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.

 

 

Frank Serpico

While I’d heard of the Al Pacino movie Serpico, I didn’t know the plot or anything other than that Frank Serpico was a NY cop with a rebellious streak. This documentary, Frank Serpico, gives the story of Serpico often in his own words and in the words of New York Times reporters and cops who worked with him.

Frank Serpico is a colorful character and always has been. The film is chronological and provides background on his youth and family. I learned that before Serpico joined the police force, he was a teacher in New York.

Serpico seemed to be a skillful cop who from the start was on the periphery of the force because he wasn’t Irish American. Irish Americans made up the majority of the force. The film makes much of how Serpico was an outsider which made him more likely to speak out, report and testify against the pervasive corruption in the NYPD in the 1970s.

While working in narcotics, Serpico soon discovered that most of his peers were on the take. Another investigation supported Serpico’s conclusion. Cops on up the hierarchy were taking in millions. As predicted, Serpico was targeted by the cops who resented him. If you’ve seen the movie from the ’70s, you know he was shot and abandoned by the other cops. Because a civilian called the police, Serpico got medical attention and lived.

Now in his 80s, Frank Serpico describes what happened and why he was so ethical. There’s an interesting scene when Serpico was reunited with one of the cops who didn’t report Serpico getting shot.

The good cinematography that adds point of view. The movie with Pacino is brought up a lot and as Serpico wasn’t after fame, he exiled himself far from the city. A few areas could have been eliminated or shortened as they were repetitive. All in all, this was a film that held my interest that apparently isn’t as embellished as the Hollywood production. So if you’re interested in the police in general or Frank Serpico in particular, check out this film.

The Miniaturist

Based on a novel, The Miniaturist has been adapted by the BBC and PBS. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, it’s the story of  young Petronella Brandt, who agrees to be married off to a rich merchant to pay off her late father’s debts and save her mother and siblings from poverty. A Vermeer beauty, Petronella finds herself in a weird family. Her husband Johannes is never around and after almost two weeks hasn’t the energy, or so he says, to consummate the marriage. Her sister-in-law Marin is Puritanically devout and has a strange obsession with her brother. Marin’s behavior suggests there could be something incestuous between Johannes and her, but by the end of episode one, I think that was a diversion.

The two servants are Otto, whom Johannes bought from slave traders and Cornelia. I’d expect such a wealthy man to have more servants.

There’s a lot of mystery once Petronella’s wedding gift arrives. It’s a miniature version of her new home. She’s told to hire someone to decorate it and finds an artisan, a miniaturist, to make a few new objects for her. The odd thing is that she’s presented with additional objects she didn’t order, such a baby cradle and a box with keys. Somehow the miniaturist knows all the family secrets.

I find the plot annoying because it’s so overtly manipulative. I feel like the writer is toying with me. Also, despite a lot of research and detail, much of the dialog and themes are very modern or a modern person’s projection on to the past. Stereotypes, like the cold, rich friends and the pious sister also distance me from the story. I wish there were more characters who spoke. It seems like they’re keeping the budget down by having such a small cast, but perhaps that’s now the books was. I’m not sure I’ll watch the rest. The Victorian Slum Home show was much more interesting.

It’s a pity because I think this setting is fascinating. It’s no Poldark or Victoria. I wish there were a few more characters who were warm blooded.

Victorian Slum House

I discovered the absorbing Victorian Slum House series last night and was blown away. It’s a British reality show, which like PBS’ Frontier House took a number of modern people and put them back in the past. The participants of Victorian Slum House go back to the late 19th century to live in poverty in a Victorian slum.

One family  of 5 lives in a one apartment. Another is a tailor’s family and the four of them live in two rooms. As a tailor, they expected to make clothes from scratch. What they learn is their assigned to buy highly worn used clothes and fix or modify them. During the 1860s, when episode 1 is set, poor people didn’t buy new clothes. They bought what was patched up.

There’s a single man who’s a rent collector and also does some woodwork. He did opt to switch his modern protheses for one that resembles what was used back then. The producers did add some material that made it more comfortable than what people of his class had. There’s a couple that are shop keepers and they live on the top floor of the slum. They have better clothing and furnishings. Yet their finances are precarious because they depend upon their customers being able to pay up at the end of the week. No one knows for sure what they’ll earn in a week so their fear is real.

