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.

Gilda

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What a great introduction to a character! Rita Hayworth who plays the title character in Gilda wows with her hair when she first appears. Her hair is just terrific and is probably one of the best things about the noir film. Her hair is used to great effect at least twice in the film so I’m in no way putting down the film.

Gilda is a classic film that’s mainly plot and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it has so much style, that it’s easy to forgive. Set in Argentina, the story begins with Johnny Farrell (Glen Ford) wins big in a dice game, but is cornered by some sore losers. Fortunately, a mysterious stranger, Ballin Mundson arrives with his trusty cane with a hidden blade. He intimidates the thugs and saves Farrell. Later he again crosses paths and hires Johnny Farrell.

Johnny’s life becomes far better as he goes from gambling in dives to managing Mundson’s high end casino. His life is humming along till Mundson returns with his new wife: Gilda. Wouldn’t you know it, Gilda and Johnny were once a couple. Add to that Mundson is a controlling husband. He charges Johnny with keeping tabs on Gilda, who’ll take up with any handsome, young man from the hundreds who’re smitten with her. (So I suppose Mundson has some reason to appoint someone as her keeper.)

On top of the love triangle, Mundson’s trailed by mysterious Germans who’re chasing him and want to seize control of Mundson’s cartel so his work keeps him too busy to spend much quality time with his wife.

We never learn why Gilda and Johnny broke up but it’s clear their love-hate relationship will live on. Mundson fakes his death and so Johnny marries Gilda. At first we think they’ll finally work through their past and find love, but Johnny actually just married Gilda to get punish her for cheating on Mundson.

Some view Gilda as her husbands’ pawn, but while Johnny does trick her and hurt her, she was able to quite a degree to defy both of them. It’s a complicated film and none of the characters are meant to resemble real people so it’s easy to enjoy the film despite its plot failings.

Hayworth is a compelling actress, not just for her hair, but for her stage presence and voice.

If you’re interested in film noir, you should see Gilda.

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.

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.

Human Condition

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Tatsuya Nakadai as Kaji

Human Condition, Part 1 is probably the most movie film I’ve ever seen. Directed by Masaki Koyabashi, Human Condition, Part 1 shows places idealistic hero Kaji-san in a Manchurian mine that’s managed with an iron fist. Young Kaji-san believes if the workers are treated humanly, they’ll produce more. Even if they didn’t, he believes it’s the right thing to do. Who wouldn’t agree?

The answer is plenty of the other managers and administrators. The head honcho will indulge Kaji-san, but only so far. That man’s main preoccupation seems to be living the easy life. Okishima-san is a veteran at the mine, who thinks Kaji-san’s ideas are too humanistic, but he’s open to giving them a try. He’s one of the few friends Kaji has.

Soon the mine is given 600 Chinese war prisoners. At the same time the higher ups have increased the quota by 20%. Kaji-san wants to see them treated well. He’s certainly alone on that.

When the train comes with the Chinese, the workers are emaciated. Fifteen died en route. Kaji-san campaigns for humane treatment for the Chinese. By  giving them more food, by no means a lot, they are able to work. Trouble comes when some of these prisoners start to escape. Kaji-san’s Chinese assistant Chen gets talked into convincing his pal who mans the electricity to shut it off after 1 am. When the third group tries to escape, Kaji-san’s nemesis accuses Kaji-san, who was totally in the dark, of allowing the prisoners to escape.

One of the most amazing things about this film, which is quite an indictment of Japan during the war, is that it got made and released, that the books it was based on were published. The film depicts a corrupt and brutal leadership. Japan heavily censored speech and punished dissenters in WWII. I admire Japan for allowing writers and filmmakers to criticize it’s atrocities in what at The time was it’s recent past. The Chinese characters are depicted fairly. Some are heroic, others rash or venial. I am sure there aren’t any Chinese films that show Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the 100 Flowers campaign, or Tiananmen Square in a similar fashion, which is a shame. It takes a great society to let it’s artists critique its wrongs.

The acting, particularly Nakadai’s, is outstanding. I’ve never been so moved. While the camera is used masterfully, the film manages to blend naturalism and art.

Three and a half hours is a long time for a film, but the time speeds by. That’s quite a feat.

Victoria, Season 2, Finale

Comfort and Joy

Sunday was the finale for this season’s Victoria. I’m not sure what I’ll do on Sunday evenings till Poldark returns in September. (I realize Little Women comes in May, but I’m not that sold on it. I think it’ll be fine but not as captivating. I hope I’m wrong.)

This episode mainly takes place at Christmas and Albert has Christmas Fever. His enthusiasm for having lots of Christmas decorations and carols was fun at first, till his desire for a perfect Christmas becomes irrational and annoying. It’s actually his subconscious way to cope with Uncle Leopold’s claim that he is Albert’s true father.

 

The episode begins with an officer in Africa saving a little girl whose tribe has been decimated. She’s a princess of a defeated tribe, and  Forbes, told the winning chief that his Queen wanted her. So the poor girl is traded off and Mr. Forbes and his wife take her in. Eventually, the officer takes her to the Queen who takes her in and treats her just line any of her own. Well, in fact, she seems more caring towards Sara, whom she feels great sympathy towards. Yet, all the while, Sara misses her new home with the Forbes.

