Bohemian Rhapsody

I knew all the Queen hits, but didn’t know much about the band’s history or Freddie Mercury’s life. I just watched Bohemian Rhapsody this weekend figuring it would be more entertaining than a marathon awards show, since those usually drag on and on.

The film acquainted me with the general background of the band. I found it interesting that one musician was an astro-physicist, another studied dentistry and another studied electrical engineering. Of course, the big star was Freddie Mercury, who was a performer par excellence.

Born Farrokh Balsara, Freddie Mercury is the center of this film. The film goes through the band’s history which was inseparable from Mercury’s life. In many ways as unique on the surface Mercury seemed, the events and relationships he experienced follow that of many stars – parents who don’t understand, dissatisfaction with the ordinary life of study, followed by work and conventional family, joining a band, fighting for success, disagreements once success is attained, destructive excess and rebellion with the corporate types running things, Yet, while this was nothing new to anyone growing up in the era, who know this music scene and the biographies of its brightest stars, the film does entertain. Queen’s music still has wide appeal.

The film’s strength is its music and visuals. There’s a lot of color and glitz which fit Mercury. Actor Rami Malek won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance and he did succeed in bringing Mercury back to life.

Yet this is not a film that would get a screenwriting award. I felt the story sped through the drama that shaped the band and Mercury. It’s as if it was written based on a checklist: quickly show conflict with stern father who doesn’t understand music, show meeting his wife and jump to their marriage. Check off requisite arguments between the band members and with the music business guy. I hoped for more depth and a closer look into Freddie.

Essentially, Freddie’s life was a sad one. Like many in his position, he trusted the snake, who is certain to appear once you’re successful and throwing big parties. He didn’t appreciate the people he could count on. Nothing was enough. Early on Freddie’s father tells him that he can’t get anywhere pretending you’re someone that you’re not. On the one hand, Freddie’s right to reject the message as his father’s ideas about getting a steady job, etc. aren’t what he was born to do. However, the tragedy of Mercury’s life was that he didn’t understand the wisdom in his father’s statement. Mercury perfected his role as performer, but his other facets were neglected and undeveloped. It’s a pity he didn’t grow as a mature friend, colleague, or intimate partner. He didn’t develop Farrokh Balsara; like Elvis and so many others, his life was tragic because he focused so much on his persona and not on his inner life or soul.

In short the movie was worth watching, but I’d love it if it were shorter and focused on particular areas of Mercury’s life rather than everything. The Steve Jobs film by Aaron Sorkin is a better example of how a biopic can show a person’s life concisely.

Victoria, Season 3, Episode 1

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The documentary Victoria & Her Nine Children paints a detailed

Here’s a few things I learned:

  • After Albert died, the Queen asked for her youngest child Beatrice to be brought to her. She made the girls dress in Albert’s clothing and sleep with her.
  • Victoria thought babies were like frogs.
  • Albert scolded Victoria that she should find a way to appreciate motherhood and not always be cross with her children.
  • Victoria regarded Bertie, her eldest son as her biggest problem. She blamed Bertie for Albert’s death. Albert was severely displeased when he learned that Bertie had slept with a jolly actress. She connects his passion leading to his father’s death.
  • After marrying off three of her children, Victoria continues to mourn three years after Albert’s death. Laughter and delight are not permitted. The queen continues to wear black and all the palace’s curtains are black.
  • Victoria’s least favorite child is Leopold who can do nothing right. She saw him as awkward and clumsy and she didn’t notice that that Leopold was actually suffering from hemophilia.
  • When chloroform was first used as a painkiller during childbirth, Victoria was delighted to use it. Her physicians saw this as wrong as the Bible states that women will feel pain in childbirth (Gen. 3:16). Of course, these men so problem with using chloroform when they need surgery.
  • Victoria told people that Louise was stupid and constantly criticized her. Louise went from being the petted youngest daughter, but when Beatrice was born she fell from this position. Her teen years were spent in mourning. None of the usual coming-of-age rituals were allowed.
  • The queen spied on her children and even after marrying controlled whom they socialized with.

