Le Poison

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The comedy in Sacha Guitry’s La Poison (1951) is trés noir. In fact, I’m unsure if I should like it. In this guilty pleasure, La Poison gives us Paul Bracconier, a husband who can’t take his wife. Generally, I can’t stand jokes that put wives or husbands in a bad light, or that are just a series of complaints. But Blandaire Bracconier, the wife in question, is such a mean-spirited drunk with no redeeming qualities and it does seem that with a nicer woman, Paul would be a-okay, so I made an exception.

Also, since the wife has purchased rat poison to do her husband in, it seems they’re on equal footing.

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Played by Michel Simon (Two of a Kind , Port of Shadows and many other classics), Paul has a redeemable side. He doesn’t rush to murder his wife. At the start of the film he visits the local priest for sympathy, mercy and perhaps some advice.

When he hears a radio interview with a lawyer honored for getting murderers off, he goes to meet the lawyer. The conversation with the unethical lawyer convinces Paul that, yes, he can get away with murder so he is emboldened to try.

Scenes with the neighbors and their children add to the humor. One of my favorite scenes involves Paul’s neighbor visiting him in jail and recounting how grateful the neighbors are to Paul because his crime has increased tourism and business in the hamlet.

An entertaining film, La Poison is a dark, old-fashioned comedy that does show the problems in the legal system. According to the background commentary, Guitry made it as a commentary on his own incarceration when he was wrongly accused of collaborating with the Vichy government during WWII.

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Frank Serpico

While I’d heard of the Al Pacino movie Serpico, I didn’t know the plot or anything other than that Frank Serpico was a NY cop with a rebellious streak. This documentary, Frank Serpico, gives the story of Serpico often in his own words and in the words of New York Times reporters and cops who worked with him.

Frank Serpico is a colorful character and always has been. The film is chronological and provides background on his youth and family. I learned that before Serpico joined the police force, he was a teacher in New York.

Serpico seemed to be a skillful cop who from the start was on the periphery of the force because he wasn’t Irish American. Irish Americans made up the majority of the force. The film makes much of how Serpico was an outsider which made him more likely to speak out, report and testify against the pervasive corruption in the NYPD in the 1970s.

While working in narcotics, Serpico soon discovered that most of his peers were on the take. Another investigation supported Serpico’s conclusion. Cops on up the hierarchy were taking in millions. As predicted, Serpico was targeted by the cops who resented him. If you’ve seen the movie from the ’70s, you know he was shot and abandoned by the other cops. Because a civilian called the police, Serpico got medical attention and lived.

Now in his 80s, Frank Serpico describes what happened and why he was so ethical. There’s an interesting scene when Serpico was reunited with one of the cops who didn’t report Serpico getting shot.

The good cinematography that adds point of view. The movie with Pacino is brought up a lot and as Serpico wasn’t after fame, he exiled himself far from the city. A few areas could have been eliminated or shortened as they were repetitive. All in all, this was a film that held my interest that apparently isn’t as embellished as the Hollywood production. So if you’re interested in the police in general or Frank Serpico in particular, check out this film.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

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Starring Dennis Price and Alex Guinness, Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is a black comedy of revenge. Louis Mazzini’s mother’s upper class family disowned her when she married an Italian musician. After she dies, Louis seeks revenge. Using a different weapon or means for each subject, Louis plots to kill all eight of the relatives ahead of him in line for the family fortune.

Louis falls in love with his childhood sweetheart, but she throws him over for a rich man, whom she finds as dull as dishwater. She’s clearly mercenary, but then so is Louis as he’s reptilian in his ability to murder relatives one after another without feeling any remorse.

One quirk of the film is that Alec Guinness plays each of the eight relatives that kills. He plays young and old, male and female. It’s a clever technique.

The Criterion Collection DVD includes the American ending. The Hays Code prohibited films from showing a situation where crime paid.

Before I saw it thought it would be a much weaker ending, but they just added a few seconds with an action that I imagined would follow the end of the film. The British version led me to expect that action to occur. Nonetheless it’s interesting to see how the Hays Code influenced filmmaking.

