Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review - Black & White: The Dawn of Justice - 2014

August 25, 2016

Black & White: The Dawn of Justice – Taiwan, 2014

The circumstances that Black & White: The Dawn of Justice lays out are indeed frightening – ten missing criminals, all of whom appear in a cryptic video that eerily resembles the kind associated with a suicide bomber’s last testament; a series of explosions, each one designed to bring a part of Kaohsiung to its knees; and rumors of chemical warfare. Into this brewing catastrophe steps Wu Ying-Hsiung (Mark Chao), the central character from the first Black & White film, as well as the television show that the films serve as prequel to, and, as the first scene attests, he is a man who has not mellowed one iota. In the scene, we watch as he almost single-handedly fends off a series of terrorists intent on getting their hands on a high-ranking military official who has access to an important code. It’s an exciting scene, and it stands up there with the more memorable intros from the Bond series or Mission Impossible films, yet it’s almost all down hill from there.

Part of the problem with Tsai Yueh-Hsun's The Dawn of Justice is that savvy viewers will quickly notice uncanny similarities to other (and better) films. Stop me if you’ve heard these before – a villain with a deep bass voice, a secret society intent of destroying a city and then rebuilding it from scratch, a detonator and a choice of who lives and dies. In other words, the film borrows extensively from both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises. Other elements seem taken from the Mission Impossible films, and, oddly enough, shoot-em-up video games. For example, in one scene, our heroes find a secret path, go up a long ladder, and turn around to find a villain for each of them to take out. Then once they have vanquished these foes, a new and more powerful one emerges, one that will take their combined efforts to defeat. Later they have to climb all the way up to the top of a building where their final opponent is causally waiting for them. I half expected them to pick up a more powerful weapon along the way and to eat a berry for extra energy.

Like the previous film, The Dawn of Justice never lets up, jumping from one action scene to another, with only a few down moments thrown in to explain just what the heck is going on and just who everyone is. It helps if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the first film, for Dawn of Justice doesn’t bother to explain who most of the characters are. However, if you can remember the characters from 24, you’ll be familiar with these character types. There’s the police chief who wants to ground Wu. Think the head of CTU in any season in which Tony Almeida or Michelle Dressler aren’t in charge. There’s the computer expert trying to ascertain the villains’ whereabouts with very little help from his superiors. Think Chloe O’Brian. And there are a few female colleagues on the case as well. They could easily be any of the one-season CTU agents who are pulled into action after receiving a clue and not being able to communicate with Jack. Then of course there’s the reluctant partner who at first dislikes or don’t trust Jack. Here, think Chase Edmunds. Like Jack’s, we have a feeling that Wu’s doubters will eventually come around, too.

The film is helped greatly by the all-too brief appearance of Xu Da Fu (Bo Huang), the criminal turned hero from the first film. He shows up as the tenth suicide bomber, yet his involvement is anything but voluntary. Xu is every bit as energetic as Wu is staid, and Huang and Chao make the most of their limited screen time together. In fact, Xu’s storyline also gives the film its emotional depth, which is more than a little strange given how many lives are at stake if all goes according to the terrorists’ plans. However, most of Kaohsiung’s civilians remain background figures and are not given much screen time to develop a connection with the audience. In an interesting move thematically, what screen time they do receive features mobs of them ransacking stores and doing snatch-and-grabs - not necessarily the kinds of deeds that would endear them to the audience. Even when Wu runs in the middle of a panicked mob and saves a young child from being trampled, the scene fails. It’s a near carbon copy of Katie Holmes’s heroics in Batman Begins.

When the film does devote time to a new character, the results are hit and miss. A fellow police officer named Chen Zhen (Lin Gengxin) makes his grand entrance just as Wu is dangling perilously from a freeway overpass. What should be a heroic moment is used instead to establish the character’s oddball personality – instead of helping Wu, Chen snaps a selfie with him and then complains about the placement of Wu’s hand. The moment plays worse than it reads. Another character, Huang Shi-Kai (Shiou Chieh Kai), a member of an elite military unit known as the Black Hawks, fares much better. We get a clear sense of just how he skilled and principled he is, and everything he attempts to do later on in the film is completely believable.

