Charles Durning

Charles Durning has died. It should not come as a surprise for a man of 89 to die of natural causes. But Durning seemed to already be old when he started his career and continued it for decades and decades.  He even has one upcoming credit in Scavenger Killers, which is due out in 2013.

Most obituary headlines have dubbed him “the king of character actors.” Although he was one of the most recognizable in that brand of actors which are not supposed to be easily recognizable, he had a versatility which surpasses the designation and its somewhat negative connotations.  The earliest of Durning’s films I have seen is Brian De Palma’s 1973 thriller Sisters (pictured above) which has him as a private investigator who is the only one who believes a young reporter who claims to have witnessed a murder through her apartment window. Durning had not yet developed the white stringy hair that  later so quickly identified him when he would pop up in a movie, but he was already burly and gruff.

Durning often played gruff, occasionally corrupt, detectives or officers of the law, from a jaded vice cop (Sharky’s Machine) all the way up to the director of the CIA (The Man With One Red Shoe). Two of his most family roles are as cops, in The Sting and Dog Day Afternoon. His paunch, bulbous nose, and world-weary demeanor made him perfect to play a cop who has seen it all. But he could do much more than that. Some of his role required him to do little other than shout at the top of his lungs (North Dallas Forty). But he could always do it with a glint in his eye that said “I hate to do this to you guys, but you need to be bawled out.”

The penultimate scene of Tootsie has Dustin Hoffman meeting Durning at a small tavern. Durning’s character had courted Hoffman’s when he thought that he was a woman. Seeing him for the first time out of drag, he is humiliated and agree, but also able to accept Dustin’s apology. There is a fine line between the scene and the kind of soapy melodrama the movie parodies. But the two master actors are able to keep it realistic. It is a wonderful scene.

As a child, I knew Durning from his role as Doc Hopper, the entrepreneur who is desperate to get Kermit the Frog as a spokesman for his frog leg restaurants. He is fun and obviously having fun with a cast that is largely made of felt. That is what he was—a versatile actor who did not take himself too seriously and was not afraid to have fun with a role. More recently he voiced Peter Griffin’s father on “Family Guy,” a hard-working Irish Catholic man with ear hair hosting an enchanted forest. Although it was only a vocal role, Durning was terribly funny with it. Two of his roles were so funny they earned him Oscar nominations. One was as a buffoonish Nazi officer in Mel Brooks’ To Be or Not To Be. And the other was the Governor of Texas in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It features Durning doing something he no one ever thought they would see Charles Durning doing—singing and dancing. And he also delivers what I think is one of the funniest lines I have ever heard in a movie just before he breaks into song. Video below.

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.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Press conference at the Hotel Okura, Tokyo, December 1, 2012

Peter Jackson: Hi everybody. Thank you very much for coming and I am really glad you just had a chance to see the movie trailer. I think you saw it at 48 frames a second, the high frame rate, too, which is a great way to see it. And thank you for the fantastic welcome here in Japan. Thank you. We’re really happy to answer any questions you have.

Martin Freeman: Yes, it’s lovely to be here. I love Tokyo. I love Japan generally. And we hope you like it. We hope you liked the trailer earlier. And we are looking forward to sharing with the Japanese public this film that we have worked on with so much love, care and attention. And finally being able to see it tonight should be very exciting.

Andy Serkis: Ohayo Gozaimasu (“good morning” in Japanese). Or as Gollum would say, o-ha-yoo go-zai-masuu. We are really happy to be back in Japan. We have had great time here with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. And it is just fantastic to come back and finally share The Hobbit with you.

Richard Armitage: Konichiwa. I was here in Tokyo back in 2000, and I am so proud to come back in 2012 with these amazing people, and with this film, which I think will really appeal to a Japanese audience. It has so many big themes like honor and loyalty. It is just something huge for me. But I think it will be very well received here. And I am very proud to bring it to you.

Elijah Wood: Yes, we have had some pretty incredible experiences bringing the Lord of the Rings films here. It was always extremely special to come to Japan. I love Tokyo. I love Japan. And we are happy to bring this earlier part of the journey to you. We really want to thank you for having us.

Question: In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there is a lot of violence, battles and fighting. This one seems to be more about life, pity and mercy. Could you comment on that?

