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Great Expectations (1946)

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Little Miss Marker

Shirley Temple’s small part in Stand Up and Cheer! won her a overnight fame. Variety christened her the “unofficial star” of the otherwise unremarkable film. That sent producers scrambling to find larger roles for her. Although she was under exclusive contract with Fox, director Alexander Hall persuaded her to audition for the best kid roles in years in a script adapted from a Damon Runyon story. Legend has it that Hall approached the Temple family at the Brown Derby restaurant and the very next day Fox executive Winfield Sheehan called Gertrude Temple to his office to warn her never to do anything behind his back again. But he did agree to loan out the young star, charging Paramount $1,000 a week while continuing to pay Shirley $150 per week and $25 to Getrude to do her daughter’s famous curls.

Adolphe Menjou, the nominal star of the film, disliked working with children. It probably didn’t help that when he forgot a line his 5-year-old costar reportedly asked the director “is it too late to replace Mr. Menjou on this picture?”  As shooting progressed, it became clear that the little girl was not only going to steal all the scenes she shared with Menjou, but she was going to steal the whole movie. Eventually she won over Menjou, as she would with his character, a hard-nosed gambler, and later costar Lionel Barrymore and director John Ford. She did in fact steal the film, which became a big hit. Paramount offer Fox $50,000 to buy out her contract. Sheehan, recognizing a good thing we he say it, said “nothing doing.”

Although this is the film that made the young actress a star, it a pretty atypical Shirley Temple film. Although Temple would soon become the face of wholesome entertainment, a few minutes into the film I realized I was watching a racy pre-code film. Sure enough, Little Miss Marker was released June 1, 1934, exactly one month before the strict enforcement of the production code went into effect. The script would have been subject to revisions if it had been released later. It is based on a story by Damon Runyon, who populated his literary world with gangsters, bookmakers and gamblers, many of them based on people he rubbed elbows with in real life. As the title character, Temple is left as a “marker” or collateral for a bet on a fixed horse race by her father. She is orphaned when he dies before returning, not by wandering out in front of a truck, but by committing suicide. The girl is taken in by Menjou and her babysitters are an assortment of thugs and nightclub sirens. They’re a bad influence on the pure little girl, who give up fairy tale daydreams in favor of gangster slang. There are also a number of zippy one-liners in the script that probably wouldn’t have survived the censor’s pencil under the code. In the final scene, she is laying on hospital operating table on the brink of death. The hardened gangster Big Steve (Charles Bickford) has been coerced into giving a blood transfusion. “Your blood is giving her life,” the doctor explains in some pretty flimsy film pseudo-medicine. “Does that give you a kick? Giving life?” “Giving life?” Bickford ponders, implying that he is more used to taking life. It is a line that surely wouldn’t have been allowed by the code, which dictated that all crimes, seen or implied, have to be punished. Instead, Big Steve is redeemed by the end of the film, having saved the life of the innocent girl.

Shirley clowns with Harpo Marx.
Shirley clowns with Harpo Marx.

So despite having Temple in the title role, this is by no means a family film. And yet Little Miss Marker establishes the template that would be used again and again in her subsequent films. An orphan girl is boundlessly optimistic, in spite of dire circumstances she finds herself in. Her sheer adorableness soften the heart of a cranky old man (or occasionally haughty old spinster), who wants to give the little girl a home. Characters competing for the right to adopt her pop up again and again in her movies. In Bright Eyes her character is even named “Shirley” so that when Charles Sellon says from his wheelchair “I am starting legal proceedings to adopt Shirley,” he is verbalizing the secret desire of every man and woman in the audience in 1934, whether they had children of their own or not. Indeed, it was not always such a secret desire. Many moviegoers in the ’30s believed Shirley was an actual orphan. Women wrote to the actress’s father, a banker, pleading with him to father “another Shirley” with them. Harpo Marx met child actress before her widespread fame when she visited the set of Duck Soup, most likely when she was lent by Education Pictures to Paramount for the Randolph Scott Western To the Last Man. Harpo did more than pose for pictures with the little girl. He reportedly offered her family $50,000 to adopt her. It sounds a bit creepy today, but Harpo was just one of the first of many to be charmed by the little girl, both on screen and off.

