Advertisements

The Last Emperor

I know I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor when it first came out, but now that I’m in China and know more of its history, I couldn’t pass up a friend’s offer to lend it to me.

The story is told in flashbacks as Puyi, China’s last emperor, reflects on his life now that he’s imprisoned by the Communists. He symbolizes all they hate about old China, but Puyi can’t really help that.

I vividly remembered Puyi, the tot who became emperor when his father was killed, getting taken from his home to the palace. I wonder why his mother didn’t live at the palace since her husband was the emperor. I’ll have to look that up. The film than continues by showing the folly of having a young boy assume the emperor’s throne. Now I’m sure someone else, like the Lord Chancellor was actually calling the shots, but that wasn’t in the film.

Since no one can correct the emperor, even when he’s 3 or 4, Puyi soon becomes a brat. He’s never able to leave the vast grounds. It isn’t until he’s seven that he’s able to see his brother, one of the few people who will talk straight with him. It’s quite bizarre to see this boy treated with such deference by hundreds of grown eunuchs, who indulge his every whim.

In 1912, China became the Republic of China led by Sun Yet Sen, yet we stay with Puyi, who’s shocked to learn that he’s no longer the emperor of China, he’s just the emperor of the Forbidden City and he can’t leave. I don’t fault the film with sticking with Puyi’s biography, but the events in his life made me curious about the wider history of China, which I know in outlines.

Throughout his life, Puyi seemed to be a puppet. Though he was allowed to have his way in trivial matters around the palace, he never governed. He talked of wanting to choose a wife who spoke English and French, but the dowager chose for him. In the film he seemed to get on well with is wife and his concubine, but according to an article in The Guardian, Puyi was pretty asexual and certainly not a big family man.

I found the parts with Mr. Johnston, the emperor’s tutor, played by Peter O’Toole, who can perform such a role with the needed aplomb, most interesting as Mr. Johnston was the only character with any force, the only one to question or challenge the emperor. He did so tactfully, but most kowtowed as they wanted the emperor to have his way, while they feathered their nests with goodies from the imperial storehouses and coffers. How that money and the opulence of the majestic lifestyle continued after the Republic took over mystifies me.

When the Communists arrest and interrogate Puyi, he had my sympathy, but I still yearned for a hero who would take action. .I wondered why he never left China. He seemed to have been conditioned early on to never go beyond the familiar.

He did flee the Forbidden City and lived in the Japanese legation and later Manchuria, where he thought he’d actually rule, but he was just a puppet for the Japanese. To me it was clear that once Japan surrendered he needed to leave. he was inert, either unwise or paralyzed to take action. The film with its majestic setting and costumes cries out for an epic hero. There’s a tension in this film that Puyi never was that sort of hero. And he suffered for that.

Advertisements

Pygmalion

Leslie-Howard-006

I was skeptical about Pygmalion (1938) starring Leslie Howard, whom I only knew as Ashley in Gone with the Wind. Boy, was I wrong. This film is every bit as good as My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.

Faithful to the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion shows us how the arrogant Professor Higgins takes on the bet to transform Eliza Doolittle, played by Helen Hill, a poor flower girl with bad English into a socialite. The film moves briskly and the performances were top notch. It should be seen and discussed by every do-gooder as it’s easy to take on a person’s problems without giving thought to what’s to become of the person after they’re transformed.

The only flaw in the story, which is well acted with witty dialog, is the ending for poor Eliza, the flower girl. In the end she does wind up with Higgins, but he hasn’t been transformed. Isn’t there someone more kind and thoughtful for the sincere, kind Eliza? Mr. Shaw, what were you thinking?

How to Steal a Million

How-to-Steal-a-Million-5

Starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, How to Steal a Million is another fun, witty movie. Hepburn plays the daughter of an art forger. When her home is broken into by O’Toole, her father and she fear that his forgeries will be revealed. Later they fear that a sculpture lent to a museum will be proven to be a fraud when it’s examined for insurance. Throughout the caper delights.

It’s a lighthearted romp with a clever final heist and a surprisingly moral end. It’s lots of fun and Hepburn and O’Toole are quite entertaining.

Bridge over the River Kwai

How did I miss this one? I just finished watching the classic The Bridge over the River Kwai starring William Holden and Alec Guinness. I’m blown away. Every scene was perfect in this story of Holden’s Shale, a jaded American officer who’s at odds with Guinness’ a British commander’s absolute, unstinting adoration of following codes and rules.

