Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review - Thirteen Among a Thousand (Trece Entre Mil)

January 19, 2017

Thirteen Among a Thousand (Trece Entre Mil) – Spain, 2005

On the day I sat down to watch Inaki Arteta’s 2005 documentary Thirteen Among a Thousand, four Israelis died in a suspected terrorist attack. A day earlier, there had been a shooting at an airport in Florida which left five people dead and six injured; over the same two days, news feeds brought multiple reports of carnage in Syria, as well as suicide bombings in both Iraq and Turkey. Death, it seems, is everywhere, yet all too often the frequency of attacks and the constant focus on the number of deaths can have a numbing effect on those not directly affected by the attacks, so much so that reports on terrorism can be broken away from in the name of advertising dollars without viewers even stopping to think about the implications of a society that is able to go from a report on a deadly bomb attack to the latest automobile commercial without any difficulty whatsoever. I was partly drawn to Thirteen Among a Thousand as a way of forcing myself to combat this mental passivity, for when you recognize the fact the numbers are desensitizing you to the very things you should be irate about, it’s necessary to do something about it.

The subject of Thirteen Among a Thousand also intrigued me. ETA is an organization that I had heard about in news reports, yet the reports were almost always on tragic events that had just happened; they rarely focused about the individuals affected by those events. In a way, I understand this. The news is immediate; it is sensational. For many, a story about how someone is doing ten years after a family member was assassinated simply does not carry the same sense of urgency. Perhaps it should.

Wisely, Thirteen Among a Thousand is not a historical documentary. It does not begin by explaining the origins of ETA or try to explain the group’s politics or aims. Its stated goal is to show viewers how terrorism affects individuals and families, and it accomplishes this by focusing on thirteen families, all of whom lost someone - in some cases more than one person - in the struggle with ETA. Through their stories, I imagine, it is hoped that people will be able to put a name to a number and not forget about the people that are left behind after the media moves on to the next news item. The film asks us to linger a bit longer and to recognize that pain does not always go away.

The film give us ample evidence of this. Parents whose loved ones were needlessly taken from them at a young age. Spouses whose partners never made it home from such innocuous places as supermarkets. Children who watched a parent’s assassination. I could go on. The film shows viewers archival footage from news reports and then switches to the present, and we see that the survivors have not moved on. In two of the accounts, the families speak of the dead in the present tense. As emotional as this part is, another aspect of the film is equally horrifying. In almost all of these cases, justice remains elusive. Time and again, we hear testimony that the guilty remain free. Some are celebrated as heroes; one even works at the school of a survivor’s child. And then there are the whispers, the outrageous oft-repeated implication that the victims must have done something to deserve their fate.

To watch Thirteen Among a Thousand is to be reminded of mankind’s potential for cruelty. It is also to be reminded of the power of community. At times, the only support the survivors get is from fellow survivors, as long-time friends fade from the picture, perhaps as a result of not having any more empathy to give. There was not a moment of the film that was neither moving nor infuriating. In fact, my only complaint, other than the film’s overly optimistic ending, which took away from the film’s established tone, is that I wanted to hear more from some of the people featured in the documentary. That sentiment seems a bit selfish in retrospect, but it speaks to the power of the testimony contained in the film.

According to Wikipedia, it has now been five years since ETA’s last attack, so there is cause for guarded optimism. In circumstances like this, it is all too easy for documentaries like this to be kicked to the curb, as if they were no longer relevant. After all, focusing on past pain can sometimes be seen as impeding future progress. However, films like Thirteen Among a Thousand have a weight that transcends the specific horrors they depict. They shed a light on the experiences of so many other people around the world, of widows and orphans in Iraq, parents in Israel and Palestine, and classmates of victims of school shootings in the United States. Pain and sorrow are universal, and every now and then we need to be reminded of this. Thirteen Among a Thousand does that exceptionally well. (on DVD in Region 2)

3 and a half stars

*Thirteen Among a Thousand is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review - Wolf (2013)

January 12, 2017

Wolf – the Netherlands, 2013

Jim Taihuttu’s film Wolf is about a Moroccan immigrant named Majib who defies conventional cinematic wisdom, at least until he doesn’t. He’s a thief, a leader, and a supportive brother, as well as a best friend and protective ex-boyfriend. He strives to be more than he is, yet lacks the discipline needed to truly pursue anything in particular, and so he dabs in everything, straddling the line between heroism and villainy and stumbling back and forth between the straight and narrow and the path to personal destruction. He’s a fascinating character, yet one that is extremely difficult to fully get behind – and this is a bit of a masterstroke.

