The Tokyo International Film Festival offers something that
is rather rare in the city—the chance to see French films with English
subtitles. I see as many as I can and am rarely disappointed. I went into Only
the Animals knowing next to nothing about it.
I was a bit apprehensive in the first ten minutes, as Alice (Laure
Calamy) makes her rounds in a mountainous area of France to see that farmers
are following hygiene regulations for some unmentioned agency and has sex with
lonesome farmer Joseph (Damien Bonnard). But this is not actually how the film
begins. The scene before the opening title has a young man weaving through
traffic in Côte d’Ivoire on a scooter with a live goat strapped to his back. He
goes to an apartment, where he asks for Papa Sanou (Christian Ezan). This prologue
signals that Alice’s story is going to go somewhere very different, and indeed
When Alice sees a news report about a missing woman with a
shot of an abandoned car she saw on her rounds, it is the first of many, many
plot twists, as the structure of the film unfolds like a Chinese box, shifting
to the perspectives a different characters, first Alice’s aloof husband Michel
(Denis Ménochet, who is the highlight of the ensemble cast) then missing woman
herself (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and a young, needy waitress (the intense Nadia
Tereszkiewicz, who has a great career ahead of her). Some of the same scenes
are replayed from the perspective of another character, until everything leads
back to the young man on the scooter in Côte d’Ivoire (Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’
N’Drin). He is told by the shaman Papa Senou “Chance is stronger than you”—a line
that seems designed to take some of the stink off the incredible coincidences in
the film. But more than chance of fate, the story is driven by impulse. All of
the characters immediately give into their impulses, except for the local Gendarme
(Bastien Bouillon), who doesn’t understand why people just don’t behave rationally.
If they did, we wouldn’t have stories like this.
“Guatemala is tired of weeping for its missing people,” a journalist
says, wrapping up a report on the overturning of a court ruling that found a retired
general guilty of genocide in the early 1980s. And La Llorona is a film
The news report is being broadcast on a widescreen TV in a
luxurious home and is soon drowned out by the chanting of protestors. We are
inside the home of the aging general himself. “People have been saying bad things
about grandpa on the internet,” says the preteen Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) early
in the story. The general is named Enrique Monteverde in the film, but clearly
based on former chief of military intelligence Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, who denied
any responsibility for the genocide of the Maya Ixil people in court in
September, 2018, which must have been just as the writing on this film was
Enrique is played by Julio Diaz, who looks like a veteran
actor but IMDB has this as his only credit. Although Enrique agrees with his old
military cronies on their strategy to never lower their heads, so they appear
as heroes rather than victims, when the old man returns home under heavy guard
and bulletproof vest, he is troubled. He believes he hears a woman crying in
the middle of the night.
Attacks by the protesters have proven to be too much for the servants, and all but one has left during the trial. The loyal Valeriana (María Telón) tells the family she has sent for people she knows in her hometown, and soon arrives quiet Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) who fixes the adults with a haunting stare by bonds with the granddaughter. The maids are both Mayan Ixil, the ethnic group subject to the general’s genocide. With Alma’s arrival, Enrique is consumed by images of water, and the sounds of a woman weapon, and the film becomes both a social drama and a horror film. The actress and director Jayro Bustamante work together to make Alma both a frightened victim and unsettling.
Bustamante appeared after the screening at the Tokyo
International Film Festival and said that the legend of La Llorona is one of
the most well-known in all of Latin America. He said he wanted to share stories
of Guatemala’s war with viewers who are too young to remember it. When he
realized that young audiences like horror, he decided to combine a drama about genocide
in which thousands of children were lost with the legend of the woman who was
abandoned by a man and out of grief killed her own two children. The La Llorona
of legend and Alma in the film can only go on weeping.
“I got a gig at the club in Ikebukuro,” Bob tells his friend Lucy during a hike into the mountains. “The band is really the best musicians I have ever played with. That is what I love about Japan—you get a second chance here.” Bob is a Brit running a Karaoke bar in 1989 Tokyo who dreams of a more serious career in music. He’s just a minor character (played by an underused Jack Huston) in Earthquake Bird and just one of many trying to start afresh in Tokyo. He introduces recently arrived Lily Bridges (Riley Keough) to long-time resident Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander), whose name in its original Swedish pronunciation sounds just like the English word “flee.” Even Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), the photographer who forms the third corner of the love triangle with Lily and Lucy, has come to Tokyo from Kagoshima in the rural south. “I didn’t like the girls in my hometown,” he says when asked about his dating history, although his excuse doesn’t quite ring true.
