The Southerner

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I saw Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945) described so beautifully on 4 Star Film Fan,  that I had to get it. I was curious about how a French director would portray the Old West.

The Southerner begins with Sam Tucker’s old uncle dying in the cotton fields where he’s picking cotton along with Sam, his wife Nona, and Granny. The uncle’s dying words to Sam are that he should get his own land and not work for someone else. This convinces Sam to buy a plot of good land that’s been neglected for years. His boss lays out all the risks inherent in farming on your own and promises Sam, he can always return to work for him. The boss isn’t a villain; he does seem to care about Sam and his family and someone needed to give him a head’s up, because contrary to what I’d learned and seen in films farming is not a sure thing.

Sam packs up his family and belongings on an old jalopy. When they get to the land, they see that the house is a shack that’s one windstorm away from destruction. Sam admits that he should have checked out the house before buying the land, which was when I knew that the outcome for Sam sure wasn’t certain. Sam’s a nice guy and strong. Both he had his wife work hard, but Sam held some romantic notions about farming that gave me pause. He’d forgotten to check on the condition of the well.

The well wasn’t usable so Sam had to beg an ornery neighbor for water. As time goes on, the skinflint neighbor resents Sam more and more. As mean as the neighbor was, he did have a point. Sam and other pioneers should thought out their plans more.

The tensions build as bad luck and naive pelt the Tuckers throughout the film.

Hardworking and always cheerful, Nona is the perfect wife. She soon makes the shack homey and repairs what she can. She keeps the kids clean and happy and usually puts up with Granny’s constant complaints.

Sam’s friend Tim has moved on to the city where he works in a factory and makes a fortune, $7 per day. He offers Sam a job, but Sam envisions the life of a small farmer as his vocation. Often I thought Sam should take his family to the city.

A major threat in these parts is Spring Sickness. Granny’s a Cassandra always harping on about it because several of her children died of it. Caused by poor diet, lacking dairy and produce, Spring Sickness can be lethal. Just as you can’t see a gun on a set in Act One and not have it go off in Act Two, someone was bound to get Spring Sickness because the Tuckers’ diet was mainly fish, coffee and corn mush. Sure enough, Jot, the son who’s about 4, comes down with Spring Sickness and has a massive open sore on his face. The boy is lethargic and may not make it. The kindness of the doctor and a friend of Sam’s helps the Tucker’s obtain milk and veggies. The idea that one can make it on his own in the West is simply not true. It probably ain’t true anywhere. I did think that Renoir would have the boy die. I wasn’t long into the film before I expected disaster and I think sparing us the worse was a shortcoming of The Southerner (both the novel and the film).

Hard times hit repeatedly. Storms beat down the house and the fields, the final one sets the family back to square one.

One of the best lines in the film comes from Tim:

All you farmers is just the same. Gamblers! That’s what you all are, to a man. Year after year you starve yourself to death and hope that some fine day – well, I think you’re loco.

I’d never considered how true this line is. Farmers, especially in the past, were in some cases just as reckless as the people who raced to San Francisco or Australia during the Gold Rushes.

The Southerners is an earnest film that showed me a different side of Western Expansion from what I’m used to. There’s no language that would be a problem for children. There’s a scene with a “lady of easy virtue” in a saloon, but she comes across pretty tame and the banter veils the non-family friendly subject matter.

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Patema Inverted

Patema Inverted has a strange premise that kept playing with my mind. In this Japanese sci-fi-fi anime, there are two worlds one civilization inhabits the surface of the earth and gravity effects them like it does us. It’s a society that demands conformity and does not allow people to question the status quo. We see this in the robotic school children who ride conveyor belts into their schools and all have the same blank expression on their faces. The only rule breaker is Age (pronounced ah-gay) whose father was an inventor who tried to build a kind of flying machine and when testing it met with dire consequences.