Unfortunately, too little of the film feels original. From its use of plot points from Christopher Nolen’s Batman trilogy to its many clichéd supporting characters, there’s just never a sense that we’re seeing anything new, and no amount of energy and action can make up for this. Wu, Huang, and Xu are all intriguing characters, yet they’re stuck in a movie made by a studio too afraid to venture outside of established action-film norms. The film didn’t need strained attempts at comedy or action scenes exaggerated to the point of being parody; what it needed was to trust that audiences would invest in the film’s characters and willingly go wherever the ride took them. They needed to take a chance. That they didn’t is obvious, and the result is a film that is watchable, yet ultimately forgettable. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 stars

*Black & White: The Dawn of Justice is in Mandarin with English subtitles.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Guest Blogger: Paul Cogley

 Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Reviewed by Paul Cogley

Here is movie star Olivia de Havilland photographed regally in June 2016 wearing a blue dress in a blue room in her Paris apartment on the occasion of her 100th birthday. Also shown here is a publicity photo of De Havilland as Maid Marian with Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, taken when the two were enthralled in an offscreen romance.
 
The screen star has long been known for her intelligence and independence. In a 1944 landmark court case which resulted in what became known as the De Havilland Law, she sued Warner Bros. to reduce the studio’s power and extend creative freedom to performers.

De Havilland still possess her sharp mind and independent streak. For her 100th birthday, she gave several interviews—including with NPR—that are well worth Googling. Reading those interviews led me to seek out “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” from my local library.

Never trying to be an historical account of the late Middle Ages, the Michael Curtiz film presents the legend of Robin Hood redone as Hollywood Movie Magic. It remains one of the greatest family movies of all time. In nearly all aspects, the film feels as fresh today as it was during its successful 1938 release and second go-round as a feature-movie rerelease back in 1948.

The story begins some time after King Richard has ridden off from Merry Olde England and gotten himself jailed after fighting a Crusade. The king’s mean, hedonistic brother Prince John has taken full advantage of the situation to raise taxes and in all ways ruin the lives of the peasants. Eventually, his life of debauchery will be foiled by the eagle-eyed archer and good-natured forest dweller Robin Hood, with the help of his motley band of income-inequality warriors. Also, Maid Marian, who lives in the court, will fall for the charms of Robin and have a change of heart about her royal privileges when she considers the injustice its cost has on the commoners.

This is a movie with many elements, all of them working in-synch together. It is a Technicolor production, which until then was still a mediocre technology. Due to the new breakthrough in color processing introduced in this film, the costumes and scenery were brilliantly toned to dazzle the audience, similarly to what would be seen again in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). 

The Oscar-winning film score was composed and arranged by the Austrian opera composer Erick Wolfgang Korngold. His music superbly pushes the battle action and fits the film’s many moods, such as the lighthearted times in Sherwood Forest and the romantic interludes between Marian and Robin.

The film was a milestone in action choreography. Our modern standards for adventure film battles - featuring clashing swords, whizzing arrows, etc.- began with the sophisticated realistic action that was carefully plotted in this movie. At times I thought I was seeing bits of action that would be actually referenced by George Lucas four decades later in his Star Wars trilogy.

Finally, the film has a wonderful cast. In the 1930s, in his earlier films, Errol Flynn had reinvented the role of the irreverent swordsman and rakish man of action using the template of the silent era’s Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Flynn was charming, young, and athletically gifted, and a wonderful fit for the role of Robin Hood.

Regarding Olivia De Havilland’s performance, in this modern era we tend to more fully appreciate an interpretation such as her Maid Marian, who is a strong and thoughtful woman. Nothing is played saccharine sweet with this Maid Marian.