A sad footnote to the film is the early death of its other female lead, Dorothy Dell, who was killed in a car accident just one week after its premiere. She was only 19 years old. Dell is a fine actress in her role as the gangster’s moll who bonds with the little girl. She reportedly got along well with the girl on the set, and encouraged Menjou to get on her good side. In the film she is given the heartbreaking task of preventing the little girl from finding out that her father has died. Shirley’s real parents would do their best to delay the news of Dell’s death reaching their daughter.

 

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Cockfighter

I never thought I would sit through a movie about cockfighting. But after seeing Dillinger and Two-Lane Blacktop last year, I now count Warren Oates among my favorite actors. And, as with Two-Lane Blacktop, I had the chance to see one of his films on the big screen, at a cinema here in Tokyo that has been re-releasing all of Monte Helman’s films.

Cockfighter is indeed about illegal cockfighting, and the men that pit roosters against each other to the death in barns, riversides, hotel rooms and the governor’s mansion. Even before the film was released, is garnered controversy, with activists petitioning then governor Jimmy Carter to stop the filming. The finished film was banned in the UK, where it still can’t be shown. Steps were reportedly taken to prevent the animals from hurting each other too much, and none of them actually died in the filming. But today, the bloody fight scenes are difficult to watch, especially one composed of slow-motion close-ups.

Every scene either shows a brutal cockfight or the preparation for the next one. But the film is about more than the outlaw sport. Oates plays a man obsessed. He refuses to speak a word, although he does talk in his sleep. He was once certain that he would get the medal for cockfighter of the year, which comes directly from the governor, despite the sport being illegal.  He consented to a warm-up match in a hotel room and lost his prize rooster and his only chance for the medal. His opponent, played by Harry Dean Stanton, tells him “you got two problems, Mansfield, you drink too much and you talk to much.” And just like that the decides not to utter another word until he does get that medal. Although Oates does provide voice-over narration, he has to act the entire film without speaking. The challenge creates a perfect role for him, and he crooked grin and soulful eyes go a long way.

Stanton is as good as always here, and there is an appearance by a very young Ed Begley Jr., and character actor Richard B. Shull is enjoyable as the partner who takes care of the business side of the bets. But the film really belongs to Oates. In one scene, his character is forced to go back to his hometown after losing his car and trailer on a bad bet.  Before long an old girlfriend comes to pay a visit. They stand on the front porch.  She talks, pleading with him to finally make a commitment. He only gives her pained squints. When her mother, waiting in the car, gives an impatient honk, Oates explodes in a ball of energy, dancing across the lawn, jumping onto the roof of her car and pounding on the windows by way of a greeting. This one little not only captures the title character of this film, but also Warren Oates’ range as an actor.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I started off 2013 the same way I started off 2012, by watching a movie at Toho Cinemas in Roppongi Hills, one of the few cinemas in Tokyo which is open on New Year’s Day. I wasn’t particularly interested in the new Hobbit film, but there wasn’t a whole lot of choice and after covering a press conference with Peter Jackson and company, I was interested in seeing the high frame rate projection for myself. Reportedly the film is only being played in the high frame rate on 400 screens around the world, and it appears a big chuck of them are in Tokyo, so I thought I would take the opportunity while I could.

