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The Last Princess

The Last Princess (2016) captivated me with its dramatic history. It’s a film about a Korean Princess named Deok Hye, who lived from 1912 to 1989. Her father was Emperor when Japan was invading most of Asia. The Japanese wanted to control him, but couldn’t so they poisoned him. A few years later when Deok Hye was 13 she was sent to Japan to be educated. Though she didn’t want to go, she did to protect her mother.

As she grew, she realized she would never be allowed to return to Korea. The Japanese feared that this young, determined woman would stir up rebellion. When she was young, her father had hoped she’d marry Jang-Han Kim comes to Japan hoping to find a way to save her. He’s an officer in the Japanese army, but works with a group of underground rebels, who’re plotting to get the princess and her uncle back to Korea and to attack the core leaders of the Japanese army.

Throughout the film, the main villain isn’t a Japanese officer, but rather a Korean turncoat, Han Taek-soo, who was behind the emperor’s poisoning and will stop at nothing to please the Japanese by manipulating and spying on the Korean royals.

It’s decades before Deok Hye has a real chance to return to her home country. Along the way she bravely faces hardship, sorrow and betrayal.

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Hobson’s Choice

hobson's Staring Charles Laughton and directed by David Lean, Hobson’s Choice (1954) takes viewers back to Victorian England, to Henry Hobson’s home and boot shop. Hobson has three daughters, sensible Mary who at 30 is considered an old maid no man will marry and two sillier, more marriageable daughters, Alice and Vicky. Hobson’s a drinker and though successful, very much a cheapskate. From the start we see that Hobson drinks way too much and bickers constantly with his daughters. He admits he’s not good with females. Alice and Vicky plead with Hobson to provide dowries as their beau’s, like any self-respecting men, wouldn’t marry without one. Maggie, the brains of the shop, is put off when Hobson assumes his eldest daughter will never marry. She takes action and informs the mind-mannered Will Mossop, the best book maker in town, that he must marry her. She gives him no choice and even takes him to inform his overbearing landlady that Will will not be marrying her daughter.

Hobson, Maggie & Will

Hobson, Maggie & Will

The movie delights from start to finish and provides a look more realistic look at the era than we usually get. It’s an interesting contrast to The Paradise or Mr Selfridge as it shows the world of a small shop in a small town. In his way Hobson’s as weak as Harry Selfridge, but thankfully he has a strong daughter who reins him in.

Forbidden Games

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Such a powerful film!

Set in WWII, Jeux Inderdict (Forbidden Games) follows Paulette, a girl of maybe 5, who’s fleeing Paris with her parents. Refugees run along a country road as I suppose they do now in the Middle East. As war planes bomb a bridge, refugees seek cover. Paulette gets separated from her parents as she runs after her little dog. Soon, both parents and her dog are killed by German bullets. Paulette’s left to wander amongst the refugees.

Eventually, Paulette crosses paths with Michel Dollé, an older farm boy who’s searching for a cow that’s scared by the bombs and shooting. Michel brings Paulette to his poor family and they take her in. There’s no other place for her to go, other than to the neighbors, whom they view as snobs. The father does not want the neighbors to get a good write up in the local paper for taking in a war orphan.

Though he’s probably about 9 or 10, Michel’s the most educated of his family. He knows all the prayers by heart and regales Paulette with facts about animals and religion.

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Paulette’s been carrying around her dead puppy and Michel convinces her to bury it. When Paulette sees a cross in the Dollé’s house, she’s curious. She never knew what they were for. Thus Michel leads Paulette to build their own private cemetery in a deserted mill and they begin to steal crosses from wherever they can get them–graves, churches, hearses.

The adults can’t understand who’s taking the crosses and the rivalry between the neighbors grows.

All in all, Forbidden Games  is a natural, haunting film that mixes innocence, war, poverty, generosity and faith. It’s a simple, yet profound film, one I doubt anyone could make today.