I say that because all too often movies about morally complicated characters follow a familiar pattern. The characters start out as schmucks, lowlifes with few redeeming values, and slowly they discover a reason to turn their lives around, be that reason the love of a good woman or a passion for something artistic or athletic. By the end of the most of these films, the scoundrel we see as the film opens has completely faded, having blossomed into a person who bares little resemblance to his earlier self. Here, though, the troubled youth is consistently unable to shake his worst habits, and I never completely felt sure he would find any happiness in life.

Wolf follows Majib as he juggles a day job at a flower auction – a job he despises – and a late night habit of breaking and entering. In the middle of these activities, we see him visit Hamza (Nasrdin Dchar), a brother dying of cancer, give repeated warnings to his younger brother about what happens when you don’t make an effort to do well in school, and mediate when a good friend gets himself into trouble with a local drug dealer. I marveled at the many roads this character could go down, and it seemed to me that he was consistently just as likely to become a role model as he was to head his own crime syndicate.

Early on, we get a clue of Majib’s possible salvation, kickboxing, and yet his interest in the sport seems less the fulfillment of a dream than it does an impulse he simple acts on. Majib is drawn to violence, pulled – often unwittingly – by his emotions into situations that give him the opportunity to use his fists. Most surprisingly, kickboxing does nothing to lesson his involvement in other forms of violence and crime; in fact, at times it seems that the two go hand in hand, and we watch as his criminal success rises at the same time as his kickboxing potential.

Majib is played by Marwan Kenzari, an actor I had not heard of before, and I was amazed at the range of emotions that Kenzari gives the character. Throughout most of the film, he plays Majib as a man seemingly lost. He wears a look of slowly growing discontent and detachment, as if he is in danger of completely withdrawing from humanity. However, in other scenes, many of which involve Adil (Chemseddine Amar), his partner in crime and best friend, he appears jovial and full of life. When he is with his siblings, we see his serious and caring side. The questions, I suppose, is whether one of these people is the real Majib, or if Majib is as fractured as the film suggests.

For the first two-thirds of Wolf, the film challenges and confounds us, as our empathy for Majib ebbs and flows. The film’s final act is slightly less ambiguous. We can see where Majib is heading and the obstacles being placed in his path. In this way, the film is similar to films in which a criminal mutters those familiar words, “One more and I’m out.” While Majib doesn’t says this directly, viewers familiar with films such as The Town and Blow will recognize the pattern. There are even subtle nods to Othello, Gladiator (the one with Cuba Gooding Jr., not Russell Crowe) and The Set-Up. And there’s a scene that explains the film’s title that is moving, if not a tad bit unoriginal.

In the end, I was consistently interested in Majib’s story. I was moved by the conversations he shares with Hamza and riveted by the revelatory talks he has with a rich Turk named Hakan (Cahit Olmez), a man who is both entrepreneur and crook. Just as Mathieu Kassovit’s Hate does for Muslim youth in France, Wolf shines a light on the plight of immigrants in the Netherlands and paints an interesting picture of Dutch society. Majib’s circle of friends seem to be accepted up to a point, but there seems to always be someone somewhere willing to draw attention to someone’s ethnicity and to distinguish between us and them. This includes Majib himself. Writer-director Taihuttu, who gives the film a classic look by shooting it in glorious black and white, a la Raging Bull, gets great performances all around and demonstrates an awareness of the power of close-ups, which enables viewers to clearly see the range of emotion that each of the film’s characters are experiencing. We see their exuberance, their angst, and their hope. And in the film’s final, slightly unrealistic moments, we even get a glimmer of pride. It is a poignant reminder of just how much has been squandered, and it tears at the heartstrings. It should, too. Its predictability does little to diminish its power. (on DVD)

