Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review - The Living Magoroku

April 27, 2017

The Living Magoroku – Japan, 1943

In effective propaganda films, the propaganda operates something like a drone. It flies at a height that ensures that is it never entirely undetected, hovers around for a while, and then makes its full purpose known. And it does all of this in a manner than never distracts or cheapens the central narrative. In fact, when it finally trumpets its nationalistic message, the message seems entirely logical, the reasonable conclusion of a character’s personal journey. Keisuke Kinoshita’s first movie, Port of Flowers, did this reasonable well. The same cannot be said for his sophomore effort, The Living Magoroku.

The Living Magoroku begins interestingly enough, for in its opening moments it transports viewers back to a 1573 conflict between two warring factions. The conflict doesn’t end well for either side. Fast forward more than three hundred years, and the descendants of these warriors are now being trained for eventual assignment in the Second World War. There’s only one problem: they’ve gone soft. As their squad commander puts it, they’ve lost their ancestral spirit. The soldiers are chastised for their shallow understanding of their ancestry, told to plea to their ancestors for courage, and urged to become educated in their family roots. Then comes the kicker. The commander closes with the following “words of encouragement,” “Don’t cling to life. When you die, die honorably.” In 1943, the message to the audience would have been unmistakable.

The film is set on a Japanese island dominated by the Onagi family. The family has so much power that even marriages go through them, much like they did in lands ruled by kings or despots long ago. The family controls the 75-acre piece of land that was the scene of the battle depicted in the film’s opening scene, and for superstitious reasons, they have never allowed it to be farmed on. This is presented as hindering the war effort, and more than a few conversations are centered upon just how much food could be grown on the land. Additional layers of conflict are added through a rare and valuable sword that the family owns (and that another character wants) and the problematic health of the family’s elder son, who is convinced that he, like all of the other men in his family, is destined to die a premature death.

Thus, the film’s central conflict could not be clearer. It is a variation of that age-old theme of modernity versus tradition, one curiously set at a time when children were still being taught that their emperor had divine origins, a contradiction that the film obviously does not address. Nor did I expect it to. What I did expect, however, was for the film to build to a logical and deserved conclusion. After all, it’s never a mystery how the film will end. Government rules mandated that movies promote farming, manufacturing, hard work, and sacrifice, and a family clinging to superstition and self-preservation just doesn’t gel with that message. However, after spending a good hour and twenty minutes creating an atmosphere of slight tension, the film whimpers to the finishing line, electing to have an Deus ex machina character deliver a stirring speech that sets things right. (One guess who the character is.) Just like that, anxieties are gone, a weak character is strong, a strong character is subservient, self-centeredness gives way to charity, and superstition is suddenly powerless. It’s simply too much too soon.

And this is a shame, for the film mostly works up until that point. Sure, it is heavy handed at times. It is also slightly condescending of the island’s youth, its message about young women is somewhat problematic, and several of its storylines remain undeveloped. However, when it focused on the conflicts between the old and the new, and on the lasting effects of superstition, I felt the film had something worthwhile to say – at least, until it didn’t anymore. It is as if Kinoshita, who also wrote the screenplay, reached the 80-minute mark and suddenly remembered that he’d promised the studio a 90-minute feature. The last ten minutes are truly the worst part of the film, not because the film ends with such an overtly nationalistic message, but because what it has a key character do is utterly uncharacteristic. It resembles the actions of a director who simply threw in the towel, and maybe this is indeed what happened. In a way, the film ends exactly the way it has to. I get that. However, I’ve seen enough films like this one to know they can be done well. They can be subtle, logical, and moving. The Living Magoroku only succeeded in the latter, and by the time the credits finished rolling, even that sentiment had been exhausted. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Kinoshita and World War II box set)

2 and a half stars

*The Living Magoroku is in Japanese with English subtitles.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review - Abraham Lincoln

April 20, 2017

Abraham Lincoln – U.S., 1930

Just fifteen years after touching off a firestorm with The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith returned to the Civil War with his “biographical” film Abraham Lincoln. Beginning in 1809 and concluding in 1965, the film could perhaps best be describe as history told by a historian with ADHD, for the film simply never slows down enough to develop any of its story lines. The result of this is a film that resembles someone’s version of a greatest hits collection, a cliff notes version of a great man’s life that simple doesn’t do him or the men and women he interacted with justice.

