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.

 

 

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.

Only Yesterday

When 27 year old Taeko takes a vacation from her office job in Tokyo, childhood memories flood in, making the young woman take stock of her life. Taeko loves the countryside and jumps into working in the fields with her grandmother. This passion mystifies her sisters.

In the country, Taeko is haunted by memories from her 5th grade self. She looks back at the gossiping classmates, her outsider status at home and how she missed out on a chance to act because her father disproved of theatrics. She was and still is a dreamer, who was at times, kind, selfish, a follower, a betrayer and a doormat. In essence, Taeko lived through the slings and arrows of tween life.

Romance almost buds when Taeko meets Toshio, a young farmer who’s left the city to start an organic farm, before most people had heard of them. Toshio and Taeko have a bond and become fast friends. They both love rural life, but when urged to consider Toshio in terms of romance, Taeko can’t handle it.

This animated film has lush, detailed illustrations of scenery. Seeing the homes, the trains, forest and details like the burners for mosquito repellant, the tea kettle or kerosene heaters, makes me remember my time in Japan. I thought the artists drew the children better than the older characters, but that is a mild criticism. Also, I wish they had kept this film in Japanese and had subtitles or offered a choice for dubbing. That way, I could have escaped into the movie further still. All in all, Only Yesterday is a beautiful film that’s best considered as a contemplation of the past. The ending isn’t very satisfying, but I think viewers should consider this a depiction of a life, rather than a story with a definite end.

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.

Two English Girls

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I was on a roll with Truffaut’s films till I got to Two English Girls, which based on a Henri-Pierre Roche novel. Again Jean-Pierre Léaud stars as Claude, a young man whose mother sends him to stay with her British friend, who’s the mother of two young women, Ann and Muriel. Ann decides that Claude and her sister Muriel, who’s possibly going blind, are perfect for each other. Claude is rather inexperienced with women and there aren’t any other young women

All the characters are solemn. Missing in Two English Girls is the humor that is found in most of Truffaut films like Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Zazie dan le Metro, or even The 400 Blows. Since Jean-Pierre Léaud is never better than when he can be funny, so I’m not sure why that talent is wasted here. Probably the story is somber, but then why adapt this book? I just can’t figure out what compelled Truffaut to make this film.

Ann keeps pushing Claude into Muriel’s arms. She says it’s because Muriel is so smart and talented, but we just are told she is. There’s no demonstration of her talent or intelligence. Thus the film unintentionally demonstrates the poor results when you break the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing.

Claude does fall for Muriel, but I thought that’s because Ann and Muriel were the only women he saw. It’s almost like Claude is stuck on a low budget, Gilded Age version of The Bachelor. Eventually, Muriel pushes Claude away so the turns to Ann.

I bet you guess that some complications ensue, but they aren’t as explosive as you’d hope. These characters were more Zen than any I can remember. Very matter of fact and earnest. Very little joy. And when a character is heart-broken, he or she was something of a stoic zombie.

“Sometimes even Homer sleeps,” and in the case of Two English Girls, Truffaut seemed to be napping.

Jules and Jim

Truffaut’s Jules and Jim is rightly considered a classic. Based on an autobiographical  novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the story focuses on two young men, with a deep friendship. Jules is Austrian and lives in Paris, while Jim is French. They share a way of looking at the world. Both are looking for love in 1912. When they meet Catherine, who resembles a sculpture which they view as the paragon of female beauty, they’re both struck by her spirit and openness. Jim agrees to let Jules court and marry her.

The three make a carefree group, but you just know that this arrangement won’t last forever. Catherine is capricious but didn’t fascinate me the way she did all the men who fall for her. She has no job and no interests. She’s pretty and open to life. Her spirit can be summed up when after viewing a play, they’re discussing the heroine, as Jules and Jim debate, Catherine illustrates her view of the role of women by jumping in the Seine. Fully clothed, Jim jumps in and fishes her out.