3 stars

*Wolf is in Dutch, Arabic, French, Turkish, and English with English subtitles.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review - The Rocky Horror Picture Show

January 5, 2017

Rocky Horror Picture Show, The – US, 1975

It may be too late to truly discover Jim Sharman’s legendary film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is a film that I knew only from marquees advertising midnight screenings of cult classics; the difference was that it always came with a kind of party. The film was always advertised as an event, and classmates from my theater class who attended one of its many late night showings raved about the glory and craziness of it all. Now, there are many films that have acquired cult status. Some do this because their quality was apparent to only a few people upon their initial releases, and, let’s be frank about this, others have been given the moniker because of their less than stellar quality, the idea being that seeing a bad movie can also be an experience. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is somewhere in the middle – fun for a while, but, like in-laws during the holidays, ultimately overstaying its welcome and becoming somewhat tedious.

Here, let me add a caveat. Had I seen the film in 1975, I may have had a different reaction. At that time, parodies had yet to saturate the market, and there may have been a great more novelty in a film that poked fun at drive-in B-films and all of their excesses and stereotypes. Therefore, at that time, I imagine audiences got a real kick out of seeing the film’s intentionally over-the-top numbers and occasionally larger-than-life acting, and they likely got a thrill at being able to spot all of the references and horror-film clichĂ©s littered throughout the film. I was no different, for there is an audacity to the film that is still particularly effective, and at many times, my jaw was on the floor and a grin on my face. Here’s the thing, though – I didn’t laugh much, and I should have.

The film begins with a variation of a standard horror film set-up: A car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s no spare and it’s pouring rain. Just what is a newly engaged couple to do? Fortunately, for them, they passed a castle not too far back, and since nothing bad has ever happened to anyone who knocked on a castle door in the middle of the night, the couple opts to seek help there. There’s even the obligatory sign warning them to “Enter At Your Own Risk,” at which they laughingly only give a passing glance. Once inside, an Igor-inspired characters leads a bunch of costumed guests into doing the time warp again, a Dracula-type has them strip down for the kind of creation scene that was not possible in Mary Shelley’s time, and a Rock ‘n Roll biker crashes the scene to… actually, I have no idea what his motivation for showing up was. You get the point. This is an audacious, take-no-prisoners film, with a soundtrack that is guaranteed to get a willing audiences’ collective feet tapping and characters that will likely never completely lose their shock value.

And yet, without its live audience and staged events, without the inspired popcorn throwing and sing-along segments, without the energy of a enthusiastic crowd to embrace the utter chaos in front of them, the film lacked something. I noticed its intentional narrative shallowness, and I was bothered by this. The film didn’t seem to want to go anywhere. It seemed content to be about nothing in particular and to be a response to things that came before rather than a vision of the future and of the genre’s potential. I wondered what about the film inspired so much affection and excitement, the film itself or the event it later became. I even remember thinking to myself, This is probably better live

Having said this, I fear I may have given a more negative impression of the film than I intended to. This was not my objective, for there is much that I liked about it. Many of the film’s musical numbers are creative and well choreographed. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, asked to give a combination of acting that is both realistic for its genre and at times much exaggerated, give admirable performances, Tim Curry is a wonder as Dr. Frank N. Furter, and Nell Campbell brings an infectious energy to her musical numbers. Also worth commending is Meatloaf, who, in just a few minutes of impressive screen time, shows what makes him such a popular performer. The film is indeed fun and vibrant, and I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it. So it didn’t all work for me. Just enough did. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 and a half stars

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Review - After the Life: Trilogy 3

December 29, 2016

After the Life: Trilogy 3 – France, 2002

It is not a novel sentiment, but it bears repeating - Drug addiction is hell. And perhaps nowhere has this message been presented more consistently than in the movie theaters, in films from as far back as 1916’s The Devil’s Needle to more recent films such as 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. Writer-Director Lucas Belvaux’s After the Life, however, does something that most of these similarly-themed films do not – it allows viewers to see the corruptive nature of drug addiction on not just addicts but also the people most devoted to them.

