Hidden Fortress

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The Hidden Fortress (1958) is another Kurosawa masterpiece that blew me away. Like characters from Shakespeare, two pusillanimous peasants bicker over how irritating they are to each other as they head home after escaping from a wartime prison. One stumbles upon some gold hidden in a stick in a river. An emblem on the stick shows that the gold is the fortune from the clan that lost the war. Greed overcomes the men and they start trying to get all the sticks they can. They become obsessed and go back and forth between cooperation and conflict over the gold.

This ancient, Japanese vaudeville act is soon upset when a strange man sees them hunting for the gold. Eventually, they learn he’s a legendary general who’s intent upon saving an exiled princess and returning her to safety and restoring her clan. As foolish as the peasants are, they do occasionally come up with clever ideas. The gruff general realizes their counterintuitive plan to go through enemy territory could work since no one expects them to take that route.

What follows is a story of courage and honor, peppered with outstanding action scenes, wit and just plain foolishness that made me smile. Toshiro Mifune is outstanding as the general, who’d probably love to ditch the peasants but keeps them with him just because they’d probably do more harm to his mission and themselves if left to their own devices.

The princess exudes force and honor as no other character, I can recall. Raised like a boy, she’s strong, brave and willful. Kurosawa shows that she cares for her people because she insists that the general buy one of her subjects who’s been sold to a brothel owner even though taking another person on their journey is risky. Various viewers have noted that the princess is played by an actress whose career never took off and that the performance is rather one dimensional. I see what they mean, but I don’t think that one weak performance hurt the film that much. The princess was quite compelling and not just a stereotypical character who needed saving so the story had momentum.

The one thing about the princess that puzzled me was that for some reason her eyebrows were drawn on at 45° angles. They were very dark and dominated her face.

Like many Kurosawa films, The Hidden Fortress has great power and grab me emotionally. All in all, The Hidden Fortress is a classic that’s not to be missed. It inspired George Lucas when he conceived of Star Wars. 

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Having Our Say

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Based on the lives two delightfully wise and accomplished African American sisters, both of whom are over 100 years old, Having Our Say lays out the history of racial matters from the Gilded Age all through the 20th century. Sadie and Bessie Delaney recount their rather unique heritage as their mother was 25% black and never tried to pass as white. Their white grandfather and Black grandmother couldn’t marry as it was illegal in the south until the late 1960s. Still they raised their family and attended a church that came to agree that okay the only reason you aren’t married is that you can’t be so we’ll welcome you.

The play is structured as a long conversation with a reporter, who’s represented by the audience. The stories range from charming and fun to raw depictions of injustice. Yet at all times the sisters are victors not victims. Neither married and both attained professional status in an era when few African American women could. Their father was a bishop and insisted his daughters go to college, though he stipulated that they work first because he had no money for additional schooling and would not allow them to obtain scholarships because he believed that would make them beholden to whoever supplied the scholarship. Both met his challenge without complaint. Sadie became the first colored* (sic) high school teacher in her all-white high school and Bessie became the first colored woman to be licensed as a dentist in New York.

The women recount their experiences and heritage from family stories of slavery to their own experience with Jim Crow and Civil Rights. Throughout we hear their family stories, wisdom and witticisms.

This production had an inventive set that featured picture frames which would show old photos of the friends and family Bessie and Sadie were describing.

The acting was superb and I’d love to see Ella Joyce (Bessie) or Marie Thomas (Sadie) in another play. The pair brought great energy and chemistry to the play.

My only wish was that the play had more of a plot. As it stands it’s an adaptation of a memoir. So it’s a chronological telling of lived experiences. While these second and mainly first hand accounts are interesting, they aren’t as dramatic as a play that uses Aristotelian principles to give a story plenty of momentum.

I’d prefer a structure like that of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a former slave who recounts her memories on up to the 1960s. Such a play requires more characters and sets, hence more money, but it offers more suspense. Nonetheless, this is a good production, well worth seeing.

*The women didn’t feel Black or African American were terms that described them well. They were American. They felt “colored” was more accurate than Black.

Victoria, Season 2.1

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A Soldier’s Daughter

Season 2 of Victoria opens as the queen is ready to get back to work after a month of confinement (i.e. rest after childbirth). At first she must fight her way to get the reins back. The British army has just suffered a huge defeat in Kabul. Albert and some of the nobles have kept this from her. I expect the lords to keep things from her, but Albert? He should know how hands on she wants to be. It’s her country. He’s just lived there a few years, at most. He’s not a Prince.