Peter Jackson: It is interesting talking about pity and mercy, because there is a sequence in The Hobbit. It is actually a sequence—because The Hobbit takes place 60 years before the Lord of the Rings—it is a sequence which we have already seen the result of what happens in the Lord of the Rings films. In The Hobbit, Bilbo has an opportunity. He has Gollum in front of him. It is invisible. He has a sword. And he could at that stage decide to kill this creature who has tried to kill him. And he doesn’t. There is a sense of decency inside that character that prevents him from doing that. And that ultimately pays off inside the volcano, in the Lord of the Rings. The fact that Gollum was saved and didn’t die, that enables the ring to be destroyed. And so I thought that would be interesting after 12 years, after we originally shot the first film, to show the reason why that was possible.

Martin Freeman: Yes, the sort of pivotal scene I think you are alluding to, between Bilbo and Gollum, when Bilbo chooses not to take Gollum’s life, and in Bilbo’s ears are ringing Gandalf’s words “true courage is knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare it.” I think that says something about Tolkien’s humanity. I think it is true. I hope it is true, just as a general adage. And also when you are hearing Ian McKellen saying it to you, that kind of helps. I think it helps and audience, but it also helped me carry that through. I think it is a lovely moment. It tells you a lot about Bilbo, that this responsibility does not sit lightly with him. He takes it very seriously. He is not a person who is quick to anger, or violence, or aggression. It wouldn’t suit him to kill a defenseless being anyway. Even in fear, even if it is a life and death situation for him. It wouldn’t sit well with him. So I think it is a good indication of Bilbo’s view of life.

Question: I would like to ask Peter Jackson what he was most aiming for with this film. And I would like to ask the others what it was like to join this big project after 8 years.

Peter Jackson: The aim of making the movies really for me, with any movie I make, is escapism. I love the mystery and romance of going to the cinema. I always have since I was a child. And there are many different types of films to suit different people. The type of film I like to watch and therefore the type of film I like to make, are ones in which you are transported into an adventure. There are characters with emotional depth, but beyond all of that, it is an escapist experience, which is why I love fantasy films. And Tolkien’s books really are the ultimate fantasy. They are stories that transport you into a world that is familiar. It has characters that are familiar. It seems familiar. And yet, it has the exotic, fantastical elements with the creatures and the Gollum and trolls and things. For me it is an extension of a fairy tale. That is what I love about films. They are fairy tales for everybody, really.

Andy Serkis: It has been an incredible experience coming back to New Zealand and shooting The Hobbit. And a wonderful time to get together with very old friends, and meet crew that were on those films. I come back and everyone is slightly older and have more children. Then, of course, welcoming the new cast, who were phenomenally dedicated, really hard-working, great fun to be around. For me, I had a wonderful time because not only was I reprising the role of Gollum, but Peter asked me to direct the second unit. And I had the opportunity to experience the great work that all these actors did, and to learn a lot from Peter as well. He was incredibly generous with enabling me to move into an area I am interested in. For a year and a half, we became a brand new family and went on a brand new adventure. It was brilliant and immensely challenging. Logistically, mentally and physically challenging. But when you got great people around you, and amazingly talented team, who are all working 150%, it is a joy.

 

Elijah Wood: As Andy just said, it was so extraordinary. The experience of making The Hobbit very much echoed the experience of making The Lord of the Rings. The incredible effort and passion amongst the actors and filmmakers and crew was beautiful to see. The scale of The Hobbit seemed much larger in a way. But the intimacy and connection among the people working was very much the same. It was an absolute gift to come back. I had certainly felt that that chapter of my life had been closed, but certainly not my connection to those people and to New Zealand. But to be asked to come back and briefly reprise the role of Frodo was a gift. Mainly to be able to go back to New Zealand and to see Ian McKellen as Gandalf again, and to work with Ian Holm again, and to see old family and friends. It was a joy for me to meet the new cast, who were deeply entrenched in a very similar journey as we had gone through. It was a joy to spend time with them, and sort of vicariously live through this new journey that they were on. It was a beautiful thing to witness.

Richard Armitage: Having been a big fan of the Lord of the Rings books, and absorbing myself in the film trilogy, one thing you realize is that Peter’s work is very, very unlikely ever to be remade in the future. So when you are given the responsibility to take on a role like Thorin, you understand that I will probably be the only person ever to play this. So to have that responsibility and come to New Zealand with all of those fears, will probably be the most memorable thing about this whole event. It was probably the best year of my life, and the best 18 months I ever spent working on any piece of work, regardless of the end product. The experience of sharing that with Peter and his team will be there in my heart forever.

