for Poldark, for which next season is its last. The same writer should take on Flambards.

Look – I think you can watch Flambards here.

 

 

Les Misérables, Ep 2

lily les misLast night was the second episode of the Masterpiece/BBC production of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. I knew what was coming. I knew that Fantine was in for a tough timethis week. Her lover Felix had agandoned her and their baby Cosette and Fantine had no family or skills to support her well.

Last night we saw Madame Thenardier for the first time. Olivia Colman’s portrayal is both lusty as you’d expect, but also more likable because unlike the novel or the films, this Madame Thenardier tells her disreputable husband that he should be more honest because by getting a reputation for honesty, their inn would prosper. He slaps her for this. Later, another character makes the same point. I’m not sure why this production chose to white wash Madam Thenardier’s character when earlier productions succeeded with the character depicted as shown in the book.

As anyone who’s seen the films or read the novel know, in the next chapters Fantine experiences great hardship. She’s truly one of the “Les Misérables.” Though I wanted to be strong, I did have to look away at at one time mute the TV as Fantine’s fate takes a turn for the very worse.

The episode was unstinting in its depiction of Fantine’s fall. In fact the scribbler she uses to read letters from the Thenardier’s treats Fantine horribly suggesting, if not urging her to sell herself and criticizing her for selling her “assets,” i.e. her hair and teeth, before she turned to prostitution because with her cropped hair and toothless smile, she’s a less desirable object . . . . Ugh.

Fantine’s fall is worse than Jean Valjean’s and part of this is due to her extreme naivety. She never questions the Thenardier’s who constantly ask for more money to care for Cosette. She leaves her daughter with absolute strangers, though in this day there were orphanages for children with living parents. That would be the better route. In the book we’re told that Fantine had no parents at all and just grew up wandering about her small town and getting food, clothing and shelter from whoever felt generous. (Not sure why she wasn’t in an orphanage.) So that information explains a lot about why Fantine lacks common sense and has no one, no aunt, cousin, parent, etc. to turn to for help.

Cleaned up and dignified, Jean Valjean has moved upward gaining wealth and power now that his factory is prospering and he’s become mayor. The people love him. But soon Jalvert turns up and recognizes his old prisoner. Naturally Valjean gets nervous, but he remains true to the Bishop. He’s found God and honesty, though he still errors (in terms of firing Fantine, mainly because he didn’t know her full story). This production does a better job than the musical showing how much Valjean agonizes over saving the thief who’s about to die in his place. The musical certainly shows us how easy it would be for Jean Valjean to keep quiet and continue to live his new life, but this drama accentuates the dilemma.

There’s one sequence with Marius as a young boy. Somehow time hasn’t effected him as much as it has Cosette. His growth is a lot slower than hers in the interim between this and last week. Anyway, what struck me was the powered wig he sports and is worn by his grandpa and his cronies. It’s a stark, grandiose contrast to the prosperous Jean Valjean’s hair. I can’t remember if Hugo’s book makes the upperclass this contemptible.

All in all, I’m enjoyed episode 2, though it had some scenes of great suffering that I couldn’t bear. Things are bad, but not this bad in the weeks ahead. I will add that this is not an episode I advise kids watching. It might even be considered R rated for Fantine’s struggles in the streets.

 

Les Misérables, Ep 1

It’s no secret that Les Misérables is one of my favorite stories of all time. I’ve read the book and seen the musical, the film with Liam Neeson, the film with Jean Gabin and the one with Harry Barr. I’ve loved them all.

I lost track of time and missed the premier of Masterpiece’s newest Les Mis, but fortunately, I taped it and am now ready for episode 2.

Beginning with Thénardier (Adeel Akhtar) robbing the pockets of soldiers killed at Waterloo. As luck would have it, Pontmercy, a solider, wakes up and mistakes Thénardier for a savior. Then in the prison where Jean Val Jean (Dominic West) toils away while being abused, beaten and tricked by the guards and Inspector Javert (David Oyelowo), a 19th century French Pharisee. Early on we also see Pontmercy’s wealthy father-in-law who’s taken custody of his grandson when the boy’s mother died. Vehemently opposed to Pontmercy’s politics, the grandfather forbids Pontmercy to see his own son, Marius, a cutie pie in velvet and frilly collars.

Fantine’s story of meeting Felix, Cossette’s father, this production starts earlier in the book than the musical. We get to see the slimy, philandering Felix who loves and leaves poor, naive Fantine. Interwoven with Fantine’s story, we see Jean Valjean get freed from jail and encounter hostility and injustice till he’s welcome by the saintly Bishop Digne.

I’m thoroughly enjoying the story. It’s a lush production. I always have an odd feeling about computer graphics. I can tell it’s not real (or faux real). I sense something lacking in the vast settings that must be computer graphics.

The story spans decades and contains several plot lines. Victor Hugo dedicated each section of the book according to a main character. The screenwriter has woven several sections together and the chronology’s changed. Some things seem to be simultaneous here, when they weren’t in the book. For example, at the end of episode 1, Fantine’s holding her daughter Cossette, who looks like she is at least a year old. Yet Felix just abandoned her a few hours before. I thought Fantine got pregnant after Felix left her. Also, Jean Valjean has just left the Bishop’s. It seems the timing is off between Fantine, whose story doesn’t need much time to progress to the next stage, and Jean Valjean, who took many years to get to the next point when he’ll meet Fantine.

Even though there are some differences between other productions and these do bother me, the annoyance is small and Les Misérables is a story that can’t be ruined. (Knock on wood.) So far this series is off to a good start.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday

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After watching Jacques Tati’s comedic classic Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, I was surprised to find out it was made in 1956. I’d have guessed during the 1930s. The film uses little sound, but the sound  is used to maximum effect. The sublime, recurring tune keeps playing in my head. Since it’s a happy melody, that’s just fine.

