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Pirosmani (1969)
If you like his paintings, here's one more.
5 April 2020
Niko Pirosmani (1862 - 1918) was a painter, who posthumously rose to be considered one of the most important artist figures of his native Georgia. He lacked formal training, and sold his works on cheap prices to bars and restaurants, where they hung and gradually made people more interested about the painter behind them. This is a film biography - "biopic" would fail describe it - about the artist and his work, as well as his home country and the times he lived in. It is the fifth directorial work by fellow Georgian Giorgi Shengelaia, and possibly his internationally most famous one. Shengalaia had actually begun his directorial career with a document about Pirosmani (1961), so coming into this film he already most definitely knew his stuff.

And there is a documentarist touch to this film. Every now and then we, as the audience, are shown a Pirosmani painting, without it having nothing to do with the narrative. "Narrative" may actually be a poor choice of words to use about the contents of this film. It is very freely constructed and lacks discipline, just as the paintings of the artist do. Calling this an artistic mood piece would not be far off, since the scenes we witness form a very loose whole, at best.

But this is also a visual triumph, and a well made film. For myself, Pirosmani's paintings possess a haunting quality. I think it's the way the eyes of the people and the animals gaze at the viewer. The paintings are simultaneously life-like and from a dream. I am obviously not an art historian, but I see a very recognizable touch in his works. The film pursues these visuals and becomes a painting itself. I thought the Georgian locations and people of the film were depicted very much in the spirit of Pirosmani, and a well-constructed narrative probably would not have been the best way to depict his world.

As a film, this is pretty slow and experimental, but a visual experience, it rewards you.
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Hamsun (1996)
"Controversial" would be an understatement.
3 April 2020
Knut Hamsun (1859 - 1952) was, alongside Henrik Ibsen, the most famous figure in Norwegian literature. Hamsun published works over an astonishing span of 70 years. He won the Nobel prize in literature in 1920, by which time he was probably his nation's most internationally famous citizen. This film mentions his glory days, but takes place afterwards. In the 1930's, when Hamsun was already an old man struggling with his hearing and possibly his mental capacities, he fell out of grace by supporting Nazi Germany. He wasn't an anti-Semite, but hated the imperialist UK so much as to align himself with Hitler. This reached a (very negative) peak when Germany occupied Norway in 1940, and the author supported the occupiers. This massive film is a depiction of Hamsun's downfall. The years before WWII, the occupation, and the subsequent final years in disgrace.

The film is an international production, between Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. It is directed by Swedish Jan Troell, and stars his oft-used actor Max von Sydow (also Swedish) as Hamsun, and Denmark's most famous actress Ghita Nørby as Marie Hamsun, the author's wife. The lead couple, who previously starred together in Bille August's "Den goda viljan" (1992), actually talk in their native languages, even though they play Norwegian characters. This is heavily audible for Scandinavian viewers, but you also get used to it really fast. Their acting abilities also make you want to let it slide. The rest of the cast is mostly Norwegian and German, depending on the characters they play. The film has an international feel to it, but the whole benefits from the larger budget, and the historical period looks believable.

Like so many great Scandinavian dramas, this is essentially a depiction of a troublesome marriage. It is Marie who first falls in love with Nazism, because it is shown to fill an emotional void in her life. When the traitorous Vidkun Quisling (played by the very evil-looking Sverre Anker Ousdal) finds out that his new fangirl is the wife of Norway's most famous writer, the Nazis take a quick interest in the man himself.

The film analyses the depth of the couple's guilt in a thorough manner. The running time of two and half hours allows us to go deep in their characters, which is of course supported by the intelligently structured screenplay and the fantastic performances. Max Von Sydow is fragile and tormented as Hamsun, a man past his prime who can't bring himself to act against the darkness that overcomes his nation. He struggles as he tries to believe that what he is doing is the right thing. This is one of the actor's finest performances outside of his Bergman roles. Ghita Nørby is likewise great as the manipulative Marie. The early scene where she works as her husband's translator and adds her own words to his, is possibly the best one to capsulate their complex relationship. The supportive cast is not fleshed out as well as the protagonists, but I did like the scene where Hamsun meets Adolf Hitler, played memorably by Ernst Jacobi. All in all, this is a fascinating account of history, a great character study and a nuanced drama.
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Crossroads (1928)
Director at crossroads.
2 April 2020
Kinugasa Teinosuke had started his directorial career in 1922, having first worked as an "onnagata", actor who specialized in female roles. After women were allowed to act on stage and in films - good decision by the way - Kinugasa moved behind the camera. Not much of his early works survive, but happily his two most famous silent pictures have done so. Kinugasa's first masterwork was the low-budget existential horror drama "Kurutta ippeji" (A Page of Madness, 1926). The film was critically acclaimed but not exactly a crowd-pleaser. Kinugasa followed it with "Jujiro" (Crossroads, 1928), a film that has a fitting English title. In his later years Kinugasa moved away from his early, experimental style to more traditional jidei-geki films. Though often good, they weren't as continuously exciting pieces of film-making, and one sometimes wishes that Kinugasa had remained this interesting an artist throughout his long career.

"Jujiro" tells a more traditional story than "Kurutta ippeji" but supports it with strong, nightmarish visuals. In this period film, Rikiya (Bando Junosuke) gets in a fight upon visiting a brother. He gets blind and believes that he has killed the other man. Rikiya gets a panic attack and escapes home to his sister Okiku (Chihaya Akiko). In order to save her brother who has committed a horrible crime, Okiku sacrifices herself and becomes a prostitute. This narrative is very typical for Japanese period films. What I liked best was that Kinugasa presents this scenario in a horrifying light. Or actually he presents it claustrophobic darkness. So many other directors, even good ones, treated narratives like this as pure melodrama. The audience is supposed to feel sad, but also acknowledge that this is how it sometimes goes. "Jujiro" is un-apologetically dark, a near-surreal trip into distant centuries.

The visuals and camera angles are constantly wonderful. Kinugasa manages to cram in so many wonderful shots, that the story-line is forced to take a secondary role in the viewing experience. And that's not a bad thing. Both lead actors were really good, with very expressive faces. As a movie, this is not as compact as "Kurutta ippeji", nor is it as experimental or historically important. But compare it to any other Japanese silent film from the 1920's, and it definitely appears as a visionary work by a talented director.
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Naruse's final silent.
31 March 2020
Naruse's final silent film "Kagirinaki hodô" (Street Without End, 1934) was produced by Shochiku, where the director spent his silent period though not for much longer. It has survived in complete form and while the plot-line is not a masterwork, the film offers fascinating glimpses into Japanese modernity of the 1930's, early Showa period. For myself, it was more enjoyable due to the cinematography, the locations, the culture and the fashion than for the narrative, which is pretty plain and superficial for the director.