Albert keeps crossing Victoria such as the time he decides not to approve an appointment of a courtier’s brother. He thinks he knows better. He also doesn’t realize that he’ll have some explaining to do if Victoria, as she’s bound to, finds out.

Second seasons usually bring new characters. With Victoria we have Diana Rigg as the Duchess of Buccleuch, who’s added as a version of Maggie Smith’s Violet on Downton Abbey. In the first episode it doesn’t work well. The Duchess makes annoying comments about how women shouldn’t read novels and how her niece has a red, strawberry-like face, but the wit is missing. Time will tell. In the two hour episode we Yanks got, The Duchess didn’t add much.

There was a bit of comedy about the chef Francatelli having left. The new chef’s food tastes and looks horrid and at one point he’s about to stab someone who made a mistake. Penge insists he hand over the knife and upstairs the queen insists Francatelli returns. Skerett, who’d turned down Francatelli’s marriage proposal has no luck getting him back. The royals can’t very well starve so his new boss is forced to fire Francatelli, who’s soon back in the palace kitchen, very much annoyed. I expect we’ll see this romance continue, though it wasn’t that thrilling last year.

The Green-Eyed Monster

In the second episode shown in the US, Albert is enthralled with mathematician Lady Ada Lovelace, who invented a calculating machine and early computer programming. Caught confusing pi and pie at a social gathering and frustrated that she can’t understand Thomas Mathus’ idea population increasing geometrically, Jeremy Victoria feels threatened by Lovelace. She’s certain that Albert will start an affair with her.

To seek some counsel, Victoria turns to Lord M, who’s a sight for sore eyes. As usual, he is wise and kind. Albert and Lord Peel don’t want her to see Lord M as he’s no longer in power as Prime Minister. Victoria argues that she’s just seeing him as a friend, not for political reasons, but Albert insists she’s naive, which doesn’t help the bumps in their marriage.

We glimpse Lord M as tired and not himself in his greenhouse, which foreshadows serious illness ahead.

Albert resists his father’s requests for money and ignores the reminders of his home region of Colberg’s many financial needs.

A young maid is hired, but must hide her Catholicism as Penge hates Catholics. This young girl gets spooked by a mysterious figure running through the house. Victoria’s undergarments have gone missing, which convinces the maid that the palace is haunted. By the end Victoria and Albert discover that a second child is on the way and we discover the ghost is really what Violet, I mean the Duchess of Buccleuch, calls a guttersnipe.

The costumes and settings were majestic and elegant. I enjoyed Jenna Coleman’s fiesty, yet vulnerable performance. The writing was good, though I hope the screenwriter could be freed from the need to add in Downton-esque elements. The show has plenty of its own merits it doesn’t need to pander to Downton fans. Downton fans are Masterpiece fans; let Victoria be Victoria.

Downton Abbey 6.2

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I don’t know why I hope for a faster pace with Downton Abbey, but I often do. I should know by now that Julian Fellows likes to draw things out; it’s his style.

I had hoped we’d see Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ wedding this week, but we didn’t. Instead we saw them discuss and plan, not always harmoniously, the wedding. Thankfully, only Lord Grantham thought decorating the servants’ hall would work as a reception venue.

Afraid that he’ll lose his job, Thomas has started job hunting. He’s finding it’s slim pickings and that he’s got it pretty good at the Abbey. His interview did not go well as he learned that at this estate he’d be “chief cook and bottle washer.” They expected him to do the work of 3 or 4. Thanks, but no thanks.

Edith’s editor is giving her more trouble. Then speak on the phone a lot and he won’t listen to her. I expect once she’s got the gumption, she’ll fire him. She certainly should. One dramatic moment came later in the show and dealt with Marigold. Mrs. Drewe, the farmer’s wife who took Marigold in, doesn’t realise Edith is Marigold’s mother. Thus she wants Marigold back. It’s odd, but she seems to care about Marigold more than she does her own children. We’re led to see Mrs. Drewe as unstable. At a village agricultural fair, Mrs. Drew kidnapped the girl. Everyone scrambled around trying to find her and in the end they did. This storyline was oddly placed and there wasn’t a minute when I didn’t think they’d soon find Marigold.

Anna confided in Mary about her fertility problems and Mary escorted Anna to a doctor, who examined her and told her that she just needs a simple operation when she gets pregnant again, and she should be able to have children. Anna’s on cloud nine. I bet she’ll have a child by the end of the series.

Mary proved herself to one of the local agricultural bureaucrats (i.e. the man who arranged the fair).

The issue with the hospital remains and Violet and Isobel exchanged barbs. I do wish it were over an issue that I cared about more. Then the quips would have more potency.