I was told that this film wouldnI never got around to seeing Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I was the only member of my group of friends in high school and college who wasn’t into J. R. R. Tolkien’s novels. As such, I don’t know the difference between a hobbit and an dwarf, an elf and a troll, a wizard and a necromancer. The film assumes the audience knows all this, and the story was not intrigue enough to make me want to learn or even care. I found myself trying to recognize actors beneath all of the latex noses and scraggly wigs and waiting for the next sweeping shot of the New Zealand countryside, which were indeed stunning. I am a big admirer of Andy Serkis’ work, both in his traditional roles in Burke and Hare and Brighton Rock and his performance capture role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But it seemed like I was waiting for three hours for his Gollum to appear. Since Tolkien’s novel is being stretched out over three films, now I feel locked into watching the next two installments just to have a since of closure.

At the press conference in Tokyo, exactly one month ago, Jackson was very happy to talk about the film’s 48-frame-per-second high frame rate, complaining that the 24-frame-per-second standard that was set with the introduction of talkies was only barely good enough at the time, and has been dragged out for over 80 years. His enthusiasm made me interested in the technology and the film. But that was before I tapped into the seemingly endless stream of negative publicity on HFR projection.  New York Magazine’s Vulture site has compiled a categorized list of opinions from film critics. What they are saying is not exactly complimentary, and audiences have been less kind, going online to say the movie caused headaches or nausea. It was enough to make me wonder what I was getting myself into when I slid on my 3D glasses.

Many of the complaints about the high frame rate are valid. It makes the film look like a video game, a soap opera on HDTV, a making of featurette on an actual film, or a nature documentary. It also makes imperfection in the sets and makeup obvious. All of these are true. At its worst, the technology makes scene of Bilbo and company walking through a wood in broad daylight does look very much like a HD nature documentary of modern-day explorers of looking for a cave-dwelling bats. But high frame rate works very well for the epic battle scenes and the CGI shots featuring Gollum. This made me think that the cause of the problematic scenes was a lack of proper color correction which would have lent the entire film more visual unity.

 

 

 

 

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Mrs. Miniver

I spent the afternoon of the last day of 2012 the same way I spent the afternoon of the last day of 2011: watching a classic film at a theater in Tokyo that specializes in screening classic films. Last year it was the Astaire-Rogers lighthearted romp The Gay Divorcee. This year it was a rather more serious film.

I remember watching Mrs. Miniver a few years ago, before starting this blog, but I must not have been following it very closely because I didn’t remember just how good it was. It is obvious that the film was intended as wartime propaganda. Director William Wyler wanted to use the film to portray the plight of ordinary British citizens, who were being bombed almost nightly by the Germans, and win the sympathy of America, which hadn’t yet entered the war when the film went into production. Everything changed when America did enter the war. The script was revised, scenes were reshot and President Roosevelt even got involved, ordering that post-production be sped up so the film could be used to boost morale on the American . When the film was finished, Roosevelt co-opted the vicars moving speech which closes the film, asking that it be broadcast on the Voice of America radio program and having it translated into a variety of European languages and air-dropped over the enemy. As a work of propaganda, Mrs. Miniver lauds the heroism of ordinary English people, in historical events such as the Evacuation of Dunkirk, which I hadn’t known about, and I guess the average American in 1942 wouldn’t have known much about.

But the film is still powerful today, long after its propaganda purposes have ended. The power of the film comes from the focus on a single village, where the biggest news before the start of bombings is that there is a new contender to the trophy in the annual flower show. The handful of characters that are introduced are painted in detail, making their sacrifice clearer. Combat is never shown, except for a brief scene of  fighter plane crashing into a tree. Heroism comes from the home front. The scene of the Miniver family huddling in their bomb shelter as shells explode overhead, shaking tinned food to the floor is truly frightening. This is because those thrown into harm’s way are not pilots and soldiers, but mothers and children.