Martin Freeman: It has all been said really by the others. I think it is no coincidence that all of our answers seem to be encompassing things about how it was to be part of the group, the word “family” keeps coming up as well. That is how the Lord of the Rings cast and crew spoke of their experience, and that is how we speak of ours. It is a relatively small country, a stone street to the studio. I keep saying this and it is not meant to be in anyway a backhanded compliment, but it seems like the biggest student film ever made. It is a cottage industry, and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s the biggest film being made on the planet earth, but it still feels like we are making jam or something. It had an ad hoc feeling, it had an informal feeling, which definitely suits me. It makes us do good work, hopefully, because it is not scary, it is not frightening. You are encouraged to have a good time, which is the whole reason you get into acting in the first place, or anything to do with the arts or entertainment business. You are not doing it because you have to. You are doing it because, please God, it is going to be fun. And so 18 months of these films, I can honestly report were fun, almost regardless of how it is received. Of course we would rather that people like it. It was worthwhile for us, whether people do or do not like it. As Andy said, it is always hard work, but there was a goal in sight which made it worthwhile.

 

Question: I would like to ask Peter Jackson what made him decide to cast Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage, and also what made you think you made a good decision.

Peter Jackson: My feeling when we are casting films, I want in the film a sense of truth. I can say certainly with Martin and Richard, and with everyone else in the cast as well, there has to be an element of truth in what they are doing. It is not pretend or pretense. I think that is even more important in a fantastical film. Whether you are playing a hobbit or playing a dwarf, essentially there is a little bit of an alien creature there. They are similar to us, but they are not human beings. So I think that we have to empathize with them is absolutely critical to the film. And Martin is a fantastic dramatic actor, and at the same time it is important that in the character of Bilbo. There is a lot of heart and humor, which comes from the fact that he is essentially a very unlikely hero. He is someone experience danger who would rather not, being in the company of dwarves, he would rather not be in the company of. And there is a lot of social comedy, if you like, social humor, which comes from the situation that he is in. And not a lot of dramatic actors understand the way to play humor. It is a very, very rare skill. And Martin is superb at that. And another thing about Martin that, as a director, is a huge gift to me, is that we could shoot maybe 6 or 7 takes, and every take would be different. It would be fresh. Martin would be continuing to experiment with the scene, but every single take was great. I found myself in the cutting room with enormous choice, spoiled for choice. You see Martin exploring the scene, but there is a truth in every single take.

In many respects, I look at the characters of Bilbo and Thorin as the heart and soul of the story, really. If Bilbo is the heart, then Thorin is the soul. We auditioned the role with many, many actors, and Richard managed to capture for us the very important sense of nobility, because he is essentially playing a king. Also the question of whether he has the ability to lead these dwarves on a very difficult task, to reclaim their homeland. It is a very noble thing he is trying to do. But he doesn’t really have the resources, if you like, to do this. With the character, there is a sense of honor, which Richard carries, which I think is absolutely superb. As an actor, Richard is one of those very rare actors, he uses stillness to draw your attention, and draw your eye. A lot of things are happening on the screen, there are many characters on the screen, and yet Thorin in his stillness, draws your attention. It is a very rare skill. Your eyes go to him on screen as something you want to watch.

Question: For Peter Jackson, why did you decide to make The Hobbit after making the Lord of the Rings trilogy?

Peter Jackson: The answer to that really is that we didn’t want anybody else to do it. Having done the Lord of the Rings, we felt a pride of ownership, in the world Middle Earth, with New Zealand being part of that. We were proud of what we had achieved. We didn’t know whether The Hobbit get made for a long time, because the rights were split between two different studios. It wasn’t a certainty that it would happen. But we knew if it did happen, we wanted to be a part of it. It took a long time to get the film going, but it was a terrific experience. Probably the most fun that I have ever had shooting a film.

Question: My question is for Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage. What was it like for the two of you to work together?

