The Bank Dick

With one of the best car chases I’ve ever seen, W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick was a nice change after watching Russian drama. Fields plays Egbert Sousé, the head of the house full of women who constantly complain. He’s no angel, but you sympathize with him because his family treats him awfully. As the name without the accent grave suggests, Sousé drinks a lot and is a layabout. By accident, he thwarts a bank robbery and is hailed as a hero. As a reward, the bank president makes Sousé is given a job as the bank detective. Soon he gets his daughter’s boyfriend into financial trouble through a hare-brained scheme to buy bonds. As he’s basically a decent fellow, he tries then to save his future son-in-law, but everything goes wrong.

The film was at times clever and at times corny in a way that delights. Not only did I smile, but I learned a host of new words like adscititious and several others (below). The characters are stock and the humor often just plain silly, but The Bank Dick is fun and entertaining. I hadn’t seen a W.C. Fields’ film in years and will look for more.

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The Greatest Showman

Not one to rush out to the theaters to spend $10 to see a new film, I just watched The Greatest Showman on DVD. In short, it’s a fairly entertaining film, that I’m glad I saw for free.

The story of famed showman/huckster, P.T. Barnum, this musical is a fictionalized biography. The film’s got pizzazz and color. I enjoyed the dancing and songs, though the day after viewing, I can’t remember any lyrics. Thus as a musical something’s missing. With a great musical, you can remember several songs. Think West Side Story, Oklahoma, Les Mis. I can sort of hum one of the songs. But I’m not sure I could hum much.

P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) grew up poor and was friends with a little rich girl, whom he eventually married in spite of her father’s protests. The mother’s never seen for some reason. The story segues to Barnum toiling in your typical, dark, dreary 19th century office. His spirit is wilting. Then the company folds and Barnum decides to enter show biz. Before you know it he realizes there’s money to be made by producing freak shows that allow the public to see a bearded lady, a giant, Tom Thumb, a little person, a man with a skin condition, etc. After some creative marketing, people are flocking to Barnum’s show and the cash is flowing in.

The film portrays Barnum’s efforts as inclusive. He did hire these people and before working for him they were outcasts. The film does show that Barnum yearned to be accepted by the elites and once he succeeds by using a concert he produces with famed singers Jenny Lind, he shuts the door on his cast, who don’t look polished and elegant. According to History vs. Hollywood, Barnum’s attitude towards diversity and the disabled wasn’t so cut and dried. Clearly, the film paints Barnum as a flawed champion of outcasts. He did hire these people and gave them a means to support themselves and to form community and friendships. I’m not sure how well they were paid. Yet in the film, these characters weren’t well developed. We see no scenes that show Barnum as cultivated a friendship or deep understanding of any of his performers. This aspect and the lack of memorable songs, are the film’s weakness for me. The story’s quite cliched, though it’s well paced and colorful. I wished for more.

Ivan’s Childhood

I hadn’t heard of director Andrei Tarkovsky before. Nor had I ever heard of actor Nikolay Burlyaev. I haven’t seen many Russian films and I wasn’t particularly looking for a difficult film but something about Tarkovsky’s WWII film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) grabbed me though it took a while.

Around 12 years old, Ivan dreams of his idyllic childhood playing at the beach, chatting with his young mother, running freely. Then he wakes up. He’s in a dark, war-torn, God-forsaken landscape. He trudges through a murky river (which looks like a marsh, but it’s a degenerated river and a symbol the effects of war) before he’s captured by Russian soldiers. Back at the soldiers’ post, Ivan is fierce and orders the soldiers about. He orders the soldiers to call “Number 51 at HQ.” They try to put him in his place, but you’ve never seen a fiercer 12 year old. Played by Nikolay Burlyaev, Ivan is like no character you’ve ever seen. In the dream sequences he’s pure and innocence; once he’s orphaned and becomes an army scout Ivan’s transformed to a force of nature on par with a hurricane.

Ivan prevails in convincing his comrades in arms that he should continue his reconnaissance work and not get shipped off to the much safer military school. Viewing the film, I knew that the soldiers should not have agreed, but that’s where the suspense comes in.

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Tarkovsky gives us amazing images like none I’ve ever seen. He believed in using the environment like the murky river, a bombed peasant farm house and a white birch forest speak volumes. I’ll never forget the dream sequence when Ivan and a little girl are riding in a pick up truck filled with apples. The sky and trees are shown in the negative, which was mind-blowing.

There’s a lot of intense emotion. One example is a scene with an officer flirting with a female junior officer who’s very tentative. He wants her; it’s not clear what she wants. Without graphic nudity or direct language Tarkovsky gives us a powerful scene of cat and mouse in the birch forest that goes on forever.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with fascinating extras including an interview with the now grown (i.e. middle aged) Nickolay Burlyaev, who recalls how hard Tarkovsky made him work to get the part and then how kind and sensitive the director was during the filming of this emotionally intense story.

I found the film challenging to watch. It’s no day at the beach, which is fitting for a war film. Yet Ivan’s Childhood is well worth watching.

 

 

L’Enfance Nue

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In the same vein as Truffaut’s 400 Blows, L’Enfance Neu presents the story of a troubled boy growing up in 1960s France. In fact, François Truffaut produced this first film directed by Maurice Pialat.

While the actors in both films resemble each other, their personalities and stories are distinct. L’Enfance Neu is about François, an 11 year old, in the foster care system. His mother has abandoned him temporarily when he was 4. She doesn’t write and the boy knows little of her and nothing of his father. At the start he lives with a family, who has had enough of him. He steals, wets his bed, hangs out with the “bad boys” who mistreat cats and probably any other pet or person they impetuously think would be fun to test.