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Sleeping on benches, Victorian era

Finally there’s a single mom with ten year old twins. Her lot is the most precarious. She works from home making fancy gift boxes. She starts with lots of optimism, but bought more food on credit than the others and her earnings fell far short of what she planned. So she’s very close to being evicted. In fact, in the 1860s, my guess is that she would have been and she’d have wound up down stairs in the sleeping room, where people slept on benches sitting up.

The program is full of interesting facts and the participants comments are enlightening.

Fanny’s Journey

Based on Fanny Ben-Ami’s true story, Fanny’s Journey shows a thirteen year old girl who must lead her sister and friends out of WWII France into Switzerland. This powerful film captures childhood very naturally. The direction and acting are authentic and captivating.

Fanny and her sisters have been sent away from their parents to live in a boarding house that secretly protects Jewish children. When a priest informs on the boarding house, Madame Forman, one of the adults who run the place, manages to arrange for the children to go somewhere safer. She gets them all fake passports and schools them on what to say to anyone asking them questions en route. Each child is given a new name and Madame Forman tests them on them day and night.

From the start it’s touch and go. Germans are everywhere and Vichy French police are an equal threat. At first an older boy, Eli is in charge of the children, but after he’s arrested, Fanny’s thrust into the lead. She must figure out where to go and what to do next once their train is redirected and they lose touch with Madame Forman. As the going gets tougher and tougher the children feel like giving up and have plenty of complaints. Some are so young they have no idea why Jews must flee or what was happening to Jews throughout Europe. Their ignorance showed their wisdom.

The tension is maintained throughout the film and you’re heart will go out to these children. Fanny’s Journey is destined to be a classic.

In the final credits, you’ll see the real Fanny, who is still alive and has lived in Israel since the end of the war.

Pamplona

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I was lucky to get to see Pamplona starring Stacy Keach at the Goodman Theater. Set in a hotel room in Spain, Pamplona shows Ernest Hemingway struggle with writer’s block as the tries to write an article on bullfighting for Life magazine. As he struggles, Hemingway looks back on his life – all four of his marriages, his conflicts with his father and mother, his writing career and his love and respect for bullfighters and their sport.

Throughout the play, vintage photos are projected on the hotel walls placing the set in history. Pamplona is staged in Goodman’s smaller theater, which resembles Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater so every seat provides a good view in an intimate setting.

Keach brings Hemingway to life and is wonderful in this show. You have to be a powerful performer to captivate an audience for 90 minutes. Kudos to Keach.

I enjoyed learning more about this writer and was pleased with the surprising ending. Just masterful. The play was one of the best of this year’s season.

The Wings of the Dove

I’m reading the novel The Wings of the Dove with my friend Bill. We’ve been discussing novels in more or less chronological order. I’d never read a Henry James novel and I’m not enjoying this one so I thought if I saw the movie, I the plot would be clearer as I read.

I have not been won over. This story about Kate, a plotting middle class girl who falls in live with middle class Merton. Since the rich aunt who supports Kate financially won’t let her marry down, Kate manipulates Milly, a dying rich, American girl she meets and Merton. Her plan, which the wimpy Merton agrees to, is for her lover Merton to cosy up to Milly with the aim to getting into her will. Despicable, n’est pas?

The film stars Helena Bonham Carter, who’s moody and and sort of dark, as Kate. Elizabeth McGovern plays Milly’s companion Susie and Merton’s played by Linus Roche, who was an ADA on Law and Order for several seasons.

The film isn’t doesn’t go into each characters’ psychology as the novel tried to but the poor people weren’t that poor and their plot was doomed from the start. I just had no sympathy for Kate or Merton and very little for Milly, who was dying of some unspecified aliment and had little sense. It wasn’t clear to me whether she was an orphan. If her parents were living, I’d expect them to keep better tabs on their naive daughter. Susie is a fine companion, but had little sway over Milly.

The film was pretty, but the story itself was a non-starter for me. Watching the movie hasn’t spurred me to dig into the novel. I’ll continue to trudge through it.