But this is
Lucy’s story, and Vikander’s movie. The actress is in every single scene of the
film, for which she not only learned to speak Japanese quite well but also
learned to play the cello. We meet Lucy is pouring herself into her work as a
translator, writing Japanese subtitles in pencil for another American film set
in Japan, Black Rain, when the police arrive at the office and ask her
to come in to answer a few questions. Lily was reported missing some time ago,
and now a body has been found. The good cop/bad cop duo (Kazuhiro Muroyama and Ken
Yamamura) see Lucy and uncooperative, when in fact she answers their questions,
and only their questions, with exacting precision. “Five years and two months,”
she says without taking time to think when asked how long she has been in
Japan. Another time she informs the officers that she didn’t lie, but that they
simply asked the question in the wrong tense. It is this rigid attitude that
brings back the past Lucy is so desperate to flee, both her recent past with Teiji
and Lily, and her more distant and more painful memories from Sweden, and the
majority of the story unfolds in flashbacks.
Westmoreland is probably the perfect director for this, having spent a year in
Japan in the 1980s. I happen to know Tokyo well, having lived in the city for
nearly 20 years, and was able to spot the usual sins of geography that have
cropped in foreign films set in the city since at You Only Live Twice. A
group of characters walk through the brightly lit streets of Shinjuku that were
used on the final scene of Lost in Translation, and go down into a club
that is nearly a mile away. But Westmoreland and his team work to make the
Japanese settings authentic. The late ‘80s setting could have invited gags
about big hair and clunky payphones, but the few reference to the time period help
fill out the characters. “I called a girlfriend back home and talked for like,
20 minutes,” Lily says in one of her early conversations with Lucy, “and it
wound up costing like a hundred bucks.” “It’s better not to call,” Lucy is quick
to say. “It is good to be isolated.” When that hike into the mountains leads four
characters to a stunning view of Mount Fuji, instead of pulling out smartphones
to capture the moment for Instagram, they simply realize they haven’t brought a
featuring the Ondeko drumming festival on Sado Island, is especially effective
at using the rhythms to underscore Lucy’s increasing disorientation, paranoia and
jealousy. After this masterful scene and a climax that is both surprising and mirror
Lucy’s long-held anxieties, the quite resolution leaves a bit to be desired.
and Kobayashi were on hand to present the film to the audience at the Tokyo
International Film Festival, and surprised the audience by making their comments
in both Japanese and English. This, as well as the film itself, is a sign of a
level of international film production that has rarely been reached.
Today is Shirley Temple Black’s 85th birthday. The long-retired star and diplomat is likely quietly marking the day with family at her home in Woodside, California, where she remains largely out of the public eye. Alas, a recently launched Twitter account purporting to be hers was revealed to be a fake after it started pumping spam to 10,000 followers who were eager to find out if Shirley still puts animal crackers in her soup. She was honored by Kennedy Center in 1998, a broadcast worth watching for the revelation that the still-charming actress inspired the famously wooden Henry Kissinger to crack jokes and utter the phrase “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in his heavy German accent. In 2006, the Screen Actors Guild honored her with a Life Achievement Award presented by Jamie Lee Curtis and, in a nice bit of symmetry, Dakota Fanning. Apart from this appearance, she has kept a rather low profile since the death of her second husband in 2005. Although fans worldwide are hoping for a Betty White type comeback, it looks like it isn’t going to happen.
Her 85th birthday is significant because her longevity makes her a living link with Hollywood’s classic era. The long-feuding sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine are still among us. But when they were just starting their careers with small parts in 1935, the child start was getting top billing in the title roles of The Little Colonel and Curly Top. Temple is certainly the last remaining female star of a pre-code film (1934’s Little Miss Marker), making her a bridge to the brief period of 1929-34 when Hollywood still allowed itself to make films that were both glamorous and gritty. The only other true Hollywood star to rival her longevity is Mickey Rooney, who also started as a child performer, but had more lucky with transitioning to teenage and adult roles.
Shirley Temple was far and away the greatest child star in the world in her day. She more or less single-handedly save Twentieth Century Fox from financial ruin shortly after she signed with the studio at the age of 5. She was given a bungalow on the Fox lot with built-to-scale furniture and a miniature care. 19 top writers were assigned to crank out Shirley Temple scripts in the race against the onset of puberty. She was the top box-office draw in America four years in a row (1935–38). “During the Depression,” President Franklin Roosevelt said in one of his radio addresses “when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” 64 years since she last stepped in front of a movie camera, Fox reports that Shirley Temple still sells one million DVDs a year. A better sales record than some so-called celebs working today, to be sure.
