Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review - Sparrows (1926)

October 12, 2017

Sparrows – US, 1926

I’m on record as saying that Mary Pickford could do no wrong, and there is nothing in her 1926 film Sparrows that would dispel me of this notion. Nine years removed from her sweet performance as a neglected child in The Poor Little Rich Girl, Pickford, 34 when Sparrows was released, still retained her youthful appearance and all of the charms and syrupiness that came with it. By then, she was no stranger to the type of role she plays in Sparrows, but, in this case, familiarity breeds a feeling of comfortable pleasure. You know what you are getting with her, and it still amazes.

In Sparrows, Pickford plays a young orphan named Molly, known more affectionately to the abandoned or lost children she takes care of as “Mama” Molly. The orphans all live and work on a farm owned by Mr. and Mrs. Grimes, and as you can tell by their moniker, they are hardly the type of people that should be raising children. In fact, early on in the film the swampland that they live on is introduced as the “Devil’s share of creation” with Mr. Grimes as its logical tenant. He has an air of gothic villainy to him, walks with a limp, and has a slight hunch. His land is made up of hog dens, vegetables patches, and an eerie quicksand-like swamp that is described as having no bottom – a fitting metaphor for the Netherworld. Throughout the film, he even references tossing children into the swamp when they either acted up or were no longer of use to him. In other words, he is every bit the kind of dark, oppressive villain that often occupies children’s nightmares.

It’s helpful to bear in mind that two years before the film was released the US Congress had introduced a constitutional amendment outlawing child labor one that was not ratified. This had followed two Supreme Court rulings overturning laws that had aimed to do the same thing. Sadly, it was not until 1938 that child labor officially became illegal. Therefore, Sparrows stands as a view into an America that was still struggling to protect its most vulnerable citizens from exploitation; however, it is also a look into a country trying to find its way on the issue. It is telling that Molly keeps the children’s spirits up by telling them about the goodness of God and repeating, regardless of how bleak their situation is, that they have not been forgotten. Mr. Grimes, on the other hand, is portrayed as a heathen much more concerned with acquiring wealth than achieving salvation. It is clear where the film’s – and by extension the audience’s - sentiments lie.

Director William Beaudine strikes a perfect balance between the film’s lighter, more kid-friendly moments and its much heavier undertones. We see the energy Molly puts into caring for the children, and these scenes have a tenderness that convincingly establishes her as the matriarch of the group. Such moments are interspersed – often in the same scene – by ones of raw emotion and occasional peril. In one of them, Molly works feverishly to nurse a malnourished infant named Amy back to health, only to have to watch helplessly as her condition worsens. A later scene in which we learn Amy’s fate is particularly touching, and I can imagine it bringing more than a few tears to audiences that saw it in the theater.

Much of the first half of Sparrows depicts Molly and the other childen’s daily trials and tribulations. In one of those horribly sweet scenes that you want to slap yourself for being amused by, the children hold a spontaneous competition to see whose stomach is “emptier.” The second half of the film changes the pace significantly. In it, Grimes becomes involved in a major crime, and Molly must become even more of a protector than she has ever been. This involves going on one of the greatest journeys ever put on film, one which retains all of the suspense it had on the big screen in 1926.

Throughout it all, there’s Pickford, smiling, scolding, reacting in ways that transcend the screen. She skillfully navigates the treacherous waters of a film of this sort, one which in lesser hands might feel forced and uneven. She makes us feel Molly’s concern, her love for the children in her care, and the conviction of her faith. Those people who know and understand silent film acting will once again be in awe of what she is able to do in front of the camera.

I suppose I could find something to nitpick about - perhaps the ending - but when a movie works as well as Sparrows does, it just seems wrong to do so. Sparrows is truly one of the greats of the Silent Era – timely in 1926 and a poignant reminder now of what was and still is in some parts of the word. It is a film that director Ernst Lubitsch once praised as “one of the eight wonders of the world.” It is a description that seems wholly appropriate. My only question is this: What are the other seven? (on DVD as part of the Mary Pickford Rags & Riches Collection)

4 and a half stars

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Review - Tiger Bay (1934)

October 5, 2017

Tiger Bay – U.K., 1934

There must have been a clause in Anna May Wong’s contract stipulating that a movie starring her include at least one dance sequence, regardless of whether it made sense for her character. And it doesn’t in J. Edgar Willis’s Tiger Bay. In the film, Miss Wong plays Lui Chang, the hostess of a restaurant/dance hall on a seedy island known as Tiger Bay. Chang not only runs the place – she even cooks when the situation calls for it –but as an extra bonus, she is also the star attraction. Early on, Chang takes the stage in front of dozens of gawking customers, each of them giving the stage their rapt attention. Then the dance begins. Let me rephrase that. Then what passes for an exotic dance in an old movie made by people who knew nothing about Asian dances begins, and Miss Wong commences with the kind of dance that more closely resembles the kind performed for that teenage pervert in the video for Madonna’s "Open Your Heart," with its limited choreography, repetitive movements, and complete indifference on the part of the dancer. Having seen what comes next, I can’t say I blame her.

Tiger Bay has a running time of just 63 minutes, and it would make sense for a movie with so few minutes to focus on just two or three characters. The makers of Tiger Bay, however, opt for a wider scope. We get Lui Chang, her young ward (in a more daring movie, she would be her daughter or sister), a handsome young traveler named Michael (Victor Garland) in search of romance in the toughest of places (yes, you read that right), a patron who steals other people’s drinks and sings to birds (yes, you also read that right), a caustic and lovable employee named Fay (Margaret Yarde), and a bumbling assistant named Alf (yes, you…oh, never mind). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s chief villain, Olaf (Henry Victor), who appears to be in some country’s Navy, but spends most of his time either pursuing women or extorting protection money out of local businesses.

With such a wide focus, very little is developed enough to elicit much in the way of empathy from the audience. Only Miss Wong is given enough screen time for us to understand what makes her tick and what brought her, a woman that Michael declares does not match his stereotypes of Chinese women, to a place like Tiger Bay. After all, from what we see of the place – gambling, prostitution, violence out in the open, indifference all around – it is hardly a place for a lady. The scene in which she explains her beginnings is probably the best one in the film, and yet it is also the first sign of the influence of what were then common practices in movies with non-White leads. In the scene, Michael confesses to being fascinated by Chang, yet apparently “fascination” is plutonic. A second later, he’s professing love for Chang’s ward, Letty.

The film’s main story line involves Olaf’s attempts to get money from Chang, and had this been given more time, Tiger Bay would likely have been a much better film. Sadly, it is poorly developed, and Olaf comes across as more of a clumsy oaf than a homicidal monster. At one point, he attempts to scare people by pounding a fork and knife on a table and demanding food. It’s more comical than threatening. Also hurting the film is its inconsistency when it comes to the authorities on the island. They first give the impression of being lazy and ineffective, which would make sense if they were on the take, yet by the end of the movie, there they are rushing to stop Olaf’s criminal activities. Just where they were when he stabbed Michael during a fist fight we’ll never know. And then there’s the film’s problematic ending. If you’ve seen Miss Wong’s movies before, you know what I’m getting at. The film has to find a reason to have her die, and the one they come up with is so out of left field that you’d swear the film’s five writers just drew it out a hat.

It all makes for a frustrating experience, yet one that is not without a few moments of charm. Miss Wong has a knack for playing strong, resilient characters, and she does well in the film despite the substandard material she is given. I also got a real kick out of Fay. During an early scene, Michael takes her for Letty’s mother, and when told that Fay is single and respectable, he is quick to apologize. Without missing a beat, Fay replies, “Sorry I’m single, or sorry I’m respectable?” It’s a great pre-code moment in an otherwise forgettable film. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars    

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Miscellaneous Musings

September 28, 2017

On Finales and Lone Wolf and Cub

There’s an old adage about finales: A season finale should leave you wanting more. It should reach its final dramatic moments in such a fashion that the sudden appearance of the ending credits sparks passionate cries of resistance. We should want the following season to begin right away. The first season of Twin Peaks provoked such a response, as audiences were stunned to see their hero taking bullets to the chest. The same can be said of the end of the first season of The West Wing and the second of 24. A series finale, on the other hand, is slightly different. A series finale should leave us with a sense of calm and contentment. We should feel that the characters we have watched and grown to care for will be okay. This is why many characters are in happy places when a show ends its run – Rose and Rachel are back together, Sam is back running the bar that he loves, Big is moving back to New York to be with Carrie. When shows violate this rule – a la Dexter, The Sopranos, How I Met Your Mother – it can leave a horrible taste in your mouth and even cause people to wonder why they were so loyal to the show in the first place. Furthermore, it can affect people’s willingness to watch the show again. After all, who wants to experience disappointment and frustration a second time?

Movies are somewhat different. Fewer of them have what could be called traditional finales. However, in this age of reboots and sequel/remakes, more and more of them are finales to the exploits and romances of versions of certain characters. Spider-Man has had two finales, and both of them have left many people dissatisfied. The finale of the first incarnation of James Bond was Die Another Day, hardly one of the more memorable Bond films and one that was clearly not designed as a finale, and other finales such as the last films in the Twilight and Hunger Games series have had financial success, while also not inspiring much in the way of positive word of mouth or excitement. It is as if people watched them out of a sense of obligation instead of genuine interest, and it’s uncertain whether these films will be rediscovered ten or fifteen years from now.

I recently watched the six films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, which were released from 1972 – 1974, a period of time during which movies were generally growing darker in tone and much more graphic in their depiction of sex and violence. Now there has always been violence in movies, but things began changing in the 1960s. The Hayes Code was no longer enforced in Hollywood, televisions were in people’s living rooms, and there was a switch from black-and-white to color. This made onscreen violence more apparent. Audiences now saw the true color of blood whether they wanted to or not, and it is an open question whether the majority of moviegoers truly wanted to.

Perhaps logically then, Lone Wolf and Cub fully embraces violence. Its battle scenes are replete with blood gushing out after limb dismemberments, swords slicing skulls in half, skin being ripped apart, and eyes being pierced by thrown swords. It’s at first disturbing, and then, even more distressingly, rather passe. By the sixth film, I felt a sickening sense of déjà vu during much of the swordplay. The series is graphic in other ways, too. Rape is a frequent occurrence in the films, occasionally being the catalyst for one character’s pursuit of revenge or her adoptance of violence. Other times, it exists to show viewers who the villains are.  

The protagonists at the heart of Lone Wolf and Cub are Itto Ogami and his son, Daigoro – a toddler in the first film and no more than five or six by the last – and it is the presence of the son and his acceptance of the violence that occurs around him that sets the series apart from so many other films of its genre. Instead of protecting his son the way that most characters would, Itto pushes Daigoro straight into the fight, putting him directly in the line of fire and even instructing him when to commit acts that result in death and severe disfigurement. It is a disturbing relationship, yet one that fascinates and continues to draw people to the series.

The series follows these two along two paths. The first path is a series of assassinations. To make a living, Itto is forced to become an assassin, and in each movie, he accepts an assignment and fulfills it – regardless of whether his victims are truly callous individuals or not. This is softened by many characters’ apparent willingness to die at the honorable hands of a true samurai. The film’s other path is the pursuit of vengeance. The first film establishes this motivation, and in each successive one, Itto comes in contact with someone from the family that destroyed his life. Interestingly, Itto does not appear to be directly seeking out revenge; rather, opportunity finds him. Most of the films begin with a fight again a member of the family hunting him, and then shift to the assassination before reaching their brutal and bloody climax.  

Throughout the series, Itto consistently references his acceptance of his eventual death or descent to Hell. He also repeatedly explains that his son has accepted this path and its life-altering repercussions. One movie even begins with a swordsman being shocked that Daigoro’s eyes show no fear of death. Itto's other constant refrain is for revenge. It therefore stands to reason that for the series to conclude well a couple of things can happen. 1) Itto can finally get his revenge, but be fatally wounded in the process, leaving Daigoro to carry on without him. 2) Itto can get his revenge, yet live, and then pronounce to his son the end of their struggles and his hope that they can now return to the world honorably. 3) Itto is unsuccessful, yet Daigoro escapes. In this less rosy scenario, the film would end with him picking up his father’s sword and vowing to avenge him one day. Each of these scenarios would leave viewers with a sense of finality and gratification. The series would be over, and repeat viewings possible because of the wholeness of the story.