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Soon WWI breaks out and Jules and Jim fight on opposing sides, both fearing that they may shoot the other. Catherine is back at home in Germany caring for her daughter and receiving beautiful love letters from Jules. In addition to being enigmatic, Catherine struck me as a taker. There’s no mention of her writing great letters to Jules to support him while he’s fighting for his country.

After the war, the men return and soon Jim is on his way to see Jules and Catherine and their daughter Sabine. Jules confides to Jim that Catherine’s taken lovers including a man named Albert, who appears from time to time. In true European form, Jules excuses Catherine since this is her nature. He is right, but it’s exasperating watching this woman escape all responsibility and never be held to account, which would help her grow up. Perhaps if Jules, or Jim, were stronger and more of leader, though that’s not his nature, Catherine might not test him so much or get bored. It’s doubtful, but possible.

Whenever you’ve got a trio, you can bet a friend is going to start something with his pal’s wife and with Jules’ permission, Jim begins an intimate relationship with Catherine. She still has sex with Jules and Albert and probably other men we don’t see.

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It was interesting to see how Truffaut portrayed a sexy couple, or a few such relationships without a lot of nudity. I think his films are sexier with their fully dressed characters than those where the actors are buck naked.

Though I didn’t like Catherine, I did like the movie, which was masterfully paced and full of emotional surprises. Jeanne Moreau gives an outstanding performance. As I write historical drama, I found it interesting how Truffaut didn’t spend money on exquisite period costumes or settings. There are hints of the eras, but the costumes weren’t as accurate or elaborate as you see in period pieces made now.

The Criterion Collection’s DVD come with terrific bonus features including interviews with the sons of the men the story is based on and with the original “Catherine” who lived to be 96 and saw the movie before she died.

The African Queen

Like many of the films I see for my New Year’s Resolution Old Movie Challenge, The African Queen (1951) with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart is a film I’d never seen. I knew the basics that Hepburn played Rose Sayer, a straight-laced missionary and Bogart, a salty, undomesticated sailor, but I had no idea why they’d be on a journey together.

So it was news to me that Hepburn was a missionary, working in Africa with her brother who dies as a result of an attack by the Germans in WWI. The Germans burn the village down and her missionary brother goes crazy and dies from the effect. Bogart plays Mr. Allnut, who travels in a rusty boat known ironically as the African Queen, bringing mail and supplies to miners and the mission. Mr. Allnut is rough around the edges, but always polite to Rose, whom he always addresses as “Miss.” (It isn’t till halfway through the film that they find out each other’s first names.)

When Allnut sees that Miss is all alone, and vulnerable when the Germans invariably return, he takes her on to his rust bucket, the African Queen. He expects to take her to safety somehow and is shocked by her cockamamie idea that they should go along an impossibly dangerous route till they come to the lake where a German war ship is. Then she figures they can rig up some DIY torpedoes and ram the African Queen into the German ship to fight for her country, Great Britain. They’ll jump overboard at just the right moment and swim to safety.

Allnut has the sense to see the lunacy of her plan, but lacks the rhetorical skills to convince her of the futility. Has any Hepburn character ever been convinced to follow someone else’s plan?

Thus onward they go, and along the way they get drenched, barely survive the rapids and, as you’d expect, fall in love.

The film pulled me in, though at first I thought this particular pair of opposites might not attract. What I liked is that Allnut really respected Rose and that the film wasn’t a mere series of scenes where the opposites bicker. Once they’d overcome the initial obstacles, and saw each others’ strengths, they formed a real team. The main conflict was the arduous journey and finally the Germans. At times luck, rather than pluck got them through, but as Rose was a missionary, the Hand of God ought to be a force in the story.

Note:

  • Hepburn insisted the film be shot in Africa and as a result the crew endured hardship after hardship just like the characters did. See this post.
  • Someone’s bought and restored the African Queen used in the movie and you can arrange a canal or dinner cruise on it.