Martin Freeman: It was very easy, actually, working with Richard. What Peter said about what he brings to Thorin, is partly what he is as a person. He respects himself and others. He respects other’s ways of thinking, but he also have this very strong core of himself. And he is the least arrogant person you could wish to meet. And he is always up for what you are going to bring to the scene. I went to the gym with him once. There were a few of us there. And we had to do these circuits around the gym with this insane psychopath of a gym trainer. And I was busy dying about halfway around. I was genuinely ready to pass out. And Richard had sort of quietly completed the entire circuit without breaking a sweat. He admitted it had found it hard. What I really admired about that was he wasn’t being macho, but he just kind of quietly got on with it. And that is how he treated the job, really. The trials and tribulations of making a film—it is tiring, you miss home, et cetera, he was very stoical about it, which is a good thing for Thorin. So there is a good marriage of Richard and Thorin there. What I think about Richard is he is essentially a decent person. And I can offer no higher praises. He is a good human being, and I like being around him.

Richard Armitage: I always felt guilty that I did not socialize enough when I was working on this film. Particulary with Martin, because he is really one of the most entertaining people I have ever worked with. The prosthetics are removed with alcohol, so if you consume too much alcohol the night before, the face falls off about half way through the day, and you feel really rubbish. But in terms of what I gained from Martin as an actor, but in one scene. It was my first day on the set, but Martin had been working with Andy for about two weeks on the Gollum scenes. And I watched Martin improvising in the way that a jazz musician would riff on a theme. It is actually quite a brave thing to do, because you expose your process to everyone as you do it. And I remember going away and thinking that he had set the benchmark for me, and the way I would like to work on the rest of the film. And that set everything in motion. I have so much admiration for what he did on this film. And I think that the character will let him get into people’s hearts.

Question: I’d like to ask Peter Jackson about the high frame rate.

Peter Jackson: In 1927, movies became sound films. In the silent movie days, cameras were cranked by hand, and the speed would vary depending on how the cameraman would crank it. But when they put a soundtrack on the film, it was very important that it moved at a constant speed. And yet, 35mm film stock was very expensive. And so they arrived at 24 frames a second as the cheapest speed that they could come up with that consumed the least amount of this expensive film stock, but was just fast enough for the fidelity of the soundtrack. And for 85 years, that has become the industry standard, and only because thousands and thousands of projectors were built, thousands of cameras were built. They were built and installed when that was what the industry used, and they have remained for decades. In recent times, a couple of things have happened which were influences on me. Obviously digital cinema has come in. There are now digital cameras and projectors, and the frame rate can be changed. Unlike the big old mechanical projectors that were installed in so many cinemas around the world, you now can increase the frame rate. For me, increasing the frame rate gives a greater illusion of reality, like cutting a hole in the back of the cinema and taking the screen out and you are looking into the real world. For a filmmaker loves taking audiences and immerse them in a story, the higher frame rate is very good for 3D. It makes the 3D smooth and very gentle on the eyes. The high frame rate combined with 3D is a wonderful combination of technologies. And the other thing that has happened is, there is a sense around the world that it takes more to get people to go to the cinema. There are so many choices. Home entertainment, iPads, iPhones. I don’t want kids to watch The Hobbit on an iPad. I like to give reasons to make a trip to the cinema, for the romance of the movies. I think for filmmakers, it is up to us to look at the technology and look for ways we can enhance the cinema going experience. Make it bigger, better in the cinema. For me, there is no better place to see a film, then to be strangers in the dark and being transported into another world.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

The Last Shepherd

My favorite program in the Tokyo International Film Festival every year is “natural TIFF,” which presents documentaries and features on environmental and social issues. Usually I do not know anything about these films going into them, so they are always informative and education, but the best of them are also entertaining and moving. The Last Shepard covers all of these and is my favorite film in the festival so far.

The title refers to Renato Zucchelli, who claims to be the last roaming shepherd leaving in an urban area, Milan to be exact, and no one is likely to challenge his claim. Several sequences showing him bring traffic to a halt as he ushers a seemingly endless stream of sheep across the road make clear that he is the last of a dying breed. The film opens in the classroom of an elementary school in Milan, which the teacher asking the city kids if they know what a shepherd is. The subplot seems disconnected with the portrait of Zucchelli and his family until the last scene, when he makes headlines by bringing the kids into Piazza del Duomo to meet 700 sheep.

The message of the documentary is clear: urbanization is killing tradition. Indeed, Zuccheli is able to speak a lost language that was once used by nomadic shepherds. But the filmmakers never take themselves to serious, and the experience of viewing the film is entertaining rather than depressing. Zucchelli is an immediately likable person and many of the funny moments involve him trying to squeeze his ample frame into the small caravan he takes with him on the road, or using his good nature to overcome communication problems with Muslim butchers who are important clients. He also has a toothless friend who is constantly calling out for a dog who ran off years ago.

