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The Black River

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Mask Kobayashi paints a bleak picture of Tokyo during the 1950s in The Black River. Set in a neighborhood beside a U.S. Army base, Kobayashi shows how Japan’s become corrupt. When Nishida, an upright student/bookseller, moves into a decrepit apartment building that’s more of a shanty than a building, we meet a motley crew consisting of parasites, prostitutes and a couple good guys who don’t stand a chance of fighting city hall given that most of their neighbors would sell out their own mother given the chance.

Soon both Nishida and Killer Joe, a Japanese low level gangster, fall for Shizuko, a lovely, innocent young woman. Joe shows his colors early on by ordering his hoodlum pals to attack Shizuko. It seems they’re going to rape her, but Joe happens by and fights them off. He professes his love and while Shizuko is briefly wooed, Joe then forces himself on her and she’s reviled. The next day Shizuko visits Joe to tell him she was going to report him to the police, but decided she’d be willing to marry him to salvage her reputation. What a sacrifice! It’s hard to believe that a woman would even have to consider such an option, but in some times and places that’s how people thought.

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Meanwhile Joe’s plotting with the greedy landlady to evict the residents of the shanty. Both will make out like bandits if they can get the not-so-beautiful losers out of the place.

The film then criticizes the greed, pettiness and lack of morality in society without blaming the problems on the American Army.The Black River shows how the characters contribute to their own troubles. Certainly, Shizuko was a victim in many ways, but she winds up but her choices also lead to an end where I saw no happily ever after for her.

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Salesman

I was mesmerized by the Iranian film Salesman. I saw it on my flight to Chicago and it was the first Iranian film I’d seen. In Salesman, a young married couple must flee their apartment which is collapsing due to some structural problems. The couple are currently starring in a production of Death of a Salesman and another actor offers to let them stay in an apartment he owns.

From the time they move in they’re inconvenienced by the former tenant, who’s left a lot of her things there. She’s a pain because she breaks promises to get her belongings and she won’t pick up her phone, etc.

This woman brings much more trouble when Rana, the young wife, buzzes in a person who she thinks is her husband. She opens the door and goes to take a shower. Little does she know that she’s just let a man who will brutally attack and rape her. It turns out that the previous tenant was a prostitute.

The film does not show the attack. We see Rana open the door and go to the shower and then we cut to Emad, her husband, arriving and seeing blood on the steps. Then he finds his wife beaten and bruised cared for by the new neighbors.

The film continues to deal with the aftermath. Rana doesn’t want to go to the police. She doesn’t believe any good will come from it. But Emad, who feels he’s failed to protect his wife, wants justice. He seeks the attacker, but not in a Hollywood way. As Rana tries to get on with life and as Emad seeks justice, the story is interspersed with scenes where Emad plays Willy Loman and Rana plays his wife. The film is poignant and emotional is a realistic way. The acting was superb and convinced me to find more films by this director or with these actors.

I found this a captivating look at the lives of Iranians, a people, I confess I know little about.

Fr. Laurence, Why?

For my online book club we read Romeo and Juliet, which my students are now reading as well. Once I get to Act 4, I want to just ask Friar Laurence why on earth he thought this plan with Juliet taking a sleeping drug would work. Why not tell her parents, Friar? Since she’s already consummated her marriage to Romeo, wouldn’t the Capulets and the Montagues have to make the best of things?

The Friar even tells Paris he doesn’t like the hasty marriage to Juliet. That’s a great start. Just tell the truth or if he’s such a coward, tell the parents they have to wait a certain amount of time after Tybalt’s death to marry. Then have them tell the truth. One of them would get the courage to.

I realize Shakespeare took the story from another source, a poem by Arthur Brooke and he saw that it had a lot of powerful elements, but there are some glaring mistakes in the plot.

You’re Ugly Too

Like Paper Moon and Zazie dan le Métro, You’re Ugly Too pairs a young girl, who isn’t so innocent, with a criminal who’s not used to children, forcing them both to connect. An Irish film, You’re Ugly Too follows Stacy who’s 11 and whose mother has recently died. Her Uncle Will gets released from prison to care for Stacy, his niece. Stacey’s wary and cynical. Uncle Will tries to cure her of her cursing and spitting. He takes her to live in a caravan her mother owned where they meet Emilie, a neighbor who comes pounding on their door seeking protection from her husband’s abusive friends.

Will soon discovers that due to her trauma and grief, Stacey has narcolepsy. A doctor prescribes stimulants, which Will is soon downing on the sly. A bureaucratic issue prevents Stacey from going to the local school. Since she was a teacher in Belgium, Emilie offers to tutor Stacey. The girl sees this just as a ploy to get near her uncle and tries some matchmaking. Oddly enough Emilie’s husband doesn’t care whom his wife sleeps with as that gives him permission to do as he pleases. Yet in the end Emilie turns out to be less reliable than any of the characters.

Stacey, played by Lauren Kinsella, and Aiden Gillen’s Will are both emotional porcupines, but I was drawn to them because they were so real, so scarred. By the end of the film they aren’t hugging and healed, but you could see they did love each other and did belong with each other.

The cinematography is terrific as it takes a bland, stark landscape and makes it dramatic. The film’s haunting and different, definitely worth your time.