Patema lives underground in the other civilization where gravity works in the other direction. In this artful dystopia, people stand on the ceiling (in terms of our orientation) and things fall up. The two civilizations are off limits to each other. In fact the elders of each just prohibit any inquiry into societies other than their own. One day, Patema sets off exploring as her older friend Lagos has. By accident, she finds herself in Age’s world and the only way she can stay put is to either hold on to Age by the waist, which lifts him off the ground, but prevents her from flying through the sky indefinitely or by standing on a ceiling.

In this totalitarian society, the dictator realizes someone from the other world has entered and most of the film is his evil chase to get Patema and then destroy her people.

The film’s background art was stunning. The concept was interesting, but often melodramatic. The evil leader was just too hokey for me.

The Idiot

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Ayako and Kameda, the Idiot

Kurosawa’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot blew me away with its depth and complexity of emotion. Many years ago I saw David Schwimmer in the lead role in the play at The Lookingglass Theater. That adaptation left me cold. I still recall how bored my friend and I were. In spite of this bad experience I was curious what Kurosawa might do with the story.

In a nutshell, The Idiot is about Kameda, a man who due to an injury during the war is rendered an idiot. His particular cognitive “deficiency” is that he’s somewhat mentally slower and also sees the worth of every person and thus loves every individual. When he returns from the war to Hokkaido, he stays with a family and the feisty daughter Ayako, against all her wished, falls for him.

In the same home is another boarder, Mr. Kayama who though he loves Ayako, has agreed to marry a kept woman famous for her beauty, Taeko, for 600,000 yen. Taeko’s photo is up at the train station and when Kameda and Akama, another man returning to the city, see it they’re swept off their feet. Taeko and Ayako both despise Kayama for valuing money over love.

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Both Taeko and Ayako fall for the idiot, Kameda, because he’s the only person in the story who’s honest. No one has met such an honest, perceptive person. Although these women are at their most genuine when they’re with Kameda, you know that they’ll corrupt him and that no healthy relationship is available for him. Still Kameda is thrust into a confusing web between these women, his friend Kayama, Ayako’s parents and Akama. While the film has several grasping, selfish characters, we see that they’re grasping at a virtue that they value but will also corrupt. There are no villains, just people who can’t make up their minds and whose indecision and schemes are lethal.

The Japanese actors, all Kurosawa regulars, were masters of emotion which this story requires. It’s a long film at almost three hours (cut down from over four), but Kurosawa kept me interested.

My Beautiful Girl Mari

In the Korean animated film, My Beautiful Girl Mari, adult Nam-woo remembers his 12 year old self, who struggled with coping with his mom’s new boyfriend who’s awkwardly trying to win him over after his father dies. At school he encounters trouble from a bullying snarky girl. His one friend Jun-ho is even more bungling and awkward than Nam-woo, but Jun-ho is soon to leave for school in Seoul.

While at a stationery store with Jun-ho, Nan-woo discovers a magical marble while enables him to escape to a lyrical, pastel fantasy land inhabited by an ethereal blond girl. Yes, that sounds very non-PC, but it’s cool and Nam-woo does deserve some respite.

The film is quite realistic in portraying issues modern Korea teens face – uncertainty with fragile families, aging grand parents, and school bullies. I think the film’s more suited to adults because of the frame of an adult looking back on his life, but there’s nothing objectionable that’s on screen that would shock a child.

The art is done using Illustrator and has a simple look. It did look like something many people could achieve with a bit of training, but that’s not bad. I liked that the animators made the most of cost-effective tools. The scenery was authentic. I liked that in some instances the setting was an old, dilapidated light house. In American animation, everything seems so new and perfect. In My Beautiful Girl Mari most of the scenes just looked real.

This 2002 can be enjoyed by age 11 and up. Made in 2002, it proved that Korea has a lot to offer the world of animation.

Waltz with Bashir

My final film from the library’s Fall Film Challenge was the animated Waltz with Bashir. My first animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir (the president of Lebanon was Bashir Gemayel) shows Ari Folman seeking to remember his experience in the Lebanon War of 1982 . Twenty years after the war, a friend confides in Folman that he’s had recurring nightmares about this war. Folman mentions that he has no memories of his experience in this war. Consequently, he goes on a quest through the fog of the past to reclaim his memories of a massacre. He visits old friends, some who fought and others who’re psychologists to find the truth.