The film is a lightweight melodrama about two waitresses, Sugiko (Shinobu Setsuko) and Kesako (Katori Chiyoko). Being modern girls, they work for a living. But this still being Japan, work is seen as a transitional period. They aren't quite sure what they want for the future. There's a talent scout from a movie studio who is interested in Sugiko, but it's her friend who would like to become an actress. Sugiko gets engaged with a guy, but then tragedy occurs. She is hit by a car, and the guy thinks she doesn't want him after all. Little "Love Affair" before "Love Affair" (1939). It's hard to see this in a completely melodramatic light when the man jumps to conclusions like that. Anyway, this gives Sugiko a chance to get to know the driver who hit her, and Kesako goes on to pursue the career thing. Both are in for some let-downs.

This film has a lively feeling to it. Though it's a melodrama by plot, the characters appear easy-going and relaxed. In one scene a couple goes to see "The Smiling Lieutenant" (1931) by Ernst Lubitsch, a director whose fanbase included most notable Japanese directors of the time. The women bounce between modernity and tradition, and these things aren't always black and white. The material isn't a prize winner, but Naruse does the best he can with it, and by 1934 he had developed into a fine storyteller with an eye for visuals as well. This is a pleasant watch for anyone interested in the time period, or the director.
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"Poland, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
25 March 2020
Paul Leni is a German director who is today best-known for the classic Conrad Veidt film "The Man Who Laughs" (1928). But that was towards the end of Leni's career: the director died quite young. He started his directorial career amidst WW1, and "Das Tagebuch des Dr. Hart" (The Diary of Dr. Hart, 1918) is, depending on the source, his first, second, or third film. It is a contemporary account of World War One, with a clearly propagandist endgame.

Dr. Robert Hart (Heinrich Schroth) is the quintessential German ideal, a man, whom everybody loves. Everybody except Count Bronislaw (Ernst Hoffmann) that is. He has his eye on the same woman, but they don't have the time to solve it, since the war breaks out. Bronislaw goes to serve the Russian armed forces, while Hart enlists as a field medic for the German side. Russian cossacks are destroying the Polish countryside, terrorizing the people and poisoning their wells. So the German heroes must save Poland by occupying it. Poland becomes independent, and Hart and Bronislaw becomes friends, just as their two nations should. Friends forever.

It is a curious historical product, to say the least. The propagandist tendencies are hammered in so hard, that it becomes impossible to enjoy the film as a drama. That is not to say that Leni is doing a bad job, director-wise. He manages to cram in some very nice shots, like the one of Dr. Hart nursing a wounded soldier on the roadside, as the faceless soldiers in the background march to battle. There is also explosions and some action sequences, which are directed fairly well. Character-wise this does not work, because the characters lack genuine personalities. They are just supposed to be "German", or "Polish", or "Woman".

The film tries to honor the important service provided by field medics, or at least the German ones. This goal gets a little bit lost, I feel, when the film starts to ponder the relationship between the nations. The depiction is very one-sided. Russians are shown as savages, and Germans as heroes. Poland owes its very existence to Germany, it appears. The film does not hold up, but it's interesting nevertheless.
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Can love triumph in the clash of the social classes?
24 March 2020
This Italian silent film was produced by Itala Film, a Turin based company which operated between 1905 and 1919, this possibly being their final production. It is directed by Eugenio Perego, who made 42 films between 1912 and 1929, and stars the wonderful Pina Menichelli, one of the great stars of Italy's silent cinema, whose career lasted from 1913 to 1925. It is an adaptation from a French novel very popular at the time, "Le Maître de forges" (1882) by Georges Ohnet. The novelist had died in 1918, so he didn't live to see the film. The novel being a classic societal love story, it has been filmed multiple times: in the United States (1914, 1917, 1933) in France (1933, 1948) again in Italy (1959), in Greece (1965, 1966, 1968), as well as in Turkey (1965, 1969). So you really can have your pick about which version you choose to watch, though none of them is particularly famous.

Not having seen the rest of them, you could definitely do a lot worse than this Italian silent. It tells the story in a way that is thorough, but not slow. It is shot well, it has nice close-ups, the scenery and the sets worked, and the acting is good. The film tells the story of Clara de Beaulieu (Menichelli), the daughter of a rich noble family, who is engaged with the love of her live, the duke of Bligny (Luigi Serventi). The family however goes broke, and in order to save them, Clara must instead marry Filippo Derblay (Amleto Novelli), who comes from a lower social class, but owns an iron factory. The film asks, can she be happy with someone like Filippo, can love triumph in a union divided by class differences?

The questions that the film ponders do not feel relevant or timely anymore, they are products of the 19th century literature. But that's fine. It's nice that this film has survived, and that it has received such a fantastic restoration. The visuals are appealing, and the story is told nicely. The best thing about the film is Pina Menichelli, who is a movie star in the classic sense of the word. It was enjoyable to watch her work, even if her acting was a tad too grandiose for current tastes. Big feelings must be played in a big way, after all.
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Earliest surviving film by Shimizu
23 March 2020
I have seen over a dozen films by Shimizu Hiroshi, the psychological realist and the scholar of childhood. This is the earliest surviving entry-point for us later audiences. By 1929, Shimizu had directed over a 30 films, of which only fragments and still photos (if that) exist. This obviously leads one to appreciate "Fue no shiratama" (Eternal Heart, 1929) more, even though it's not actually a great film, or even one that resembles the director's later renowned style.

The film tells the story of Toshie (Yagumo Emiko), a sensible and traditional girl who works as a stenographer in a firm. She is in love with the handsome Shozo (Takada Minoru), who unfortunately gets engaged with Toshie's sister Reiko (Oikawa Michiko). Reiko is nothing like her sister, she is a modern girl ("moga") who lives a very loose life and has casual relationships. Like many Japanese films of this kind, by having two such polar opposites for sisters, the film provides an argument about the effect of modernization to gender roles. From today's perspective, while both Toshie and Reiko have qualities that we view as normal and positive parts of everyday womanhood, neither is really a positive role model. The division of character traits is a bit too black and white for that.

I recently watched another early Shimizu that has survived, the two-part melodrama "Nanatsu no umi" (Seven Seas, 1931). Like that film, this has a modernized look, and lots of imagery that would appear americanized. However, though it's a very melodramatic story, "Eternal Heart" is not quite so scandalous. Only if you compare it to Shimizu's later, better films like "Ornamental Hairpin" (1941), does it seem plot-driven and loud. I liked the way the film looked, and I also liked the actors, though their characters weren't that interesting. Both Yagumo and Takada can be seen in a few early Ozu films. The storyline did not really do it for me, because so many pre-war Japanese films have told the same tale better. However, I am happy that this survives.
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Russia looks like California.
15 March 2020
This film is a fascinating piece of cultural history, since it is one of the first American films to depict the October revolution, and its affect on Russia. It's also a very amusing film to watch, since very little effort has been made in order for things to actually look like the October revolution, or Russia. The film is directed by Frank Lloyd, who would go on to direct the most famous version of "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935). Our leading lady is Geraldine Farrar, a famous opera singer who enjoyed a brief career as a moviestar from 1915 to 1920, which included the title roles in "Carmen" (1915) and "Joan the Woman" (1916), the latter being about Jeanne d'Arc. Her then-husband Lou Tellegen stars opposite her as the royal love interest.