Lone Wolf and Cub takes a different approach. Starting around the fifth movie, the series begins to suffer. That movie strays from the revenge story line, so far in fact that when it returns to it, there is no time to advance it in any meaningful way. It is also the least involving and most convoluted of the films, and its comparison to a video game is not hyperbole. The sixth movie, the first one not based on a graphic novel, is a further flight from reality, for it includes both supernatural elements and head-scratching, manufactured family drama. Unfortunately, its climactic skirmish is also poorly executed. Instead of a one-on-one battle with Itto’s arch-nemesis, Retsuyo Yagyu, we get samurai on skis and the usual “one man versus a mob that cannot attack simultaneously.” I was a little tired of it by then.

However, it is the film’s final moments that left me most unsatisfied. In them, Lord Yagyu flees down the mountain to fight another day and Itto turns his attention to the fate of Daigoro, whose cart moments earlier crashed into a tree. For the first time in the entire series, Itto shows real concern for his son’s well-being, and when he finds him dazed, but safe, he seems to fighting back quite a poignant display of emotions. See, the film seems to be telling us, he cared about his son all along. It is a touching moment, and I suspect it will please most viewers. However, it is also a betrayal of two of the series’ key themes: the acceptance of death and the fearless thrust toward it. It’s practically an apology for all of the scenes from previous movies in which Daigoro was depicted as expendable.

I get it, though. The series had run its course. It had run out of source material; Kazuo Koike, the writer of the graphic novel the series is based on, had not written a new screenplay yet; and its director had misgivings about the direction of the series. However, this being the film industry, there was no reason to think the future wouldn't be different. After all, writers eventually write, stars can regain their passion for roles, and directors often feel re-invigorated by the loud, enthusiastic responses of zealous fans crying out for more. Sequels, therefore, were still possible, so it just didn’t make sense to kill off either the villain or the hero. Yet in my mind, without a proper ending, the series suffers. It is akin to a series finale that was intended as a season finale, in other words, to be the force that brings fans back to their TV screens, not the one that allows them to say good-bye. And it will always be this way. It is similar to the way many fans felt after the first “series finale” of Twin Peaks or after the last Zatoichi film. Both of these series were eventually returned to, and I suspect that is part of the reason for their prolonged popularity. As for Lone Wolf and Cub, I’d have a hard time sitting down to watch the series again. Sure, some parts of it are truly amazing, yet in the end, those moments of astonishment may not be enough. After all, I know what’s coming - and, perhaps more importantly, what’s not.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review - The Hoodlum (1919)

September 21, 2017

Hoodlum, The – US, 1919

Mary Pickford had it. By it, I mean that practically indefinable set of qualities that propels someone to that rarefied status that many actors strive for but few achieve – that of the greats. The greats are spoken of with a certain reverence, they impress far after their time has passed, and their movies remain untouched by the erosion and depreciation that years of cinematic changes and the evolution of storytelling can have on them. And even when the films themselves are less than stellar, they are elevated by the mere presence of the star at their center. This is the case with Sidney Franklin’s 1919 film The Hoodlum.

In the film, Pickford plays Amy Guthrie, the pampered and temperamentally challenged granddaughter of Arthur Guthrie (Ralph Lewis), a rich and powerful businessman who believes in crushing his competition and using those in lower classes for his own nefarious purposes. There’s even a reference to framing an innocent man for a crime that his company committed. Guthrie soon invites Amy to go to Europe with him, yet despite her initial excitement – and the thrill of shopping for new travel accessories – she quickly sours on the idea, an act that shows how truly spoiled she is, for only those with a fractured sense of privilege would view such an opportunity as imposing hardship on them. Ultimately she decides to hang out with her father (T.D. Crittenden), a “sociological writer” penning what he refers to as his life’s work, on Craigen Street. Amy reasons that if it’s good enough for her father, it’s good enough for her. She is in for quite a rude awakening.

From here, The Hoodlum becomes a virtual depiction of culture shock. First, there’s rejection, then a quiet acceptance accompanied by an attempt to fit in, and finally full acceptance with a tinge of preference. Modern viewers will recognize the duck-out-of-water plot line and see its twists and turns coming a while away. The film devotes a great amount of time to showcasing Amy’s attempts to assimilate and, unfortunately, not enough time to showing her transformation. Craigen Street has its fair share of suffering and financial hardship, but The Hoodlum lumps all of their experiences into one heartbreaking example of a sickly mother and her impoverished children. And while the moment is startling and abruptly changes the tone of the film, it is also entirely simplistic and seems to suggest that if this one family is helped, the community’s worst suffering has been relieved. The film then quickly shifts from dealing with poverty to the restoration of a wrongly-convicted decent man’s good name.