N.B. French with English subtitles

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi

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Directed by Jacques Becker, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi! (Hands Off the Loot!) is an unusual gangster film. Released in 1954, the film chronicles a genteel, older gangster, Max, who’d like to cash in his gold bars and retire. Max is very debonair and respected in his circle. We never see how he got 50,000,000 Francs in gold, which is usually what the main focus of a gangster film would be.

The first hour of the movie we see his life, his friendship with Riton, who’s a sidekick, rather than an equal, his girlfriends, his evenings at a little restaurant and night clubs. He’s involved with a platinum blonde showgirl, while Riton’s showgirl Josy is brunette — and is getting some action on the side with another younger, gangster. Max stumbles on Josy and her other lover, which leads to a good scene when Max takes his friend home, presents him with the facts about Josy and shows us how good friends should care for each other in troubled times.

The movie’s pace picks up in the last thirty minutes. Angelo, Josy’s real love interest, abducts Riton using him as leverage to get Max’s gold. Loyalty forces Max to get Riton back and in doing so there’s the sort of a pursuits and shoot outs you’d expect in a gangster movie.

I thought the acting was good, but the first hour of the movie should have more plotting, just a little more. Show us Max getting the gold. I can be patient with a film that wants to go off the beaten path, but I almost gave up on this one. Finally, the very end of the film is abrupt and left important points about Max’s future up in the air so I can’t give this a thumbs up, unless someone knows more about Jacques Becker or French noir films.

The Two of Us

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C’est magnifique film!

Claude Berri’s autobiographical, The Two of Us is a gem set during WWI in France. It opens with Claude, a mischievous boy, stealing a toy tank from a toy store getting chased all around. Claude finds trouble at every turn driving his father to distraction. Because since they’re Jewish, the safest path for the family is to lay low, but Claude constantly calls attention to himself with his troublemaking. A family friend arranges for Claude to go live with her Catholic parents.

The problem is that “Grampa” is quite a bigot and spouts all sorts of anti-Semitic slurs. Claude’s parents coach him to hide is religion so he’ll be safe in the countryside, but there are some close calls, which give the story suspense. Nonetheless, he’s mercilessly bullied for being the new kid from Paris. You just can’t win.

Based on the director’s own childhood experience, there’s a sophisticated treatment of a close relationship that grows in spite of prejudice. Played masterfully by Michel Simon, Grampa loves this boy and takes him under his wing, dealing with his troublemaking with patience Claude’s father couldn’t muster. Berri chose Cohen to play Claude while visiting a Jewish school and seeing him getting into trouble in class and later hiding from the principal behind some curtains. His shoes poking out from under the curtains gave him away. A natural actor, Cohen brings a realism to his understated performance.

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The Two of Us, as Truffaut commented, shows how most French people lived during the war, those who weren’t in the Resistance or collaborating with the Germans. People just going about their business; people who could be both kind, loving, and yet be hindered by ugly beliefs. It’s a deft film that can portray bigotry without supporting it, all the while showing the goodness mixed in with the prejudice. The film masterfully captures the truth of this experience.

The Criterion Collection’s DVD, as usual, includes insightful short interviews that deepen one’s understanding of the film.

If you liked Claude Berry’s later films, Jean de Floret or Manon of the Spring, you’ll love The Two of Us.

One Wonderful Sunday

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Kurosawa’s 1942 ironically titled One Wonderful Sunday should be called One Looooong Sunday. It just didn’t do it for me. The film depicts two young lovers on their weekly date in post-WWII Tokyo. Inflation is sky high and the couple just have 35 yen to spend. Times are tough as the woman’s shoes have soles that flap and holes. She can’t afford a winter coat and neither can he. Since they only can meet on Sunday, I assumed they both have jobs, which they never talk about.

Masako, the woman, makes every effort to stay cheerful, while despite some upswings in mood, Yuzo, the man reminds me of Eeyore, a real downer. Yuzo always sees the downside in every situation. Masako, would you really want to marry a man whom you’re forever bolstering and cheering up? Who does so little to support you?