There are interesting moments of course. (It may be impossible to make a film about Lincoln without at least a few of them.) The film’s opening scene, in which we see the interior of a slave ship and the heartlessness of its crew, effectively reminds viewers of the horrendous institution that was at the heart of the conflict that was to come. Another early scene allows viewers to see the soft side of Lincoln. In the scene, Lincoln (Walter Huston) flirts openly with a young woman named Ann (Una Merkel) and seems to be working his way to a proposal. This scene is followed almost immediately by a heartbreaking deathbed scene after a powerful sickness sweeps through Illinois. Had the movie just focused on this period of time and on that relationship, I would have likely found it absolutely enthralling, for theirs is a story that is not well known and, from what we do see of it, rather poignant.

There’s also a later scene in which Lincoln meets with Ulysses S. Grant that is quite humorous and another in which he and Grant discuss what is to become of the leaders of the Confederacy. Grant – and oddly enough Stephen A. Douglas - is played by E. Alyn Warren, and he and Huston have impeccable timing. Alas, the two characters have too few scenes together, and this feels like a missed opportunity.

All too often the film is on Michael-Bay-like overdrive. Want to know what kind of debater Lincoln was? Too bad. Griffith reduces his debate with Douglas to a series of one-liner sound bites, none of which shed light on what made Lincoln such an effective speaker. Want to understand what drew Lincoln to his wife Mary (Kay Hammond) or understand their relationship better? Good luck. Here, Mary is presented as individualistic, bombastic, nagging, opportunistic, and, ever so often, gentle. In other words, instead of being a fully realized character, she’s whatever the movie needs her to be, and by the end of the film, I was no closer to understanding her than I was when the film began. And then there the film’s surreal mystical element. Lincoln is portrayed as being haunted by prophetic dreams – one that suggests that he isn’t long for the world. It is a distraction.

In Birth of a Nation and America, Griffith’s portrayal of Lincoln was problematic. In the latter film, Lincoln is depicted as a man who sits by himself moping and worrying about the war instead of being actively involved in it. Here, Griffith takes a different, more respectful approach. Lincoln is portrayed as bold, matures into a man of the people, and ultimately decides the buck stops with him. We witness him sitting in the command room awaiting the latest news from the battlefield. And while Lincoln may be a little repetitive – his favorite expression seems to be that the Union must be preserved – at least he repeats a message with sentiments that the real Lincoln wholeheartedly endorsed. This does not mean that there aren’t scenes in which Griffith films Lincoln starring off into space or saying ridiculous things like “I know how I can win the war! Grant!” but at least there are fewer of them.

It feels somewhat sacrilegious to dislike a film about Abraham Lincoln, at least one that does not have the phrase Vampire Hunter attached to it, yet there is no getting around the film’s utter messiness and lack of focus. Its most interesting moments are mostly in the first half, for these are moments not often found in history books or documentaries. The problem is that just as these moments begin to draw you in, the camera fades out, and when they fade back in, the action has moved so far ahead in time as to immediately render your earlier commitment a waste of empathy. When the film finally slows down, it is to focus on Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War, a topic Griffith had already covered in earlier films - and done much more effectively.

Abraham Lincoln is a reminder that the great ones occasionally miss the mark. Griffith just never finds his footing here. While his touch is felt in early scenes, the script works against him, never allowing him to focus his camera and truly use it to its full potential. He gets decent performances from his cast, in particular from Huston and Merkel; however, the film’s best moments do not lead anywhere worthwhile, and what does work is neither original nor unexpected. Just where is it written that a movie about Lincoln has to end with his death? What’s wrong with giving him his moment in the sun, with ending with a long shot of him taking in a moment of pride and then getting back to work? (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review - Port of Flowers

April 13, 2017

Port of Flowers – Japan, 1943

I suspect that the more time goes by, the more people will be able to appreciate – and perhaps marvel at – Keisuke Kinoshita’s directorial debut Port of Flowers. I say this because the film has the unfortunate distinction of having been made in 1943, two years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an event actually referenced in the film, and two year before Japan’s surrender. In other words, it is unabashedly nationalistic. Two of its supporting characters even get into a shouting match over whether one of them is sufficiently Japanese. Just what was the accused’s blunder? Wondering aloud how much money a ship-making company could lose in during wartime. Only when he recognizes the need to put the country ahead of his personal wealth is he deemed to be sufficiently patriotic. The conversation is heavy handed to be sure, but it is also entirely realistic in its sentiments. In fact, I’m willing to bet that similar conversations were had on the other side of the Pacific.