Young Marcia Warren is an American who grows up in Tsarist Russia, because of her father's work. Already as a young girl (played by Mae Giraci) she meets the young prince Michael, and forms a plan to marry him. Michael claims this impossible, since he is a royal, and she is not, but Marcia explains that "Americans can do anything". So cute. They grow up into Farrar and Tellegen, and life leads them through different paths. "Prince Mike" would like to have Marcia on the side, but Marcia is too good of a person to mess around with a married man. Of course Mike's wife is treacherous, and we are led to root for them to end up together. An hour into the film, the revolution begins, and our characters begin their battle for survival, and try to escape to United States.

Like I said, this was an interesting watch, because of the unique perspective on Russian history. Though the film shows us violent acts done by the rebels, there are also positive sides to this revolution: because of it, Prince Mike is no longer a prince, and can marry a common girl like Marcia. That made me giggle. The filmmakers seem to have had very poor knowledge about the Russian revolution of reality, and the political context is left unexplored. As a consequence, this American production is one of the most romantic "October 1917 films" you can find.

The production quality is not very high. The locations used for Russian countryside look nothing like Russia. They look like California. The mansions of the rich Russians are furnished in a European manner, and the cities, of which we see very little, also did not resemble the real Russia. It would not have been hard for the movie to steal a few establishing shots from documents about Moscow or St. Petersburgh. There are limits to the willing suspension of disbelief, and those limits come across quickly in "The World and Its Woman", which, by the way, is a terrible title.

The story-line is funny, though it's meant as a drama. The narrative isn't told very well, but the film is an interesting curiosity. Farrar is good as the lead, but husband-Lou as Prince Mike was another aspect so not-Russian, that his presence made the film worse. All in all, this is interesting and worth checking out with a bunch of friends who like history, and can thus appreciate the historical errors of the film. If you want to see a better romance set during the Russian revolution, I would recommend Jacques Feyder's British film "Knight Without Armour" (1937), starring Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat.
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"No shame to be an American", says British film.
15 March 2020
This romantic British drama-comedy is directed by French-born American director George Fitzmaurice, and is based on a play by Indiana writer Booth Tarkington. The play was previously turned into a hit film by Cecil B. DeMille, in 1914. It's a weird subject matter for British films to tackle, since the play compares the American culture to that of continental Europe. There are no British characters, the male lead James Kirkwood is American, and the female lead Anna Q. Nilsson is from Sweden. The film, of which a copy survives in Amsterdam with Dutch inter-titles, is an interesting piece of cultural history, but not a very good movie.

Genevieve Simpson (Nilsson) is a girl from Kokomo, Indiana, who has just inherited a fortune. Being part of the nouveau riche, she and her brother (Geoffrey Kerr) take an interest in Europe, a place where royal people live. Whereas their native Kokomo was a good place for them to live when they were middle-class, now Europe is the appropriate place to be. They travel to Italy, which makes Daniel Pike (Kirkwood) sad cause he was apparently in love with Genevieve, or Genevieve with him. The opening of the film establishes things quite poorly, but we have no time to mourn over that, since we are already in Italy. A "prince" (Norman Kerry) starts romanticizing Genevieve, who is very appealing with all that money. Not willing to quit quite so easily, Daniel travels from Kokomo to Italy, and befriends an old man, who is a king, in disguise.

What's interesting about this film, are the concepts that people hold about United States and Europe. America is still seen as a new country, that lacks high culture, and where people are folksy. Europe is shown as a place, full of rich history, and royal people. The film tries to tell a tale about the American self-esteem and cultural jealousy, with a positive message about honesty and goodness being more important virtues, than long heritage. The aim is positive, but the end result is not. The film is a bit offensive to both Americans and Europeans, convenient, since it was made by the British. Americans are shown as simplistic, and are often the target of the joke, since the presentation is a caricature. Europeans are shown as snobby, and villainous. None of the characters felt two-dimensional, or interesting. The acting isn't very good either. The film was shot on location in Italy, and the scenery is quite nice.

I don't like the message of the film, which seems to be "who cares about Europe when we have Kokomo". It's very resonate of America's foreign policy of staying clear from European matters, but I don't really care for films that denounce the positive aspects of cultural interaction. This film shows that Americans are like this, and Europeans are like that, and then when it has presented the divide, is happy about things remaining this way. It's dull. The plot-line is very predictable, as is the humor.

Fitzmaurice directed several better films, and Alfred Hitchcock - who designed the title sequence for the film, in one of his first film assignments - would himself go on to make a few better ones, as well.
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Teshigahara's final Abe adaptation is under-seen and under-appreciated.
13 March 2020
Teshigahara Hiroshi is world-famous for his trilogy of films based on novels by Abe Kobo: "Otoshiana" (Pitfall, 1962), "Suna no onna" (Woman of the Dunes, 1964) and "Tanin no kao" (The Face of Another, 1966). These atmospheric and mysterious films mixed dark themes from literature and political history to a cinematic approach, which was part of the Japanese New Wave. For myself, they are all among my favorite films. But Teshigahara as a director is not a household figure like Kurosawa, Masumura, Ichikawa Kon, or Kobayashi Masaki. There a two reasons for this. First is, that after those films, Teshigahara did not make many more, even though he lived until 2001. The second reason is, that his remaining work in television, documentaries and feature films did not at all resemble the style of the films, with which he broke through. "Rikyu" (1989) is a wonderful example. A glorious film, which stylistically you would never connect to "Pitfall".

But actually Teshigahara did make one more adaptation of Abe after the three films, "Moetsukita chizu" (The Man Without a Map, 1968). The film has been largely ignored for years, and when the other three are published on DVD, this usually does not accompany them. Which is a crying shame, if you ask me. "The Man Without a Map" is not a film for everyone. Most people who liked the controlled amount of chaos and confusion in the three previous Abe films, are going to find this to be an overdose. With the other films, you had a sense of narrative, even if there were peculiar segments to it. The stylistic black and white cinematography also supported the general atmosphere. "The Man Without a Map" is in color, and completely dismisses the conservatism of having a narrative. This film is an outrageous experiment, a mystery that defies logical approaches. It is a movie destined for financial failure and a cult status.

The film was produced by Katsu Productions, the production company of "Zatoichi" star Katsu Shintaro, who plays the lead of the film. If you come to watch this film expecting "usual" Teshigahara, you will be let down. If you come to watch this film expecting usual starring vehicle for Katsu, you will be demanding your money back. Katsu plays a detective, who has been hired to search for a lady's missing husband. The key element is the search, as nobody seems too eager to find him. Katsu interviews a bunch of people, who question why a fairly successful mid-level manager like that would feel the need to disappear. The investigation is from the start more of a philosophical problem, than an actual crime narrative. We ponder the reasons for disappearing, how to do so, and what the effect of it is to a community, or does it in fact have no effect? Who was the man who disappeared, or does it even matter? Who is the detective himself? Are we all disappearing gradually? If so, why is this, where do we go, and where are we now?

Yes, it's that kind of a picture. Katsu's character soon discovers, that this case is almost impossible to solve, since nobody is telling him the complete truth, and nobody is that interested either. Atsumi Kiyoshi plays the only one who wants to talk to the detective at length, but he has his own reasons, and the detective does not like his company. As the movie progresses, it becomes more and more a mental journey. The horror element is not as strong as in the previous Teshigahara films, but it's there, and certainly this is a film that benefits, if you watch it in a dark room with your 6th cup of coffee. It's not trippy in a 60's way, though it's at times very weird. Some will find this utterly boring, but I found it very intriguing and thoroughly enjoyable. I laughed several times, and several scenes kind of reminded of later works by David Lynch or David Cronenberg, both favorites of mine. Also, like many Abe adaptations, this heavily resembles Kafka in atmosphere and concept.

The cinematography is really the star of the film, as every scene is shot in ways, that contribute to the surreal atmosphere. The scenes among Katsu's journey change from one to another, without any progress happening. Yet, the scenes themselves were very memorable. The night-time fight scene in the sandpit, Katsu fantasizing about covering a lady in fallen leafs, the strange conversations with Atsumi... they all formed this strange whole, which either grabs you or doesn't. For me this is Katsu Shintaro's most interesting film. I like his jidai-geki films, but this is so ambitious, so fearless. Katsu is best known for playing Zatoichi the blind swordsman, and Atsumi Kiyoshi is best known for playing Tora-san, the lovable tramp in the world's longest film franchise. Seeing them two together in a film, and that film being THIS, was an experience. I can not NOT love this.

Most people will hate this film, or turn it off after 20 minutes. Personally, I watch 100 bad films just to find one film like "The Man Without a Map". They're rare, and should be cherished.
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"You know I can only love healthy things."
11 March 2020
This German melodrama is by Austrian director Emmerich Hanus, who by 1918 had several years of experience. He had started in 1915, and would continue directing until 1930, even making a post-war comeback of two films in his native Austria. This film is not a good introduction to his work. By this I don't mean, that this film doesn't express the general style and quality of his filmography - I don't know him well enough to claim anything of the sort. I mean to say that this film would be a terrible introduction to any director.

I really like melodramas, I can enjoy the good ones, and often have fun with the bad ones. It's difficult to do either with "Die Liebe der Maria Bonde" (The Love of Maria Bonde, 1918). If you take the film literally, the narrative is alarming. Yet it's surprisingly hard to have a laugh either. The film is about a family with three daughters, all grown-up but none of them married. The oldest daughter Gunne (Eva Maria Hartmann) is engaged to Martin (Emmerich Hanus). When Gunne falls ill, Martin performs "the switch", and turns his affection towards the middle sister, Maria (Martha Novelly). The man does explain it very well, noting that it is commonly known, that he can only love healthy things. Boy, what a catch.

But Maria seems to honestly find this acceptable, and secretly marries this Romeo. When Gunne hears about this, she can no longer fight the illness. Then Maria becomes sick, and starts to get increasingly jealous, as she, too, has a younger sister...

I think a good melodrama should have a plot-line more dramatic than our everyday reality, but should still feel relatable. The morals and norms should be somewhat similar to reality. This film is terrible. None of the characters feel the least bit realistic, even by 1918 standards. I love the fact that the director cast himself as the sister-switching Martin, that did get a laugh out of me, though his performance isn't very good. What I did not like about how this story was framed was that Maria was shown to be the sinful person, and not Martin so much. Maria is the one who has to pay, not the guy who thinks it's okay to plough through a family like this. Upon watching this, I honestly did not know, how I should react. Should I be mad, or should I be amused. Neither really happened, and I did not get much from this film.

Aesthetically, the film is very basic. Camera work is static and uninteresting. None of the actors really gave much of a performance. Weirdly, there is a circus number in the middle of the film, which felt out-of-place, all things considered.
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Nippon tanjô (1959)
Think you know Japan? Get ready for the campy origin story.
9 March 2020
I waited years for an opportunity to see this films. Any aficionado of Japanese cinema probably would, as the Toho mega-production stars half of Japan's greatest actors and actresses. So when the opportunity finally came, I really wanted to like this film. I really wanted to get sucked into its world. After watching the film, which is three hours in duration, I was left perplexed. Not only, because so much of the plot-line is so difficult to comprehend, but because so much money had been invested to a production, to which so little thought had been given.

The film is called "Nippon tanjo". This literally means "The birth of Japan", though the film has been distributed to west as "The Three Treasures". The distributed copy cut the running time to two hours, and whereas usually that qualifies as butchery of a film, "Nippon tanjo" could actually benefit from such maneuvering, as cutting down the strangest bits, and the long gaps where nothing of substance occurs, would make the film much more watchable.

Anyways. This film is based on the legends of "Kojiki" and "Nihon shoki", which are the two oldest texts from Japan. They relate how the world, the Japanese archipelago, the imperial line of Japan and the Shinto faith were born. This film has been called the Japanese equivalent to Cecil B. DeMille's biblical spectacles, and in some ways it's an accurate way to frame it. The film starts with the gods creating the earth, and then turns into the story of the hero protagonist, played by Mifune Toshiro. He is a prince, who is accused of a crime he didn't do, so he has to go on a journey, to prove that he is a good person, and also to kill monsters. Every now and then we get scenes with the gods, confusing the narrative exponentially.

I personally like the romanticized notions of nations filming their historical origins, even if they take artistic liberties with these narratives. I think a narrative, where Mifune as a prince kills monsters could potentially be very watchable. Yet I did not find "Nippon tanjo" to be watchable. The film has a wonderful cast, everybody from Tanaka Kinuyo to Nakamura Ganjiro, and from Hara Setsuko to Shimura Takashi. It is directed by the experienced Inagaki Hiroshi. But the screenplay, by two talented writers Kikushima Ryûzô and Yasumi Toshio, fails to resonate in almost every way. None of the actors receive a character to which they can breath life into. These are all historical ideals, and not relatable three-dimensional personas. The film is superficial even more than DeMille's biblical works. I felt much of the cast, especially Hara Setsuko in one of her weirder turns, is absolutely wasted on this project.

The film also refuses to get going. As a narrative, it is stale and uninteresting. It is also confusing, even if one is somewhat aware of the legends to which it is based on. The campy aesthetics used in the scenes among the gods reminded me of 1960's "Star Trek". They are really weird for weird sake, at least visually. And the scenes in the film go on forever. Also, after so much anticipation, the monsters aren't that well produced either, and the multi-headed sea snake looked kind of lame.

I don't know what to really praise in this production. I like the idea of this film, I just thoroughly did not care for the execution of the idea.
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Oh, the things that used to pass for horror...
6 March 2020
Seven years before Benjamin Christensen directed his masterful "Häxan" (1922), Danish cinema was already toying with horror subjects. Robert Dinesen was a prolific director who made 85 films between 1911 and 1929, both in his native Denmark, and in Germany, the leading film industry of silent Europe. "Dr. X." (1915) is horror-themed drama, with some influence from Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye's "The Student of Prague" (Der Student von Prag, 1913). It is another tale of morals, with a clear lesson and one-dimensional characters. It's much less of a "horror film" than "The Student of Prague", but certainly carries some interest to historians.