Red Beard

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Red Beard performs surgery as Yasumot o looks on

I had imagined the premise of Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) incorrectly for years. I assumed it was some samurai film with lots of sword fights so I never bothered with it. Then when I listened to the commentary on The Lower Depths, I realized that it was a drama. I had to right this wrong so I picked up the DVD at the library.

Set in 19th century Japan, Red Beard isn’t just about the curmudgeon older doctor so nicknamed, it’s equally about young Dr. Yasumoto, who has just finished medical school and arrives Red Beard’s clinic. Yasumoto is not happy about working in a clinic that serves the poorest of the poor. He had his heart set on treating high status samurai. Surely, this is a mistake the arrogant, obstinate  young doctor believes.

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Yasumoto (Kayama) and Red Beard (Mifune) with director A. Kurosawa

Yasumoto refuses to put on the clinic uniform or to abide by any of the clinic rules. He’s horrified by the outward appearance of the poor. He almost gets killed when he flouts a rule about avoiding the hut in the back where a deranged, wealthy woman is housed. All the while Red Beard is gruff, wise and patient. He sees so much more than Yasumoto can.

I loved Red Beard’s gruff ways. He was gentle with the patients who needed it, but tough with those who were foolish. He was wise in dealing with Yasumoto, allowing the young doctor to figure life out on his own and smiling when he finally donned his uniform and took on treating the poor of his own accord.

The plot twists and turns. Sometimes Red Beard is the focus, often Yasumoto, or a poor girl who’s rescued from a brothel. So many characters are given the spotlight and they all deserve it. The film has an emotional depth on par with The Human Condition, and one that few films bother to attempt. Kurosawa doesn’t beat you over the head with a message, but he does make you muse on how you should be kinder or more compassionate, how you should stretch beyond your comfort zone. It’s a film I could watch again and again. I’m so glad my misconception was dispelled. Red Beard is a treasure.

 

Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths

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The landlady Osugi and the thief, Sutekichi

Kurosawa adapted Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957. The film shows viewers life in a tenement situated in a pit where people toss garbage without thinking. From the vantage point of the working class people who toss the garbage, there’s nothing down below. (The middle and upper class probably don’t even know the pit’s there.) When Kurosawa takes you into the tenement, you meet a little society consisting of a former samurai, a drunken actor, a thief named Sutekichi, a prostitute, a vagabond wiseman, a metalworker, whose wife is dying, a stingy landlord and his wife and sister-in-law. The crucial relationship is the “love” triangle between the Sutekichi, Osugi, the landlady and Okayo, the landlady’s younger, sister. Sutekichi and Osugi have been involved for some time, but it’s all about sex, not love. The thief becomes smitten and convinced that if Okayo would marry him, he’d magically be able to mend his ways. Of course, Osugi soon becomes jealous. She’s not going to let the thief run off with there sister.

The Lower Depths is a close up look at poverty in the Edo era (1603-1868). Dirt poor is an apt description. The characters’ clothing is ripped and tattered. They’re all disheveled. The tenement itself is squalid. You can bet the landlady isn’t going to spruce it up any time soon.

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Though the characters were intriguing, it took me a while to warm up to the story. To their credit neither Gorky nor Kurosawa romanticize the poor. We can see from their behavior, that their behavior is a major cause of their poverty. The film mixes the misery with their capacity for joy and insight. The vagabond wiseman is like a priest and not only offers wisdom to the dying wife, the prostitute and others, but is willing to debate his beliefs with Sutekichi, who’s not ready to buy this holy talk. There are scenes that borrow songs, dance and conventions from Kabuki theater, but Kurosawa is careful not to present the characters as stereotypical happy poor people.

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I came to find the characters engaging, though Osugi is clearly a villain and Okayo a saint; more morally gray tones than simple black and white could help, but I guess that such nuance not in Gorky’s play. The essay I read on Criterion.com, points out that the film seeks to indict society with regard to its relationship to the poor. We just see how absent other classes are and how the landlady mistreats her tenants. For a real indictment, I would have liked to have seen some examples of interactions across class lines.

The Criterion Collection DVD features a commentary track by Donald Richie, the Japanese film expert. Richie provides great insights. Since the film’s in Japanese, it was easy to read the subtitles while listening to the commentary.