By now, the plot of Port of Flowers will appear rather familiar to viewers because in the last fifty years, it has become a bit of a cliché. It was less of one back in 1943. In the beginning of the film, two con men descend upon a rather quaint port town. They arrive claiming to be the sons of a businessman who died before completing his dream of establishing a shipping company, and they woo the area’s residents with their altruistic proclamations of wanting the company to be 100 per cent resident-owned. All they want, they assert, is to make their father’s dream come true. The residents fall for it hook, line, and sinker. However, it isn’t hard to predict that at least one of these two will have a change of heart.

One of the things that makes Port of Flowers unique – and therefore a likely target for censure under Douglas MacArthur during the American occupation of Japan immediately following the cessation of hostilities – is its use of the Second World War. The film was made in 1943, at a time when it is impossible to imagine any movie being made other than one functioning at least partially as a nationalistic tribute to those taking part in the war effort. Even the great Akira Kurosawa made one these films. In his film, Most Beautiful, about a woman who sacrifices her health working in a weapons factory, an individual’s physical well-being is portrayed as less important than the Japanese armies need for artillery. In Port of Flowers, it is one’s wealth that must be sacrificed for the betterment of the military. It isn’t hard to imagine American viewers watching such films in the 1950's and seething.

However, if you think about it, everything we see in the film makes complete sense. The residents’ complete acceptance of the visitors, their buy-in of their plan, and the speed and veracity of the shift from the residents’ personal motivations and their euphoric support for the war. But look carefully. The residents know nothing of the war other than what they hear in the government’s bare-bone announcements of victorious attacks and tightly-coordinated tugs at the nation’s collective patriotic heartstrings. There is no mention of cost or loss of life, no awareness of the attack having been carried out before the Emperor’s declaration of war. I suspect that all people at this time knew was that the United States had stopped supplying oil to Japan in 1940, an action many interpreted as proof that the United States was no longer impartial. And interestingly, there’s a moment in the film when the full horrors of the war become clear. In it, the residents of the town run aimlessly across a barren field in anger and shock that death has come to one of their own. Where are they going? I’m not even sure they know. What seems clear, though, is that the war has hit home for them, and it would get much worse.

Having said all of this, I feel I’ve done the film a bit of a disservice, for in explaining my esteem for it, I have focused too much on the film’s politics, and there is much more to the film that this. There is the beautiful way in which people open their hearts to the con men, and the incredible personal journeys that the these men embark on to reach their personal destinations. I admired the complexity of the villagers, how each of them had a motive for their actions and how hard it was to fault any of them for their actions. Screenwriter Yoshiro Tsuji even had the wherewithal and the guts to introduce a new character halfway through the film and to have this character play an extremely pivotal role in the film. You’ll know the scene when you see it – it’s just that powerful.

Back when Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima was released, I remember reading a review that ended with the acknowledgement that it was rare to see war from the perspective of the other side, but that perhaps we should see more of them. I wholeheartedly agree. For me, Port of Flowers was both enjoyable and educational. In it, we see a new view of a familiar conflict. More importantly, however, we see a story that we can relate to, a story of faith in humanity, of change, and of redemption. The politics is there, of course, but so too is heart and decency, and I believe we can admire and learn something from that, while still disagreeing with the actions of an unseen government. (on DVD as part of Eclipse’s Kinoshita and World War II)

3 and a half stars

*Port of Flowers is in Japanese with English subtitles.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Miscellaneous Musings

April 6, 2017

On The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Klu Klux Klan and Lost Opportunities

I had intended this post to be a full review of Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 film The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Klu Klux Klan; however, writing such a review about a film that is in this condition would be the equivalent of reviewing a book that is missing every third page, as well as the final chapter. In other words, I would have been reviewing an incomplete film, one whose remaining parts are too disjointed to create a complete narrative. To give you an example of this, toward the end of the film, a man’s mother arrives, which is significant because the last time we saw her she was being savagely attacked by the very son she is now looking for. What does she now say to him to try to heal their divide and to soothe the anger that surges within him? We’ll never know. The next we see of her son he is shot during what looks to be a gunfight, but we’ll never know for sure. The rest of the scene has been lost.