Shoplifters

Winner of the 2018 Palm d’Or at Cannes, Shoplifters was at the top of my to-watch list. It’s now out on DVD and I got it from the library after a short wait.

Set in Tokyo, Shoplifters takes us into the hovel where a motley crew makes up a family. Early on it’s quite foggy how this grandma, mother, father, teenage girl and boy related. They live hand to mouth off of the grandma’s small retirement allotment, the mother’s wages at a commercial laundry, and by shoplifting. The teenage girl works at a kind of sex shop, but it seems she can keep all her earnings.

The “dad” teaches the boy to shoplift and during one of their sprees, they discover a young girl of 4 or 5 who’s neglected and abused. They coax her to come home with them because they feel sorry for her. This quiet girl, whom they name Lin, comes to feel at home with this rag tag family, that doesn’t follow society’s rules.

They are a likable bunch even though they take advantage of each other quite a lot. They keep secrets from each other and

The way the film delves into poverty I was reminded of Kurosawa’s and Renoir’s The Lower Depths. You know that the characters’ behavior is the main reason they’re stuck in poverty. Since the Shoplifters features children, it pulls the heartstrings more than Kurosawa and Renoir’s films.

I found Shoplifters charming, but also depressing in parts. Yes, there were moments that highlighted everyone’s generosity and kindness. Their quirks were endearing. I thought the sex club that the teenager worked in to be disturbing, particularly the first scene there. Later we learn more about the grandmother’s role in the girl’s life and her plight of prostitution, though not entirely revealed to the grandmother is even more disturbing.

While I didn’t want an unrealistically happy ending what we got was too abrupt and I wanted to know more about what happened to the teenager.

All in all, despite good acting, I was disappointed by Shoplifters as the story’s rather bleak and it left too many bows untied.

Bohemian Rhapsody

I knew all the Queen hits, but didn’t know much about the band’s history or Freddie Mercury’s life. I just watched Bohemian Rhapsody this weekend figuring it would be more entertaining than a marathon awards show, since those usually drag on and on.

The film acquainted me with the general background of the band. I found it interesting that one musician was an astro-physicist, another studied dentistry and another studied electrical engineering. Of course, the big star was Freddie Mercury, who was a performer par excellence.

Born Farrokh Balsara, Freddie Mercury is the center of this film. The film goes through the band’s history which was inseparable from Mercury’s life. In many ways as unique on the surface Mercury seemed, the events and relationships he experienced follow that of many stars – parents who don’t understand, dissatisfaction with the ordinary life of study, followed by work and conventional family, joining a band, fighting for success, disagreements once success is attained, destructive excess and rebellion with the corporate types running things, Yet, while this was nothing new to anyone growing up in the era, who know this music scene and the biographies of its brightest stars, the film does entertain. Queen’s music still has wide appeal.

The film’s strength is its music and visuals. There’s a lot of color and glitz which fit Mercury. Actor Rami Malek won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance and he did succeed in bringing Mercury back to life.

Yet this is not a film that would get a screenwriting award. I felt the story sped through the drama that shaped the band and Mercury. It’s as if it was written based on a checklist: quickly show conflict with stern father who doesn’t understand music, show meeting his wife and jump to their marriage. Check off requisite arguments between the band members and with the music business guy. I hoped for more depth and a closer look into Freddie.

Essentially, Freddie’s life was a sad one. Like many in his position, he trusted the snake, who is certain to appear once you’re successful and throwing big parties. He didn’t appreciate the people he could count on. Nothing was enough. Early on Freddie’s father tells him that he can’t get anywhere pretending you’re someone that you’re not. On the one hand, Freddie’s right to reject the message as his father’s ideas about getting a steady job, etc. aren’t what he was born to do. However, the tragedy of Mercury’s life was that he didn’t understand the wisdom in his father’s statement. Mercury perfected his role as performer, but his other facets were neglected and undeveloped. It’s a pity he didn’t grow as a mature friend, colleague, or intimate partner. He didn’t develop Farrokh Balsara; like Elvis and so many others, his life was tragic because he focused so much on his persona and not on his inner life or soul.