There are weaknesses in the film, mostly because it was set in England but produced in Hollywood. At the time the Hollywood community was suffering a shortage of British actors, many of whom had gone back home to “do their bit” for the war effort. Walter Pidgeon, a Canadian, plays the head of the family and doesn’t even attempt a British accent. Teresa Wright, an American, tried, but not very successfully. On the other hand, we have Greer Garson, who deserved the Best Actress Oscar she won for the title role. Dame May Whitty is just as entertaining as she is in Gaslight and The Lady Vanishes, and her role has a little more dramatic depth than anything else I have seen her in.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Since the end of the year is upon us, I was thinking of compiling a short list of my favorite films of 2012. But I realized that I haven’t actually seen too many films that were completed this year. Most of  what I watch is at least 30 years old. I loved Hugo and The Way, which I saw in theaters earlier this year. But they were actually first released in 2011 and 2010 before very delayed arrivals at theaters in Tokyo. With only two days left in the year, I thought I had better squeeze in another film from 2012 and it was either For a Good Time Call.. or The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Set in a suburban high school in the early ’90s, this film adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his own hit novel, draws obvious comparisons with John Hughes’ 80s high school dramas such as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. While those films always focused on socially awkward teens or kids from the wrong side of the tracks, they did so mainly for for comedic value.  Perks, which distances itself from its era by 20 years, takes a much more somber approach. The wallflower of the title is a freshman who is more than awkward. He has serious psychological problems, having survived the death of his favorite aunt and the recent suicide of his only friend. When he bonds two misfit seniors, high school seems bearable for a while. Although Emma Watson, as the girl he develops his first crush on, is the only box office draw in her first major role after Harry Potter, her American accent is inconsistent at best, and she is doesn’t come across on screen as beguiling as the central character sees her. The real star of the show is Ezra Miller as the gay teen Frank, who suffers through a relationship with the schools closeted quarterback who will sleep with him but not acknowledge him in public.

Miller’s performance is wonderful, and the whole film is beautifully, poignantly shot. Joan Cusack is great as the psychiatrist at the mental hospital where Charlie winds up, and it was nice to see special effects master Tom Savini in a rare acting role as a shop teacher.  But large chunks of the second act where a bit boring for me, probably because I was in high school at the same time and had many of the same experiences. Listening to The Smiths and Cocteau Twins? Check. Saturday night screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Check. Mixed tapes made and received from girls. Check and check. The trio of misfits take themselves very seriously, as do most high school students. When Charlie saying “at this moment we are infinite,” would be enough to make me roll my eyes, if I hadn’t felt the same way when I was in high school.

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The Man with One Red Shoe

I really enjoyed the French comedy The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe when I saw it two years ago, and thought would never have to bother with the American remake starring Tom Hanks. But news came yesterday yesterday that actor Charles Durning had died. Although I have already seen literally dozens of his films, I wanted to remember him by watching one of his films that I hadn’t seen yet. And this is one of the many, many films Durning appeared in.

This remake follows the original story very closely. Some scenes are almost shot-for-shot copies. As in the French film, an innocent man is tapped as a red herring as part of games between two fighting factions of the intelligence agency. Durning plays the corrupt head of the C.I.A., who schemes to defend his position from an even more corrupt agent played by Dabney Coleman. I think there was a law in the early ’80s that a film couldn’t be made in America without offering a role to Dabney Coleman. What is so enjoyable about the French film is how oblivious the man with mismatched shoes is, not only to his footwear, but to the fact that secret agents have combed over every inch of his apartment. Pierre Richard does a wonderful job of of playing the daydreaming, hopelessly romantic concert violinist. Tom Hanks, whose career was just really starting to take off at the time, didn’t have the same quality and just comes across as a bit dim-witted. But even at that stage Hanks was obviously a hard working actor, and convincingly pantomimes playing the violin as clearly does some of the stunts in the big bike versus car race at the climax. The depiction of spies is cartoonish, probably intentionally so. But overall the film lacks the silliness that made the original so entertaining. Lori Singer plays the love interest,  the spy who falls for the man she is spying on. Although she conforms to the 80s concept of beauty, her performance as a cool headed spy looks more like sleepwalking.

Not surprisingly, the best scenes in the film are between Charles Durning and his underling played by Edward Herrmann. They don raincoats and umbrellas to talk under the lawn sprinklers, the only place where the bugs do not pick up their conversation. Herrmann’s character is the moral voice, feeling guilt over the fact that the person he chose at random from the passengers at the airport might be killed. No one else at the C.I.A. seems to mind.

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Les Misérables

I’ve never seen Les Miz, as I am not very interested in stage musicals in general. I don’t even know any of the songs from the show. But I am somewhat familiar with Victor Hugo’s novel from college.  I thought I might as well see this new film adaptation, as I am not likely to see it on stage any time soon. The film is being relentlessly promoted here in Tokyo. The director and main cast came through Tokyo in October, holding a press conference at a massive venue that normally serves as a concert hall. Originally the Japan release was announced for December 28, three days after the US and the UK. That was brought up to December 21, so it could be marketed as something to see at Christmas. That decision turned out to be a wise one, as the 12 screenings today at Toho Cinemas Roppongi were completely sold out two days in advance. That is likely the case everywhere else it is showing in Japan. It’s a rather dark film to watch at Christmas, but marketing is a powerful thing.

Much has been made of the live singing used on the film. Rather than record in the studio and lip-sync to playback on the set, the actors all (supposedly) sang every take live for the camera, as a pianist off camera played into the actor’s hidden earpieces. In featurette which I I have sat through at least a dozen times as it plays before films in cinemas, the film’s creative team insist this is the first time this has ever been done. That is not strictly true, as live singing was used for the very first musical films in the 1930s, when overdubbing was not possible, and has been used in more recent films. I also suspect that some of the vocals may have been re-recorded later in the studio. Could a child actor sing a song while riding on the step at a back of a horse carriage through a chaotic street and produce a take clean enough for the final film?

Although it is not as revolutionary as claimed, the approach works well for Hugh Jackman, who is a fine singer, and especially for Anne Hathaway. Her solo “I Dreamed a Dream” alone is enough to win Hathaway an Oscar nomination, if not a win. The same method is less than successful with Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried, who don’t have the same vocal chops. Crowe seems to be putting all of his effort into looking menacing as the ruthless inspector who never forgets or forgives a crime. He is good in this regard, but his singing comes out in mumbles. I often found myself reading the Japanese subtitles to understand his lines. Seyfried looks to be putting every ounce of her powering into her fluttering vibrato, which grows wearing very fast.  Not knowing the musical, I did not know what to expect of the songs. While a few of them were beautiful and moving, some of Crowe’s song seem to be at odds with the tragic content of the story.

Although Seyfried and Crowe’s singing form the weak links in the film, there are plenty of other highlights in the cast. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter a good fun as the unscrupulous inn keeper and his wife, and once they were introduced, I kept waiting for them to reappear. The British child actors who plays Gavroche and the young Cosette are wonderful. Samantha Barks, one of the few performers to carry their role over from the stage show is, not surprisingly, probably the best singer in the film.

Computer effects shots are usually used to make well-known buildings blow up. They are put to good use in this film, where they transparently blend together sets and location shots, as well as creating dramatic transitions between the various periods of the story and pulling the camera far back to give an overview of Paris. It is hard to imagine how the final, epic shot across a giant barricade was even filmed. But it is effective because it looks real, rather than drawing attention to itself, as effects shots usually do.

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Christmas in Connecticut

I had never heard of this film until I Googled “Christmas films of the 1940s.”  It is not nearly as well-known as other holiday fare from the decade such as It’s a Wonderful Life or The Bishop’s Wife, but judging from the IMDB message boards, Christmas in Connecticut does seem to have a small, solid fan base.

Barbara Stanwyck is always best when she is playing a conniving, manipulating femme fatales, such as her character in Double Indemnity. Here she is once again a deceitful woman, but one with her heart in the right place. She plays Elizabeth Lane, a sort of proto-Martha Stewart who writes her wildly popular column on keeping the perfect home from her farm in Connecticut. Only she lives in an apartment in New York, and her idea of cooking is opening a can of sardines.