As I watched The Hoodlum, I was somewhat uncomfortable with its handling of the residents of Craigen Street and Amy’s attempts to fit it. Was the film mocking them through Amy’s use of their vernacular and habits, or was it being respectful by depicting her being like “one of them”? Early on, I sensed it was the former; later on, I adopted the latter view. I was also a bit bothered by the character of Amy’s father. Practically a non-entity in the film – he takes Amy to Craigen Street and subsequently disappears – he seems to be living there for purely selfish reasons. He doesn’t appear to be trying to draw attention to the plight of the poor or influence the actions of the local government. He just wants to write a great story, and he even chastises Amy for putting his efforts at risk. It is telling that we never see him talking to his neighbors or interacting with the local children. Instead, we see him sitting in a mosquito net eating dinner, an image that implies a rather sheltered and cut-off existence. His actions bring to mind the worst examples of “slumming it.”

It would be easy, therefore, to find fault with The Hoodlum, and while I indeed have my misgivings, they seem almost insignificant. This is Pickford’s film, and her energetic presence and stirring looks at the camera make such reservations seem petty. Her performance is a grand showcase of her range – from the pouting young lady we see if the film’s opening scenes to the fun bad-kid character she adopts later on to the mature adult who ultimately chooses right over family. We see her go full circle. In between are some amazing moments. In one, she engages in a Chaplin-esque dance with a man with an umbrella, moving unnoticed in step to avoid the rain; in another, she looks at a family in need, and we see the full expression of her realization of just how much suffering exists outside the guarded walls of her grandfather’s estate. True, the film all too often chooses comedy over drama and some of its characters turn decent on a dime, yet Pickford makes up for it. She does it all, but this is not surprising. After all, she is Mary Pickford. (on DVD as part of the Mary Pickford: Rags & Riches Collection)

3 and a half stars

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review - Daughter of the Dragon

September 14, 2017

Daughter of the Dragon – US, 1931

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have very high hopes for Lloyd Corrigan's 1931 film Daughter of the Dragon. After all, the film was made at a time when American and European movies were not known for giving Asian and Asian-American actors much in the way of quality roles. When good roles did come along, it was common practice for them to be played by Caucasians and for Asian actors to be relegated to supporting roles. It is a situation that made the star of Daughter of the Dragon, Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first real Asian-American female star, set off for the greener pastures of Britain, where she’d hoped to find meatier roles. Also appearing in the film is Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, at one time one of the most popular actors in the United States, yet one unfortunately typecast as either the villain or a man who must make the ultimate sacrifice so that another couple can find true happiness. Playing these kinds of roles couldn’t have been fun for either of them, and it is a credit to them both that they seem to have approached even the most stereotypical of roles professionally.

Daughter of the Dragon is everything you’d think it would be, and this is not a compliment. The film begins with someone’s idea of traditional Asian music and images of both Buddha and a large red dragon. From there, viewers receive a history of the infamous Fu Manchu, a man thought to be dead after plotting his revenge on those he blamed for the deaths of his wife and son during the Boxer Rebellion. We also learn that he had a daughter, a “celebrated Oriental dancer” curiously referred to as Princess Ling Moy, who appears to be both famous and extremely wealthy. (I’m still a little hazy on what she is actually “princess” of, though.)

Fu Manchu is, of course, still among the living and, more importantly, still seeking revenge for his perceived injustices. Having already killed two generations of men in the Petrei family, he has his sights set on the remaining two, and despite his twenty year absence, he has somehow retained all of his henchman, as well as the assistance of evil architects, who have managed to connect Ling Moy’s house to the Petrei’s without anyone noticing. It reminded me of the many underground lairs of Spectre, all of them amazing feats of architecture that would have taken years to complete and could not possibly have gone undetected.

Fu Manchu is unsuccessful in his quest for revenge, and he soon reveals himself to his daughter. She, being the dutiful Chinese daughter that she is despite having been abandoned twenty years earlier, promises to finish the job for him. This solemn oath is taken in front of the dragon emblem with serves as a kind of family insignia and at one point even allows Fu Manchu to speak from the grave. However, before this, we get to hear Fu Manchu’s views on women, and they are stereotypically sexist. At one point, Ling Moy vows to complete the task as her father’s son. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, but it seems to please her father quite a lot. There are only two obstacles to her completing her mission: a crafty Chinese officer named Ah Kee (Hayakawa) and her growing love for Ronald Petrie (Bramwell Fletcher) the man she has to kill.