Daisy talked about taking some exams and Mr. Mosley encouraged her. The world’s changing as we’re constantly reminded (I could do with more “show, don’t tell” with this theme) so it’s wise to be prepared.

As usual . . .

The dresses were splendid. Cora didn’t get to do much, but neither did Robert. And yet the acting is strong enough to carry an okay story.

Eugenie Grandet

By Honoré Balzac, Eugenie Grandet had a plot that surprised me. A friend suggested reading and discussing this novel online and I’m glad he did. For most of the book I wondered why it was entitled Eugenie Grandet because for 85-90% of the book is dominated by her father’s character.

Set in the provinces, early on readers meet Monsieur Grandet a miser who counts every egg and sugar cube in his pantry. He’s a shrewd businessman who constantly cries poor constantly. His neighbours distrust and dislike him and pit his wife, daughter Eugenie and servant Nanon, who live like peasants in a cold, dark house eating meagre rations and going along without complaint as justified as it would be.

Since Eugenie is of marriageable age, and clearly would inherit father’s fortune, two families compete so their son will win her hand — and possibly heart. The marriage race is neck and neck and Papa Grandet enjoys the futile race, which he knows no one can win since he has no plans to agree with either proposal.

When a rich Parisian cousin Charles comes to visit, Eugenie falls in love and her father wonders how the Parisian social status can help him. When papa gets a letter from his Parisian brother admitting that he’s lost all his money and since he’s bankrupt will commit suicide, the Grandet’s household is turned upside down. Eugenie, whose grown up more or less in seclusion sympathises and falls for her cousin (marrying cousins was okay back then). Though he’s got a high class love back in Paris, he’s struck by Eugenie’s pure love. Still Charles must go to the New World to earn some money and restore his father’s reputation.

Balzac gives us a witty insider’s view of each character taking us down an original story path. Monsieur Grandet dominates the story and his daughter’s life even after he’s dead.

Though Papa Grandet is a one dimensional character, the story is witty and absorbing, well worth reading.

A Few Favorite Quotations:

“Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet was something between a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He could crouch and lie low, watch his prey a long while, spring upon it, open his jaws, swallow a mass of louis, and then rest tranquilly like a snake in process of digestion, impassible, methodical, and cold.”

“The grain of gold dropped by his mother into his heart was beaten thin in the smithy of Parisian society; he had spread it superficially, and it was worn away by the friction of life” (About Charles)

“It is part of the French nature to grow enthusiastic, or angry, or fervent about some meteor of the moment. Can it be that collective beings, nationalities, peoples, are devoid of memory?”

Thoughts on Downton Abbey, Season 3, Episode 1

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I can’t recall anticipating the return of a television show more than I have Downton Abbey‘s Season 3. Perhaps Sherlock, when it comes but that’s way off in the distance. I’ve re-viewed several of the episodes from the previous seasons when they were re-broadcast and noted little details that I’d missed.

At last on the 6th, we got to meet Cora’s mother, the brash American, Mrs. Martha Levinson, played with great panache by Shirley MacLaine. Talk about a bull in a china shop and someone to set Violet’s teeth on edge. How did Cora develop such grace? Her father must have been more reserved.

Julian Fellow’s story drew me in as I wanted to tell Branson, the ex-chauffer to lighten up, put on the Downton clothes and make his case by drawing on people’s sympathy rather than jumping on a soap box every chance he got. I did feel sorry for him when Sybil’s old suitor sneered at him and slipped him a mickey.

Another great story element was the announcement that Lord Grantham has lost his fortune, well, Cora’s fortune. That news, hushed up as it has been, charges every scene with tension. What will all the characters do when they find out? For now only a few know.

Thomas never ceases to devilishly plot and this time he got on O’Brien’s bad side. By making her nephew get in trouble by marring Mathew’s dinner jacket, Thomas became the victim of O’Brien’s prank of hiding all Lord Gratham’s good shirts thus adding to the ruin of the episode’s most significant social event and making the Lord look like a waiter or a Chicago bootlegger, take your pick.

We got glimpses of Bates in jail and Anna trying to do a bit of detective work to get him out. We also see that if he doesn’t keep his cool with his cellmate, Bates may get himself into further trouble.

As usual, the two hours went fast and tantalized fans with great character development and plot points. It looks like Edith’s going to marry Sir Anthony, the old geezer she’s so fond of. He’ll treat her well, it seems, and she is keen on him, but generally when the groom’s so luke warm, that doesn’t bode well for a marriage. Time will certainly tell.