At one point the couple tours a model home and he just complains about the poor craftsmanship, materials and high cost. Later we see where he lives. Hovel would be too kind. On the one hand, the gap shows how out of reach a good life is for the average Japanese worker at the time, on the other it showed me that nothing would every satisfy Yuzo, which is why time and again, I wanted to tell the smiling Masako to “Run!” Find someone who isn’t so needy. While some of his depression could be due to the emotional scars of serving in the war, Masako, it could just be how this guy is and he ain’t gonna change. That he just brought 15 yen for the day, while she had 20, can be taken symbolically as well as literally.

Masako and Yuzo had no plan for the day and ended up playing baseball with some kids, buying buns when the ball hit a bun shop, viewing a model house, meeting a homeless boy, looking for an apartment, visiting the zoo, trying to get into a concert (but scalpers bought the last of the cheap seats and Yuzo started a fist fight over that, which was understandable, but counterproductive), having tea, crying — a lot, pretending to own a café. Scenes were long — really long for me. I wished to see the couple in context because I never understood what Makasako saw in Yuzo, who seemed bipolar. The scene where Misako and Yuzo pretend to own a café, imagining the bombed out wasteland to be the site of the café was powerful. A later scene at the end when Yuzo pretends to be conducting the symphony they didn’t get to see fell flat. In that scene the depressed Yuzo gives up and Masako talks directly to audience pleading with them to clap so Yuzo’s dreams return. Evidently in Japan none of the audiences clapped. I don’t blame them at all. It was time for Yuzo to pull it together or Masako to wish him well and say goodbye.

Since Japan did flourish in the decades after this, perhaps I have too much knowledge that prevents me from liking One Wonderful Sunday. I know everything turns out alright for most of the Japanese so Yazo’s depression didn’t gain my sympathy.

New Year’s Resolutions

Last year I resolved to watch one old movie a week and I defined “old” as made before 1960. I had no idea how many great films I would discover through this resolution. I discovered lots of great movies from America, Japan, England, Italy and France. I saw great films I knew I should see, but never made time for. I did allow myself 4 weeks “off” but I think I saw at least 49 old films. Chaplin, Lloyd, Sacha Guitry, Mizuguchi, were just some of the directors whose work I saw for the first time.

So I’m going to continue this resolution with a couple tweaks. There were plenty of good films in the 60s and 70s so in 2015, I will watch movies made prior to 1980 and I’ll watch at least 2 a month.

Part of the reason for the decrease is that I plan to return to watching Lynda.com videos to upgrade my photography, software and other professional skills. I think I can manage watching three short videos a week for that goal.

I made my movie resolution because my Act One friend, Janet doesn’t believe in health related resolutions because you should eat well and exercise anyway and the January resolutions tend not to work so at some point you just postpone action till the next year. (Janet resolves to make time for lunch with a friend once a week so she doesn’t lose touch with people. I do believe fun, but easily postponed resolutions actually work.) In spite of Janet’s wise belief, I hope to regularly lift weights to tone my arms. So I’ll do that a minimum of three times a week.

I might start a Facebook page for anyone interested in the “Old Movie” Challenge.

What do you plan to change for 2015?

Life of Oharu

Sentenced to Banishment

Sentenced to Banishment

Life in 17th century Japan certainly wasn’t easy for women if The Life of Oharu is anything to go by. I really loved this movie about a beautiful young woman. First Oharu is a courtesan at the Imperial Palace. When she gives in to a lower class retainer’s advances, she’s found out. Then she’s banished from Kyoto. Her parents are also banished because they failed to guide their daughter properly. When they’re led out of the city, soldiers keep back their loved ones separating them with a pole as they proceed to the city limits in tears.

Oharu’s lover did not get off scot-free. He was beheaded after dictating a letter urging Oharu only to marry for love.

