Samurai Rebellion

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What a film! Starring Mifune, Toshiro* Samurai Rebellion (1967) blew me away. The Japanese really do know how to play on one’s emotions. Far from our stereotype of this culture, they’re capable of intense emotion, stubbornness and defiance.

Set in the early 18th century, Samurai Rebellion tells the story of a samurai family that’s more or less forced to make their son marry their Lord’s cast off mistress. Mifune plays the head of the family, Sasahara Isaburo, an older master swordsman, who had to marry his cold-hearted, domineering wife because he lacked social status. Sashara often jokes about how he’s just a hen-pecked husband. When the message comes that the regional warlord wants Sasahara’s son Yogoro to marry his troublesome mistress, Sasahara tactfully says, thanks but no thanks. He’d like a better marriage for his son. Sasahara’s wife thinks this is stupid. In this culture when the warlord asks you to do something you do it. she clearly has no respect for anyone but herself. This woman makes the farmer’s wife in Grant Wood’s American Gothic look cheerful.

This forced marriage is not kosher in this society. The warlord is abusing his power. Sasahara keeps politely refusing. In time the son, breaks in on a visit from the steward and agrees. No one expects much from this marriage.
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When Ichi, the mistress arrives with her daughter, she explains to her new husband that she was exiled because after bearing her child, she returned to the castle to see that the Lord has found her replacement, a cutie, who’s now making the Lord’s heart race. Ichi never wanted to be this guy’s wife or mistress, but is disgusted that after giving birth she’s been displaced. By speaking up, Ichi finds herself cast out.

Surprisingly, Yogoro and Ichi fall in love. Ichi is an ideal daughter-in-law who puts up with her grouchy mother in law and is a great asset to the family. But the course of true love never runs smoothly. When the Lord’s firstborn dies, Ichi is summoned back to the castle. She doesn’t want to go. Yogoro doesn’t want her to go and neither does Sasahara. In fact, the men are willing to defy the lord and fight to the death to keep Ichi.

The film kept me in suspense from start to finish. Mifune gives a powerful performance and the director Kobayashi Misaki provides a beautiful drama. There were some times when the cinematography was too much like when there’s an intense meeting at the castle during which lots of bold, distracting shadows come through the windows, but that’s a minor fault. Much of the cinematography is gorgeous as the filmmakers use the aesthetics of Japanese homes with little furniture, tatami mats, and dark beams against white walls to good effect.

Though there are only two female characters, they’re both strong women who hold their own in a man’s world.

I highly recommend Samurai Rebellion, which I bet you can get the DVD from your library as I did. (Thank God of inter-library loans.)

You can read the illustrious Donald Richie’s Samurai Rebellion article here.

*Note, I’ve used the Japanese practice of writing the family name first and the Western first name second.

Victoria, Season 3, A Show of Unity

When her carriage is unsuccessfully attacked by Irish rebels, Victoria learns that the Irish want their freedom. Thus the queen takes her entourage to visit the Emerald Isle.

Albert gets Bertie a new tutor from his visit to Cambridge. Victoria’s not amused because she wasn’t consulted. That’s understandable. Albert continues to have trouble with his role, which he sees as second-fiddle, and Victoria’s mourning Skerrett and impatient that no one realizes this. All these emotions add to the marital conflict between the Queen and the Prince.

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The real Feodora

Like Cinderella or Jane Eyre, Feodora’s left at home to look after the children. She stews and pouts and is clueless about the new tutor, whom the servants suspect is up to something.

In Ireland, the royal retinue stay at Lord Palmerston’s estate. We meet Lady Palmerston. I expected a long suffering woman trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage. I was off base. Lady Palmerston is a busy beekeeper and happy with her open marriage.

Victoria’s blown away with the open marriage concept. She shares this arrangement with Albert, not that it’s something either of them want to try, but she’s amazed she’s met a woman who’s okay with this.