I remember the whistling and the powerful ending from my childhood. I was no more than 6 and annoyed at a family party where all the adults were enthralled by this film. Now I appreciate why as Holden and Guinness deliver perfect performances in these two characters, who couldn’t be more different. They’re conflicts aren’t direct as they’re rarely in the same scenes, but they’re central to the film’s theme.

Both characters are prisoners of war in a Japanese camp run by the brutal Satoo who must get a bridge built in a few weeks. The work is far behind schedule. Satoo operates on the Japanese ancient military code of Bushidoo. which runs contrary to the Geneva Convention, which Guinness insists upon. Guinness shows his dedication to duty when he refuses to let his officers work on the bridge. He’s willing to spend days in a metal box, called the “Oven” to stand up for this belief. You have to admire his courage.

Holden’s Shale looks for short cuts and sees the futility of the war. He has his points, but neither character is clearly right or wrong, which is the key to why the film is so absorbing.

(I wonder how my students would view this film which shows the Japanese as cruel not just to the Chinese, but to the Allied soldiers. I wouldn’t show it because I don’t want to spread anti-Japanese sentiment, which made sense in the early part of the 20th century, but is outmoded now.)

Anchor’s Away

gene-kelly-frank-sinatra-anchors-away

If you want some light entertainment, Anchor’s Away with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra is a good choice. Anchors Away is the story of two navy officers who’ve earned a weekend pass for their bravery. Kelly, suave and urbane, boasts of his girl Lola, while Sinatra’s more inexperienced and wants some coaching from Kelly, whose plans for meeting up with Lola are soon sidelined when the two officers are roped in by the local police who need help getting a little boy back home. Since the boy who’s around 6 is in awe of the navy, these two sailors who pass by are just the role models to help.

Once they take the boy home, they find his guardian, a young aunt is out. They stick around to reprimand her. Of course, she turns out to be a beautiful young woman who aspires to be a famous singers. Before you know it, Kelly has assured her that his friend’s pal, a famous conductor will give her an audition. Of course, this is a lie. As usual in the genre misunderstandings and outrageous attempts to prevent the truth from coming out ensue. All along the way are catchy tunes and fantastic dancing including a number where Kelly dances with Jerry from Tom & Jerry fame.

While the film was from a gone by era and had no lasting message, the music and dancing stayed with me, unlike that of La La Land. A musical needs to win me over with its music. It’s fundamental.

L’Avventura

lavvent

Anna (L) and Claudia (R)

I admit I didn’t much like L’Avventura, the story of a rich Italian woman who goes missing while on a weekend away with her rich, jaded friends. I concede that the actors were gorgeous and skillful; the sets and cinematography excellent, but the story was lacking and the personalities were exasperating.

The story’s simple. Anna is unhappy in a general alienated 1960s way. She bickers with her boyfriend and pouts a lot because life’s missing something. When she’s off on a boat with her friends she dives in the water and is never seen of again. I do mean that. We don’t ever see her and though I can appreciate innovation in plots, this was too much. While her friends and father search for her, her boyfriend (he’s no boy – these characters seem to be in their late 20s or 30s) and her best friend Claudia go to look for her. Looking for Anna becomes insignificant compared to Claudia and Sando, Anna’s boyfriend, who embark on romance spiced up with occasional pangs of guilt on Claudia’s part.

The film is striking and beautiful. I did buy into Claudia’s dramatic emotions as she pushed and pulled at Sando. Much of the film is a critique of the shallow lives of the rich. I didn’t quite buy it, true as it might be. The characters were simply playboys and playgirls and I found it hard to actually believe they couldn’t find something to dedicate their lives to. I suppose there are people like this.

More

The Freshmen

freshman_01The more I see Harold Lloyd, the more I love him and his films. In The Freshman (1925) Lloyd plays an young man also named Harold who saves up enough money to go to college. Once on campus, Harold’s main concern is getting popular by following the tricks he saw in a movie.

Instead of being the big man on campus he’s soon the butt of everyone’s jokes. His peers love putting him in awkward positions and taking advantage of him. He never catches a break as he inadvertently insults the dean, takes the dean’s car from the train station and makes wrong step after wrong step. The gags at the student assembly, the dance and the football field are priceless.

Jobyna Ralston plays the sweet love interest Peggy perfectly. Harold meets Peggy on a train and then it turns out that she’s the daughter of his landlady. Yes, it’s coincidental, but it’s a small town and she’s the one sincere woman in a sea of fakes.

I watched a Criterion Collection disc with the commentary, which I find adds to my appreciation of any silent film. I seem to need some talk.