After the Life begins with an eerie shot of a man named Pascal Manise (Gilbert Melki) descending down a mountain on one of those lifts usually reserved for ski slopes or remote locations. With eyes that barely move and a silence that betrays a deep-seated pain, he is clearly a man in deep contemplation. Soon we learn that Pascal is a police inspector, and almost as quickly, we watch as he goes into the back of a restaurant and is handed the kind of bag that could only contain something illegal.

Once home, Pascal greets his wife, Agnes (Dominique Blanc), and for a split second you would be forgiven for thinking theirs to be a rather normal marriage. There are smiles between them, seemingly genuine looks of care, and banter than matches the kind usually uttered between couples during good times. They even go so far as to refer to each other as ‘Sherlock” and “Mrs. Holmes.” It is, of course, an illusion. Soon we are presented with a camera shot of a silver tray with used needles on top of it and Agnes’s joyfully peaceful expression as she drifts off to a drug-inspired sleep. There is no sign of romance.

With such a set up, After the Life has all the makings of a powerful drama – there’s the wife, an addict whose habit has caused her husband to become the kind of cop he likely swore he would not become, and her enabler husband, faithfully caring for his wife, all the while knowing what he has become in the process. Theirs is a relationship of both love and hate. She hates him when he does not have the drugs she relies on; he hates her for what he has to do to keep her happy.

In most films, a character like Agnes would be a sick or terminally-ill patient, someone with whom audiences could empathize and rue the limited avenues available to someone living with so much pain. In such a scenario, drug use would be acceptable. Here, however, nothing excuses Agnes’s use, and the depths to which she goes to get her daily fix strike us not as something we should empathize with and accept, but as something horrible that must be put a stop to. This is especially true after Pascal is blackmailed by one of the dealers he has been getting morphine from. His blackmailer’s “request” is simple: Find a criminal and shoot him before he has a chance to talk; only then will his wife get what she needs.

I would like to be able to describe After the Life as a taut drama from start to finish with moments of chilling suspense. I really would. And for much of the first half, I was confident that I would be able to. However, as the film progresses, it gets bogged down in convoluted storylines that are unconvincingly connected by the end the film. There’s a woman who wants Pascal to investigate her husband, and one of Agnes’s co-workers who may or may not have information about a terrorist who’s on the loose. The former felt like a distraction, and the latter seemed rushed and undeveloped. Even more egregious is the insertion of said terrorist into Agnes’s storyline, for while I understand why his presence was necessary for Agnes’s development, it still felt incredibly forced, like one of those coincidences that sounds better in a screenwriter’s head than it looks on screen.

Still, the film never completely loses its way, and much of the credit for this belongs to Blanc and Melki, both of whom give performances that have the potential to shock and move audiences. I also appreciated the way the first half of the film builds up to its big reveals instead of hitting audiences over the head with them early on. This approach makes Agnes’s levels of desperation all the more involving. Melki matches her intensity with cold aloofness, When Pascal does finally break down emotionally and desperately seek some form of physical confirmation of the pain he is in, he does so when his wife cannot respond to him. In the scene, Melki’s reactions are truly heartbreaking.

I have often wondered if a movie can truly be recommended for the performances of one or more of its actors. After all, what does it say about a film if the reason to see it is a performance and not a story? However, in After the Life, the performances are what stand out most of all. This does not mean that the story the film tells is an awful one, but when the film was over, I kept replaying particular moments of impressive acting in my head, while the plot faded and became a bit of a blur. Take that as the grain of salt that it is. (on DVD)

3 stars

*After the Life is in French with English subtitles. 
*After the Life is the third film is a trilogy. No, I have not seen the first two films. In my defense, the descriptions on both the front and back of the DVD were entirely in Chinese.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Review - The Pleasure Garden

December 22, 2016

The Pleasure Garden – UK, 1925

There is nothing about The Pleasure Garden that would suggest it was the first feature films of legendary master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. There’s no murder, no conspiracy (unless you count the schemes of some horny adults), and no great reveal at the end. In fact, if you were to read a synopsis of the film, you could be forgiven for assuming it was the work of D.W. Griffith, William Wyler, or even Kenji Mizoguchi. These are directors much more renowned for their films on women struggling to survive in a world that sees them as less than equal to their male counterparts. Hitchcock is more known for producing gasps, shrieks, and rapidly-beating hearts, yet here he is with The Pleasure Garden tugging at heartstrings and showcasing the plight of young dancers trying to eke out a living on stage.

