Queen Christina (1933)

Starring Greta Garbo, Queen Christina shows a woman who became the leader of Sweden as a child when her father died, lead like a man. Garbo captivates. I don’t think I’d seen her in a movie, just in photos. My, was she compelling. Her magnetism keeps all eyes on her. This strong, passionate queen had no qualms about leadership. Her problem is the nagging requests for her to marry the King of Spain.

In the beginning of the film she had no desire to marry. When she gets fed up with the wheedling to coax her into the King of Spain’s arms, she bolts from the court. Dressed as a man, followed by her mentor, she encounters the Spanish envoy whose carriage falls into a rut. She teases and mocks him and his retinue. When she overhears the envoy’s plan to take a room at a nearby inn, she beats him to it and takes the last room for miles. Incognito, the queen teases the envoy when he arrives at the inn. Yet he gets the last laugh when the innkeeper, who’s swayed by the envoy’s higher offer, convinces the disguised queen to share the room with the envoy.

It isn’t long before the queen’s gender is revealed to the envoy and before you know it, they’re madly in love. Of course that presents problems because 1) the envoy’s mission is to convey his King’s proposal to Queen Christina and 2) he’s bound to discover his love’s true identity.

Garbo gives a strong performance and the story offers a surprise ending. The costuming was elegant and arresting. I’ve got to see more of Garbo’s films. You should too.

Note: There was a Queen Christina, who ruled Sweden in the 17th century, but I can’t find any evidence that this film isn’t more than conjecture.

Morning for the Osone Family

MORNING FOR THE OSONE FAMILY

Keisuke Kinoshita’s Morning for the Osone Family (1946) probably couldn’t get made today. It’s an anti-WWII film that exposes how the military and government squelched free speech and exploited citizens even when Japan was at a point when it was clear they were bound to lose.

Curiously, the film begins with the Osone family celebrating Christmas and singing “Silent Night.” After some chit chat, the eldest son is summoned by law enforcement and is soon imprisoned for writing an article that subtly questioned Japan’s militarism.

It’s a big hit for a family whose father died a while back. The mother has tried to live up to the father’s pacifist philosophy. She continues to support her second son, who’s a struggling artist, and her daughter who wants to marry for love, but now that her fiancé has been drafted, is getting pressured by her uncle to marry a scion he’s lined up.

The family unity continues to dissolve. The painter gets drafted and the daughter goes to work in an army support job. The uncle, who’s an officer and very pro-war moves into the family home with his haughty wife. Their presence, and particularly their lavish lifestyle enjoying black market goods, while most citizens starve, sickens the mother and daughter. The final straw is when the uncle urges the youngest son, who’s still in high school, to enlist in the army.

Morning for the Osone Family offers a beautiful, moving view of history. My hunch is few Japanese have seen this film, but they should. We should too. I’m glad I did.

The Spirit of the Bee Hive

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Perhaps I missed something, but The Spirit of the Bee Hive confounded me. A story about Anna, a young girl living in a village in Spain, who sees a Frankenstein film and gets obsessed with figuring out why Frankenstein killed a girl who had tried to play with him.  She asks her older sister, who’s probably 7 or 8 years old, and gets a fanciful response which sends her on a mission to find Frankenstein in a local field.

Because I don’t know much about Spanish history and couldn’t understand the context a lot of the film was beyond me. Moreover, the family was so alienated. The parents spent little time with each other or with their children. There were some touching scenes, but as a whole the parents seemed distant and lived in their own heads. The kids were allowed to wander wherever including along and on railroad tracks. They’d put their ears to the tracks to determine if a train was approaching. That made me tense, but on the suspense scale, I wanted something more.

At one point a man who’s been shot jumps off the train and makes his way to the abandoned barn in the desolate field where Ana seeks her Frankenstein. We never learn his story. Ana innocently cares for him and brings him food and tends as best she can to his wound. He never says much. One day after she leaves him some food and starts for home gunfire takes the man out. We never learn the source of the bullets. Since Ana’s given the victim her father’s jacket with his watch in the pocket, her father is questioned by police. We never hear what’s said and never does the father talk to Ana about her actions. So much is left to the imagination and without understanding of Spanish modern history and its impact on the culture, I couldn’t appreciate this film.

The father was a beekeeper and scholar and there’s plenty of bee hive patterns, like the windows shown above. Still I really never got the significance of the title. I was going to watch some of the extras on Disc 2, but I figured I didn’t want to spend the time digging deeper in the hope of possibly understanding an opaque film.

Ana is blessed with the most beautiful, arresting eyes and they’re well photographed. Her sister is pretty as well. Seeing how they’re captured on film was the best part of this movie. For the most part, the emotionally distant characters left me cold.