Uncle Leopold has forced himself as an uninvited guest, his favorite role. Albert tries to force himself to be kind as he’s got Christmas Fever. Victoria is less blind to Leopold’s faults. Like all Brits, she’s not used to Christmas trees and such for Christmas. It was Albert who’s responsible for bringing German traditions to England.

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As if Leopold wasn’t a bad enough, Victoria’s most envious, plotting uncle has returned from Germany – Duke of Cumberland. He came to claim a favorite, expensive diamond necklace. Distressed by the uncle who wanted her dead, Victoria hoped to get some support from Albert, but he was so concerned with his perfect Christmas that he brushed her off. Since Victoria was still getting used to living in the palace without Lehzen, her lifelong supporter. She sure could use a husband who’s offers some support. Albert thought the necklace was insignificant, though giving it to Cumberland gives him strength and probably would result in emboldening him to try some other power play. Then Albert was critical of Victoria for mothering Sara as she did.

Yet in spite of Albert’s behavior, when Victoria was out with Sara and she sees Albert skating on thin ice, when he falls through the ice, Victoria goes into rescue mode and risks her safety, perhaps her life, to pull him out. That was quite a scary moment, and one that actually happened.

While Ernest manages to show kindness to Harriet, who’s understandably upset with him for standing her up when she expected he’d propose. Yet that nasty rash persists, and though Uncle Leo thinks it’s no big deal to hide his condition from a fiancée, Ernest has more principles. So he does tell Harriet it’s over, though he should have.

The episode concludes with Ernest giving Albert some brotherly advice and perspective. Albert’s dreams of a perfect Christmas is a delusion. They did not grow up with ideal Christmases. Victoria comes to see that Sara misses life with Mrs. and Captain Forbes so Victoria sends her back with them, though she always stayed in contact and did pay for her education.

I’ll miss my Sunday night Victoria episodes. Little Women debuts in May, but I don’t know what’s on PBS in the meantime. I’m not expecting much from Little Women, but I hope I’m wrong. I think my feeling’s due to my familiarity with Little Women, while Victoria and Poldark were all new to me.

I’ve enjoyed this second season, despite Albert’s occasional peevishness and the departure of Lehzen, Drummond and Lord Peel.

 

Moon for the Misbegotten

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Saturday friend and I went to the Writers’ Theater in Glencoe, Illinois, to see The Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neil. It was my first visit to the Writers’ Theater. First I must say I was quite impressed with theater itself, which is a glorious building. I was further impressed by the live music they had in the anteroom. The theater has a large space where a duo was singing live music accompanied by guitar. What a great way to entertain the audience, who was able to sit on cushions on a large staircase, the sort that a lot of schools are adding and call “learning stairs.”

I hadn’t read the webpage carefully so until there was an announcement, I hadn’t realized that the play ran three hours. Like Ah, Wilderness, which I saw in the summer, Moon for the Misbegotten is a 3 hour play! Unlike the Goodman’s Ah, Wilderness, the Writers’ Theater did not cut anything from the show. They did have 2 intermissions, though.

The story’s set on  a poor farm in Connecticut. As in many of O’Neil’s plays, the father is a loud, angry alcoholic. In this case, Phil Hogan heads this family. His son Tom hightails it off the farm to escape Phil’s temper, but his sister Josie, outspoken an opinionated can hold her own with Pops, sticks around. The first scene dragged, which was odd since Tom is in such a hurry to get his bus to the city, but he keeps getting caught up with little problems and tasks.

Eventually Phil enters and we see him argue with Josie. There is a lot of arguing, which my friend found particularly annoying. I could stand it, but I can see how tiresome such characters are. This definitely was a play that could do with some trimming.

Eventually we get to the main issues of the play. The landlord’s son Jim, another big drinker, has the hots for Josie, but won’t admit it. He portrays himself as a ladies man who likes the girls on Broadway. Though she is attractive, Josie’s Achilles’ heel is her body image and status. She doesn’t think a rich boy like Jim could like a curvy, confident tenant farmer’s daughter. There’s quite a bit of flirtation, but both characters are too insecure to start a real relationship in the first two acts.

In act two, Phil gets betrayed by his pal, Jim. Jim’s agreed to sell the farm to a rich neighbor that Phil’s irritated by refusing to make sure his pigs don’t trespass on the man’s property. The neighbor makes Jim and enticing offer and Jim breaks his promise to always let Phil farm that land. Phil’s outraged and he and Josie plot to trick Jim and get even.

The actors in this production were pitch perfect and I’d love to see them again, especially A.C. Smith (Phil Hogan) and Bethany Thomas ( Josie Hogan). I’ve come to see Eugene O’Neil as long winded. He clearly wrote of what he knew, i.e. families full of alcoholics and that does get old. I think I’m off O’Neil for a while. Nonetheless the Writers Theater did a fine job with this play.

For Chicago Theater Week 2018 till February 18th, there’s a special on tickets. For $15 you get a lot of drama for the money. The promo code is CTW18.