There are things that can be gauged from what remains of The Symbol of the Unconquered. Themes found in the literature of the time are also found in the film. There’s a Stepin Fetchit-like character that reminds us of the conventional wisdom of the time, that even serious films like this one had to have a comedic character to make the audience’s experience a little less grim. The film also has something to say, similar to Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, about the inner conflict that the tone of one’s skin color can cause. Here, it leads one character to essentially hate who he is and where he came from and another to embrace her culture all the while knowing that many people are blissfully unaware of her identity. The two are polar opposites, and an in-depth look at these characters would prove fascinating. Alas, if such an examination existed in 1920, it sadly no longer does today.

What does exist all too often details the scheming of a few criminal characters, including an Indian man, and the henchmen they hire to spread fear and intimidation. One of these men, Bill Stanton, is said to be able to “make people do things.” His means of achieving this is the Knights of the Black Cross, which is the Klan in everything but name. In what remains of the film, we see the Knights move out. Their attack and eventual defeat no longer exist.

The film was Micheaux’s fourth, and it was released the same year as Within Our Gates, a film I liked quite a lot. Both films include moments where characters rise above the limitations that society has thrust upon them. The character of Hugh Van Allen is a hardworking, resourceful young man intent of achieving his own version of the American dream, which includes land, liberty, and the ability to prosper from his diligence. He is the kind of man who runs toward danger and who exudes the chivalry often seen in the characters frequently played by Cary Grant. And then there’s Evon Mason, a single woman determined to make it on her own. In one scene, we see her pick up a shovel and work the land. It reminded me a bit of Scarlet O’Hara after the Civil War utterly changes her life. These are characters that I can easily see an audience investing in.

Watching the film got me thinking about how incomplete our collective film history is. According to the Chicago Tribune, of the 41 films that Micheaux made, it is likely that fewer than twelve still exist; most of Chinese legend Ling-yu Ruan’s films have been lost, along with countless other Chinese-language films made prior to World War II; and who can say for sure how many films were lost in Japan during the Second World War and in Douglas MacArthur’s later purge of supposedly duplicate copies of Japanese films. Entire careers have been forgotten, as all traces of their work have disappeared. On one of the Treasures from American Film Archives box sets, the first three volumes of which are now shamefully out of print, is a preview of a lost film that claims to be the greatest film ever made. It’s quite a declaration, but we have no evidence to the contrary.

It would be reassuring to be able to say that films can no longer be lost, yet, while the technology exists to preserve most of today’s films, that does not mean that there is the will to do so. And for all the promise that going digital offers filmgoers (Remember the Quest commercial in which a hotel has every movie ever made?), there are a number of films that have yet to appear on DVD and, let’s face it, may never do so. I remember reading about a billiards movie named Chalk in 1996 and vowing to watch it on home video – never released. A movie that blew me away was 1994’s The Day The Sun Turned Cold – still not available on DVD. The same could be said of Frioriksson’s Cold Fever, Chen Kaige’s debut film Yellow Earth, Yimou Zhang’s Keep Cool (available but not with English subtitles), Nikita Mikhalkov’s Anna, Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (available in Region 2/PAL, but not in Region 1). I could go on.

Newer films are not immune from this either. Over at The Digital Bits, Adam Jahnke has just written about the curious absence of Beasts of No Nation on DVD and Blu-ray. Sure, the film can be watched on Netflix, but that’s not the same as having a physical release. One would think they would want it to be seen by as many people as possible, and limiting its available will not accomplish that. There’s also a disturbing trend of moving films that were previously released in stores to MOD. It’s not hard to imagine OOP being next.