Prince John is nicely played by Claude Rains, who would later again work with director Curtiz as the French inspector in “Casablanca” (1943). Also notable in the cast is Prince John’s very intelligent aide, Sir Guy, played by Basil Rathbone. Poor Sir Guy, almost every bit as intelligent as Robin Hood, hatches one doomed scheme after another to defeat his nemesis, and eventually faces off with him for one final sword duel.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood” is a movie that is fun for the whole family. However, battle scene are often intense and may not be appropriate for children under six.  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Review - The Diary of a Big Man

August 11, 2016

Diary of a Big Man, The – Hong Kong, 1988

Chow Yun-Fat is a very talented actor. Blessed with dashing good looks and an appearance that can fluctuate between tender and tough at the drop of a dime, he has dazzled audience for four decades, an impressive feat by any standards. He excels in dramas and period pieces, and his films with John Woo were many young people’s introduction to Hong Kong cinema. I have seen a number of his films and enjoyed many of them. However, nothing I had seen before of his prepared me for Chor Yuen’s The Diary of a Big Man. If that sounds like praise, it is not.

In The Diary of a Big Man, Chow plays Chow Chen Fat, a young stock analyst whose life is utterly changed one rainy night. It is on that night that he meets two young women. The first is Joey (Joey Wang). She meets Chow while her umbrella is giving her fits, and he clumsily tries to assist her. In this movie, being clumsy is rather endearing, and in no time at all, she’s giving him her card so that he can return her umbrella after he fixes it. (Really. That’s what the subtitles said.) A few minutes later, he meets Sally (Sally Yeh). Sally is getting out of a cab, and wouldn’t you know it - she needs an umbrella! Just what’s a guy like Chow to do in this situation, but give her the umbrella? It’s practically love at first sight.

Chow decides to date both of them, and through a series of errors eventually ends up married to them. Thus, begins one of the greatest and funniest of ruses ever put to celluloid. If only. Rather, thus begins is an ill-fated attempt at screwball comedy featuring actors whose director has confused screaming and exaggerating with acting, and who believes that being eclectic is the same as being entertaining. All of this is brought to us courtesy of a screenwriter who seems to think that taking time to establish characters and built relationships is overrated.

Just how much did I dislike this films? Oh, let me count the ways. This is a film which offers a semblance of sweetness in its opening moments only to abandon it seconds later in favor of showing nastiness in the guise of screwball comedy. This is a film that thinks that actors will be funny if they speak loudly and quickly, yet doesn’t put any thought into what the actors are actually saying. There are scenes featuring cockroaches and screaming women, police sergeants who sexually harass their subordinates, and a man making up threats against his life in order to deceive his wives. All of these scenes are intended to be humorous. Then there’s the almost obligatory scene from an eighties comedy - you know, the one in which the lead character pretends to be gay - and the almost obligatory overreaction by the person who sees him do so. Here, the witness seems to be trying to avoid throwing up, and as he departs, he yells at two unsuspecting individuals, “Don’t get AIDS!” Ah, the eighties.

Like a screwball film, The Diary of a Big Man is a film that doesn’t take a moment to breath. It is filmed like a Road Runner cartoon, all frenzied movement with no direction or purpose. Its female character are one-dimensional for most of the film, and then suddenly they’re engaging in actions that are so far removed from what they have done before that it’s unsettling. In one scene, the film seems to be attempting black comedy when Chow’s two lovely wives, previously thoughtful, caring, and devoted, are suddenly pretending to be drugged and arranging for their husband to be roughed up by thugs. The change is simply too sudden to be shocking and the execution too bland to be entertaining. I watched it in exasperation rather than exhilaration.

Calling the film a product of its time would be to let it off the hook, for even films that are dated can still be good films. It would also be an insult to films of its time. Instead, I would say that too much of the film just feels wrong – and wrong at any time in film history. For example, it breaks the fourth wall, but doesn’t know how to use the technique to enhance the story. Also, it seems to think speeding up the action will create comedy, ignoring the fact that speeding up a film only makes it look clunky and dated – just ask the Keystone Cops. And just for kicks, in the film’s final moments, it decides to let Islam in on the fun, proving, I suppose, that the film is an equal opportunity offender.

In the end, I gave up on the film. Oh, I finished it, of course, but I did so with an air of resignation. I simply did not believe that the film would get better or build to anything worth waiting around for. This is unlike me, for I believe even the worst films can have decent endings. However, at one point, Chow asks aloud, “When will this end?” and I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I was asking the same question myself.