Yet François has his good side. He buys his foster mom a gift with the money his foster father gave him for his own use. He is a normal brother to the foster parents’ “real” daughter, who tells the social worker she likes François and would miss him if he left. The mother has a laundry list of François’ every fault and misdeed and the social worker realizes its pointless to leave the boy in this setting.

So François is shipped off to a new town where he’s placed with an elderly couple, who’ve been foster parents to dozens of kids including the teen Raoul, who lives there now.  The couple is loving and pragmatic. They get exasperated when François gets in trouble with his hooligan friends, but they respond as most parents do and they forget his past deeds and see the good in this troubled boy.

The story doesn’t end by tying a bright satin bow on the end, but neither does it just stop without some resolution. It’s realistic and fair to all sides. It doesn’t provide easy answers. François’ certainly affected by his parents’ abandoning him, but he’s also no worse than the kids who have parents. None of them say, “We shouldn’t through the cat down the stairwell” or “We shouldn’t steal ice cream” at the movie theater. In that scene there were several older boys who knew better. In fact, one of the older boys was a lot more self-destructive than François.

I appreciated the realism and the fair shake all the characters got. You could sympathize with both the foster parents, François and the others in the film. While the foster system is far from perfect, these social workers were conscientious.

Pialat worked with non-actors and the natural performances were as good as any professional’s. This was Maurice Pialat‘s first film, which I highly recommend. I’d definitely seek out others.

Like Someone in Love

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もったいない (mottanai) in Japanese basically means “what a waste!” and that’s how I felt once I was 70% through Like Somone in Love. I’d seen the film on the shelf at the library and was intrigued. When I watched the trailer on YouTube I was duped. I thought the film would be interesting. ちがいます(chigaimasu). Translation: wrong.

Directed by the Iranian director who made Certified Copy, which I did enjoy, though I have to say that film has an unusual and at times mystifying or weird narrative, Like Someone in Love deliberately leaves the audience in the dark about what’s going on or who the characters actually are. The director likes to string people along or make them wonder. We first hear, but don’t see Akiko, a young prostitute, lie to her fiancée. Then her fatherly boss advises her to drop the boyfriend before he insists she go to a new client’s apartment. Akiko is pouty and stupid and that never changes.

Her new client Prof. Watanabe is old enough to be her grandpa and is very kind. It seems he just wants a companion rather than a sex partner. At first Akiko is withdrawn, but soon flips the switch and is talkative and bubbly. She knows how to do her job, how to create interest and warmth, which seems to have se rved her well. She chatters on about her youth and how various people have praised her looks. I thought she was very sly in adopting this “little girl” persona. It’s common in Japan for women to adopt a baby-ish voice to flirt.

Before we know it Akiko pulls poor Watanabe into her violent relationship with a mechanic. At one point, after seeing the mechanic man-handle Akiko, the retired professor tries to advise the fiancé on marriage, but this kid’s a know-it-all.

The best thing about the film is the actor who played Watanabe. Evidently, Tanashi Okuno has been an extra for 30+ years and this is the first film in which he speaks.

I feared that Akiko and the mechanic were total liars and would beat up the old man at the end, but that’s not exactly what happens. In fact, the end is left to viewers’ imagination, which I felt was cheating.

This slice of life film wasn’t worth the time. It’s the mirror opposite of a Doris Day film like Lucky Me. The director aims to avoid Hollywood clichés and as far as that goes, he succeeds. If you want to see a film set in Japan, try Kurosawa, Naruse or Ozu. Skip Like Someone in Love.

Lucky Me

As Doris Day just passed away at the age of 97, I figured watching some of her films would be a good memorial. My library displayed their DVDs with Day and I chose Lucky Day at random.

In Lucky Me, Day plays Candy Williams an aspiring singer and dancer who’s very superstitious and won’t walk by a black cat or step on a crack. Any superstition you’ve heard of in America, she won’t test. Williams is part of a struggling troupe of performers led by Phil Silvers, who’s perfect for his part. Candy gets duped by a well-meaning composer and romantic comedy ensues.

Though Lucky Me isn’t Day’s finest film and there are no great classic songs I recognized, the film entertains. It’s a cheerful story which showcases Day’s optimistic style. It’s sure to make you smile. The supporting cast includes Nancy Walker, who I remember from the sitcom Rhoda. Walker’s dancing skill was a nice surprise and Silver was a wonderful father figure in this tale of old showbiz.

Chef Flynn

A patron recommended the documentary Chef Flynn about Flynn McGarry, a boy who’s been creating fine dining experiences since he was in middle school. Flynn’s mom, a filmmaker who repeatedly laments putting her own career on the back burner, has supported Flynn’s cooking since he was a toddler and was probably eating organic baby food.

While watching a prodigy teach himself the fine points of gourmet cooking was interesting, I found the stage mom’s hovering hard to watch. It’s great to see a parent promote a child’s interests and talent development, but this “support” can cross a line into control and vicarious living. In Chef Flynn I saw that misstep from the mother who continues to film her kids even when they ask her to stop and when she inserts close ups of her business card into the documentary. Sometimes the mom offered solid common sense, but often she made me cringe when she asked Flynn how many “Likes” he’d received or when she got up in the middle of the night to see if The New York Times story was published online and then worried that it wasn’t online at the minute it was promised. Of course, a mom would buy the paper featuring her son, That’s normal, but getting up before the sun and refreshing a page compulsively because the article wasn’t yet posted was fanatic. And all that hovering as well as the self-imposed pressure for Flynn to make it big as a world class chef as a teen was painful to watch.

I also wish the father had been able to speak in the film. What does he think about the family, about Flynn’s talent and success? We get all our information and the analysis of her divorce from the mom. Again, painful to watch since it’s clear to the audience what’s missing.