This is one of the reasons I rail so much against lists like the AFI’s top American movies of all time. There are many more films worth watching than the standard 100 that find spots on these lists and then get stocked in the few remaining stores that still sell physical DVDs and Blu-rays. While the movie industry continues to push the notion that 100 years of American films can be reduced to 100 “masterpieces,” films that are worthy of being discovered and that may be better than the ones they are pushing on consumers are quietly being forgotten. Foreign films are faring much worse, as the number of movie theaters allocating screens for these films shrinks and fewer movies make their way to the home video market. However, a film that is not released cannot find an audience, a film that is not publicized cannot build word-of-mouth, and a studio that doesn’t hear people talking abut a movie tells itself there is no reason to release it to the public. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, and eventually it will be too late to reverse it. Just look at all we’ve already lost .

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review - Close to You

March 30, 2017

Close to You – Taiwan, 2010

Picture this: a man is at a train station minding his own business when four men begin to harass a young woman. The scene grows tense, and for a moment it looks as if the thugs will go beyond mere words. Suddenly, in comes a reluctant hero. He first tries to appeal to their rational side, and then when they turn their aggressions toward him, he is forced to take them on – all four of them. As he bobs and weaves, eluding one punch while taking another, his hands seem to develop a mind of their own, leaving him stunned at their ability to both protect and attack. His feet assume a position allowing him to make the best use of his new abilities, and soon one of the ruffians lies wounded on the ground and the other three are hightailing it to safer ground. The look on the young man’s face is incredulous. How did that happen? he seems to be asking himself.

Reading the above description, one could be forgiven for thinking I was describing one of the Jason Bourne films. Far from it. The scene occurs early on in Hsiao-tse Cheng’s ridiculous 2010 film Close to You, a film that is not about spies or trained killers, but boxers and the women that love them. And it is not even the film’s most ludicrous plot point. Instead, it is just one of the many things that make Close to You one of the worst Taiwanese films I’ve seen in some time.

Close to You is a movie that has the power to make you want to ram your head repeatedly into a brick – not because you want to do physical harm to yourself, but because doing so is eminently more entertaining than the film itself. Close to You is the kind of film in which key characters act disrespectfully toward each other for most of the film and then proceed as if standoffishness is the natural byproduct of liking someone and not having the courage to tell them. And before someone says that it can be in high school, let me say that none of the characters in this film are in that fine academic institution.

In Close to You, Taiwanese superstar Eddie Peng plays Jie, the president of a local boxing club that, as we learn in an early scene, is in danger of being shut down. The club desperately needs to demonstrate its worth, which means that someone in the club needs to show his stuff. I have said his here because none of the boxers in the film are women. In this incarnation of reality, boxing is a male sport, and women have nothing better to do than ooh and aah at Jie’s recent exploits in the ring. It matters little to them that every match ends with a loss. With him in the club is a young lady named Kui (Amber Kuo), who is secretly in love with him. How do we know? Because in a later seen, she shouts it to herself after yet another moment in which Jie has been rude to her. Only in poorly written movies do characters loudly proclaim their feeling for someone who has just walked away from them and the other person does not hear them.

Into this picture steps Xiang (Ming Dow), a boxer from Beijing who has returned to Taiwan to get treatment for amnesia, hence his inability to remember that he knows how to box. The woman he defended, Shan-Shan (Renee Yuan), is a classical violinist who just happens to know every detail of his previous life, making her either an extremely obsessive fan or a figure from his past. Take a guess at which one it turns out to be. For her part, Shan-Shan, who is in Taiwan apparently to study classical music, is selected as top violinist instead of Kui’s sister Ling (Zishan Yang), who then decides she has always hated classical music anyway and that her calling is to be a singer-songwriter. However, to succeed at this, she must get over her fear of singing in public and maneuver her way around the sleazy underworld of the music industry.

If all of this sounds convoluted, rest assured it isn’t. That’s because the film follows such an utterly predictable storyline that there are few if any genuine surprises, and when they do occur, they are surprises only in how poorly executed they are. For example, there’s the standard initial distrust between the two boxers, the jealousy one feels when he sees the other talking to the women he likes, and their eventual bonding over a sport they obviously have a great deal of respect for. We also get the usual song and dance between people we know will eventually get together. We’ve seen it before, and we’ve seen it done better.