In short the movie was worth watching, but I’d love it if it were shorter and focused on particular areas of Mercury’s life rather than everything. The Steve Jobs film by Aaron Sorkin is a better example of how a biopic can show a person’s life concisely.

Samurai Rebellion

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What a film! Starring Mifune, Toshiro* Samurai Rebellion (1967) blew me away. The Japanese really do know how to play on one’s emotions. Far from our stereotype of this culture, they’re capable of intense emotion, stubbornness and defiance.

Set in the early 18th century, Samurai Rebellion tells the story of a samurai family that’s more or less forced to make their son marry their Lord’s cast off mistress. Mifune plays the head of the family, Sasahara Isaburo, an older master swordsman, who had to marry his cold-hearted, domineering wife because he lacked social status. Sashara often jokes about how he’s just a hen-pecked husband. When the message comes that the regional warlord wants Sasahara’s son Yogoro to marry his troublesome mistress, Sasahara tactfully says, thanks but no thanks. He’d like a better marriage for his son. Sasahara’s wife thinks this is stupid. In this culture when the warlord asks you to do something you do it. she clearly has no respect for anyone but herself. This woman makes the farmer’s wife in Grant Wood’s American Gothic look cheerful.

This forced marriage is not kosher in this society. The warlord is abusing his power. Sasahara keeps politely refusing. In time the son, breaks in on a visit from the steward and agrees. No one expects much from this marriage.
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When Ichi, the mistress arrives with her daughter, she explains to her new husband that she was exiled because after bearing her child, she returned to the castle to see that the Lord has found her replacement, a cutie, who’s now making the Lord’s heart race. Ichi never wanted to be this guy’s wife or mistress, but is disgusted that after giving birth she’s been displaced. By speaking up, Ichi finds herself cast out.

Surprisingly, Yogoro and Ichi fall in love. Ichi is an ideal daughter-in-law who puts up with her grouchy mother in law and is a great asset to the family. But the course of true love never runs smoothly. When the Lord’s firstborn dies, Ichi is summoned back to the castle. She doesn’t want to go. Yogoro doesn’t want her to go and neither does Sasahara. In fact, the men are willing to defy the lord and fight to the death to keep Ichi.

The film kept me in suspense from start to finish. Mifune gives a powerful performance and the director Kobayashi Misaki provides a beautiful drama. There were some times when the cinematography was too much like when there’s an intense meeting at the castle during which lots of bold, distracting shadows come through the windows, but that’s a minor fault. Much of the cinematography is gorgeous as the filmmakers use the aesthetics of Japanese homes with little furniture, tatami mats, and dark beams against white walls to good effect.

Though there are only two female characters, they’re both strong women who hold their own in a man’s world.

I highly recommend Samurai Rebellion, which I bet you can get the DVD from your library as I did. (Thank God of inter-library loans.)

You can read the illustrious Donald Richie’s Samurai Rebellion article here.

*Note, I’ve used the Japanese practice of writing the family name first and the Western first name second.

Hoaxed

Featuring Scott Adams, Jordan Peterson, James O’Keefe of Project Veritas, communications professors, and other experts, this film by Mike Cenovich explores “Fake News.” The face-paced, Hoaxed will keep you stimulated as it presents the history of Fake News along with examples, past and present. It’s a must-see film, though you should also read and watch other

It taught me about the Operation Mockingbird, when the CIA paid American reporters to write the stories it wanted. At first that was supposed to apply just to foreign media outlets, but later spread to stories that were published domestically. Operation Mockingbird lasted from the 1950s till the 1980s when Senator Frank Church went public about this program.

The film’s structure builds and builds so that a viewer will see how pervasive Fake News is and how so many journalists are guilty. Each subject has a different take and vibe from Scott Adam’s low key personality to the electric Stefan Molyneux’s caffeinated monologue, which is a compelling connection between Plato’s cave story and our illusory view of the world via media.

While the film isn’t as sarcastic, its makers have learned from Michael Moore in how it cuts back and forth between news footage and commentary.

Hoaxed (running time 2 hours, 8 minutes) is available on Vimeo.