These poor children’s lives were lived under a dark cloud of mourning controlled by a powerful mother who’s psychologically damaged by grief. A mother with a venomous tongue who could shame and hurt her children.

You can learn more by watching on the PBS website.

The Eagle Huntress

The Eagle Huntress, a documentary, follows a strong, determined 13-year-old Kazakh girl who is the first female to become an eagle hunter. Her ancestors have used eagles to hunt for generations, but the hunters were always men. This girl, named Aisholpan, has a father who realizes her special talent and courageous spirit. So he trains Aisholpan to hunt using eagles.

Not only does he teach Aisholpan all the tricks needed, but he takes her up into the mountains for her to climb out and nab a baby eaglet because a hunter must get her own eagle herself.

The Eagle Huntress takes us into the family’s life. We see their home, a yurt in the grasslands and go to her school where she and her siblings live Monday to Friday. Then when they move to a winter house, we see life there too.

Confident and strong, Aisholpan decides she wants to compete in the regional eagle hunting competition. No female has ever competed in this event. In fact, many of the men disprove of Aisholpan’s hunting.

The film is beautiful and Aisholpan is a compelling film that can appeal to all ages.  I loved the movie and think it deserves a wider audience. While the main theme is girl power, this story of hard work and courage would appeal to all.

The Breadwinner

For the final week of the library’s Fall Film Challenge, I received three DVD suggestions. The Breadwinner was the first of these that I watched. Set in Afghanistan prior to the US bombing and war, The Breadwinner tells of a country ruled by the Taliban. Here a young girl goes to the market daily with her loving, progressive father who’s taught her to read.

We see the Taliban’s violence through the harassment Parvana, an 11 year old, girl and her learned father receive when she’s with him in the market place. Females are to be inside, hidden and cowering, but Parvana’s father believes in educating his daughters.

When the father’s unjustly arrested, he’s incarcerated with a trial or even a charge, Parvana, her mother, older sister and baby brother are unable to earn a living. There’s no one in the home who can legally leave the house to earn a living. Once their food is gone, it’s clear to Parvana that she must act. She chops off her hair and dresses as a boy to put food on the table.

Outside she must blend in and find work. She sees the Taliban beating women in their burqas who’ve left their homes. They terrorize men who don’t act as they dictate. Parvana is able to take her place in the market undetected, but every day is a risk. At home her mother sees the family’s only hope in marrying off her oldest daughter in an arranged marriage to a distant cousin. This is typical in Afghanistan.

Parvana lucks out when she discovers a former classmate, who’s adopted the same strategy and dresses as a boy to save her family and her life. The two cleverly find work, make money and evade the Taliban’s brutality, for the most part.

The film interweaves an Afghan folk tale of a clever, plucky hero with Parvana’s story to accentuate the film’s themes thus giving the animators another way to show off their mastery. The film was made by the same team that gave us The Secret of Kells.

The Breadwinner reminded me of the tragedy of life in Afghanistan, which I admit I’ve forgotten. The animators capture the war-torn, bleak Afghani landscape. Though it’s an animated film, it’s not for children under 13. There are scenes of parents getting beaten by the Taliban, the imprisonment of a father, depiction of people missing limbs so it’s authentic and may be hard for young children to take in.

My only quibble with The Breadwinner is that I found the ending abrupt and left some questions in my mind. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for this recommendation and think it’s well worth watching.

On My TBW List

TBR, i.e. To Be Read lists of books is a hashtag and a meme. They’re also real lists. Since there’s been a publishing industry, readers have had lists of books they want to read.

I haven’t seen this yet, but there should be TBW (i.e. To Be Watched or TBS, To Be Seen) Lists. Here’s mine. I’m posting this so I can throw away the miscellaneous scraps of paper I’ve collected in the last few weeks.

1. Like Someone in Love

2. A Kid with a Bike

3. The Petrified Forest

4. Public Enemy

5. The Silence of Lorna

6. The Son, a.k.a. Le Fils

7. Half the Picture

What films are on your list To Be Watched?

