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Young Mr. Lincoln

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I really enjoyed Henry Fonda in director John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. The film is fictionalized but based on an actual murder trial Abraham Lincoln worked on. Honest Abe leaves Indiana for Springfield, Illinois. Once there he does a poor country family a good turn and they pay him by giving him a barrel full of law books, which prompts him to learn law.

Later one summer he meets the lovely, Mary Todd, but he’s shy and awkward. At a summer festival two brothers from the country get into a fight with a town jerk and the jerk winds up dead. The locals are ready to lynch the outsiders but Abe steps in and turns them around with his wit.

It looks like the brothers have no chance for justice, but Abe takes the case.

Fonda does look like a young Abe. The cadence of his voice sounds small town. The film was enjoyable and would make good family viewing.

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The African Queen

Like many of the films I see for my New Year’s Resolution Old Movie Challenge, The African Queen (1951) with Kathryn 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.

 

 

Carrot Top (Poil de Carrote) 1932

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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.

The Nights of Cabiria

I just loved this film! Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) begins with a man who shoves Cabiria into a river and grabs her purse and runs off never to return. Cabiria’s furious, but this attack, like all the other misfortune that Cabiria encounters won’t stop her.

Played by Giulietta Masina, who’s clearly inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, Cabiria is a streetwalker, usually picks up business in a park where her pals gather. On the surface, the gang seems happy-go-lucky, just as Cabiria is, but all of them lead vulnerable lives.

Proud and unstoppable, Cabiria winds up in the upper crust’s part of town, where she’s invited into a movie star’s apartment. He’s just argued with his platinum blonde girlfriend. This is the first of several unexpected encounters Cabiria experiences. It’s not all fun and games. Time and again we see Cabiria getting ditched or used and brushing herself off time after time winning us over.

Cabiria’s Odyssey takes us from upscale night clubs with exotic dancers, to religious shrines where miracle cures are purported to occur, to a Vaudeville like theater where a hypnotist shows Cabrira’s sweetest side, to the edge of a cliff.

Yet the end surprises and makes us wonder what will happen to Cabiria. Is she really unsinkable? I’ve thought about this film every day for a week and this character is one who’ll always stick with me.

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.

Sisters of the Gion

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While Memoirs of a Geisha painted a romantic portrait of geisha living in a Japanese Cinderella story, Sisters of Gion gives viewers a realistic view. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, who’s fond of creating films about vulnerable women, the Sisters of Gion we see are the older, trusting Umekichi and the more perceptive, jaded O-Mocha. Umekichi’s patron has gone flat broke. He has to sell his store and his family has to move back to his wife’s hometown in disgrace. The wife isn’t the least bit happy about the shame that accompanies this fall.

The patron, Furusawa-san, accepts Umekichi’s offer to put him up. O-Mocha is incredulous and miffed. Doesn’t Umekichi realize that they’re just barely scrimping by? How can they take in a penniless former merchant? Quiet Umekichi ignores her younger sister, occasionally saying something about tradition or being good to people.

O-Mocha is the practical sister. She realizes that her sister needs a new patron, pronto and to get one she’ll need to be seen in an exquisite kimono at a top level party. O-Mocha gets her sister the needed invitation and figures out how to hustle an assistant in a kimono shop to help her sister. Later when the shop assistant is found out, O-Mocha cozies up to the shop owner who she wants to be her patron.

O-Mocha sees the geisha life for what it is — a way for men to have young playthings. It’s not a path she appears to have chosen, but she’s determined not to be a victim in the system, if that’s a possibility in a male dominated society.

The film was absorbing and often beautiful. I admired O-Mocha’s spunk and wished her sister would take some of her advice. It’s a classic, I’d love to see again.

Les Misérables

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As a big fan of Victor Hugo’s novel and the musical Les Misérables, I had to get the Criterion Collection version of Raymond Bernard’s epic film, which was made in the 1930s. (Some say 1934, others 1935.)

At 284 minutes, it’s a long film and I’ve been watching it over the course of a couple weeks, but it’s been worth it. (This might be the longest film I’ve ever watched.) For the theaters Bernard succeeded in convincing the studio to release the film in three parts so viewers would watch the film on three different days at their convenience. Quite a wise idea as I had to take breaks.

At first because I’m so tied to the musical with Hugh Jackman, I didn’t connect immediately with Harry Baur as Jean Val Jean. But with his sincerity and vulnerability Baur won me over and became Jean Val Jean as much as any actor.