 

 

 

Certified Copy

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Starring Juliette Binoche and William Schimell Certified Copy intrigues and perplexes as it shows us a man, who’s a writer, and a woman, who’s an art dealer, who look at life and marriage in very different ways. I can’t say it tells a story because the film breaks with the fundamental conventions of storytelling. By the end, you’re unsure whether the characters are married or not, what’s real and what is an act. Most of what you’re told about them, about what they say about themselves, proves to be untrue or questionable.

Yet because the director switches things up as the woman, who’s unnamed, and James Miller, the hero, spend a day flirting and testing each other. Throughout the film I was intrigued and its one that still makes me think about life and films.

This trailer is misleading. It promises a flirtatious romance, but Certified Copy is a challenging look at expectations and relationships. It’s completely unlike any drama or romance you’ve seen as it portrays distance and pain so powerfully.

If you can’t take a film that plays with your mind, that gets curiouser and curiouser or deviates from the well worn path of story structure as set in stone by Hollywood, Certified Copy isn’t for you. But if you like to be intrigued or enjoy compelling performances and want to explore marriage, it just may be.

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.

 

 

Identification of a Woman

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I thought this film was by the maker of We All Loved Each Other So Much, an Italian film that knocked me off my feet years ago. It isn’t. I also thought it was made in the 60s or 70’s. It wasn’t. So that’s two strikes.

Identification of a Woman follows a woe-begone film director, who’s divorced (and we can all guess why after say half an hour with him), as he searches for a dream woman for a film. As he does, he also pursues Mavi, an aristocrat, who’s bored, boring and gorgeous (or at least pretty and thin — it’s all in the eyes of the beholder, right?). Early on some secret thug whom we never see, whose identity is never revealed sends a henchmen to tell the director, Niccolo to leave Mavi alone. She’s the property of the thug. As any decent film hero would do, Niccolo won’t have it. He remains with Mavi, who lacks any personality, while looking for and sometimes hiding from the thug.

Later Mavi ditches Niccolo. I suppose she was tired of his obsession with the thug and his ennui, but she herself had so little in her life that I don’t quite buy her leaving him, as broken as he was.

Then Niccolo meets another woman, a young actress who’s loved him from afar. They form a relationship in the last third of the movie and that peters out.

Mainly, the film’s supposed to examine an artist, who’s lost and drifting, who doesn’t understand women, probably because he over complicates relationships. There were certainly some good elements. I liked the scenes which had Niccolo and Mavi driving through dense fog, which was symbolic and probably hard to film, but on the whole this was ho hum. Disappointing.

There’s a lot of explicit sex scenes which are a counterpoint to the lack of understanding between the characters. They were a lot more intimate than you see in a Hollywood film. I admit I have no idea what the title means. Anyone?

High Noon

High Noon (1952) is another classic I hadn’t seen till now. I remember lots of people talking about it, but never made the effort to see it — till now. As you probably, know it’s the story of  Will Kane, a marshall, played by Gary Cooper, who stands up to Frank Miller, a bad guy who’s got it out for him. There are more details though.

Cooper’s character has just gotten married to a Quaker, who abhors violence. He’s planning to leave with her and start a new life. They’re on the road, when Kane realizes he can’t leave the town unprotected. The new sheriff won’t arrive till the next day and Miller, whom Kane arrested, is on a train to the town and will arrive at — high noon. Amy, Kane’s wife lost her brother to senseless violence and won’t turn back with him. Not at first.

Upon arriving back in town Kane tries to get a posse together to protect the people, but everyone’s too cowardly to join. It’s quite dramatic to see Kane summon the courage to fight on his own, for people too chicken to help themselves.

I found Kane’s moral conviction and courage to do something you’d rather not do compelling. Despite the passage of time, High Noon still works. No wonder it’s a classic.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stars Tina Fey as Kim, a broadcaster who half-heartedly volunteers to go to Afghanistan on assignment. Fey’s character leads a nice, but ho hum life in New York with a steady boyfriend (Josh Charles) and a steady, unchallenging job just reading news. Once in Afghanistan, she realizes she’s way over her head. She eventually adapts to life during wartime.

While away, she discovers her boyfriend is cheating so she’s free to take up with Martin Freeman’s politically incorrect, usually philandering, war-savvy character, who’s a photo journalist.

I felt the first half of the movie drags and contains a lot of obvious jokes and clichéd situations about culture, but it’s worth watching on DVD or on a plane where you can watch half, take a break and watch the second half. Tina Fey does a fine job as does Martin Freeman and Josh Charles. The reason to watch is to see what sacrifices people make during this war that too many of us forget and to see what has gone on in Afghanistan.

 

A Night to Remember

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

A Night to Remember (1958) is a disaster film with dignity. It lacks the sentimental love story, which was central to Titanic, but that’s why it’s a better film. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, the film shows the swells enjoying the high life and the boisterous fun below in steerage mixed in with the misplaced wire messages about the iceberg and the frustrating refusal of nearby ship called the California to believe the Titanic’s distress messages.

The film shows people of all sorts, some willing to help their fellow passengers and others who’ll kick and claw their way into a lifeboat. The film weaves the facts in so you don’t feel like it’s a history lecture. You root for the characters all the while knowing most won’t make it. When the boat starts tilting so much that it’s at a 45° angle, you feel dreadful. Still the film is rather emotionally restrained, much more so than the more recent film with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Criterion Collection offers a good essay on the film here.

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