The Wolfpack

Thanks to Sharon for bringing this unique documentary to my attention. Directed by Crystal Moselle, The Wolfpack (2015)shows a family consisting of six brothers, their parents and their sister who live in New York. The parents met when the mother went backpacking in South America. She shared his dislike for materialism and were married.

The sad and curious thing about this family is that the father became a control freak and would lock the wife and children in the apartment. He believed it was for security, but actually I saw it as a form of control. They could only go outside when the father permitted it and he apparently went with them so no one could escape. One year they were allowed out 9 years and another they weren’t taken outside at all.

The film focuses on the older brothers. The mother was certified by the state to homeschool the kids and they all spoke articulately and politely. The father had wanted 10 children as his dream of heading a tribe, but seven was the limit (biologically) for the mother. The father didn’t work; the father explained that he didn’t believe in work. I wondered what he did when he was out of the house for hours and hours. They family lived on welfare. The father dreamt of moving to Scandinavia, where the welfare was even better, but that never materialized.

The compelling thing about the documentary is how creative the boys were. To stave off boredom and keep sane, they watched the 5000+ DVDs that their dad had collected and then they’d copy the scripts and act out the films. They made clever props. It’s a good thing there were so many kids or they wouldn’t have enough actors.

Continue reading “The Wolfpack”

The Last Metro

Starring the elegant, beautiful Catherine Deneuve, François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980) takes us back to WWII where Marion Steiner struggles to aid her Jewish husband who’s hiding under their theater, to put on a new play despite the government censors. The news is that Lucas Steiner has fled France, but that’s a cover. He’s hiding out in the theater’s basement, where his wife Marion visits every night. She lined up a guide to get him out, but the plan fell through as the situation has grown too dangerous.

Though he’s going stir crazy, Lucas listens through the pipes and gives notes to the performers via Marion, who must keep a cool façade while being pulled in all directions fearing that a German-sympathizing critic will censor the play, which could lead to the discovery and imprisonment of her husband.

Gérald Depardieu plays a young amorous actor, who’s also in the Resistance.

As the film is based on Truffaut’s childhood memories of the era, The Last Metro offers several light hearted moments, such as Depardieu’s failed attempt to woo one of the theater staff.

The film is well acted and paced covering a significant era, but for me it wasn’t quite as good as The 400 Blows or Zazie dan let Metro. 

Seven Samurai

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Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is a film that left me stunned. So much action! Bam! What bold characters! Wow!

During a period of political instability in the 16th century, samurai were cut loose from their masters. Bandits roamed Japan pillaging and farmers lived in fear. In Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, a small, farming village is attacked by bandits. The bandits leave since the farmers don’t have much to steal. The bandits took most everything before. However, they do plan to return when the crops come in.

The elder of the village suggests the peasants hire some samurai to protect them. The peasants aren’t sure, but “Grandpa” is revered and no one has a better idea. So a few scouts go to town to recruit.

They luck out and find wise Kanbei, played by Kurosawa regular Takeshi Shimura, who leads the motley crew. Other samurai includes trained swordsmen, a master samurai who’s head and shoulders above the others, and the bull in a china shop, Kikuchiyo, played by another acting powerhouse Toshirô Mifune. Kikuchiyo is an outsider even in the midst of this motley crew. He’s crude and has a sense of humor that has no idea what’s appropriate when. Kikuchiyo is so fun to watch because he’s incredibly physical able to move and fight like no one I’ve seen on film.

The film is dramatic, but also funny. No character is put on a pedestal. Most defy the idealized social roles most stories confer upon them. One of the high points of the film is a speech Kikuchiyo gives deriding farmers. He tells the other samurai that they’re fools to think these people are simple and honest. He calls them out as greedy, timid and secretive. After his heated speech, Kanbei says, “So you’re from a farming family?” Yep. You called it.

By the end of the film we see that Kikuchiyo was exactly right. The farmers show their true natures. It takes nearly 3 and a half hours to see the team assembled, watch them prepare and then fight in a couple of the most compelling battles I’ve ever seen on film.