The film is about two doctors, who are competing to find an important tonic. Amusingly, though they are shown to be competitors, they are working in the same room. Everybody seems to think that Dr. Felix (Carlo Wieth) is the man for the job. His research is far more advanced than that of Dr. Voluntas (Gunnar Tolnaess). But deep down, things aren't so sunshiny for Dr. Felix. He is a lonely man, in love with Margaret (Johanne Fritz-Petersen). So Felix confides to Voluntas, who promises he will have the woman he craves for, if Felix does everything Voluntas tells him. This leads you expect a darker narrative than what we are in for, since Voluntas begins by taking his buddy to beauty parlor, and giving him a make-over. Oh, the horror...

The general idea is, that now that the great scientist is chasing a lady, he ignores his work, and Voluntas gets the advantage. Many early horror tales resembled this one. The righteous man straying from the good path, evil thus triumphing. It's not terribly unlike "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", though that is a better narrative. The lesson of the film seems to be, "be happy with your lot". That is not very nice, since certainly we should all have time to pursue both scientific achievements and pretty ladies. The dualism of the film, the easy divide to good and bad, really lessens the psychological merit of the narrative. Also, the film initially tells you that the doctors are trying to create an important tonic, and only in the end is it mentioned, that the tonic is the cure for cancer. This turns the narrative around for the audience (though not for the characters), since this is too important a subject to be tackled in such a half-assed manner.

So in the end, this movie has little horror and much moralizing. The cinematic merit is not anything out of the ordinary, since by 1915 D.W. Griffith, Victor Sjöström and Yevgeni Bauer (just to name a few) were all telling narratives more coherent and better executed. For hard-core fans of silent cinema, this might be an interesting curiosity, but you can certainly find better silent horror-dramas.
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203 kochi (1980)
War epic, that failed to make an impact.
4 March 2020
A little context first. Mifune and Nakadai previously starred in "Battle of the Japan Sea" (Nihonkai daikasen, 1969), a movie about the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The film painted the political context of the war nicely, but failed to create two-dimensional characters. Mifune later reprised his role as famous naval officer Togo Heihachiro in "Battle Anthem" (Nihonkai daikasen: Umi yukaba, 1983), which told the narrative from the perspective of the young soldiers who fought in the war, but lacked proper contextualization. It was directed by Masuda Toshio, who helmed this movie three years prior. "Port Arthur" (203 kochi, 1980) is in many ways the fusion of the two other films. It gives you the historical background and the politics, but also a youthful protagonist (Aoi Teruhiko) and a sappy love -story. Both Nakadai and Mifune are present, but neither is playing Togo this time around.

Whereas Masuda's "Battle Anthem" told the story of the battle in Tsushima Strait, which brought an end to the war, this film concentrates on the beginning part, and the bloody conflict in "Port Arthur". We begin with the politicians, who see no other alternative, but to go to war with Russia. As was the case in "Battle of the Japan Sea", the colonial ambitions of Japan are left unmentioned, and Japan is only going to war, because if Russia manages to annex Korea, they threaten Japan as well. The film starts with a Russian firing squad executing two Japanese, so this is at times very old-fashioned propaganda.

The main character of the film is a young teacher and an officer played by Aoi Teruhiko. He is a lover of Russian culture (Tolstoy especially), and he is crushed that he is now forced to fight against Tolstoy's countrymen, people with whom he shares the same faith. He is also in love with a lady, and there is a super-traditional "promise me you come back" -plotline, which felt endless. The film is more anti-war than the two other ones I mentioned, but the traditionality still is a burden to the whole.

Even though this is a war that rarely gets depicted in cinema, the scenes are so basic and even cliché, that everything starts to feel to familiar. Perhaps we are also talking about a war, to which the filmmakers did not have a personal stance. The Japanese have directed dozens of great anti-war war-films about WWII, since everybody had a personal relationship to it, as well as memories of the hard times. This is not the case with The Russo-Japanese War. This film feels remote and general, not well thought-out and important. And this definitely should be two hours, and not three.

It's a shame that none of these three films hit home. This one comes maybe the closest, though the romance does water it down a bunch. Nakadai is good whenever he is on screen, as this tired admiral who worries about his men dying in the battle. Mifune's role as the emperor is much smaller. All in all, if you are interested about the time-period, you might want to check this, otherwise, maybe not.
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Meoto zenzai (1955)
Girl, you can do so much better...
3 March 2020
Toyoda Shiro's award-winner "Marital Relations" (Meoto zenzai, 1955) is one of the director's many adaptations from literary works, this one from a novel by Oda Sakunosuke. The film was quite popular with critics, and received both a sequel and a remake in the 1960's. I recently viewed another Oda adaptation "Firefly Light" (Hotarubi, 1958), by director Gosho Heinosuke. Based on these two films, I seem to have trouble tuning into the correct frequency of the Oda adaptations, as their intended tone continuously escapes me.

"Marital relations" could be a nice starring vehicle for actress Awashima Chikage. The plot-line fits that purpose. Awashima plays Choko, a daughter of a working class family, who makes her living as a geisha in the Japan of 1932/1933. Choko has just hooked up with Ryukichi (Morishige Hisaya), the spoiled son of a rich family who leaves his sick wife and teenage daughter to be with her. Because the new love interest comes from an upper class, he is not a practical sort, and can't really do any work. So Choko returns to her work as a geisha and supports her man, which becomes increasingly difficult when the man starts spending all of her hard-earned money...

There is certain universality to a narrative, where a hooker with a heart of gold meets the prodigal son. There could be potential for both drama and comedy, but this never chooses one over the other. Comically, the scenario brought to mind Billy Wilder's "Irma la Douce" (1963), but the overall dark atmosphere and desperation of the characters stops this from being funny. And for a drama this is really mismatched. Awashima is doing her best as Choko, but Morishige Hisaya seems to be from a different film entirely. Because of his hair-cut, he appeared almost like a "Tora-san from hell", if Tora-san was a cold-hearted man who did not care for anybody but himself. There is no balance between the two, and the husband is such a piece of work, that the audience isn't rooting for them to stay together. Since they aren't married, they aren't forced to do that either.

I think there were lots of interesting themes that were under-analyzed, such as Choko's troubles being a homewrecker, which are now and again mentioned, but get sidetracked whenever there is a more comedic scene. Interestingly, the film features a sequence of "amusing domestic violence". It is amusing, because it's the wife beating up the husband, that's amusing, right?

All in all, this film did not really work for me. There are many better ones dealing with similar themes, whether they be comedies or tragedies. The duration of two hours did not help the film either.
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Battle Anthem (1983)
A more youthful perspective on the Russo-Japanese War.
2 March 2020
Mifune Toshiro previously played Japanese naval hero Togo Heihachiro in Maruyama Seiji's "Battle of the Japan Sea" (Nihonkai daikasen, 1969), a large-scale production, that offered a general outlook of the Russo-Japanese War (1904 - 1905). Mifune reprises the role in "Battle Anthem" (Nihonkai daikasen: Umi yukaba, 1983). The film has a different perspective. Instead of depicting the diplomatic players, as the previous film did, this gives the central attention to the young soldiers, who fought in the war, as well as Japan's decisive victory in Tsushima Strait.