After a long banishment, Oharu lucks out. An emissary from an important lord must hunt for the perfect courtesan. The requirements are so specific. Feet must be a certain length, certain earlobes, background, talents. No one fits all the criteria — no one except Oharu. At first she kicks and screams, but eventually she goes to Edo (now Tokyo) where she delights the lord and infuriates his wife. She bears the lord the desired male heir and things are looking up. She finally feels at home, valued. However, the wife, who’s jealous of her husband’s fondness for Oharu, sends her packing with very little cash. Oharu’s father has over extended himself in business thinking he’ll be taken care of for life as his daughter bore the heir. The film continues to show this poor woman’s hardships and to reveal how precarious life could be in this highly structured society. The acting is superb and the story compelling as I had no idea what to expect. I really was shocked that Oharu was tossed out after producing a royal heir.

With the emperor

With the emperor, before she warmed up to him

While the film is melodramatic, there’s humor such as when a prostitute drags a man into an inn, while he’s calling out, “I’ve got to get home to my wife.” Based on the novel, The Life of an Amorous Woman, this film is beautiful with images that will stick with you. For more on the cinematography read this essay on the Criterion Collection website.

Désiré

Released in 1937 starring Sacha Guitry, Désiré is a comedy about a French woman and her household staff. Odette is a former actress who’s beau is a government Minister. Her staff includes a cook, a maid, a chauffeur we never see, but lacks a valet. The night before Odette, played by Guitry’s wife at the time, and her beau are to leave for the countryside, a chatty, meticulous valet comes to interview for the job. His references are impeccable and he’s hired. God forbid the couple goes to the country without a valet.

In the kitchen Désiré gets to know the maid and the cook. He’s very professional about his job and the hardest worker of the group, but also shares lots of observations about employers e.g. in a couple days a servant knows his employer well. In a year the servant can predict the employer’s every move and thought, yet after employing a servant for 5 years the employer probably doesn’t even know the servant’s last name. Touché.

Désiré’s previous employer intimates that while he was impeccable at his job, he made sexual overtures and therefore was let go. Odette is ready to send him packing but he persuades her to trust that it’ll never happen again.

All goes well until madam starts having dreams of Désiré making overtures. Her beau hears her calling out his name. Meanwhile Désiré also has dreams and the maid hears him calling out. Both don’t know what to do and try to hide the problem as best they can.

Désiré is a farce done with wit and intelligence. It makes some good points and is something of a counterpoint to Downton Abbey. Here the characters smoke and joke and toy with each other.  Guitry is a fine comic actor who held my interest from start to finish.

Bicycle Thieves

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I’ve heard that Bicycle Thief is a classic film but never saw it — till now. I got the DVD, and see that the title’s been correctly translated to Bicycle Thieves, which makes more sense. (Bravo, Criterion Collection!)

I wasn’t sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect the emotional power this simple movie packed.

In a nutshell, Bicycle Thieves shows the poverty of post-WWII Italy. Many men stand in line for job opportunities. Only a couple will get anything. Since he has a bicycle, Antonio Ricci is lucky enough to get a job putting up posters. He must have a bike. The first problem is that his bike has been pawned. It recoup it his wife Maria pawns the family’s sheets, sheets they got as wedding presents. Since this job will pay well and steadily and since there’s nothing else of value, pawning the sheets seems sensible. Though I did have a feeling of apprehension as soon as they got their money.

Antonio uses most of the money to recover his bike and starts work. As the title suggests it isn’t long before some ne’er-do-well, someone just as needy as Antonio steals the bike. The rest of the movie is the search for the thief and the bike. While it seems like little can be done with such a simple problem, director DeSica presents a journey through impoverished Rome that breaks your heart and shows you the self-absorbed rich, the dangers of pedophiles, the ties between a father and a son and the longing for better by people who’re more than willing to work for what they get.

The ending is particularly moving and well earned. The emotional journey we’re taken on is real. As a neo-realistic film Bicycle Thieves portrays life as it probably really was for many. I could definitely watch this again and again.

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