However, we also get Ling’s subplot, which was absolutely superfluous; a boxing showdown on the roof of a hospital because no hospital actually needs the roof for medical emergencies; and a convenient storyline involving a grandfather with Alzheimer’s. The beautiful thing about putting an Alzheimer’s patient in a movie is that the character’s memory can come and go at just the right moment for there to be a tearful admission of love or pride. And to top it all off, the film elects to use a ludicrous and unrealistic medical condition as a key plot point. It gives Xiang a brain injury that make him express tears through laughter. Really.

In the end, Close to You is simplistic and just downright amateurish. It is a film which doesn’t know how to build momentum or space out its emotional moments. Here, they come one after another, without any build up or follow-through. The film just goes through the motions, hitting requisite points but not truly knowing what to do with them. It is a film truly undeserving of the efforts of its cast, and sadly underserving of much attention from an audience. (on DVD)

2 stars

*Close to You is in Mandarin with less than perfect English subtitles. Correction: The DVD from Singapore has English subtitles; English speakers in Taiwan are just out of luck.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review - La Notti Bianche

March 23, 2017

La Notti Bianche (White Nights) – Italy, 1957

After a preview screening of Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, one reviewer was said to have commented, “Mr. Statement didn’t make a statement.” The remark highlights an expectation that can hinder someone’s ability to appreciate a movie – the notion that Mr. Lee, fresh on his acclaimed masterpiece Do the Right Thing, was supposed to have had a higher purpose for making his film that simply telling the tale of an perfectionist jazz artist who makes great music at the expense of a personal life. I mention this because I found myself doing something similar with Luchino Visconti’s La Notti Bianche; I expected the film to be about something monumental, and therefore as the film progressed and it slowly dawned on me that it was not going to be, I found myself more disappointed than I probably would have been had I watched the film without such lofty optimism.

This does not of course mean that La Notti Bianche is a bad film, just that it is forgettable, a minor blip in what is widely considered to be a spectacular career. Yet the film is deceptive, perhaps intentionally so. It is as if Visconti knew his film was ultimately about nothing and tried to pull the wool over our eyes. Why else would the film subtly hint at dark elements only to dismiss them later on with events that make what preceded them completely illogical? If this sound harsh, watch the way the film suggests through murky shadows and images of men leaving a bar with multiple women that the film’s lead heroine is in the oldest profession in the world - only then to reveal her as the most chaste woman in Italy. Watch the way the film begins by portraying the object of the woman’s affection as a cold, suspicious cad with something up his sleeve only to cast this characterization off without any explanation for the impression having been created in the first place. And watch as the film tries to convince viewers that the other man in the woman’s life has fallen in love with her as quickly as the film wants viewers to believe he has. One minute he’s proclaiming her crazy, the next foolish and heartless, and then perfect for him. Actually, this was the most believable of all of the film’s storylines, and I’m not such a firm believer in what this film portrays as love at first sight.

I know. I know. Here I am again sounding negative. I can’t seem to help it. Perhaps it’s the critic in me, the side of me that finds it easier to critique than to praise. Let’s look at the film from another angle then.

La Notti Bianche is about a man (well played by Marcello Mastroianni) who has recently arrived in Livorno, Italy, yet been unable to fit in. In the film’s opening scene, we watch as he stands in the center of a Livorno street practically begging for someone to stop and talk to him. When he sees a woman he finds attractive, he finds himself clinging a bit too tightly to the notion that here, finally, is a person that he can make an impression on. He tries too hard, yet his persistence eventually pays off, and he winds up with a commitment from her to meet him the following evening. Thus begins an intriguing courtship between a man perhaps a little too desperate and a woman whose heart belongs to someone who may or may not be stringing her along. I suppose the drama lies in whether the man will eventually be able to change her focus.