A masterful comedy, The Freshmen is a film I can see watching again and again.

Badlands

badlands-1973-starkweather-holly-kit-martin-sheen-sissy-spacek

I’d never envisioned Martin Sheen playing a morally bankrupt adolescent so watching Badlands (1973) was something of a shock. In Badlands Sheen plays Kit an outsider with just enough smarts to be dangerous. I can’t quite make out his percentage of psychosis, but Kit sure has plenty. Evidently the film was based on an actual couple, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.

As the film begins, Kit’s bored with his garbage collecting job, which he soon loses by telling off the boss. He finds an odd kind of love when he meets Holly, played by Sissy Spacek. Holly’s an even keel (or flat line?) teen whose mother died a while back. She’s never had a boyfriend or lots of friends at school so hey, Kit’s interested in her so why not stick with him. Her father’s rather taciturn and aloof so she’s morally empty and will go along with anything since nothing in life seems like a big deal to her. She attaches herself to Kit since he’s there and he’s good looking and she doesn’t seem to have the depth to make moral judgments of any sort. Life’s rather boring in her South Dakota town and she’s got no social circle, no village is raising this girl so she goes with whatever comes along.

So we see this ho hum relationship, and both Holly and Kit are more inclined to the ho hum than to passion, flow along until Holly’s father gets wind of it. He forbids Holly to see Kit. Now Kit’s wild with love and can’t live without Holly. He breaks into Holly’s home and confronts the father, who wants him out. Dad won’t listen to Kit. He certainly doesn’t want his only child to settle for an uneducated loser who can’t keep a job. When the father turns his back to Kit to go call the police to get the trespasser out, Kit shoots him in the back. Kit and Holly burn the house down to thwart the authorities who’ll soon want evidence and they take to the road. It is odd, yet compelling to see Holly blithely go off with Kit after he’s murdered her father in cold blood.

Just like Kit, Badlands goes in directions viewers won’t expect. There’s never a police officer who’s determined to catch the pair. This isn’t Bonnie and Clyde, though the bodies start piling up as the story progresses. It’s more of a look at a lost, bored adolescent couple who make some odd and wrong choices, shrug them off and keep going in their way. Because the plot employs few Hollywood conventions and because the leads are compellingly low key and lost, the film works.

Who’d thunk that Jeb Bartlett could play a low key, psychopathic James Dean?

 

 

 

In the Heat of the Night

in-the-heat-of-the-night-film

In rural Mississippi a local businessman, the most prosperous one in the city, is murdered. The first suspect is a black man waiting for a train. Who’s more vulnerable than an outsider with dark skin in the rural South in the early 1960’s? Thus there’s plenty of drama in In the Heat of the Night (1967).

Virgil Tibbs, played by Sidney Poitier, is waiting for his train. He’s brought in to the station and treated like the prime suspect till the police chief (Rod Steiger) learns that Tibbs is a leading homicide detective in Philadelphia. As much as it bugs the chief, he realizes that his force can’t solve the murder. They just don’t have Tibbs’ expertise. So he gets the Philadelphia Police Department to make Tibbs work with Chief Gillespie and his force.

The film shows the hostility and violence towards an African American whom the locals feel has risen above his station. The mystery is authentic and keeps the audience guessing. Of course Poitier and Steiger give sterling performances.

High Noon

High Noon (1952) is another classic I hadn’t seen till now. I remember lots of people talking about it, but never made the effort to see it — till now. As you probably, know it’s the story of  Will Kane, a marshall, played by Gary Cooper, who stands up to Frank Miller, a bad guy who’s got it out for him. There are more details though.

Cooper’s character has just gotten married to a Quaker, who abhors violence. He’s planning to leave with her and start a new life. They’re on the road, when Kane realizes he can’t leave the town unprotected. The new sheriff won’t arrive till the next day and Miller, whom Kane arrested, is on a train to the town and will arrive at — high noon. Amy, Kane’s wife lost her brother to senseless violence and won’t turn back with him. Not at first.

Upon arriving back in town Kane tries to get a posse together to protect the people, but everyone’s too cowardly to join. It’s quite dramatic to see Kane summon the courage to fight on his own, for people too chicken to help themselves.

I found Kane’s moral conviction and courage to do something you’d rather not do compelling. Despite the passage of time, High Noon still works. No wonder it’s a classic.

Previous Older Entries

Disclaimer

Dear Fellows, The State Department has requested that any Fellows who maintain their own blog or website please post the following disclaimer on your site: "This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows' own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State." We appreciate your cooperation. Site Meter
%d bloggers like this: