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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.

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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.

A terrific movie I hadn’t heard a peep about.

Mixed Media

The Exam

A Hungarian film, that’s won some festival awards, The Exam(A Visgva in Hungarian) is a terrific thriller that’s hard to find. I saw it on my flight home from China. It’s not on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. However, it’s captivating and well worth seeing.

Directed by Péter Bergendy and written by Hungary’s prolific, accomplished Norbert Köbli, The Exam is a spy thriller that shows the secret police spying on themselves, testing agent’s loyalty in 1957.

As Christmas approaches, Jung, an exemplary spy who interviews citizens from all walks of life to ferret out the counter revolutionaries, doesn’t realize that his mentor Marko is spying on him, recording his every move as part of a program to spy on the spies.

The film recreates Communist Hungary and all the distrust and suspicion inherent in that regime. It’s tense and keeps the audience guessing, much like The Lives of Others

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Bill Cunningham New York

Bill Cunningham (!) Taking Kate's Picture

Bill Cunningham (!) Taking Kate’s Picture (Photo credit: Shawn Hoke)

Although I read the New York Times online, I had no idea who Bill Cunningham was. Partly, that’s due to the N.Y. Times limit of stories per month. Now it’s 10. Don’t get me started.

Netflix coaxed me into watching the documentary Bill Cunningham New York. What a gem!

Cunningham is a fashion photographer who celebrates how real people dress with style, wit and charm, but there’s more. He lives with such joy because he loves his work. He loves people and he loves simplicity. He is the heart and eyes of “In the Street” and Evening Hours, a column on parties for the beau monde.

The documentary Bill Cunningham New York invites us into Bill’s office and tiny apartment in Carnegie Hall, which is filled with file cabinets holding his prized work of about 5 decades. We get to see him on the street in all kinds of weather as he captures real fashion worn by everyone from socialites to the down and out. One of the great things about Bill is that he doesn’t judge the people, rather he admires and shares great fashion.

I delighted in his quirks. Though Bill goes to all kinds of expensive galas, he scrupulously refuses any food or drink for fear that these freebies might make him beholden. In fact he’s far from a gourmet. He pretty much eats sandwiches, coffee and probably water or other non-trendy beverages. Though he’s enamored with fashion, he pretty much sports the same nondescript slacks, Shetland sweaters and blue workman’s smocks that he found Paris street sweepers wear. Those smocks are durable, have a lot of pockets and cost like $20. When it’s cold, he dons a beret.

Over 80 years old, Bill’s main form of transportation is bicycle. At the time of the film, he’d had 27 bikes stolen and was on bike 28. He rode home at all hours even after his black tie events. At times I wished he’d take a cab fearing that even with his reflective vest some drunk might plow into him.

Everyone who’s anyone in New York seems to know Bill and the film features interviews with the dandies and socialites who seem to dress for him and his paper. The film shows Bill’s neighbors and fellow artists who face eviction as the artists are getting thrown out to make way for telemarketing or other such tenants. (It’s a shame, but the New York Times must pay Bill a decent salary and he’s been in a rent controlled apartment for over 50 years it seems. He’s not spending his money on food, clothes or transportation.)

Even if you’re not a big fashion lover, I think you’ll love watching a man who lives on his own terms with lots of joie de vivre.

Outnumbered

Cast of Outnumbered

The most hilarious, smart sitcom I’ve seen in a long time is the BBC’s Outnumbered. Each week the parents Pete and Sue valiantly try to survive the chaos inherent in raising precocious children: Jake, Ben and Karen. The plots are loose and the dialog brilliant. Like Curb Your Enthusiasm, much of the dialog is improvised, which is probably why what the kids say seems so real, unlike the average show where the jokes are clearly written by 27 year olds and mouthed by 7 year olds.

I’ve just seen six episodes and the main thread is that the father, a secondary school history teacher, bumbles his way around the disaster he created by making a joke at the expense of one of his heavier students. Sue is a stay at home mom, who’s often overwhelmed, but never comes across as the nincompoop say the mom in Modern Family can be. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s because Sue’s smart kids often do have a good point when they argue, whereas the Modern Family kids are clearly reading from a script.

A few realistic, serious problems are woven into the series. Pete’s worried that Jake is a victim of bullying. The issue’s handled better than it would be on many sitcoms. Like in real life, Pete tries to open lines of communication, Jake denies there’s a problem. Then at the end of an episode, once you believe Jake, you see him washing his hands and his forearms are badly bruised. Another issue is caring for an elderly parent in decline. Sue has been the local go-to person for her father while her sister galavants. The sister returns and the relationship is rocky. Sue’s glad for the relief, yet has to hide her jealousy that Angela, her sister succeeds with the father – at first. So as in real life competing feelings exist in one person.

The dialog is brilliant. Take a look:

[youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRhIZCDk0Eo%5D

Karen with a nurse

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