Regrettably, the film operates on the impression that it has no time for character development or for casual conversation. There’s barely a moment that goes by without dialogue that is so direct that it literally forces the movie forward against its will. Without established characters, people change personalities whenever it suits the script. One minute a character can be in love with one person and in the very next scene be professing love for someone else. In addition, despite ample opportunities, the villains of the picture never seem willing to actual kill the person they are tasked with putting an end to. They are more likely to wait a month, insist on his death occurring in a specific location, or demand to first prove where his heart lies. It’s enough to make one long for the silliness of Bond’s enemies and their collective habit of asking him to dine with them.

The film wins some points for its frank discussion of race and the walls that society erected to prevent interracial romances from occurring. During one of these moments, Petrei confesses his attraction to Ling Moy, and she reminds him just how different her physical features are from those of the women he normally dates, as if to say, “This probably isn’t possible.” Such scenes would not have been possible a few years later, when the Hayes Code was more rigorously enforced. It’s also interesting to note the proposal that Ah Kee makes to Ling Moy, not just of marriage but of relocation. He seems to be suggesting that the best place for them is China.

It is a testament to Wong and Hayakawa that they survived the film with their reputations intact. They indeed tried hard to breathe life into a stale script that depicted the majority of Asian characters as both sinister and ruthless. Their efforts are commendable, even if they are not entirely successful. In fact, of all of the actors in the film, the one I’ll remember most fondly is Harold Minjir, who plays the role of Roger, the Petrei family’s butler. Sure, the character exists solely to provide comic relief in a film that has no reason to present it, but his bumbling nature and pursuit of an opportunity to prove his bravery were quite a joy to behold.    

Having read both Anna May Wong’s and Sessue Hayakawa’s biographies, I knew they had made a film together prior to seeing Daughter of the Dragon, but there is nothing in either book that suggests that it was the highlight of their careers. The film is a product of its time, and a good reminder of this is a kiss that Ling Moy and Petrei almost share, as well as the character whose voice stops it. Films like this couldn’t be made today, and for good reason. However, go on Amazon and you’ll find a head-scratching five-star review for Daughter of the Dragon. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste. (on DVD)

2 stars

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Review - Private

September 7, 2017

Private – 2004, Italy

Make no mistake about it, Saverio Costanzo’s Private is a modern-day horror film. Set in what one character describes as “an Arab house in the Territory,” the film offers viewers a look at an often unreported world, one replete with unseen enemies, heightened fears, and conditions that only augment the dangerous pull toward violence that thoughts of revenge and injustice can provoke. At the center of the film is a family whose lives are upended one night when Israeli soldiers break into their home and announce that they have no intention of leaving. It is a scenario that the film suggests occurs quite often.

First things first. Private is not an anti-Israeli rant, nor is it a one-dimensional portrait of utterly peaceful characters suffering at the hands of a cruel oppressor. Instead, it is an even-handed look at actions that, despite their intentions, can only serve to inflame and increase the likelihood of sustained conflict. It is telling, therefore, that the soldiers and those sounding the loudest battle cries are all young. Theirs is the generation tasked with finding a pathway away from belligerence, yet here they are giving voice to the sentiments that can only ensure the prolongation of a conflict that has already taken far too many lives.

The central character in the film is the family patriarch, Mohammad (Mohammad Bakri), and for a while, I admit that my sentiments went against him. In the opening scenes, he seemed pig-headed, far too stubborn for someone in a situation that called for compromise and comforting. However, Mohammad has a perspective that the others lack: He takes a long-term view of things. The film begins just after the family’s first encounter with the soldiers, and the experience has clearly shaken Mohammad’s wife, Samiah (Arin Omary). The two of them have five children, and in her opinion, the best option is to pack up and flee. It is only a matter of time, she reasons, before the soldiers return and tragedy strikes. Her pleas fall of deaf ears, not just those of her husband, but also her children’s and her friends’, many of whom take the position that it is better for them to stay and fight.