The film offers viewers a look at two women whom fate destines to meet. The first is Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli), a chorus girl in a local revue. In early scenes, we witness Patsy’s street smarts and self-protective nature. She has gotten used to the lecherous looks of many of the older men who frequent her performances, and she seems perfectly aware of the intentions of her boss, Oscar Hamilton (Georg H. Schnell, when he introduces her to them. She also knows just how to offend them enough that they leave her alone for good without becoming uncontrollably incensed. The second woman is Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty), a fellow dancer who arrives from out of town. Sensing that Jill is in need of kindness, Patsy offers to let her stay at her place. Almost immediately we can tell that Jill has an abundance of confidence and a spirit that already seems a little corrupted.  To illustrate this, we witness Patsy pray before going to bed, while Jill looks on slightly embarrassed at the spectacle. If that wasn’t enough, Jill then takes both pillows. Oh, the horrors.

Jill eventually auditions for Mr. Hamilton. She not only gets a job but also negotiates a salary of $20 a week, a surprising turn of events considering that when she dances she resembles a chicken hopping on hot coals while simultaneously experiencing a fit of leg spasms. I’m not sure what constituted good dancing in the past, but I’m almost certain this wasn’t it. In fact, watching her, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Hamilton hires her because he has designs of her, and while there may be some truth to this, the film would have you believe that she becomes a star because of her talent.

We eventually meet Jill’s fiancĂ©, Hugh Fielding (John Stewart), and an associate of his named Levet (Miles Mander). Hugh is blind to Jill’s growing materialistic tendencies, while Mr. Levet sets his sights on Patsy. I’m not sure whether it was intended or not, but I never thought this character had good intentions toward Patsy; therefore, it was more than a little surprising to watch her fall for his well-rehearsed lines and emotional pleas, especially after her encounter with the patron towards the beginning of the film. The final character worth mentioning is Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg), who becomes enchanted with Jill and essentially becomes her benefactor. Patsy later refers to her as a kept woman, and it’s easy to see why.  

With a running time of just over an hour, I have a feeling that parts of the film have been lost. There are too few intertitles, and events transpire too quickly for many of them to fully resonate with audiences. For example, the Prince remains an enigma, and an interesting storyline involving Jill and Mr. Hamilton is introduced only to never be concluded or properly explained. One character even undergoes a Jekyll and Hyde-like transformation which is never entirely explained. After all, a man can be a cad without resembling a character from one of those 1950’s educational videos on the dangers of drugs. Later, this same character makes a point of swimming out to sea toward a woman intent on committing suicide just so he can drown her himself. Is this an act of madness or just plain poor writing? I’m inclined to believe the latter.

There’s a neat camera trick involving a waving scarf that suggests an intriguing career to follow, yet for the most part it seems clear that Hitchcock was still finding his way when he made The Paradise Garden. While the film has much to enjoy – in particular the story of two women who in different times and a more normal line of work would have likely been life-long friends – and a few images that would be replicated in later films, such as the use of opera glasses to view a woman up close, it still left me somewhat cold. In fact, the final fifteen minutes include so many ludicrous leaps in logic, as well as a string of unconvincing coincidences, that it becomes a trifle infuriating. What transpires is more convenient than realistic, and the film once again promotes the myth that a year’s worth of misery can be made up for in a matter of minutes.