Love is also in the air between Sophie, the duchess with the churlish husband, and the new footman, Joseph. It’s a perilous relationship, that’s consummated and joyous. The duchess and the footman frolic in at the beach and aren’t as secretive as they should be. Rather jealous, Lord Palmerston notices and warns Sophie that she’s playing with fire. She doesn’t heed his advice and I suspect will be found out next week (or soon).

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Sophie, the duchess who’s playing with fire

Victoria is a big diplomatic success at the ceremony in Dublin where she says just the right things and shows the Irish she cares. This doesn’t solve everything, but she was the first British monarch to visit Ireland since the Middle Ages, so I think she’s due some credit.

Back home, Albert quarrels with Victoria. He also is proud as can be that Bertie’s making great progress with his studies. His math and French have taken off.

However, Victoria’s new maid eventually mentions that the servants suspect the tutor of child abuse. The queen immediately races to the children’s room and catches the tutor in the act. He’s thrown out. I would have like to have seen him thrown in jail and put on trial. Poor Bertie! I found this storyline the most heart-breaking of the week. (Sophie should know her affair will be found out and that to cuckold a duke with a hot temper will not go unpunished. I fell sorry for her but she’s an adult.)

As usual, the hour sped by. The program is packed with drama, gorgeous costumes, and splendid scenery. This week we were also treated to some fine Irish-inspired music.

Beauty and the Beast

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From the library, I received a Fall Movie Challenge recommendation of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). It’s a terrific movie that portrays a dream world better than any film I’ve ever seen. This live-action film offers an atmosphere that surpasses most animated films, which are easier to make other-worldly.

Cocteau follows the original fairytale’s plot more closely than the Disney version. He shows a father with financial troubles, two complaining, selfish daughters, one filial, hardworking daughter and a lazy, wastrel of a son. The dynamics of the siblings was key to the drama, I think. From the start we see the brother’s ne’er’do-well pal wooing Belle, with no luck.

After some financial ups and downs, the father on a journey through the forest and stay at a bizarre castle where the statues seem alive as do the arms holding the candles along the wall, mistakenly picks a rose for Belle unleashing the Beast’s anger. Soon Belle agrees to return with the Beast to his castle in lieu of his taking her father’s life.

The castle is one of the best parts of the film. The plants that grow wildly throughout the home and the living statues and lights are freaky and enchanting.

This film is intriguing because in large part to how wild the environment and Beast seem.. Thus while the story is a fairytale, it will appeal to adults with imagination. It would scare young children, but they can enjoy the Disney film. Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is a wild, imaginative trip for classic film buffs.

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.

Shoot the Piano Player

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Charlie & Léna, the waitress

Inspired by American B movies, Shoot the Piano Player begins with Chico, a ne’er-do-well tracking down Charlie, his brother who’s a classic concert pianist turned bar room piano player. Two thugs are chasing Chico who’s run off with the whole pot that they ripped off in some heist. Charlie wants no part of Chico and his other brother’s two bit crimes. Along the way Charlie recalls his first marriage and early fame as a concert pianist, woos a beautiful, young waitress, evades the two thugs, murders his boss in self-defense, and runs off to the woods to join his brothers.

An adaptation of a novel by David Goodis, whom I’d never heard of, Shoot the Piano Player is a noir story, which beautiful and often clever cinematography. Though it was made in 1960, it seem fresher than many films made today. The love scenes are so beautifully done in a way that is totally lost with modern filmmakers. I wonder whether the black and white film of that day are part of the reason. There is plenty of visual wit and intelligent repartee.

Shoot the Piano Player was not a success when it first came out, but later was rediscovered and loved. People who know Charles Aznavour, the star, think of him as a singer, but actually his first goal was to act. When he couldn’t get acting roles, he’d sing.

This film, Truffaut’s second after the successful The 400 Blows, features a couple actors from his first film. Charlie’s impish little brother and Chico were both in The 400 Blows.

Shoot the Piano Player has plenty of surprises and twists and turns, that it’s sure to delight with its sensitivity, innovation and humor. I know I’ll watch this again and again.

