The Wolfpack

Thanks to Sharon for bringing this unique documentary to my attention. Directed by Crystal Moselle, The Wolfpack (2015)shows a family consisting of six brothers, their parents and their sister who live in New York. The parents met when the mother went backpacking in South America. She shared his dislike for materialism and were married.

The sad and curious thing about this family is that the father became a control freak and would lock the wife and children in the apartment. He believed it was for security, but actually I saw it as a form of control. They could only go outside when the father permitted it and he apparently went with them so no one could escape. One year they were allowed out 9 years and another they weren’t taken outside at all.

The film focuses on the older brothers. The mother was certified by the state to homeschool the kids and they all spoke articulately and politely. The father had wanted 10 children as his dream of heading a tribe, but seven was the limit (biologically) for the mother. The father didn’t work; the father explained that he didn’t believe in work. I wondered what he did when he was out of the house for hours and hours. They family lived on welfare. The father dreamt of moving to Scandinavia, where the welfare was even better, but that never materialized.

The compelling thing about the documentary is how creative the boys were. To stave off boredom and keep sane, they watched the 5000+ DVDs that their dad had collected and then they’d copy the scripts and act out the films. They made clever props. It’s a good thing there were so many kids or they wouldn’t have enough actors.

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Yojimbo

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I didn’t expect to like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) as I knew it was a samurai film and fighting’s not my thing, but since I’m on a Kurosawa roll, I figured I should see it anyway. Boy, am I glad I did. The film offers unexpected wit and an unforgettable, surly hero, named Sanjuro.

Sanjuro wanders about the country after his master and retinue have lost. He comes to a town caught in the crossfire of two gangs. The townspeople live cowering in fear. After Sanjuro displays his swordsmanship with finesse the gang leaders try to lure him with money so he’ll play for their side. Ever cagey, Sanjuro’s wise to their game and trickery and double-crossing follow. There is no good side to join.

Sanjuro’s irascible but not evil. He does save a family knowing that’ll cost him. He gives them his gold coins to flee, but when they try to thank him he shouts that he hates anyone who’s pathetic and if they cry he’ll kill them. It’s all tongue in cheek and such humor in the context is a poke at the Western or samurai genre movies.

Also, the soundtrack is pure 1960s Western music, which adds a layer of fun as it winks at Hollywood and films in general. Another aspect of humor is the buffoonery of the other characters one gang’s nincompoops are just as inept as the other’s. Sanjuro operates on a whole different plane.

Toshio Mifune plays Sanjuro masterfully. He shows more with a glance or flick of a toothpick than most award-winning actors of any era. If he can convince a Western/fighting movie anti-fan like me to eagerly desire to watch the three other films, his performance must be stellar. Kurosawa made a lot of movies with Mifune and once said that:

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. – Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography.

Tatsuya Nakadai, who starred in Human Condition, Ran, and several other classics, appears as a loyal member of one of the gangs. He’s set apart as the one gangster with a gun, which he shoots with precision as a counter to Sanjuro’s very traditional swordsmanship. His character is threatening and probably the sharpest of the bunch though no match for Sanjuro.

This film inspired Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, in fact it’s said to be almost a carbon copy. I may just watch that too, but I’ve become such a Mifune fan, I doubt anyone can fill his shoes.

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.

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.

The Distinguished Citizen

The Distinguished Citizen is one bold movie that answer the question “Can you go home again?” as well as the question “Should you?” From Argentina, it’s the story of a Nobel Prize winning writer, Daniel Mantovani who’s been turning down invitations to speak left and right. He’s dropped out of the literary circle and he hasn’t returned to his home town in decades.

For some reason, he does accept an invitation from the mayor of his hometown to participate in a series of cultural events. It’s not for nostalgia or to see family since both his parents have died long ago. He’s been questioning fame, literary awards, writing and culture for some time. His ideas are unique and not easy to take so you expect trouble when he gets back home, and you’re right to do so.

Mantovani lives in a sleek, ultra modern home in Barcelona. While he’s not lavish in his tastes, it’s clear that he’s sophisticated and used to his travels going smoothly. From the time he arrives at the airport, a six hours drive from his town, things are off. The mayor sent an irresponsible driver whose car is a beater to pick Montovani up. The rust bucket does break down in the middle of nowhere on a “short cut” and the driver doesn’t have a cell phone. We’re set to expect a terrible time for this trip.

Though his assistant has secretly written the town and hotel with a list of his usual requests, e.g. a latex mattress, taboo questions, special food, he seems embarrassed and doesn’t care or want such things. So we figure Montovani won’t be a bad guest who needs to learn something from his former neighbors and friends, which is the usual way such films move.

Montovani is no angel and in fact can be hard to like. He brings a lot of problems on himself like when a teenage groupie throws herself at him in his hotel room. He soon learns she’s the daughter of his former girlfriend who’s married one of his childhood friends.

The film’s full of bold, controversial lines about culture, i.e. how it’s not necessarily a fragile, feeble thing that needs our protection. I didn’t necessarily agree with Montovani all the time, but he made me think and The Distinguished Citizen kept me interested from the start.

 

 

The Horizontal Man

In 1947 Helen Eustis won the Edgar Award for best mystery for The Horizontal Man. Set at a small New England women’s college where a young Irish English professor, Kevin Boyle is murdered; someone took a fireplace poker and bashed him over the head with it. Soon Molly Morrison, an introverted freshman with a huge crush on Prof. Boyle has a breakdown and while in the school infirmary confesses to the murder.

No one buys that and she’s eventually cleared, but the question remains: Who killed Boyle? As the novel progresses Eustis provides an up close look into the psychology of the students and professors. Surprisingly, police and detectives play a small role in the novel, a technique I can’t remember seeing in other mysteries.