Two of the most interesting supporting actors from Casablanca turn up in the cast, and really make the movie. Sidney Greenstreet plays a powerful publishing magnate who requests, or rather demands, that she open up her non-existent farmhouse to a returning soldier who was stranded at sea after his transport vessel was sunk. S.Z. Sakall, who has a small but memorable role as the bartender at Rick’s Place, appears as a Hungarian chef who provides Elizabeth with meals and recipes to run in her column. He is very entertaining in this film as the mastermind who makes sure the couple that should be together gets together. Rounding out the cast is Una O’Connor, who was so funny in The Invisible Man, and is just as hilarious here as the cook who spares with the Hungarian who encroaches into her kitchen.

When it becomes clear that she will lose her lucrative job if you doesn’t produce a Connecticut farm, she agrees to quickly marry a bore of an architect who just happens to own one. When the handsome young soldier, who has no family to spend Christmas with, shows up before the quickie wedding, she falls in love at first sight. The woman taken with a somewhat younger man is another type of role Stanwyck excelled in, maybe because the actress herself had a long relationship with the much younger Robert Wagner. Since every detail of her life is known to her publisher and the general public through her articles, she is forced think fast and make one lie after another to present the idyllic country life that everyone thinks she lives.

Although things work themselves out at the end of the story, as a Christmas film this avoids veering into the sickly sweet and sentimental.

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One Hundred and One Dalmatians

The first few minutes of One Hundred and One Dalmatians completely bowled me over. Since I have been watching all of the Disney films in chronological order, I have been able to see the evolution of the studio’s animation style. The roughness of movement and line apparent in Snow White were soon smoothed out. By the time of Bambi, the background paintings were works of art in the own right. By the time Cinderella was released, the Disney style was, in my opinion at least, too clean. This was even more so in Sleeping Beauty. The title sequence and opening shots of Dalmatians are of an entirely different style, which I find much hipper and jazzier. A little checking online quickly revealed why.

As Disney animate featured became more refined, they also became more expensive. Sleeping Beauty was released in 1959 as a 70mm, widescreen, stereo film. Although the format was designed to impress, it was expensive. The production cost $6 million, or more than twice the budget of each of the studio’s previous three animated films. Although it just barely made back its production costs, its poor performance at the box office resulted in the company posting its first loss in a decade in 1960.

This is when Ub Iwerks stepped in. Iwerks was Disney’s oldest friend, and was the technical genius at the studio, usually credited with “visual effects.” Iwerks was like Steve Wozniak to Walt Disney’s Steve Jobs. With the studio in financial difficulties and Walt considering shutting down the animation department completely, Iwerks began experimenting with the new technology of Xerox photography. He found that animator pencil sketches could be photographed and printed directly onto cells, bypassing the labor intensive inking department. Cutting out the hand inking process reduced the animation staff from 500 to less than 100. Jobs were lost, but it allowed the studio to continue with animated features which Walt was regretfully about to abandon.

The result of the new process was a rough style which clearly showed pencils lines and sometimes allowed colors to spill out past their boundaries. Although this was style that caught my eye after watching so many Disney films, Walt himself hated it, thinking it destroyed the fantasy of animation. He reportedly held a grudge against the film which he relented only during his very last visit to the studio shortly before his death. Despite his feelings about it, the style was new and would influence not only animation in the ’60s and ’70s, but also magazine and advertising illustration.

The animation style has a more mature feel to it, and the story does as well. It is still about anthropomorphic dogs in love, much like The Lady and the Tramp,  but this film is more about the struggle to find, and to keep it once you have found it. The London setting probably does a lot to help make the story more sophisticated. The only thing that is odd about it is that two dogs with British accents have puppies with American accents. But I guess if you are willing to accept talking dogs, you have to also accept that they might talk differently than their parents.