I watched with the commentary on so I could hear all about the filmmaking. Get the Criterion Collection edition with interviews with Truffaut and Aznavour.

Le Ciel à Vous

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Jean Grémillion’s Le Ciel à Vous, stands out as it’s uplifting film. Released during the occupation during WWII, it’s the story of a married couple, who must move their family’s home and business when their land is sold to make room for an aviation club’s airfield. Thérèse and Pierre Gauthier are happily married and even when they disagree they respect each other. They have a daughter and a son.

When Lucienne Ivry, a famous aviatrix, performs at the airfield, the Gauthier’s flock to the show. Nostalgic, Pierre remembers his days as a mechanic in WWI. He’s a master mechanic and saves the day when Ivry’s airplane’s engine fails.

Pierre grows more and more keen on flying and takes it up as a hobby. Meanwhile, his competent, beautiful wife gets more jealous. Her jealousy propels her to take up flying herself on the sly. When Pierre finds out, he panics. But when he sees how much she loves flying, they begin to share this somewhat dangerous hobby. Since Pierre’s a great mechanic and Thérèse has a knack for business, they are able to afford their own plane. In fact, they soon start winning prizes for aviation. All isn’t smiles though, when the family hits some financial troubles, the parents decide to sell their daughter’s piano. (The daughter was a fabulous pianist, but the mother made her quit the piano since she wanted the girl to enter a more practical field.)

Gremillon_Filmw_CielVous_originalEven when the going gets tough, and it seems that they should sell their plane, Pierre and  Thérèse keep flying. She racks up so many trophies her mother complains of all the extra dusting. As proficient as he was, Pierre knew their plane couldn’t break any more records for me. Then Thérèse decides she has a good chance to break the women’s long distance record of 2000 some miles. Her mother is against it and Pierre is torn too. He wants her to seek fulfillment and he does believe she can do this, but he also realizes it’s dangerous. Grémillion gives us such a multi-faceted marriage at the film’s core. Each wants the best for each other. Both Pierre nor Thérèse believe in fulfilling their duties to their business and family. They don’t just do what feels good. They’re cheerful, smart people throughout the story and while they may disagree, they do so with respect and dignity, which was so uplifting to watch.

The plot held my attention and I admit I wasn’t certain what would happen at the end. This is a film I’d definitely watch again.

Renoir’s The Lower Depths

Before Kurosawa adapted Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957, Jean Renoir made a French version. Well, sort of French. He kept the Russian names of characters, but set the film in France so it’s gotten a blend of Russia and France.

This film portrays a softer poverty. All the actors wear clean, apparently ironed clothes. Most have an air of dignity and polish. Most could pass mustard in any middle class social event.

The cast again includes a drunken actor, a venial husband and wife, who’re slumlords and the wife’s sister, whom Pepel loves. He believes if only Natasha would marry him, he could give up his life of crime and become a better man. He believed she was his only means of improvement.

Natasha is almost married off (sold off, essentially) to a official of means. Her sister, aware and jealous of Pepel’s interest in Natasha, orchestrates a dinner with the unctuous, over-stuffed official, for whom I felt a sort of pity as his attraction to Natasha and his treatment of her was both caring and sincere. A big scene is when Natasha gets drunk at the elegant restaurant where the official has taken her and Pepel bursts in and starts a melee.

One character, who wasn’t in the Kurosawa film, was the Baron. An aristocrat who’s gambled away his fortune meets Pepel and learns about the tenement. Accepting his lowered state philosophically, he moves in and makes esoteric observations of his plight and joins in the card playing, finally meeting the players he can best. C’est la vie.

The film does look at poverty, but at a cleaned up easier to endure version of it. Renoir offers a pastoral view of poverty through this motley crew. I’m not sure what the aim of doing so was. I doubt it would change people’s minds or actions the way Charles Dickens, Émile Zola’s or Upton Sinclair’s work did.