From David Ehrensteins’ essay on the film from Criterion.com:

“Japanese films all tend to be rather bland in flavor, like green tea over rice,” Kurosawa remarked in an interview, making a knowing dig at his staid rival, Yasujiro Ozu (one of whose films was actually called The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice). “I think we ought to have richer foods, and richer films. So I thought I would make this kind of film entertaining enough to eat.”

The dish Kurosawa set before audiences was certainly different from what they had tasted up until then—particularly as far as period filmmaking was concerned. Instead of the slow, ritualistic, and highly theatrical style of the typical sixteenth-century saga, Seven Samurai moved with the sure swiftness of a Hollywood action epic, like Gunga Din or Stagecoach. The characters may inhabit historical settings, but their manner and bearing were, often as not, strikingly contemporary—particularly in the case of the buffoonish Kikuchiyo, the high-spirited would-be samurai played with great gusto by Toshiro Mifune. Most important of all was the visual style of the film which, thanks to Kurosawa’s use of multiple cameras, lent itself to many unusual editing techniques.

Seven Samurai is a classic that all film lovers should see.

Small Change (1976)

François Truffaut’s Small Change (1976) was the first foreign language film I can recall seeing. I distinctly remember some neighbors raving about it and I was astonished by the idea of seeing a film in another language. A think our parents thought Small Change would be edifying so we were piled into a car and a group from the neighborhood all went. I remember being delighted by the scene when a toddler’s left alone and falls out of his apartment window, but remains unscathed. “Gregory go boom!” the boy exclaims to the petrified crowd.

The film still delighted though I did wish for more plot. Truffaut is wonderful with children and understands their lot better than most. The mischief of kids making a mess whenever the adults get caught up in their own lives, the innocence of looking for love, and the loneliness of hiding your family’s poverty or abuse are all present in this brightly colored panorama. Childhood’s changed in many ways with helicopter parents and high tech developments, but some of comedy and even the tragedies still remain.

The teacher’s monologue at the end struck me to the core in 1976 and again in 2018. I’ll share it below, but it’s a spoiler so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Yojimbo

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I didn’t expect to like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) as I knew it was a samurai film and fighting’s not my thing, but since I’m on a Kurosawa roll, I figured I should see it anyway. Boy, am I glad I did. The film offers unexpected wit and an unforgettable, surly hero, named Sanjuro.

Sanjuro wanders about the country after his master and retinue have lost. He comes to a town caught in the crossfire of two gangs. The townspeople live cowering in fear. After Sanjuro displays his swordsmanship with finesse the gang leaders try to lure him with money so he’ll play for their side. Ever cagey, Sanjuro’s wise to their game and trickery and double-crossing follow. There is no good side to join.

Sanjuro’s irascible but not evil. He does save a family knowing that’ll cost him. He gives them his gold coins to flee, but when they try to thank him he shouts that he hates anyone who’s pathetic and if they cry he’ll kill them. It’s all tongue in cheek and such humor in the context is a poke at the Western or samurai genre movies.

Also, the soundtrack is pure 1960s Western music, which adds a layer of fun as it winks at Hollywood and films in general. Another aspect of humor is the buffoonery of the other characters one gang’s nincompoops are just as inept as the other’s. Sanjuro operates on a whole different plane.

Toshio Mifune plays Sanjuro masterfully. He shows more with a glance or flick of a toothpick than most award-winning actors of any era. If he can convince a Western/fighting movie anti-fan like me to eagerly desire to watch the three other films, his performance must be stellar. Kurosawa made a lot of movies with Mifune and once said that:

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. – Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography.

Tatsuya Nakadai, who starred in Human Condition, Ran, and several other classics, appears as a loyal member of one of the gangs. He’s set apart as the one gangster with a gun, which he shoots with precision as a counter to Sanjuro’s very traditional swordsmanship. His character is threatening and probably the sharpest of the bunch though no match for Sanjuro.

This film inspired Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, in fact it’s said to be almost a carbon copy. I may just watch that too, but I’ve become such a Mifune fan, I doubt anyone can fill his shoes.