Now there are some people out there who will say that I missed the boat on this one, that all of the things I disliked about the film were not intended to be taken seriously. Essentially, they will be suggesting that I just didn’t get the humor. They may be right. However, I would add this caveat: I did laugh as I watched the film - once. I believe audiences deserve more. (on DVD)

2 stars

*The Diary of a Big Man is in Cantonese with English subtitles.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Review - The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

August 4, 2016

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold – US, 2010

It has now been almost twenty-four hours since I watched Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and in that short time, the movie have provoked much thought, not all of which has been positive. Some of my reflection has centered on the recent trend for some documentaries to be essentially recorded essays. They come with an attention-getting introduction that introduces an issue, state the director’s thesis, and then offer plenty of facts and anecdotes to convince the audience that the director’s opinion is correct. This is the genre that I would lump Michael Moore’s films into, as well as other films like Hometown and Taivalu: Taiwan vs. Tuvulu, both of which were more about the directors than what the synopses of the films suggested. This is also a genre that includes Morgan Spurlock’s films.

Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this genre, provided that the director is both knowledgeable and passionate about the topic at the center of the film. It also helps if the film makes it clear that what is discovered or covered in the film trumps the narrator, that he or she is simply a conduit through which the audience learns something significant. Spurlock’s debut film Super Size Me accomplished this admirably. That film had him investigating the effects of fast food on the human body, and, in an act that method actors all over the world must have applauded, he offered himself up as a human guinea pig. In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock investigates product placement in popular culture, and once again he casts himself as the subject of his film. This time, though, his efforts are misguided and much less involving.

In the film, Spurlock attempts to find financing for his next film. The pursuit involves making an amazing amount of phone calls to potential investors and, when one gives him the time of time, meeting with them to pitch the movie and explain what sponsors would get in return for their money. We see a number of these sales pitches and get a good sense of just what goes into them. After securing funding, Spurlock turns his attention to exploring the legal ramifications of having sponsors, and for a time the film becomes of who’s who of lawyers, members of corporations, and consumer advocates. Some of this is interesting, yet too much of it seems at cross purposes with its more involving parts.

In those parts, Spurlock takes the focus off of the film and puts it onto bigger, more intriguing issues. In one scene, we watch as Spurlock has his brain scanned to determine his “brand personality,” and it was truly shocking to see the scan reveal things that could be sold to him. I also was intrigued by a brief conversation about the thinning line between art and promotion, as well as one concerning the sad pursuit of sponsors by educational institutions. There is also an interesting bit in which a connection is made between visibility and credibility, and it is truly worrying that these two things are sometimes seen as synonymous. Personally, I could watch a separate documentary on each of these issues. Here, though, they are included as afterthoughts, temporary breaks from the main story, and few, if any, of them are explored in depth.

And this is a problem, for, while this technique worked in Super Size Me, it is much less successful here. Here, we are asked to invest in Spurlock’s attempts to make a movie and not sell out – or, as the film puts it, to buy in. We watch as he pitches ideas for commercials to his sponsors, creates promotional items for the film, and makes appearances on television promoting the very movie that we are watching. It is a technique that Salvador Dali might have found clever; I simply found it uninspiring.

Spurlock remains a talented and vibrant director, yet I have a feeling that the film would have been more effective with a different focus. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if Spurlock had followed an up-and-coming director to pitches to sponsors or if he had stuck to investigating the growing use of advertising as a stream of revenue in schools. What he has created here, while having some truly fascinating parts, is too jumbled to be meaningful and too smarmy to be involving. In fact, about forty-five minutes into the film, I began to wonder just what the sponsors were getting for their money. To me, that says a lot. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review - The Great Killing

July 28, 2016

The Great Killing – Japan, 1964

The Great Killing is a brutal film. It’s also an overly complicated one, containing such a multitude of characters that trying to keep track of them all is practically an effort in futility. The film begins just after an unsuccessful revolt, which many suspect was brought down after a betrayal. In the film’s opening scene, local authorities are tasked with bringing those involved to justice, and if suspects resist arrest, they’re told, it is permissible to kill them. The round-up is shown during the opening credits, and its violence is surpassed by the interrogations that occur subsequently, one of which involves pouring scolding hot water on a prisoner to make him talk. As I said, brutal.

As usually happens in situations like these, authorities make little attempt to distinguish regular people from the conspirators, and innocent people are apprehended for doing nothing more than walking outside to see what the commotion is. In the chaos of the round-up, a young man named Geki Nakajima enters the home of a local samurai named Heishiro Jimbo and asks for refuge. Unaware what is going on just outside his door, Heishiro does not refuse the request, instead asking his wife to look outside and see if anything is afoot. Soon Nakajima and Heishiro are being marched away by government troops, and Heishiro’s wife lies dead in the street. Again, brutal.

Like many other films in the genre, The Great Killing then turns into an introduction of a variety of characters who will eventually make up a team that will make one last stand against the great evil in the film, Lord Sakai. Heishiro is eventually recruited by an enigmatic young woman named Miya; she then introduces him to Tomonojo Hoshino, a family man who openly took part in the rebellion; and later in a Buddhist temple, Miya runs into Sennosuke Kusaka, a slightly psychotic individual who believes he has been selected by a higher power to be the one who will take down Sakai. Eventually, a full team is resembled, much like it is in The Seven Samurai, a task is given, and they set off on what is likely a suicide mission. What separates The Great Killing from other films is the fact that the team, while being on the morally correct side, are not always the most honorable of characters, and this gives the film a level of complexity that other ones lack. For example, in one scene, we witness one of these character commit a truly despicable act; in the next, we are asked to root for him in combat.

It is not surprising that a film like The Great Killing ends in violence and turmoil, and for many viewers, this will be one of the film’s key draws. However, what worked best for me were the film’s calmer moments – the gentle early scene between Heishiro and his wife; the warm conversations involving Heishiro and his fallen samurai friend, Matanishin Asari; the warmth in the scenes featuring Hoshino and his family. Such scenes pulled me in, establishing characters that I empathized with, and in some cases, making what these characters do later on all the more shocking and terrible.

Adding to the film’s frenzied feel is director Eiichi Kudo’s amazing and varied camerawork. During conversations between the film’s more heroic characters, Kudo’s camera is close to the actors, making it seem as if we were standing right next to them as we would were we part of the conversation; during other scenes, the camera steps back, viewing events from a considerable distance and creating the impression that we are on the outside hearing conversations we are not supposed to be privy to. And then there are the film’s action scenes, in which Kudo appears to be operating a hand-held camera and running along with his actors. These scenes have a frantic feel to them, as the camera shakes and Kudo tries to keep up with the action. At times, we seem to see the battle from the perspective of one of Sakai’s foot soldiers; at other times, the perspective we see is that of a villager trying to get out of harm’s way. The technique will be frustrating to some, for it denies the film the focused tragic beauty that usually accompanies scenes in which characters make their last stand. Here, what we see could hardly be described as depicting beauty or something impressive. In fact, what it most conveyed to me was utter desperation, which seemed entirely appropriate.

In the end, The Great Killing is not an easy film to watch. It is unnecessarily convoluted, and at times, its characters appear to be talking to the audience rather than each other, the result of having too much going on and not enough time to convey it naturally. I found myself a bit frustrated by the film’s first half with its persistent introductions of characters and subplots. Still, the second half of the film makes up for that by making the stakes abundantly clear and fully illustrating the depths of the characters involved. I felt for Miya and Heishiro, and I understood his powerful assertion, “This is the world we created.” As the film makes clear, it’s not the world they choose to accept. (on DVD)

3 stars


*The Great Killing is in Japanese with English subtitles.  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Review - Coming Home (2014)

July 21, 2016

Coming Home – China, 2014

For the first twenty-five minutes, Coming Home is a wonder to behold, and then it stumbles, almost as if it is unsure what it is supposed to be and what it is trying to say. At times, it resembles a Nicolas Sparks film, filled with sentimentality and forced emotions; other moments may remind viewers of aspects of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, for while revenge is not necessarily on the mind of the film’s female protagonist, she seems to have an extremely rough time forming new memories. The role is played by the always reliable Li Gong, yet not even she can convey a purpose to what we are seeing, nor for that matter can she make the film’s heavy-handed and obvious symbolism feel less forced.