There’s plenty to like about La Notti Bianche. The film is well acted, and Maria Schell is so delightful in the role of the woman that she elevates the material to quite impressive heights. However, most of what is praiseworthy in the film comes from its technical side. Visconti once again demonstrated his ability to film the intermingling of light and shadows like few others could. Witness the way the night flickers on the faces on the characters, one moment bringing them into the light, the next blocking them from view. It’s as if Visconti had hired the constellations and made them do his bidding. Scenes in which characters move from the background to the foreground seem to channeling film noir, creating the notion of a land of sin and vice, a land that could easily seduce someone to the dark side. There’s even a jarring moment in which the two lovebirds sail in Livorno’s underground waterway looking for romance only to find homelessness and utter poverty. Jarringly, the man suggests the scene will be more romantic after they’re engaged.

However, the film doesn’t know what to do with any of this, so it simply casts off any notion of seediness or dishonesty. Everyone is good, and even when all hope is lost, the power of love and patience triumphs. Sure, this is not the ending that every character in the film wanted, and it has the curious effect of making you feel guilty for your previous misgivings, but none of that is supposed to matter. Except it does, and it should. La Notti Bianche settles for being about the ordinary. It has no grand message, no purpose other than offering a glimpse of what could have been. The film is neither monumental nor inconsequential. It is simply decent, a film that I was likely more impressed with than liked. Do I feel this way because I expected something different? Perhaps, but sometimes a great director just has an off day. Sometimes he creates a visually stunning piece of fluff that’s only mildly of interest, and hey, sometimes that’s enough. They can’t all be masterpieces. I should remember that next time. (on DVD from Criterion Collection)

3 stars

*La Notti Bianche is in Italian with English subtitles.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review - The Iron Giant

March 16, 2017

Iron Giant, The – US, 1999

In the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed as if Hollywood was obsessed with film about aliens. Many of these films presented the aliens as enormous threats to mankind (i.e. Aliens), visitors who only intended to be on the Earth for a short time (i.e. Starman), and youth-oriented tales that depicted the greatest revelation in human history as a merry adventure involving children and their alien friends (i.e. none other than E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial itself). Few of these movies had a message for the audience beyond how quick the military could be to draw their weapons. (Explorers, with its cautionary tale about the misunderstandings that our portrayals of aliens can create, was an exception.) Some of these films have stood the test of time; others, I suspect, have suffered as their original audience has aged and is no longer as impressed by movies in which aliens are taught to see Earth through the eyes of children. I suspect that Brad Bird’s 1999 film The Iron Giant will be an example of the former.

Part of what makes Bird’s film a keeper is the fact that it is animated. This may sound silly to say, but it is much easier to accept a tale as fantastic as this one when it is presented in a form in which fantasy thrives. Animated films are a genre that has primarily focused on the tales of young people since its inception; therefore, it seems completely natural that one would focus on the budding friendship of a young boy and a robot that crashes near a small town in the countryside. Just as wisely, Bird has included a number of elements that will appeal to adults – references to Cold War paranoia, duck-and-cover educational videos, and discussions over the correct use of nuclear weapons.

At the heart of the film is Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), a spunky, curious young boy who has the kind of courage we normally see in these kinds of films. In other words, he’ll look at a path of destruction and think to himself, “I’d better go see what caused that.” And so off he goes, in the direction of smashed fences, broken trees, and half-eaten cars. It is a path that leads him to a wounded robot stuffing his mouth with steel outside a power station. Soon Hogarth’s taking it home, introducing it to comic books, and teaching it basic English.

And guess what? It works - Hogarth’s infectious energy, his budding friendship with a James Dean-look alike tellingly named Dean McCoppin (voiced by Harry Connick Jr.), the government agent who grows increasingly paranoid as the film progresses, and his mother (Jennifer Aniston), whose habit of working late allows Hogarth the opportunity to get into an adventure like this one. It worked so well that I was even willing to forgive its slightly formulaic script, and that’s saying something.

The Iron Giant was not a hit when it was initially released. However, in the years that followed, it acquired the reputation of being something quite special. In fact, the Wall Street Journal went so far as to call it an “instant classic.” While I’m not willing to go that far yet, I am ready to call it a great film with something for both young and old. It deserves its reputation and warrants not only repeat viewings but also introduction to the next generation of filmgoers. In fact, I can’t wait to show it to my own kid. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 and a half stars