Awkward and unlucky, but well-meaning and kind, Mr. Hulot goes on vacation to a seaside French town. Wherever Mr. Hulot goes, minor disaster follows upsetting the quiet card players or the well-dressed ladies. More often than not, Mr. Hulot is his own worst enemy, but the consequence is usually small–some bruises, embarrassment or car trouble. It’s cool to see an old style vacation

 https://youtu.be/LwiIYoJx5Es

The film is big on gags and short on plot. The characters are nameless stereotypes, but they do make an impression and each one is bound to remind you of someone you know or love.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is a delight, but probably isn’t for everyone. The film is slow-paced, a trip to the old days. It’s the first Tati film I’ve seen and folks like Roger Ebert assert it’s his best. I’m glad I saw it because Tati is a master in French film, but I can’t recommend it highly because I think a lot of people want more plot, which they can get from Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd.

Cat’s Paw

Harold Lloyd’s talking Cat’s Paw (1934) satirizes dirty politics. (You can watch the whole film on YouTube by clicking above.) Lloyd plays Ezekiel Cobb, the son of a missionary who grew up in rural China. Cobb comes to California to find a wife. He’s supposed to stay with a minister, who for years has run for mayor against a corrupt machine politician. The minister is a puppet who doesn’t realize he’s simply used   to make it look like there’s democracy in this town.

When the minister suddenly dies, his corrupt campaign manager needs a chump to run in his stead. He decides this naive newbie Cobb is just the man for the job.

Cobb’s an endearing character. He’s a fish out of water in America. Though he looks like he belongs here, China is his home. So he’s constantly bowing and has no idea what our slang means. He’s often mistaken for a “native” and this often gets him into all kinds of scraps. He lacks the street smarts and skepticism frequently found in corrupt cities.

Yet while the film never directly says as much, God helps the innocents and through a hilarious series of mishaps, Cobb is photographed punching the corrupt mayor and becomes a sensation. He’s swept into office. He’s as upset as anyone. He wants to return to China where everyone understands his references to the revered Ling Po, who’s wisdom he frequently imparts.

Cobb accepts his office and brings his innocent honesty into practice. He outfoxes the foxes and it’s a delight to see.

Lloyd is delightful. It offers satire with a clever story that still entertains. There are times when supporting characters use words like “Chink” which are derogatory and wouldn’t be used in a film today, but the characters who use such terms are portraying prejudiced people in contrast to the hero who respects and understands Chinese culture.

Cobb does search for a wife and looks for an idealistically innocent, poised woman. Pet Pratt, a woman in his boarding house is a worldly woman who tricks him by taking him to a nightclub with 1930s adult entertainment. She’s just the woman to help Cobb govern. It’s an added twist to the film, especially since Harold Lloyd films usually feature American sweethearts. Pet Pratt does not fit that mold and is fun to watch.

I was amazed by Cobb’s plan to clean up the city. He wasn’t the goody-two-shoes he seemed at the start.

Cat’s Paw was a fun film, which shows 1930s views of China.

Blow Up

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About as exciting as it gets, i.e. not very

Michelangelo Antonoini’s Blow Up has an intriguing end, but the almost two hours leading up to it were painfully boring. It’s the story of a jaded, nihilistic, rich photographer who happens to photograph what appears to be a couple of lovers in a park. After blowing up the photos he sees what looks like a shooter lurking in the bushes. What’s really going on? The photographer returns to the spot and finds the man’s dead body.

So far that sounds like an intriguing plot. My concise description leaves out the scenes of vapid, sexy girls whose characters are no more developed than a mannequin’s and the occasional dull conversations the photographer has with his agent or the woman in the photos who tries to get them back once and then never follows up when she doesn’t get them.

Everyone in the film is tired. The young people, whether they’re at a concert or having sex appear dead bored with life. A couple of girls practically stalk the photographer hoping to do a shoot and get famous. None of that pans out.

Don’t waste your time. There’s a clip on YouTube of the film’s end which includes a bunch of mimes who play tennis and it’s a clever mini-film on our perceptions. That’s worth a couple minutes. Otherwise, the film is too esoteric for me. I don’t want to spend two hours watching a bored, passive lost generation.

SPOILER
Continue reading “Blow Up”

Unplanned

While the acting and directing could be better, Unplanned presents the experience of Abby Johnson, a Planned Parenthood clinic director, who does a complete 180° transformation on her views on abortion after viewing an abortion. There’s a lot of flashbacks that go from post-transformation to Johnson’s college days when she had two abortions and when she became a volunteer for PP.

The film has some gory moments as it holds nothing back. There are scenes which feature the blood and gore which are part of the clinic’s experience. I wouldn’t bring children to this R rated film. While Gosnell, tells a story about abortion, it’s not as graphic, though the actions of Kermit Gosnell were more violent. Gosnell kept the gore to the minimum.

The film did inform me. I didn’t get have much knowledge of what it’s like to work in a PP clinic. The characters, except for the director, were shown as well-intentioned people. The first director does seem one-dimensional, but a lot of people do see their bosses as stereotypes. In this case the director is all about money and she does show what a business this is. As the director, Abby’s mentor, said, “non-profit is a tax status, not a business model.” The film does show PP’s sales techniques and vision for growth.

I wish the supporting characters like Abby’s husband and parents were more three dimensional.

The film has a message and it does a decent job of conveying it through the life story of Abby Johnson.  It did make me think and it seemed authentic.