 

 

Casque D’Or

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I didn’t know what to expect when I borrowed Casque D’or (1952) from the library. One surprise was that the heroine, Marie, was played by Simone Signoret, who gave a forceful performance in Army of Shadows. Marie is a a gangster’s moll and outshines her friends, not only with her cascading blonde hair, but with her vivacious spirit. The film opens with scenes that come right out of a Renoir painting. A party of young lovers rowing along a river followed by a lively dance hall scene. Marie stands out as she is the only woman who’s rowing a boat and she stands up to her boorish, abusive boyfriend.

(It was hard to believe that Marie, who’s so self-assured, would give such a churl the time of day, but the plot requires that.)

In the dance hall we first see a dozen or so upper class men and women enter to take a good look at their “inferiors.” From their comments it’s clear that they’re hear for the entertainment of watching how people who aren’t dripping in diamonds behave.

Soon the attention turns to Marie’s friends, the gangsters and their girls. Ever petulant, Marie’s boyfriend Roland takes an immediate dislike to Manda a carpenter who catches Marie’s eye. Manda is a friend of one of the gangsters and introduces himself to Marie’s set and holds his head high as they mock him because he’s a carpenter. He is confident enough to let their jokes roll of his back and he accepts Marie’s offer of a dance.

Hothead, Roland is furious and a fight with Manda ensues. Overseen by the gang’s boss, Felix, who also has a thing for Marie, Roland and Manda fight in a way I’ve never seen in a film. First both men are searched and any weapons are confiscated. The two men are spit far apart and Felix tosses a knife to the ground and the first man to get it,can use it on his opponent. Roland gets the knife. The fight is deftly shot with many close ups and felt realer than any I’ve seen. In the end Manda kills Roland, which sets up the story.

Banda must flee, but Marie pursues him and while Manda hides out Marie is with him and their romance grows. Smitten with spunky Marie, Felix plots to get Felix arrested and sacrifices one of his own men to lure Manda into captivity. The ending is bold and theme of loyalty and Marie’s life-giving spirit make this a must-see.

The Rules of the Game

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I had to watch The Rules of the Game under strange circumstances. My DVD only would play the film with the commentary going. Thus I read the subtitles and once in a while got a snippet of dialog without English commentary. I prefer first viewings without the expert’s take, but perhaps in this complex film the commentary was best.

Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game depicts two parallel classes, the upper middle class and the servant class. From the bourgeois Christine, Robert’s Austrian wife has disappointed her would-be lover Andre, an aviator who’s just completed a round the world journey. Andre gets no satisfaction from the clamoring crowd or the inquisitive press. Christine didn’t come so the whole flight was for nought.

Christine’s been in her Parisian home with her husband Robert and her maid Lisette. Robert’s tiring of his lover Genevieve and Lisette’s tired of her husband Schumacher. All are leaving for the countryside where a web of relationships will tangle creating a fine mess pulling the film from farce to tragedy with a surprise ending.

Renoir saw WWII coming. He also saw his society drunk on frivolity, careening over an edge. The Rules of the Game is a rare film that begins with light-hearted, harmless fun, but ends with broken hearts and a tragic death. The characters who all play at love see the consequence of their erroneous worldview.

The film is beautiful and many scenes are complex dances. Renoir was ambitious to offer such sophistication and it wasn’t till decades after it was made that The Rules of the Game was considered a masterpiece, one of the finest movies of all time.

If you think you’ve seen the actor playing Robert before, you have. He was ran the roulette table at Rick’s Café in Casablanca.

I’ll definitely watch this one again.

Brooklyn

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Based on a novel, Brooklyn tells the story of an Irish woman, Eilis, who leaves the Emerald Isle where there are no jobs or eligible young men, to make a life in Brooklyn. While fitting in isn’t easy, she does find a boyfriend and succeed in bookkeeping at night school so that she puts down roots. She soon marries her Italian boyfriend in secret.

Life takes a turn when her sister suddenly dies. Eilis returns to Ireland to help her mother who’s all alone. It’s intended to be a short trip, but then Eilis decides to stay for her good friend’s wedding and then someone finds her a temporary accounting job that she excels at and then she meets terrific young man. It seems that Eilis has found the life she always wanted in Ireland.

SPOILER ALERT

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