Human Condition, II

HUMAN CONDITION

Tatsuya Nakadai as Kaji

Part two of Kobayashi’s trilogy Human Condition maintains the excellence of the first film. Here the hero Kaji is a private in the military. It seems no one on the face of the earth faces more degradation than a WWII Japanese private. Kaji’s particularly targeted because he’s suspect of being a “Red” since he tried to get humane treatment for the Chinese P.O.W.’s stationed at the mine he managed.

The “vets” or soldiers with more experience are merciless in their brutality against the newer recruits. In fact, the sensitive Obara, who’s physically weak and plagued by domestic problems, is beaten and humiliated in a way I’ve never witnessed. While Kaji tries to help, that makes matters worse for Obara who commits suicide rather early on in this three hour film.

Although Kaji is strong and performs his duties without failure, because of his principles, he’s berated and targeted. In no uncertain terms, the film indicts the Japanese military, where a few good men are outnumbered by corrupt brutes. Even when he was in the hospital, he was beaten. The head nurse thought nothing of striking patients!

As in Human Condition, part 1, Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays Kaji, is stellar. I just learned that he was a shop clerk and Koyabashi, the director of Human Condition, discovered him and put him in a film.

Blind Date

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Lucky for me my friend’s husband isn’t a theater lover. That’s how I got invited to see Blind Date at the Goodman Theater. Blind Date shows us how Ronald Reagan convinced Mikhail Gorbachev to attend a summit meeting to talk about the weapons race. My understanding of this page of history was foggy, but the performances brought clarity and interest. The play opens with a monologue by George Schultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State. Due to his education and experience in economics, Shultz was able to figure out how Russia would struggle and what the consequences would be. Thus he realized this was a key time to contact Gorbechev, Russia’s youngest General Secretary.

Next Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze, shares his thinking with the audience before sharing cocktails with Shultz. (In their conversation, which begins awkwardly Shultz tells Shevardnadze about a cocktail called The Kangaroo, which most of us know as a vodka martini.

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We see a lot of negotiating and one step forward, one back action as the two governments and two men figure out whether they should meet and where. It’s quite a chess game and quite interesting. Both powerful men are married to driven women. Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev have some of the plays best scenes and lines. These women know their minds and masterfully can read situations.

The play has humor but adroitly manages not to canonize or lampoon Reagan. The playwright Rogelio Martinez was born in Cuba and lived there till he was 9 and came to the US. Hence Martinez is fascinated with the ideologies of democracy and communism and has written a series of plays about events like the ping pong competition between China and the US where communism and democracy intersected. It would be easy to make a play that bored or had the wrong tone, but with Blind Date Martinez entertains and enlightens. The play’s pace is good and I could see this show on Broadway. I could see watching this again, which I think is the ultimate goal of a good play.

Kudos to Director Robert Falls and all the performers. Bravo!

Drunken Angel

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Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel has nothing to do with Christmas. It’s an engaging film that grabbed me with characters I didn’t expect to see in a film, Japanese or otherwise.

Have you ever seen a film where a doctor call his patients idiots? Or one where you saw the patient and punch and toss a doctor out of a bar on his hinny?

Me neither.

Till I saw Drunken Angel that is. Set in post-WWII Japan, Drunken Angel presents a Tokyo neighborhood on the edge of a smelly, dirty swamp. The city’s polluted and the society’s sick and poisoned. It’s a city where everyone shops at the black market as that’s the only store with any desirable goods. Kurosawa wants to show a society that’s gone to pot.

His hero is a doctor who’s openly alcoholic and drinks diluted medical alcohol as the real stuff’s hard to come by. Despite his drinking, the doctor is a wise, caring man, surrounded by exasperating fools. A gangster comes to his office complaining that a nail poked into his hand. When the doctor extracts it, he sees the nail is actually a bullet. During this encounter, the doctor notices that the gangster probably has tuberculosis, but the young man rebuffs his advice to get an X-ray.

The gangster runs a nightclub and fights getting the healthcare he needs every step of the way. The doctor yells at him, pesters him, and throws bottles at him. The gangster just doesn’t get it. Finally, he goes to a high class doctor and gets his X-Ray done, but does nothing about it.

If this wasn’t exasperating enough to a doctor who really cares, Miyo, his nurse, who’s usually a sensible, calming influence, starts thinking maybe, just maybe, she should go over to the jail to see the no-good older gangster whom she was involved with (I can hardly call this brute who gave her VD and then deserted her a “lover”). The older gangster just cares about money and power. He sends his thugs out to get chase her down, but the doctor protects her.

I watched this absorbing film twice. The characters, though rough and very flawed, were original and vibrant. Drunken Angel shows Japan, broken, polluted and corrupted, after the war. It’s a side I hadn’t seen and a critique of a society that’s lost its morality and except for one character its ability to tell the truth.

The Criterion Collection DVD has an illuminating commentary by Donald Richie. Listen to that if you can.