Though neither of these films really clicked for myself, I found this to be the better one, despite it being nowhere near as famous as the predecessor. At least this film paints characters that the audience comes to know, and shows what it was like to be a Japanese soldier at time. Then again, if you come to watch this film without any historical background about that particular war, you may get a little lost, as this film is not going for a thorough contextualization as "Battle of the Japan Sea" did.

Unlike the previous film, this one has a romance. I did not care for it, as it starts as pure harassment, and then turns into melodrama. Also, if you are a Mifune fan, you are probably are going to enjoy "Battle of the Japan Sea" much more, since he doesn't have nearly as much screen-time in "Battle Anthem". Togo is also a character so widely admired, that Mifune's two performances as this man are one-dimensional, and even stale. Mifune does not get to show his versatility as an actor, but instead just reads his lines like a good boy.

If you are not terribly interested in Japanese war films, I wouldn't really recommend either of these films. The Japanese have made so much better films about World War II and other conflicts in the country's long history.
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Too much narration. Too much nationalism.
2 March 2020
The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) is an interesting subject for a variety of reasons. In terms of naval history, it was a game-changer, a period of transition that saw the modernization of the battle equipment, and worked as a prelude for World War I. In terms of the end result it was also interesting, as the underdog Japan won it, causing widespread rebellion within the Russian Empire. Since the Japanese of the 1960's could not really make films that glorified their country's more recent military history, it was logical for them to return to the days of Togo Heihachiro, the country's great naval hero.

Maruyama Seiji directed a number of war films during his career, and by 1969 he had also directed some that included Mifune Toshiro, who leads an all-star cast as Togo. Like many Japanese war films, including "Japan's Longest Day" (Nihon no ichiban nagai hi, 1967), this film tries to paint a half-documentary assessment of the events in the war, by featuring a variety of characters in different locations, and a narrator to explain away the rest. Whereas the solution worked for that picture, it becomes an annoyance in this one. The narrator is present far too often, and the film fails to follow the classic rule of "show, don't tell". This film tells you, and through that it may put you to sleep. The changing location and different characters did help to see the bigger picture of the war, but also affected the character development. There isn't any. These characters aren't deep, they are cardboard-copies of historical persons, who are treated respectfully, but not portrayed as interesting individuals. Then again individualism wasn't really Japan's thing at the time.

This film is informative, and the contextualization is thorough. Yet the way its told is also a bit too nationalistic for my blood. Japan is told to have started the war, because Russia tightened their grip on Manchuria, but Japan's own colonial interests are left unmentioned. Also whereas the Japanese films about World War II are nearly always anti-war, you can hardly say the same about this, though people are shown to die.

Though the historical subject fascinates me, I found this film to be a bore. I love the actors, but not one of them is bringing their A-game to this production. Mifune is one-sided as Togo, Nakadai's adventures in the Swedish embassy felt like filler, it's not right to have the peaceful Ryu Chishu as a military officer, and many of the less famous actors had very little character traits. All in all, I would read a good historical book instead.
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Arme Lena (1918)
For love, or for money?
1 March 2020
"Arme Lena" (Poor Lena, 1918) is a light-weight German film that premiered on November 1. 1918, 10 days before the ending of World War I. It offers the audience sunshiny escapism, but also a moral. The film is by director Otto Rippert, who directed 64 films between 1913 and 1925, none of them well remembered.

The film has four acts, and is about a dancer Lena (Ressel Orla), who wins 10.000 in the lottery, and goes on holiday to a seaside resort. There she meets a painter (Kurt Ehrle), and they have a romance that advances very quickly. Unfortunately the man is only after Lena's money.

This film is very basic, and offers no surprises. We have all seen the same morality play done better by later film-makers, for instance William Wyler's classic "The Heiress" (1949). The two stars are nice looking people, but can't keep this film interesting for 45 minutes. The film's sunny reality really doesn't represent the Europe of 1918 at all, but possibly relays a message that there has been enough war, and it is time things returned peaceful.
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Okamoto's epic is informative, but also slightly misleading through its subjectivity.
29 February 2020
Okamoto Kihachi's "Nihon no ichiban nagai hi" (Japan's Longest Day, 1967) is an epic film made to honor the 35th anniversary of the Toho Studios. Based on actual history, the film relates the ending of World War II from the Japanese perspective: the final 24 hours before Hirohito's famous radio speech. With a running time of 157 minutes, the film takes its time to paint a thorough portrait of this important day, and the Japanese mentality at the time. We are introduced to dozens and dozens of characters, and the star-studded cast includes many of Japan's most famous actors.

There is a lot of merit to this film. At times, it feels almost like a documentary, and the audience gets a very detailed look into the discussions surrounding Japan's decision to surrender. Though the film is long, it is never boring, and Okamoto never loses his grip on the narrative either. This director sometimes - especially in chambara films - has trouble keeping his films cohesive in style: many of Okamoto's films juxtapose entertainment and serious subject matters, and this does not always work for him, as it can lead to the films becoming inconsistent viewing experiences. That does not happen here. Okamoto is serious through and through, but also manages to abstain from preaching. The number of different perspectives in the film is admirable, and also increases its resemblance of the similar-sounding predecessor "The Longest Day" (1962), which was about the Allied invasion of Normandy.

However, the film's Japanese perspective also translates itself into subjectivity, which makes some elements of the film thematically misleading. In the aftermath of the war, during the American occupation, the Japanese could not make war films. When they returned to the subject in the 1960's, it was a bit of a challenge. Like any nation, Japan wanted to honor their fallen soldiers, but also to denounce the war. After the war, the Japanese majority started to believe, that the war had been caused by a small group of militarists within the country's leadership. This eased the atmosphere, as it was viewed that the majority of Japanese people had nothing to feel guilty about. This kind of black and white division neglects the general attitudes held by the people before the war, the heavy nationalism that lead to imperialism, and the Japanese way of considering themselves better than their surrounding nations and thus entitled to annex territories from them. The division into good characters and bad ones is very much visible in "Japan's Longest Day". Much of the government officials in the film are portrayed as sensible and yearning for peace. The prime minister Suzuki - who was anti-war in real life, as well - is portrayed by Ryu Chishu, actor known for his roles as wise father figures in the films of Ozu. The government is shown to be clean, and thinking what is best for the people. To counter this, there is a small group of militarists who oppose the notion of surrendering. They are shown to be hot-headed, and dumb. I know the film is based on reality, but this kind of a divide between good and bad characters does not feel realistic. The film's finest performance is by Mifune Toshiro as Japan's minister of war, because his character is shown to be nuanced. He is torn between his loyalty to the emperor and his worry about the soldiers coping to the situation. In the scenes between Mifune and Ryu, the general atmosphere of defeat gets its finest presentation.

Another issue with the subjectivity is one that plagues many Japanese war films. The film shows us the suffering of the Japanese people during the war, but fails to mention the suffering caused by them. Also, in the narration by Nakadai Tatsuya, it is noted that the peace enjoyed by Japan in the present day, was earned by the soldiers who died in the war. Again, this is a nice sentiment for the fallen, but it would ring more true to the international audience, had Japan not been the aggressor who initiated the war.