The style of the animation was dark and bold. I found the animation enhanced the documentary and succeeded in producing a jarring look at war. I had no knowledge of this war and while I learned a lot, I realize I probably should find out more so that I don’t have just one point of view. What is particularly interesting was how Folman and others’ not only dealt with the impact of their war experience, but were haunted with how the massacre compared in their minds, their parents’ experience in the concentration camps of WWII.

The ending is haunting not only because of its portrayal of the aftermath of a massacre and its shift from animation to news footage. Waltz with Bashir is not for kids, not even teens, I’d say not just because there’s violence and some explicit sex scenes, but also because the analysis of the past features complex ideas that the few young people can understand.

If you know more about this conflict, please share below in the comment box. I’m eager to expand my knowledge.

*In Hebrew with English subtitles.

The Breadwinner

For the final week of the library’s Fall Film Challenge, I received three DVD suggestions. The Breadwinner was the first of these that I watched. Set in Afghanistan prior to the US bombing and war, The Breadwinner tells of a country ruled by the Taliban. Here a young girl goes to the market daily with her loving, progressive father who’s taught her to read.

We see the Taliban’s violence through the harassment Parvana, an 11 year old, girl and her learned father receive when she’s with him in the market place. Females are to be inside, hidden and cowering, but Parvana’s father believes in educating his daughters.

When the father’s unjustly arrested, he’s incarcerated with a trial or even a charge, Parvana, her mother, older sister and baby brother are unable to earn a living. There’s no one in the home who can legally leave the house to earn a living. Once their food is gone, it’s clear to Parvana that she must act. She chops off her hair and dresses as a boy to put food on the table.

Outside she must blend in and find work. She sees the Taliban beating women in their burqas who’ve left their homes. They terrorize men who don’t act as they dictate. Parvana is able to take her place in the market undetected, but every day is a risk. At home her mother sees the family’s only hope in marrying off her oldest daughter in an arranged marriage to a distant cousin. This is typical in Afghanistan.

Parvana lucks out when she discovers a former classmate, who’s adopted the same strategy and dresses as a boy to save her family and her life. The two cleverly find work, make money and evade the Taliban’s brutality, for the most part.

The film interweaves an Afghan folk tale of a clever, plucky hero with Parvana’s story to accentuate the film’s themes thus giving the animators another way to show off their mastery. The film was made by the same team that gave us The Secret of Kells.

The Breadwinner reminded me of the tragedy of life in Afghanistan, which I admit I’ve forgotten. The animators capture the war-torn, bleak Afghani landscape. Though it’s an animated film, it’s not for children under 13. There are scenes of parents getting beaten by the Taliban, the imprisonment of a father, depiction of people missing limbs so it’s authentic and may be hard for young children to take in.

My only quibble with The Breadwinner is that I found the ending abrupt and left some questions in my mind. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for this recommendation and think it’s well worth watching.

The Rocket

The first film I’ve seen set in Laos is The Rocket. When the hero Ahlo is born, his twin dies causing his grandmother to believe that Ahlo is cursed. Grandma holds this belief for years.

When Ahlo is about 7 or 8, his family must leave their village where a new dam is getting built. As they journey to their new town, they meet with tragedy and Ahlo is blamed. The blame continues once they arrive at the site of their new home, where they discover all promises about the modern new town appear to be broken.

The one break Ahlo gets is meeting another outsider, Uncle Purple and his niece. Uncle Purple gets his nickname for the purple suit he always wears. Uncle Purple’s suit is a tip of the hat to his hero, James Brown. Kia, the uncle’s niece, is cold to Ahlo at first, but eventually befriends him as Ahlo tries to save his family by competing in a contest for the Rocket Festival.

The actor playing Ahlo was a street kid and he’s charismatic and authentic. I hope his career continues. The film was made my an Australian company that felt that countries without a solid film industry deserve to have their stories told.

The film captivated me with its story and acting. At times it’s intense and not for children, but I highly recommend you check it out.