In the end, it is not completely clear if it is a good or bad thing that there is only one shepherd left in Italy, nor does the film urge that anything be done about it. Rather, it is an opportunity to step into the life of an interesting person, and reflect on if our lives might not be unnecessary complicated.

Accession

The Tokyo International Film Festival is set to start next weekend, meaning my favorite time of year in Tokyo is just around the corner. Advanced press screenings started today, and I saw my first film of the festival this morning

Accession is a difficult to watch film on a difficult topic—AIDS in South Africa and the fear and superstition that surrounds it. The film starts with the sun rising over a dusty township as John (Pethro Themba Mbole) has his first sex of the day in an open field before walking away on his own. The camera stays tight on his face throughout the film. We do not see the other men he speaks to about borrowing money or the odd job repairing DVD players. It is an interesting way to compose a film, and jumpy cutting of John hustling his friends followed by long, tight shots of him walking give the audience of feel of what his day is like. The women he chats to and has casual sex with appear in the corner of the frame, out of focus and anonymous.

When one of the women informs him that she is HIV-positive, his monotonous life takes a dark turn. He goes to a clinic, but only watches the line of people waiting to get tested from across the street. He visits a folk doctor to get some herbs and listens to his friend say that having sex with a virgin cures infections. This is when the unthinkable become the inevitable. The audience does not know or like John enough to sympathize with him, but he drags us into his desperation. What he does is something we have read about in newspapers, but it is very uncomfortable to watch on a movie screen.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Since I live in Tokyo, I am constantly being asked how many times I have been to Tokyo Disneyland, which is something of an obsession with many Japanese people. Whoever asks me this question never fails to be surprised that I have never been to Tokyo Disneyland, or any Disneyland for that matter, and hate all things Disney, including the movies and the theme parks, with the possible exception of Fantasia. My complaint against Disney films is a pretty common one—they take classic fairy tales that have existed for centuries and completely sanitize them in order to make them conform to a conservative view of “family entertainment.”

Recently I have been I have been reading The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which mentions quiet a few recent Disney films, and I realized for better for for worse, that Disney adaptations have become part of the vocabulary used for talking about cinema and storytelling. So I somewhat reluctantly decided to set about on the project of watching every Disney animated film in chronological order, giving myself some breaks we I need them.

Disney’s first animated feature, and one of the first animated features in the world, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs certainly fall under the heading of my general criticism of Disney films. Many of the darker elements of the fairy tale as recorded by the Brothers Grimm have been sanitized or removed. The wicked queen in the original story demands the lungs, liver and heart of the fairest of them all, and actually has them cooked up and eats them, unaware that are actually the organs of a wild boar, as the huntsman was unable to slay the princess. In the end, she is punished by being forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance till she drops dead. These gory details are not surprisingly dropped from the Disney version.,

However, the biggest change Disney made to original tale was placing so much emphasis on the seven dwarfs. Contrary to popular belief, Walt Disney was not the first person to assign individual names to the little forest dwellers, which had been given different names in a 1912 Broadway play. But he did decide to center much of the story on them. From the very beginning of the development, what attracted Disney to the story was the seven dwarfs and their potential for “gags” and “screwiness.” While this certainly ups the cuteness factor, it has the disorienting effect of pushing the title character to the wayside. Lost are the semi-magical origins of Snow White, whose mother wished for a daughter with skin as white as snow after pricking her finger and noticing the contrast of three drops of blood on the white snow. The focus on the dwarfs is seen not only in characterization and screen time, but in the animation. The only place shading seems to have been used in the whole film are the jowls and bulbous noses of the dwarfs. Meanwhile, Snow White’s neck disappears every time she is seen straight on. This all adds up to denying the audience a clear central character to carry the story. Also lost is the fairy tale’s central theme of self-serving vanity and obsession with youth, which characterized Charlize Theron’s portrayal of the queen in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Despite these problems with the story line, it can’t be denied that the film was a remarkable achievement on the part of Walt Disney. He mortgaged his own house and ignored the pleas of his brother and wife to abandon the expensive project, which eventually ran up a budget of nearly $1.5 million, a huge sum at the time. But in the end he proved that an color animated feature film was not only technically possible, but was also commercially viable. The film made $8 million during its first of many theatrical releases. A shot early in the film of Snow White shown from below the water of a well she looks down into, as pebbles she drops cause ripples showcases the considerable talent of Disney’s teams of animators. While there are a few shots that reveal awkward movement or positions, there are just as many that reveal masterful technique.