From there, the film becomes a battle of wills. The children’s calls for action increase, while Mohammad’s pleas for calm grow more desperate. As all of this is going on, an eerie silence sweeps over them, and a close family begins to crack under the pressure. In one scene, most of the family is in the kitchen, yet they seem to be looking past each other, as if they have lost the hope it takes to persevere and begun to accept what they view as their eventual fate. Some have withdrawn so much that they refuse to utter a single word. In their faces, we see the toll of both the moment and the decades of friction. There is even a scene in which one of the boys becomes a suicide bomber in a dream, and when he wakes up, the look on his face is one of someone torn between two paths.

The film appears to have been shot on a hand-held camera without much in the way of lighting. In fact, at several points, the image turns almost completely black, and we are as much in the dark as the characters are. This makes the panic the characters experience all the more real. In one scene, bullets pierce the night sky and the sound of broken glass resounds all around; Mohammad and Samiah scream the names of their children, trying to be sure that all of them are accounted for. When one isn’t, the characters’ emotions are so raw and exposed that we feel what it is like to realize that there is nothing you can do to help a family member. When the child eventually emerges, the shell-shocked look on her face says it all.

Private marked the feature-length film debut of Mr. Costanzo, and had I written about it during its theatrical release back in 2004, I would have said that it marked the arrival of a truly talented director. It is not just that Costanzo handles a topic as controversial as this one with such sensitivity and poise. It is also the way he uses the camera, at times placing it outside the kitchen window, just out of earshot, as if it is eavesdropping on the family. Later, the camera is placed in a closet, from which Mohammad and Samiah’s older daughter Mariam (Hend Ayoub) peers out. The camera becomes her eyes, and we realize just how close the danger is. We also see the camera fixate on a weapon and realize just how close another one of their children is to taking an action from which there is no return and no future. I also greatly admired Costanzo’s ability to create tension and suspense during the film’s night scenes.

Private is a truly challenging film, and I imagine that there will be those on both sides of the conflict that view the film as somehow being unfair to them. I also felt that not enough time was spent developing some of the supporting characters, in particular, the Israeli soldiers. However, what I think I will take away from the film most of all is its sense of both hope and defeat. Hope because courage and dignity are on full display, and defeat because I’m not sure hope can withstand many more incidents like the one portrayed in the film. (on DVD)

3 and a half stars

*Private is in Arabic, English, and Hebrew.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Miscellaneous Musings

August 31, 2017

On Signs of the Times

There are times when society casts a critical eye on long-held practices and past icons and begins to debate their current value. People may ask whether yesterday’s heroes still inspire or whether our present values have diminished their appeal. For evidence of this, look no further than the debate over emblems and figures associated with the Confederacy. This week two stories unrelated to that controversy caught my attention, and they demonstrate some of the challenges that we continue to face when dealing with – and perhaps moving beyond - the past.

In the first story, rapper-actor Ed Skrein, perhaps best known for playing Ajax in Deadpool, dropped out of the remake of Hellboy. He had been cast as Major Ben Daimio, a character who is Asian in the graphic novels that the movies are based on. Skrein is of Jewish, Austrian, and English descent, and he says that his background played a role in his decision. Skrein has not had a long Hollywood career; IMDB currently lists just 18 screen credits, two of which are for films scheduled for release next year. The decision to give up a role in such a high-profile film could not have been easy to make. The second story involves the famous Orpheum Theater in Memphis. The theater holds an annual summer movie series, and for the past 34 years, the series has included the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. Not this year. After receiving “specific inquiries from patrons,” the theater elected to drop the film – permanently. In a statement, the theater company explained their decision this way: “As an organization whose stated purpose is to ‘entertain, educate, and enlighten the community it serves’, [we] cannot show a film that is insensitive to a large segment of its local population.”

Just what should we make of these two stories?

Shortly after Skrein’s decision, Lionsgate, the company remaking Hellboy, issue an incredibly supportive statement. In their statement they proclaimed, “It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues or authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.” A quick observation: What took them so long? It’s not a secret that the character is Asian; it’s right there on the page. Where was the “intent to be sensitive” during the casting process? Where was the “intent to be sensitive” when the casting announcement was typed up and released? If you take the studio at their word, they were asleep at the wheel, approving a movie based on a source they knew absolutely nothing about, hiring a director who was not familiar with it either, and instructing casting agents who were equally ignorant of the fact that the ethnicity of a key character had been changed. This seems highly unlikely. Yet the narrative is understandably appealing. The alternative is that they either didn’t care or didn’t think anyone would notice.