Then, of course, there is Cruella De Vil, the greatest of the great Disney villains, and clearly modeled after one of my favorite actresses, Tallulah Bankhead.

 

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Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away

One of the many odd things that film distributors do when promoting international releases in Japan, is to appoint some random Japanese celebrity who has nothing whatsoever to do with the film to act as its “ambassador” is Japan. The duties of such a position might extend as far as narrating the Japanese version of the trailer, but are usually limited to making an appearance at the Japan premiere of the film. Aya Ueto, one of the most popular celebrities in Japan, became the representative of the new Cirque du Soleil film, which also opened this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The fact that she would appear for a few minutes to announce the film guaranteed that tickets would sell out instantly and be resold for many times their face value on Yahoo auctions. The fact that I wasn’t able to see the film in the festival probably made me more interested in seeing it than I would have been otherwise, and I decided to actually go so far as to buy a ticket to see it after it’s general release in Japan, which still ahead of the rest of the world.

I am not one of the (literally) 200 million people who have bought a ticket to a Cirque du Soleil show, and I know almost nothing about the troupe save that they started in Canada and are wildly popular in Japan.  The “original story” of the film is basic, and almost completely free of dialogue. Starting appropriately enough at a traditional big top circus, a girl meets a trapeze boy and it is love at first sight. When noticing her in the stands makes him fall from the rafters, they are cast into an alternate world where everything conspires to keep them apart. The girl, played by the lovely Erica Linz, is treated to beautiful diversions that she cannot take part in, while the boy is forced to sweat and toil.

The acrobatic performance by the countless secondary characters are very impressive and beautifully filmed. This was the first time in the age of digital 3D that I thought the technology was put to good use. But glimpses of spotlights and stage scaffolding at the edges of some of the larger-scale numbers really worked to break the continuity of the story. It was only when I sat through the closing credits that I realized that the original story was largely made by stringing together routines from Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas. This was a bit of a disappointment, but it was still an enjoyable viewing experience.

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The Other Son

We are just half-way through this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, and I have been trying to see as many films, and attend as many press conferences as I can, which unfortunately is not nearly as many as I would like. It is a somewhat odd experience to see a film in a theater and then be sitting in front of the actors and filmmakers at a press conference 10 minutes later. But that is what happened to me today when I saw The Other Son.

The title refers to the realization of two young men that they were switched at birth and raised by wrong families. As if this were not difficult enough, one is Jewish and living in Tel Aviv, and the other is Palestinian and living on the West Bank following studies in Paris and they switched when the hospital where they were born in Haifa was bombed during the Gulf War. It is a wildly improbably story conceit, but one that doesn’t stand out, as the direction and performances are excellent, making for a moving tale rather than film with an obvious message to beat the audience over the head with.

Despite the setting and many scenes taking place at the tension-filled checkpoints between the two families homes, the film is not so much about politics as it is about emotions. The two young men, who have liberal outlooks from folk music and studying in Paris, are relatively quick to accept the earth-shaking news, although Joseph wonders if he is still Jewish even if he has been circumcised and Bar Mitzvahed. No, says his Rabbi. The mothers react emotionally, feeling new closeness with their biological sons and and renewed love for the boys they raised. The young sisters innocently welcome their new brothers and the fathers predictably react with anger, as does the older brother in the Palestinian family, who resents the occupying Isrealis. But everyone comes together in the end in a way that avoids too much sentimentality.

Although filmed in Isreal, this is essentially a French film, with the director, writers and lead actor hailing from France. This is reflected in the story which makes the mother of Isreali son French and the Palestinian son a student just returning from Paris. Even the Palestinian mother speaks a bit of French. The Francophone slant distracts a bit from the story, making it one of the few flaws in the film. Jules Sitruk, who plays the son raised as Jewish and who attended the press conference in Tokyo this afternoon, is a real talent and looks a bit like a young Adrian Brody. I am sure he has a great career ahead of him.