The film, directed by the legendary Yimou Zhang, is set in the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, and what it depicts about that time, while not being as novel as it once was, is still enormously powerful. In its early scenes, we learn that a man named Lu (Daoming Chen) has escaped from custody. His wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong), who has not seen him for the last ten years, is asked to pledge that if he contacts her, she will facilitate his re-apprehension. This is also asked of their teenage daughter, Dandan, who acquiesces immediately. Dandan (Huiwen Zhang) is not only a believer in the revolution but also a skilled ballet dancer with real potential for greatness. But there’s more to her pledge than that. She has no relationship with her father, no history to draw upon when she hears vile accusations leveled against him. This part of the film ends with the family divided both personally and physically, and the rift seems wide enough for it to be permanent. All of this, I was greatly moved by, and I was excited about seeing what would come next.

At this point, the film flashes forward in time. The revolution has ended unsuccessfully, Mao is dead, and China is attempting to put its fragile pieces back together. In fact, that could well be the metaphor for the remainder of the film, yet on a smaller scale. For the rest of the film, we watch as the family tries unsuccessfully to come to terms with the events of the past; all the while, the specter of the Cultural Revolution hangs over them, haunting their every move. One character in particular, Yu, is figuratively frozen in time, unable to remember events that occurred after the fateful day that concludes the first part of the film, and therefore neither she, Lu, or Dandan is able to forgive, forget, or move on. They seem stuck in time, prisoners to memories that no one should have, let alone have an active role in.

And it is this very theme that grounds the film and prevents it from becoming what it was clearly intended to be. In fact, the film begins to resemble the very thing that one character is advised to create, a sense of déjà vu. Scenes begin to be repetitive, questions that should be asked are unnecessarily put aside so that they can come up later on, and what should be a clearly understandable metaphor becomes muddled in tediousness. Yes, many people found it tough to move on during this time in history; yes, many also found it hard to forgive themselves for some of the choices they made; and yes there were those who took advantage of people who were emotionally vulnerable through sweet-sounding promises of assistance and additional resources. However, by making Yu mentally incapable of dealing with these things, the film has nowhere to go. It becomes a mystery into why she is that way, rather than an investigation into just what it takes for the family, a clear metaphor for the country as a whole, to forgive and move on. In other words, the film is a little like Groundhog Day, sans the ability to learn and mature from being able to repeat actions.

And so the film develops a pattern – try, fail, contemplate, try again, fail again, contemplate again. This goes on for more than an hour, and while revelations are indeed forthcoming – some of them quite tragic – they remain shrouded in intentionally vague recollections that offer more questions than answers, thus, necessitating further attempts to elicit information. And thus it repeats itself – try, fail, contemplate, try again, fail again, contemplate again. In truth, it’s a bit tiresome and much less interesting than the subject matter and director would lead you to expect it to be. Good performances all around, but a disappointment nonetheless. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

2 and a half stars

*Coming Home is in Mandarin with English subtitles.  

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Review - Green Mansions

July 14, 2016

Green Mansions – US, 1959

I’d say that films like Mel Ferrer’s Green Mansions are products of their times and wouldn’t be made today, yet the very week I finally got around to watching it, Lionsgate Pictures’ The Legend of Tarzan hit theaters. That’s right. In the twenty-first century, we have a new Tarzan movie. But I digress. Green Mansions was made in 1959, and the film can perhaps best be described as an odd, unholy amalgamation of the Tarzan films, Walt Disney cartoons, and an advertisement for South American tourism. The film will likely remind contemporary moviegoers of the silliest parts of Pocohantas, and viewers in 1959 likely saw parallels between the film and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s a film that is truly impossible to hate, yet also very difficult to like in its entirety.

The film follows the exploits of a young man named Abel, played by Anthony Perkins. Abel has seen his fair share of death and violence in Venezuela and decides that he must acquire a fortune in order to exact revenge on those that committed atrocities against foreigners there. During his search, he is captured by a local tribe and threatened with death. To survive, he tells them his life story, which the local people sit enraptured listening to even though there is little proof they can understand a single word he is saying. In fact, among the villagers, there is only one person who can understand English, a former missionary named Nuflo (Lee J. Cobb), who is the adopted son of the village chief (Sessue Hayakawa).