Hollywood has a long history of casting white actors in non-white roles and making non-white characters Caucasian – from Katharine Hepburn playing a Chinese character in Dragon Seed to Charlton Heston playing a Mexican in Touch of Evil, from Ben Affleck in Argo and Emma Stone in Aloha. The justification for these casting choices has always been that there were few, if any, big-name stars of Chinese, Mexican, or Japanese descent and that actors and actresses with such backgrounds were not box office draws. Therefore, the reasoning goes, it is unwise to invest a hundred million dollars in a movie with an “unproven” star.

I’m not sure that these arguments ever truly held water, but they certainly don’t now. Back in the early 1990s, I was one of those voices supporting Jonathan Pryce in his efforts to be able to play the role of the Engineer in Miss Saigon in the United States. My reasoning was that Pryce should be judged on his talent and not limited by his ethnicity. It’s a sentiment that I believed most of the actors in the theater group I was part of shared. Now I’m not so sure. Many of the people I was working with at the time were Asian-American, and I can’t help wondering how many of them grew up dreaming of playing the lead only to see it given to someone else time and time again. It took a while for me to change my views, but after reading an interview with B.D. Wong, I began to see the error in my way of thinking. As he explained it, Asian-Americans were being told that, after holding auditions in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, no one could play an Asian character better than a Caucasian. Think about that. There’s simply no way to spin it. I don’t think one actor’s decision will change Hollywood, yet by opting out of the film, the issues has once again been brought to the public’s attention, which is where it belongs to be.

And now Gone with the Wind. In the interest of full disclosure, I have only seen the film once, and I am not a huge fan. Rhett Butler saying he now understands what Confederate soldiers are fighting for and going to enlist, slaves enthusiastically carrying shovels to dig ditches and defend the states that are seeking to deny them freedom, Scarlet’s constant indecision involving matters of the heart – there was so much that just didn’t resonate with me or that my knee-jerk reaction to was to reject. However, it’s a film I have always intended to return to, especially now that I understand more about the pre-Civil War South, and I own it on both DVD and Blu-ray.

Not every film ages well. There are a variety of reasons why what resonates with one generation is met with indifference by a later one, and vice versa. Time has a way of taking the limelight off former stars and acclaimed films. This is natural. However, to remove a film because an unspecified number of people were uncomfortable with it seems wrong. It makes it seem as if people are so fragile that the sight of something unpleasant – either in a film or on a marquee – is too much for them. The best response to a theater showing a movie that you are not interested in seeing is simply to close your wallet to it. If enough people do this, a theater will get the message.

However, the story brings up other issues. Just how does censoring a film “educate and enlighten”? Wouldn’t it be more educational and enlightening to hold Q & A sessions about the film, address its controversies, and explore the theory of the Lost Cause, a theory that the film so wholeheartedly embraces? None of this is possible is people can’t see the film.

There there’s the impact of comments and complaints in today’s society. I have no way of knowing how many people called the theater and made their objections clear. However, I have a hard time believing that it was such a large number as to constitute a majority of filmgoers. I realize this is little comfort to the poor secretary whose job it is to respond to the complaints of caller after caller, yet two hundred complaints does not a consensus make. We have a way of responding to long lists these days that gives them a power they shouldn’t have. Recently, a Yahoo news story claimed that there was enormous anger over the new Charlie Sheen movie, 9/11, yet the article itself contained less than ten negative comments - hardly a reliable sample. A more accurate article would simply have reported the release of the film’s trailer and asked what people thought of it. 

I do not mean to diminish the opinions of those people who were disturbed by the showing of Gone with the Wind or by movies in which non-White characters are played by Caucasian actors, both old and new. There may indeed be a time when such films are no longer shown, yet that should be the result of the audience’s indifference to them, not because of censorship or willful amnesia. In fact, many of these films are already ignored by the general public, and the ones that aren't are part of a continuing discussion about the past and what, if anything, has changed. This is a conversation worth having, but we can only have it if we confront images from our past directly and thoughtfully. And this requires being able to see them.