Still, I found The Pleasure Garden pleasant enough to recommend. It includes a somewhat interesting contrast in characters and gives viewers a look at the kind of world that would have made Mary Wollstonecraft shake her head in dismay. None of this is anything contemporary audience haven’t seen before, and the film’s pre-code aspects no longer shock the way they used to; however, I felt invested in Patsy’s story, and I rooted for her to come out ahead. Is the way she does it too simplistic? Sure, but that doesn’t make the journey less involving. (on DVD)

3 stars

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review - Manon

Decembr 15, 2016

Manon – France, 1949

“Unevenness” – thy name is Manon. In fact, this may be an understatement, for Manon seems unclear exactly what kind of movie it is and whose story it is actually telling. Even more egregious, the story it ultimately settles on turns out to be the least interesting one of the two it could have chosen. After all, given the choice between traumatized migrants looking for normalcy after their world went to hell would be much more interesting than following the exploits of two uninteresting, on-the-run slackers who are never able to make the case that the audience should care one iota whether they stay together or not – a death knell if there ever was one in a film of this sort.

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon begins in the aftermath of World War II. Out at sea, we see a French ship pick up passengers from three small boats. Money exchanges hands, and we hear a crew member say that the passengers are Jewish. These clearly traumatized passengers are led down to the ships cargo area – because it is the lowest area, thereby keeping them out of sight of the French Navy – and in a scene that shows the dread that still exist in them, we watch as they hear noises from the pipes and become paralyzed with fear. One passenger breaks out into song, and even though they all join in beautifully, it is impossible to shake the sense that they are simultaneously lifting their spirits and preparing for the worst. Among these passengers are old men and women, a few children and their caretakers, and one or two couples that appear to be in their mid-twenties – newlyweds perhaps. I naturally assumed that one of these pairs would be the focal point of the story that follows.

Instead, the scene is interrupted by falling boxes, behind which is a pair of fresh stowaways. Young, French, and obviously not of the same faith as the other passengers, the two eventually bend the captain’s ear with a tale that they hope will melt his cold heart and convince him not to turn the young man over to French authorities. The man’s name is Robert Degrieux (Michel Auclair); the woman traveling with him is Manon (Cecile Aubry).

Here the story shifts back in time, and, to the film’s credit, their tale does indeed begin powerfully. We learn that Robert was a member of the French Resistance during the war, while Manon was a worker in a restaurant that catered to German soldiers. A few of her fellow villagers think more than just serving customers went on, a charge that Manon denies, but which as the film progresses the audience will be forgiven for believing. There early scenes impressively capture the chaotic aftermath of the war, when villagers turned against each other and many women who had cozied up to the Germans were beaten and shaved bald. Filmed in what may have been actual World War II ruins, these scenes have an authenticity that much of what follows lacks, and the film is almost worth watching just for them.

Luckily for her, Manon is spared the wrath of the mob, and eventually Robert is tasked with keeping an eye of her. She makes a run for it, scratches his face, and hurls insults at him; he in turn wrestles her to the ground and utters some pretty unsavory things about her, the kinds of things that no true gentlemen would think about saying, not even about a woman he completely abhors. No matter. Within five minutes, the two are professing their undying love for each other and vowing to be together at all costs. I didn’t buy it for a minute.

Part of the reason for this is by design. As Robert rushes off to do something to save Manon, the camera focuses on her. Now alone in her makeshift prison, we watch as a sinister smile spreads across her face. I got him, she seems to be saying. So far so good, viewers can be forgiven for saying, for up until that point, the film has not put its characters through anything that they can’t recover from. There’s still time for Manon to learn to love Robert, and for Robert to prove himself worthy of her love, yet, from here on in, the film can’t decide what kind of story it is telling. It devolved into a story of depravity and emotional cruelty, one part film noir, the other a distant cousin to Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman. We watch as Robert becomes increasingly weaker and Manon reaches new depths of immorality. All the while, Robert keeps pleading how much he loves her (a love that never feels earned or requited), and the object of his love keeps doing anything – and I do mean anything – for money. This would be fine if there were some altruistic cause behind it, but there isn’t. Manon simply can’t stand the thought of being poor or boring. Meanwhile, Robert becomes practically homicidal at times, much like the Man in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, yet without any of that character’s remorse and humility. Watching the two of them is like watching two trains on the same track approaching each other at top speed; you know what’s coming, and you would prefer to look away.