If there is a single central character in the film, it is not the princess, but the vindictive queen, who is given the best animated sequences, including her first conversation with the man in the mirror and her transformation into the old witch. I have the feeling that this will not be the only Disney film in which the villain is far more interesting than the hero or heroine.

Made in Dagenham

I often watch films I know almost nothing about, apart from the title. One of the great pleasures of this kind of film viewing is being able learn about something that is entirely new to me. Now I am going through British films of the last 10 years, and probably never would have seen Made in Dagenham otherwise.  I had never heard of the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968, in which scores of British women walked out of there jobs assembling car seat covers for the American company after they were reclassified as unskilled laborers and given lower pay than men in the same category. As the film started to get going, I had the strange feeling that I was watching a remake of Norma Rae—there is even a scene in which the main character stands up on a sewing table in the middle of a busy factory floor. But the nature of the strike, and the women behind it, was distinctly British. The strike started small, but had big repercussions, leading to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act of 1970 of Britain, with other countries soon following suit. The newsreel clips of the actual strike and video interviews with the women today which play alongside the closing credits were fascinating, and were enough to make me wish that this were a well constructed documentary rather than a ever -so-slightly fictionalized film.

On the other hand, there are some wonderful performances in this film. Miranda Richardson is as good as always as Barbara Castle, a pioneer of the British labor movement, although at first I mistakenly thought she was playing a young Margaret Thatcher. It is always a pleasure to see Bob Hoskins in anything, and seeing him a union leader grown jittery when the strike threatens to spiral out of control, it was enough to make me sad that the has announced retirement due to Parkinson’s Disease. Sally Hawkins, who I have only seen in a few minor roles, was able to carry the film as a composite character strike leader.

But the real stand-out performance comes from Andrea Riseborough. Having seen her as the mousy, timid Rose in Brighton Rock, I was surprised to see just how versatile she is, playing the tart with a heart of gold, who doesn’t mind a tumble with a driver in the back of his produce truck if it will get her some fruit for her girls to snack on while on the picket line. I haven’t seen her in Madonna’s W.E. yet, which is her first time in a main role, but Riseborough is definitely a very skilled actress, and I hope she will continue to get great roles in the future.

Jezebel

As I continue to go through every Bette Davis film I can get my hands on, I finally come to Jezebel, one of her most famous roles right after All About Eve, which cemented her reputation as a big star at the time. My expectations were high, but I found this isn’t really among the best of her films that I have seen so far.

One of the myths about this film which has been so often repeated that is appears as a “fact” on the Turner Classic Movies website hold that Davis was given the title role of Jezebel as consolation after she was passed over for the role of Scarlet O’Hara. While Davis was a popular contender for the very coveted Scarlet role, this rumor hardly makes sense. The long casting process of Gone With the Wind was still ongoing when this film was completed, so the chronology is wrong. Furthermore, Gone With the Wind was David O. Selznick production, and Davis was under contract to Warner Brothers, so it is not as if her studio owed her any favors. But there is quite a bit of similarity between the two films, with Jezebel even being called “the black-and-white Gone with the Wind.”

Unlike Gone With the Wind, this film does not take part over several years straddling the Civil War, but in 1852-53. But the central character of the spoiled, head-strong Southern belle who can’t get over the man she believes belongs to her is the same. In this case what gets her in trouble is her insistence on wearing a brazen red dress to a New Orleans party where traditionally all unmarried women don only white. This embarrasses her fiance (Henry Fonda in an early role) who is at a loss as to what to do that he leaves town for a year and marries a Yankee. The whole red dress business was all too silly and inconsequential to make me care much for the character, as I was wishing she would at least make a stand about something that matters. Of course, later in the film she does, as a epidemic of yellow fever breaks out in the city, but it was a bit to late for me. Henry Fonda, who was a last-minute replacement for the male lead, seems slightly miscast as the impetuous Southern suitor. Davis is, of course, perfect in this film which was bought as a cheap property for her and molded to her talents. She excels at the temper tantrums at the beginning of the film, but is also able to handle the more somber scenes near the end of the film, foreshadowing the more dramatic roles she would soon be taking on.