All in all, the flaws are minor, and are pretty understandable: of course a Japanese film is going to be Japanese with its perspective. The film is admirably anti-war, as are most Japanese war films. And as it should be.
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Battle Royale (2000)
Passable action film. Very good satire. Fascinating documentary.
16 February 2020
Fukasaku Kinji's "Battle Royale" (2000) is one of the most widely seen live-action features of modern Japanese cinema. It is a film that has legions of fans, but like, say, "Fight Club" (1999), many of those fans aren't looking for deeper meanings within the narrative, or maybe aren't even aware that there are such to be found. And indeed, for some young people - and even fellow reviewers - this film might be interesting merely because of all the shocking violence, and girls in sexy school uniforms.

Long before "The Hunger Games", "Battle Royale" painted a narrative about a dystopian future where teenagers are forced to fight to the death. 42 class-mates are taken to a remote island, where they have three days time to kill each other. Everything is allowed, and only the winner gets out alive. We see the teenagers' efforts of surviving this gory reality, as the clock starts ticking.

Now, a narrative like this will absolutely worry some parents, even prompting some to fear for copycat -behavior in real life. After all, it's a film were the deaths of innocent schoolchildren are shown to be entertaining. But this is not a film that should be shown to audiences, who read it literally. "Battle Royale" as an action film is passable at best, but its true merits are to be seen by viewing it as a satire, or even a documentary (if not a literal one).

The film is clearly a product of its time and shows much of the mentalities, that haunted Japan of year 2000. After the bursting of the economic bubble, the hopes of Japanese people for the country's future started to turn more pessimistic. No longer a future superpower, Japanese culture started to feel stale and downward. The culture - including cinema - was no longer booming, birth rates dropped, and the general atmosphere was plagued by different worries about the state of the modernized society. Children were viewed as lazy as well as lacking ambition and respect for their elderly. In a society like this, it is easy to see a dystopian work like "Battle Royale" becoming popular.

The film documents the national state of mind in a fascinating way, but even if you aren't into all that sociology behind the scenes, you might enjoy the satirical edge of the film. It makes fun of Japanese popular culture, and reality television. Its shock value comes with an absolute desire to agitate, and as it proceeds, it becomes more and more amused by its own existence. It is not a film that takes itself seriously, and neither should you. My favorite part of the film was Kitano Takeshi's hammy performance as the former teacher turned project leader. He is having so much fun in this film, and absolutely chews the scenery.

Though it might at first appear a young and energetic work, the director Fukasaku had actually directed films for 40 years. He died shortly after directing the sequel to this film. I have seen many Fukasaku films, and while all aren't as interesting, or don't have the time capsule-ish value of this film, it is not among the director's best works. It is interesting partly, because it has become so popular, but it is really not representative of his whole filmography, which also includes serious and more prestigious works, as well as pure exposition. "Battle Royale" also goes on for much too long, and the satirical edge of the film would be more easy to spot, were this film considerably tighter. It would have been so easy to edit this, too, simply by having fewer students in the original premise. Say, 30 instead of 40?

This will definitely provoke different reactions. Myself I did not love it, but laughed every once in awhile, especially due to Kitano's presence.
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Another enjoyably quirky film from the surreal Obayashi
15 February 2020
Most international viewers are familiar with director Obayashi Nobuhiko primarily through his 1977 cult classic "Hausu". His often surreal touches are visible in the narrative of "Tenkôsei" (I Are You, You Am Me / Transfer Student, 1982) as well, though they aren't used as abundantly. In this film, the director is not simply trying to confuse his audience, but to also use his narrative choices to form a meaningful tale about two people coming to understand one another better. The film, adapted from a novel by Yamanaka Hisashi, was obviously an important project for Obayashi, since he chose to return to this subject again in 2007.

Set in a small town, this film is the tale of a boy and a girl, teenagers Kazuo (Omi Toshinori) and Kazumi (Kobayashi Satomi). Through an accident, they switch bodies and have to continue their lives in the other's shoes. It is never explained why this happens, you just have to go with it. Initially, the two don't like each other much, but through time they gain perspective, and a more compassionate understanding of gender roles and equality.

The film is mostly a comedy, and a fun one too. The concept is original and entertaining, and the narrative very loose, giving way for comedic situations instead of plot devices. The best thing about this film is Kobayashi Satomi's fantastic performance, one of the best I have ever seen by a teenager. She genuinely feels like a boy trapped into a body of a girl. Her mannerisms were fantastic. Omi Toshinori is good too, though because he plays the reversed role of a girl in a boy's body, the screenplay has him sobbing a bit too much.

The film has several good points about the upbringing of boys and girls, and the double standards that these attitudes contain. The film also campaigns for higher individualism, and often views gender norms as a prison, or as an obstacle for the characters to overcome. It is quite funny to see the two of them trying to fit in, and getting to see all the everyday absurdities that go with being a boy/a girl.

It's not perfect, and personally I felt the film overstayed its welcome. The film would have benefited from a little editing, though the relaxed tempo also supports the narrative. The remake that Obayashi made 25 years later is actually the longer of the two. All in all, an enjoyable ride.
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Frantz (2016)
Not as good as "Broken Lullaby" (1932)
14 February 2020
"Frantz" is director Francois Ozon's loose re-working of "Broken Lullaby" (1932), a rarely seen film by Ernst Lubitsch based on a play by Maurice Rostand. The original was an atypical work for Lubitsch, a director known for his witty comedies. "Broken Lullaby" was a serious depiction of regret, and a pacifist manifesto. Between the two world wars it was also timely. 84 years later (!) Ozon is a bit late to join the conversation about Franco-German relations, but his version is going for a universalist spin of the narrative.

I am not altogether against remakes, and if the original film has become obscure, newer re-tellings might bring it exposure. "Broken Lullaby" is a good film, but not a masterpiece, and hence it is a work that could benefit from a well-thought-out second stab by a capable director. However, if the viewer has seen the original, it affects the viewing experience of "Frantz", as Ozon tries to frame it as more of a mystery narrative than Lubitsch, whose film was tied closer to the perspective of the male lead.

The film is set in 1919, in a small town in Germany. A mysterious Frenchman (Pierre Niney) has been bringing flowers to the grave of Frantz, a soldier who died in the recent war. The family of Frantz, consisting of a father (Ernst Stötzner), a mother (Marie Gruber) and a fiancee (Paula Beer), believe the Frenchman to be a friend of their son's, and quickly welcome him with open arms. It is as if they got a part of their son back. However, the stranger has a secret.

The Lubitsch original featured no such element of mystery, as the film opened with a catholic confession. Out of the two, I preferred the way the original told the story-line. That is not to say "Broken Lullaby" is the superior film in every way. "Frantz" is acted much better. The leading man of the original, Phillips Holmes, was very stiff and did not feel the least bit French. Pierre Niney's take in this film is both gentle and sentimental. Nancy Carroll, the leading lady of "Broken Lullaby" felt more like a Hollywood star, whereas Paula Beer of this film delivers a fantastic performance, filled with inner turmoil. The fathers in both films, Lionel Barrymore and Ernst Stötzner, were really good.