And then the film diverts, for no other reason than that it has to. And when it does, Robert and Manon stare into the eyes of the captain (Henri Vilbert) who must decide their fate, and he looks straight at the camera and does the equivalent of throwing his hands up in resignation. It’s like he’s saying to the director, I know what I have to do, but you’re not making it easy. In truth, I felt sorry for Vilbert, for he was tasked with making one of the most unrealistic love stories somehow worthy of support and sympathy. How he did it with a straight face is simply beyond me.  

It is here that I thought the film would end, but why quit when you’re behind? Instead of fading with the word FIN, the film reminds you that there was a second story line, the more interesting one. Viewers are then asked to place the creepy story of Robert and Manon ahead of that of the Jewish immigrants trying to make it to the promised land. It is a mistake. Any one of these side characters would have made a better protagonist, and the film has the foolish audacity to remind you of that. What were they thinking? (on DVD)

2 stars

*Manon is in French with English subtitles. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Review - The Daughter of Dawn

December 8, 2016

The Daughter of Dawn – US, 1920

Norbert A. Myles’s The Daughter of Dawn is a film I wanted to love, but couldn’t. It is a film that was considered lost for almost ninety years, it stars a Native American cast from the Kiowa and Comanche tribes, and it was written by R.E. Banks, a man who is said to have lived among Native Americans for twenty-five years. All of this is supposed to give the film an aura of importance, and it invites the unfortunate expectation of above average quality. Because of that, I feel a bit guilty for finding the film slightly underwhelming.

The problem with The Daughter of Dawn is that it takes a group of characters that should be interesting and puts them in a situation that we’ve seen a million times – and this includes before 1920. The film is essentially a love triangle involving Daughter of Dawn (Esther LeBarre), the daughter of the Kiowa chief, and her two suitors, Black Wolf (Jack Sankey-Doty) and White Eagle (White Parker). (With names like that, it’s not hard to guess who the good guy is.) It’s a set-up similar to that of Abel Gance’s J’accuse only without that film’s heartfelt reversal of fortune and tragic conclusion. Eventually, the two of competitors are given a task to complete in order to be awarded Daughter of Dawn’s hand in marriage. I will not reveal the task, but if Mr. Banks indeed saw something like this in real life, it’s one of those actions for which seeing would truly be believing. As presented here, it produced a surprising degree of incredulity.

In a plot point that is never followed up on, a group of Comanche decide to steal the Kiowa’s horses. Their plan is to have the Kiowa men set out to find them, thus leaving the Kiowa women unprotected. However, after building up this plot, it is left to linger in the air. The men return on horses and, as far as I could tell, never even notice the horses are gone. Soon, the film has the Comanche come up with a plot so sinister that I’m surprised actual Comanche would be part of a film depicting it.

Another aspect of the film sure to provoke debate is the acting style to the film’s non-professional cast. From the film, one gets the impression that the Kiowa are pretty reserved. The actors’ faces rarely show much in the way of emotion; instead, they seem to be relying on wide physical gestures to get their points across. It makes for an interesting, yet somewhat odd experience, for in many scenes, arms are flailing excitedly while the face remains stoic. It’s a contradiction, and no one in the film – not even the all-knowing intertitles – even tries to explain it.

Having said all of this, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the work of the cinematographer, for he consistently comes up with interesting shots of 1920s Oklahoma, as well as the camps of the two tribes. Several scenes feature long panoramic shots of nature that are truly awe-inspiring, and while it is apparent that Myles shot the film with a stationary camera, I only occasionally felt that the lack of movement or close-ups during key moments short-changed the film.

As I mentioned earlier, it is the narrative that fails The Daughter of Dawn. The plot simply never really rises above standard dime-novel melodrama, and if you think about it, that is both a missed opportunity and a completely understandable outcome. After all, present-day sentiments demand more from a film of this kind; they demand a complexity and depth that was likely impossible to put on celluloid in the 1920s. It would be quite some time before Westerns consistently depicted Native Americans in non-stereotypical roles, and perhaps a plot like the one in this film was welcomed for the very reason that I have dismissed it – its familiarity. It may have conveyed the message that certain experiences are universal, and in 1920, that may have been a revolutionary concept. In 2016, however, it just seems lazy. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 and a half stars