I liked her precise style, which transported me to the late 1940s.

A Touch of Sin

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A Touch of Sin , directed by Jian Zhangke, blew me away.

I think I was expecting a movie about love affairs or something with a touch, i.e. a little corruption.

The film could be called A Massive Dose of Sin as it dramatizes four true events in modern China. True events, my mind still swirls.

The film features four stories that overlap a tad. First we see a villager who’s fed up with the corrupt village chief who promised that proceeds from the sale of a mine would be shared with the villagers. While the chief travels by private jet and owns a luxury sedan, the villagers have netted zero. When trying to speak to the chief gets him no where, the villager turns to violence — in a big way.

A Touch of Sin - Stills - Lian Rong (Li Meng) 02 Copyright Xstream Pictures (Beijing)

Later we meet a professional thief who returns to his village for his mother’s 70th birthday, a mistress who gives her lover an ultimatum and a factory worker who heads to a bigger city, with brighter lights and more action. None of these characters fare well. They get caught in the wheels of the greed of modern China. There’s plenty of violence and blood in each story, which I still am stunned that they’re all true. The cinematography is outstanding and the dialog spare. Jia shows us these tales and leaves us with little commentary or preaching on what to think about the brutality. The scenes all feel so real, so real that it’s scary.

A Touch of Sin won for best screenplay at Cannes in 2013.

I’m glad I saw it, but watching a second time would be too much for me.

A Gentleman’s Agreement

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I felt in the mood for an old movie so off the top of my head I entered “Gregory Peck” in Netflix’s search box. The first film in the list was A Gentleman’s Agreementwhich is the story of a journalist, Philip Skylar Green (Peck), whose hired to do a story on anti-Semitism for a weekly magazine. A widower, Green’s just come to New York with his young son and mother.

While some may think the film is too talky or preachy, I’d disagree. I liked that a film would take on such a dirty secret. Green doesn’t merely encounter and write about blatant anti-Semitism, he reacts to those who aid and abet, the polite, liberal people who aren’t anti-Semitic, but remain quiet when comments and jokes are made. That’s a big part of the film.

A young divorceé, Kathy suggested the story idea to her uncle, the magazine publisher. She meets Green and they hit it off. Throughout the film, she maintains how she isn’t anti-Semitic and she’s defended a colleague who quit due to its vile consequences. Romance grows between Green and Kathy, but time and again Kathy’s behaves timidly when confronted with anti-Semitism. When Kathy’s sister gives a party for the newly engaged couple, Kathy tries to persuade Green to let the sister and her crowd know that he “really isn’t Jewish.” She tries to make exceptions time and again and this causes great conflict in their relationship. This behavior is exactly what the film aims to address – how well meaning people go along and behave in such a way that prejudice lives on.

Another sophisticated aspect of the film involved Green’s secretary. It turns out that when she first applied to work at the magazine using her real name, she was rejected. Then when she used a false name, one that doesn’t sound Jewish, she got hired. Green makes this problem known to the publisher, who insists that HR print a line in its ads stating that religion is a matter of indifference to getting the job.

When the secretary learns this, her reaction surprises Green. She’s worried that the “wrong kind of Jew” would be hired, perhaps a secretary who fits a stereotype she wants to distance herself from – someone too loud or who wears too much make up. This sort of complexity isn’t seen in movies today. I doubt such a movie would be made today. I know we’ve made great strides in acceptance and diversity, but my hunch is such bias is still with us and is ignored.

A Gentleman’s Agreement is a good film that could launch discussion within a family or classroom. It doesn’t bore and the actors – Gregory Peck, Celeste Holm, Dean Stockwell and others who aren’t well known but still performed well – make this film worthwhile.

Facts:

  • This film was 20th Century Fox‘s top grossing film of 1948.
  • A Gentleman’s Agreement won Best Director, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars.
  • Producer Darryl F. Zanuck sought legal advice regarding the naming of the three anti-Semitic political figures. When told there was only a small risk of libel, Zanuck, who wasn’t Jewish, replied, “Let them sue us. They won’t dare, and if they do, nothing would make me more happy than to appear personally as a witness or defendant at the trial.” As it turned out, Sen. Bilbo (D – Miss) died before the film’s release, Rep. Rankin (D – Miss) lost in his campaign to succeed Bilbo (but remained in Congress), and Gerald L.K. Smith filed a lawsuit that ultimately failed.
  • When other studio chiefs, who were mostly Jewish, heard about the making of this film, they asked the producer not to make it. They feared its theme of anti-Semitism would simply stir up a hornet’s nest and preferred to deal with the problem quietly. Not only did production continue, but a scene was subsequently included that mirrored that confrontation.<p>Fact source: imdb.com

Argo

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Based on a true story, Argo portrays the CIA’s outlandish, and eventually successful, attempt to rescue six Foreign Service agents who had escaped to the Canadian Ambassador’s house in Iran when the embassy was under siege.

I found the movie riveting from the titles to the credits. The imagery featuring news footage and cool action drawings for storyboards, which worked well together. The acting was superb. Ben Affleck, who also directs, John Goodman and Alan Arkin were terrific and compelling. The deft use of actual news footage gave the film veracity and the brisk pacing added to the tension.

I didn’t know about this event, even though it was declassified by President Clinton. I was pulled into the crisis and fascinated that the solution, the best of the bad ideas, was low tech and bizarre. Also, this look at people who’re willing to sacrifice for their country without fan fare does appeal to me. Argo is a film well worth seeing. I’ll probably see it again soon.