Since this Les Misérables was made in the 1930s, I expected lower production values. Certainly scenes weren’t as lush, but they were high quality and a lot of money went into the rebellion and costumes and more. The film spent less time with Fantine and didn’t hurt the filmportray her falling into prostitution as graphically as the musical, but I see that as a plus because I know some friends didn’t want their children who’re in middle school to see those scenes with Anne Hathaway. I don’t blame them because they are hard to watch and more so for young viewers. Here if your teen is willing to read subtitles, they won’t be so affected by Fantine’s downfall.

Compared to the musical, Bernard’s film doesn’t sugarcoat the Thenardier’s greed and cruelty. They aren’t made to seem funny or cute. This film also makes it clear that the young boy, Gavroche was the Thenardier’s son.

Even with almost five hours of film time, spread across three films, Bernard edited out some of Hugo’s work, even some parts that are present in the shorter musical. I missed the expected scenes at the end when Marius distances Jean Val Jean from Cosette.

All in all, while it’s a time commitment, this production of Les Misérables is well worth watching if you’re a fan of the story. I will definitely look for more films directed by Raymond Bernard and for films featuring Harry Baur, who was great as Jean Val Jean.

 

Sole, Cuore, Amore

Sole, Cuero, Amore or Sun, Heart Love is an Italian movie about Eli, a woman who’s burdened with supporting her husband and four children with a job in a café that requires a 4 hour commute each way. Eli is bright and engaging. She’s great at her job, as a mother and a wife. Her husband’s unemployed but says he’ll probably get a job as a nightwatchman this month, or next. Meanwhile Eli wakes up at 4:30 am every morning and has to placate a boss when she’s late because the bus broke down or she missed a station since she’s so exhausted.

Another key character is Vale, a single woman, who’s Eli’s neighbor and friend. Vale’s a dancer and has her share of troubles, but they really don’t compare to Eli’s. The two are strong, smart, beautiful women, facing hardship.

I admired how though she got angry, Eli was always fair towards her boss and kids. She was more than fair towards her husband, whom we don’t see getting new work skills or pounding the pavement rather than waiting for this job to materialize.

The film could certainly be depressing, but Isabella Ragonese’s performance was so magnetic, that she saved the film. I want to run out and watch every film she’s in.

It’s Not the Time of My Life

It’s Not the Time of My Life focuses on a married Hungarian couple whose son, Bruno is a little devil and not in a cute Dennis-the-Menace sort of way. Young Bruno’s obnoxious, anti-social and at times violent behavior is dividing the couple. As the wife E observes, they were able to be a good twosome, but as a family of three, they’re failing. Eszter is lenient and loving believing that employing the right contemporary child psychology is best for Bruno. Farkas, her husband, is going nuts with Bruno and believes some old school discipline is needed before Bruno grows into a teen who’s spending time in and out of jail. (I tended to agree with the dad.)

As if this weren’t enough, late one night,Eszter’s sister, Ernella, and brother in law Albert and their daughter Laura surprise them with an open-ended stay. They’d been living in Scotland and left so now they need a place to stay. E and Albert are unsuccessful and nomadic. They seem to go from failure to failure and often need money.

Both couples are questioning where their marriages are going and reflecting on how life has changed them.

The film is smart, emotional and at times intense at times depicting realistic couples questioning and confronting their problems. A lot is packed into the film, which makes for a steady pace. I also appreciated seeing a film set in modern Hungary. I’m afraid when I think of Hungry I think of the Cold War and poverty rather than yuppies barely coping with a boy who’d think nothing of burning the house down or one that’s discovered their sullen 10 year-old daughter has stolen as an attempt to help with the family’s money problems. The tone and look of the film is very natural and real making it very compelling.

What’s even more surprising is that the director stars as Farkas, he used his own apartment and family members for the film.

My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday

On my way back to the US in June, I saw the 2016 film, My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday, which has a very curious plot. The story is about time and how one character’s future is the other’s past. I’ve never seen this premise before and it did make my head spin, but the actors’ charm kept me engaged.

The story is about a young woman and man who meet once every five years. When she was 5, he was 35 and he saved her from drowning. Most of the film is about their brief encounter when they’re both 20. They fall for each other, but he’s headed to the past and she’s headed to the future. It’s the ultimate impossible romance. Their memories are completely out of sync and as time passes they both grow melancholy as they realize why they’re made for each other, but can never be together. As the film progresses, he’ll remember that she suddenly cried as they were having a great time by the riverside. Later he realizes that she cried because she realized the passing of time. At first she knows what’s going on and later he catches on.

It’s all very weird and I kept trying to figure out if or how they were breaking the rules of physics. Yet I was entertained. If you have patience for a plot that’s like no other, check out My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday.

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