The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons
After reading the novel, I had to watch the film directed by Orson Welles. The Magnificent Ambersons is considered a classic film though not up to the level of Welles’ Citizen Kane. The film is quite faithful to the book, but I wished it included George with his rival redhead Fred Kinney, the part when Eugene falls over laughing when he sees how similar George and Fred’s conflict is to his own foolishness and how Lucy was not exclusive to George, how she would go dancing and socialize with other young men and how that made George feel so insecure.

The film was good, but not as full as the book, which is so often the case.

Welles had the actors in dark settings. I wished the mansions had more light. Buy some candles! Or get electricity!

The film was enjoyable and a classic. Reading the essay on Criterion, I learned how much Welles’ vision was altered:

But in Welles’ absence, RKO Studios recut the original version of the film mercilessly—Welles said it looked like it had been “edited with a lawn mower”—reducing its running time from 131 to the present 88 minutes. Nevertheless, what survives is still one of the most strikingly beautiful and technically innovative films ever to come out of Hollywood. It also tells a good story—about the decline of a once powerful and wealthy turn-of-the-century Midwestern family—with a conviction and maturity that are rare for the old Hollywood system.

I wish I could see the 133 minutes, but I’m glad I saw this.

Poil de Carrote

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Written and directed by Julian Duvivier, Poil de Carrote or Carrotop (1932) will grab your heart. It’s the story of a boy whose mother has no love for him, while she spoils and adores his older siblings Felix and Ernestine, Carrot Top is the family’s Cinderella, who has to do all the chores and is the only person in the home, including the maid, who wears rags.

When the film opens, Carrot Top is getting scolded for writing a school essay stating, “A family is a group of people forced to live together under one roof who cannot stand each other.” His teacher tells him that all mothers and fathers love their children. The teacher clearly hasn’t met Mr. and Mrs. Lepic. Carrot Top has to call his parents Mr. and Mrs. Lepic and he’s absolutely right when he tries to convince his teacher that not all families are like Norman Rockwell paintings. Throughout this debate we see how smart and witty Carrot Top is.

Just as predicted, when Carrot Top arrives in his home town from boarding school, no one’s there to pick him up from the train station. When he gets home, the abuse and trouble begin. At every chance the stern Mrs. Lepic ridicules and overworks her son, who it’s well know was an “accident.” Mr. Lepic has withdrawn from home life and just doesn’t see what’s going on. He lives in his own world surviving by ignoring everything around him.

Only the new maid, Annette sees the injustice and hardship Carrot Top faces. His only other allies are the little girl he plans to marry and his good natured godfather who offers solace, but doesn’t intervene till the very end.

As the story progresses, Carrot Top’s upbeat attitude erodes. His shrew of a mother who looks for every chance to make life hard for Carrot Top is just too much. It breaks his spirit to see children his age in town who’re in nice clothes and are allowed to play.

Robert Lynen gives a realistic, sincere performance that shows amazing emotional range. Poil de Carrote was his first film. I learned from Criterion Collection’s essay, that Lynen joined the French Resistance in his 20s and was caught and executed by the Nazi’s.

I chose this film because I saw that Harry Baur of Les Misérables played the father. Again he provides an excellent, sensitive performance.

While I’d never heard of this story, Poil de Carrote began as a novel, then was a play, a silent film directed by Julian Duvivier, who made this film. Through the years, Poil de Carrote has been adapted numerous times into TV programs, cartoons and other films.

Wings

bulgakova_wings_movieReleased in 1966 Wings, a story of a Russian female heroic fighter pilot long after she’s been able to fly sounded like an intriguing film. As a Criterion Collection film I had not sky-high, but high hopes. It’s the story of an unmarried woman who’s isolated from those around her. Though she’s a mother (of a daughter who doesn’t know she’s adopted), a high school principal who’s dedicated to her school and students, and the lover of a museum director, the main character is emotionally distant from everyone around her.

Her life isn’t bad, but she’s very isolated. She talks with her lover about her estrangement with her daughter and she talks in passing with people at work about a boy who got in trouble and has now run away, but the conversation is superficial.

While I gave the movie a chance and wouldn’t call it bad, because the heroine was so removed from everyone else and we never saw the main problems like the boy’s flight from his dormitory, I never got caught up in the story. So the artistry escaped me.

I can’t recommend Wings, but perhaps I’ve missed something.

the collection

I gave Masterpiece’s The Collection a try when it premiered on Sunday. It didn’t take long for me to grow tired of a program where the characters all seemed dark, greedy and selfish. I confess after 10 minutes or so I changed the channel.

The show is about a struggling fashion house in Paris after WWII. The man in the center of the video’s first frame is the jaded, selfish owner of a fashion house is asked by a government official to help France’s fashion industry rise again to its former zenith.  To his left is his reprobate brother who’s a talented designer who’s got substance abuse problems.

I’d much rather PBS brought back The Paradise, where the characters were flawed and faced obstacles, but the heroine was good, though not at all boring. Dark characters like those in House of Cards or The Collection aren’t necessarily fascinating.

If I got the show wrong, and should give it a chance by catching up online, let me know.