The anti-war message is clearer in the original, which is also the shorter of the two films. Ozon tells the first half of the film well enough, but the second half felt less cohesive, as the film also takes distance to the predecessor. I have liked several of Ozon's films, but also disliked many. He is not one of my favorites, as Lubitsch is. "Frantz" has some cheesy artistic choices that water down the narrative. First there is the color of the film. The film is mostly in black and white, as it depicts a world devoid of color because of the tragedy of war. Yet, every now and then there is a happy moment, which brings color to their lives, quite literally. I did not care for this choice. Another silly choice is the music. At times, the soundtrack plays a bit of "Ode to Joy", which is an anthem for the European Union. Thus the film's attempt to unify the peoples of France and Germany becomes anything but subtle. The third issue I had was the choice to name the fallen soldier "Frantz", as this sounds like "France", and would further serve the pacifism of the character. These are choices that a film-maker like Lubitsch would never have resorted to.

"Frantz" was overall a disappointment for me. The idea of a French director reworking a film by a German one fits the subject, but Ozon does not add much to the film, and doesn't have much to say about war and peace, that could be seen as original.
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Accident (1967)
Visually intriguing, but emotionally static.
12 February 2020
Though critically acclaimed for a reason, exiled director Joseph Losey is for myself a "hit and miss" filmmaker, whose output varies considerably in quality. He has made films that I really admire ("The Servant"), films I loathed ("The Romantic English Woman"), films I found underrated ("The Assassination of Trotsky") and films I found overrated ("Secret Ceremony"). In an ideal case this would mean, that at least he is never dull. But it is exactly dullness that plagues his poorer films, their introvert structure and motionless characters. His best works capture emotional turmoil even when the surface is tranquil, but his weaker entries are often mysterious in their meanings, or why somebody has decided to make said picture.

"Accident" is a film that divides the popular opinion. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes, and has been subsequently either hailed as a masterwork, or one of the director's lesser collaborations with his oft-used actors Bogarde and Baker. It is Losey's second collaboration with Nobel prize winning screenwriter Harold Pinter, after "The Servant" (1963). It is also based on a book by Nicholas Mosley, who later penned "The Assassination of Trotsky". It is an ambitious work, which I find to be visually interesting, even stimulating, but utterly mediocre as a narrative, or watching experience.

The film is told in flashback-form, possibly to reassure the public, that this artistic experiment actually does have an accident in it. Of course the title carries several meanings. Bogarde plays a university professor, who supervises two students: William (Michael York in his screen debut) and the exotic European beauty Anna (Jacqueline Sassard). Bogarde is rather chummy with both of them, and gradually forms a yearning for the girl, who is going to marry William. Baker plays Bogarde's friend, who also starts chasing after the girl.

The film is told largely from Bogarde's point of view. His character is going through a mid-life crisis, which Losey doesn't frame to subtly. Anna is something of a mysterious femme fatale, but the film really isn't going for a traditional narrative about the professor straying from the good path. Instead, it's a mood piece, an atmospheric work that tries to flesh out the psychology of the main character, his banal and dull existence, and his need for something more.

It's ambitious, but the execution does not work for me. All of the characters are kept at a distance, even when we are unnervingly close to them. Baker and York were not the least interesting, and the young woman is represented in a sexual, but one-sided way. Maybe the actress wasn't really right for the part either. Bogarde's performance is that of inner turmoil, but the screenplay isn't strong enough to give him enough to work with. Losey also directs the dialogue strangely, with long pauses, and makes the film feel stale.

Visually, there is merit to the film. I liked the opening shot, and especially the boat sequence, which really managed to build the tensions. Yet as a whole, this film is neither among Losey's best or worst for me.
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Not a very juicy scandal, is it?
23 January 2020
Many younger viewers, and viewers who are not American such as myself, are probably not too aware of Senator Gary Hart, and his 1988 presidential bid. This movie is a bio-pic about his campaign, his time as "the front runner", and how all came crushing down. Because this is actual history, I will not treat Hart's career path as a spoiler for this review.

The opening is solid enough. Colorado senator Hart does not become the democratic nominee in 1984, but he has become well-known. Then we time-jump to 1987, when Hart has become the front runner, with three weeks time for the Democratic National Congress, which chooses the party's nominee. The film is ominous: "a lot can happen in three weeks".

This is the problem with the film. For those not in the loop, it presents itself as a juicy narrative, as we don't know what kind of a scandal it is going to be. Yet, because this is actual history, Hart's extramarital affair does not live up to the expectations set up by the beginning. Of course they can't make stuff up, but this was a duller tale than I assumed it to be.

Jason Reitman, a young director whose films have yet to win me over, delivers a political narrative that tries to be fast-paced and smart, but really doesn't manage either. The dialogue tries to funny (this is not an Aaron Sorkin screenplay) but feels forced. Though he is portrayed by the charismatic Hugh Jackman, Hart does not become a fascinating character at any point. The other narrative of this film concerns the political press, "The Washington Times", and their part in Hart's downfall. I feel Reitman did not include the right questions about the freedom of press on the one hand, and on the other hand the definition of quality journalism is also left unexplored.

I usually love fact-based movies about American politics, but this is one without any sparks, one that you can easily skip.
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Lost in Ginza
23 January 2020
Though he continued directing films for another 11 years, Shimizu Hiroshi could not reach the heights of "Hachi no su no kodomotachi" (Children of the Beehive, 1948) after completing that post-war masterwork. For the remainder of his career, which has afterwards been overshadowed by his pre-war and war-time works, Shimizu continued with the core theme of his filmography, that being children, but turned in uneven films. Before the shameless tear-jerker "Shiinomi gakuen" (The Shiinomi School, 1955), Shimizu made "Toka no yokogao" (Tokyo Profile, 1953), a much lighter depiction of childhood.

The film is set in the busy commercial neighborhood of Ginza, full of stores and restaurants and theaters. This is a massive change from "Beehive" already, with just five years between the two films. It's honestly what like the best in this film. It has been shot on the streets, it's lively, and serves as a document about the re-built nation at that moment in time. But don't be mistaken, neo-realism this is not.

The film is about a little girl named Michiko (Atami Sachiko) who gets separated from her mom, when they are shopping in the district. A sign carrier (Ikebe Ryo) helps the girl, by escorting her around the area looking for the mom (Kogure Michiyo), who is also looking for the child. Arima Ineko is in the film as well as a shoe-shiner, and has a small romance with Ikebe.

The film runs only 75 minutes, and the narrative would seem to be sufficient for it. Yet, Shimizu gets distracted very easily. The film wonders on to side characters who are present without a reason, there a songs and stage performances, and the tone of the film all over the place. The director's approach is very lightweight, and yet you can hardly have a good time with a narrative that is built around child's distress. Michiko is constantly becoming a supportive cast member in her own movie, and the other characters, with whom Shimizu is trying to create this "a day in the life of Ginza -tale" don't really have enough to do, to warrant them being here.

At his best, Shimizu was wonderful at exploring the psychology of children, but this film doesn't try it. It's too cheerful and too loose. Perhaps Shimizu is trying to make us all feel, like we are lost in Ginza, doomed to venture among strange, passing faces, none of whom we get to know very well.
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