In one of the film’s most ridiculous moments, Abel finds himself in a beautiful forest being lured here and there by the siren calls of what he thinks is a bird. Eventually the sounds lead him to a young woman named Rima, who we later learn has been living there with her grandfather since she was four. Interestingly, the film never establishes whether it was actually Rima who made the bird sounds, which would make sense given the playful nature in which they were voiced, but not gel with anything that follows.

And just who do they get to play this female version of Tarzan? Why, the great Audrey Hepburn, of course, because nothing says woman of the jungle like the woman who won an Oscar playing an Italian princess in 1953. (In the interest of disclosure, I should also note that she was married to the director at the time.) The only question remaining is just how invested Hepburn will be in the role. Will she speak in broken English, a la Tarzan and the many comic versions of the character that followed, or will she play the character as if she had still gotten the kind of education that others could only dream of receiving? I’ll give you one guess. In fact, in the film, language is the great indicator of class and values. Those who speak no English or who speak a broken form of it are portrayed as violent, untrustworthy, and capable of murder. Since Hepburn’s character Rima speaks perfect English, she must therefore be a sympathetic character, and since Nuflo doesn’t, it is not hard to guess that he is the unscrupulous one.

For the first half an hour, the film concerns itself with establishing Abel as a man of noble convictions and great bravery, and it might have been fun to see what he would have done upon returning to Venezuela. However, the film sees him assigned to kill “the Daughter of Didi,” which is what the chief has taken to calling Rima. From there, audiences are treated to over thirty minutes of scenes resembling outtakes from earlier Disney films. We see Rima and Abel discussing the concepts of living forests and the value of all living creatures. In truth, I half expected for the animals to start talking back or for a magical tree to whisper, “Listen to your heart.” This section of the film even gives audiences a musical interlude, as Abel breaks into a song about the power of love and Rima looks at him admiringly from a distance. Their budding love is, of course, tested by Rima’s disapproving grandfather and interrupted by the arrival of Nuflo and his men. Their mission: to finish off Rima once and for all.

Films such as this one are often studies in duality. Here, the way Rima talks is stacked up against the way the other residents of the land do, and, with it, she is shown to be superior. Abel’s guitar solo is contrasted with the stereotypically crazy war dance of the villagers, and Rima’s grandfather, by being protective and concerned about Rima’s well-being, is shown to be a better father figure than Runi, the village chief, who seems only interested in sending his “sons” into battle. Also, Rima truly values the forest, while Nuflo seeks to burn it down in the pursuit of glory.

By the time, the film comes to its predictable conclusion, conveyed in a scene that is anything but logical or understandable, it has gone on so many detours that it is hard to know if this was what was intended or if it was the product of a handful of script doctors who through up their arms and accepted defeat. Still, it not easy to pan Green Mansions completely. Anthony Perkins gives the film a much better performance than the film deserves, and Audrey Hepburn does as well as she can with her role. However, there's only so much she can do with lines as clumsily-written as some of hers are. In fact, the main problem with the film is Dorothy Kingsley’s script. Too much of it does not fit today’s sentiments, and its insertion of a plot point involving Rima speaking to her dead mother (and praying to her) is more puzzling than intriguing. It’s one thing for Rima to believe that her deceased mother can hear her; it’s quite another for her grandfather to react as if her ghost were able to cast curses and punish wrongdoers.

In the end, Green Mansions is a classic example of a mixed bag, and to be honest, I had a feeling it would be going into it. So, why watch it, you might ask? I can answer that in two words, Sessue Hayakawa. Ever since I read a book about his career, I have been curious about his life and his films. Unfortunately, his role in this film, much like his role in Swiss Family Robinson, does not allow him to showcase much of his talents. Here, all he is called to do is act stoically and have a determined look on his face. It’s a crying shame that Hollywood couldn’t find more roles of substance for him. He deserved them. As for Green Mansions, it has simply not stood the test of time, and maybe that says something positive about us. (on DVD)

2 stars