Temple will likely always retain the unofficial title of greatest child star that ever was. No one has ever come close to achieving her level of popularity, and no one ever will. Tabloids mean that studio publicity departments can no longer manufacture and protect a young star’s public persona. Much-needed laws now restrict how much time a minor can spend on a set. Even with the double allotment allowed to the Olsen Twins, in our age even a stage mother as devoted as Gertrude Temple was cannot legally provide the necessary training to polish the natural talented need to create another Shirley Temple. Only Temple could sing and dance, cry on cue, and remember not only her own lines but also those of her adult costars. Adolphe Menjou, who had already been in films for a full 20 years before taking second billing to Temple in Little Miss Marker, reportedly said “this kid scares me—she knows all the tricks.” The following year, while filming The Little Colonel Lionel Barrymore forgot a line and his 6-year-old costar fed it to him, sending the veteran actor into a violent rage. Both of the older actors would soon be doing what they could to get on the girl’s good side, much like the gruff characters they played until their hearts are softened by Shirley’s character.
Temple’s boundless popularity is hard to imagine today. In John Huston’s 1982 musical film Annie, the red-haired orphan is granted an audience with FDR (played by Edward Herrmann) who is touched by the girl’s optimism. The scene is likely based on Shirley’s real-life visit to the White House, were both the president and the first lady were fans. The scene make one wish that Fox had developed an adaptation of the Harold Gray comic strip for its young star—Temple was forever playing orphans and the girl with circles for eyes was the ultimate one. On the other side of the Atlantic, Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother) were devoted fans. So great and early was her fame in Hollywood, that her first baby tooth had only just fallen out when she was asked to press her tiny hands into the wet cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
There was a dark side to her fame. Among the thousands of fan letters pouring in every week were some addressed to her father, from women pleading with him to sire “another Shirley.” Although Fox hired a retried police officer to act as her chauffeur and bodyguard, she was the target of at least two attempted assassinations. In the most bizarre of the incidents, she was singing “Silent Night” live in the CBS studios at Christmas time, 1939, when a woman in the audience pulled a gun and aimed it at the child star. The would be assassin was dragged out before she had a chance to fire a round. It was later learned that he had a daughter who died the same hour Shirley was born and was convinced the child star had stolen her girl’s soul. “The tale seemed understandable to me,” Temple would write nearly nearly 50 years later in her autobiography Child Star. The feasibility of soul transmigration aside, the woman’s calculations pinpointing her daughter’s passing and Shirley’s birth were off by a full year. Fox had faked a birth certificate to shave a year off of the age of its top star.
Her parents would reveal her true age to her as she entered her teens, and she shared it with the public when adjusting her age from 20 to 21 during a highly publicized divorce. She was to have a remarkable childhood. Like many little girls, she idolized Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart, but in her case she also got to meet them. But like any other child star, she could not have a normal childhood. Although she had her specially-built bungalow at Fox, she was not allowed to walk around the lot, for fear that too much attention would spoil her. Her playhouse was also her prison. She was also forbidden to do highly lucrative personal appearances, as Fox feared audiences would not want to buy a ticket to see the girl if they had already seen her for free. The other unfortunate footnote of her stardom is that while she made millions for Fox, not much was left for her when her contract with the studio ended. Her father was an investment banker who squandered a good deal on poor investments. Another large chunk was claimed by Uncle Sam.
Although her films are still still selling one million DVDs a year, there are passages in the Temple filmography that are cringe-worthy for viewers of today. There certainly some racist overtones in some of her films. The worst offender is certainly the short Kid ‘in’ Africa, which sees little Shirley popped in a stew pot by African cannibals, also played by children. The actress was still too young to comprehend the meaning. When she and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson where preparing to become the first inter-racial dance couple in American film in The Little Colonel, the famed tap dancer arrived at her hotel for rehearsals. She learned that he was staying in the chauffeurs’ quarters over the garage, but later admitted that she wouldn’t understand the reason till years later.
Going through the comment in the Temple shorts and full features posted on YouTube, the most common complaint seems to be over the “creepiness” of scenes in which the young star appears to be eroticized with short dresses and distinctly adult mannerisms. But that is how she started her screen career, in the low budget “Baby Burlesks” shorts, which feature kiddies in diapers fastened with over-sized safety pins as they play adult roles. In her second appearance in the series, 4-year-old temple mimics Mexican sexpot Dolores del Rio. In Kiddin’ Hollywood she apes on Marlene Dietrich’s vamp persona. The parodies of established sex symbols stopped when she began making features, but they were subject to moral scrutiny. 1935’s Curly Top was banned in Denmark for “unspecified corruption.” Perhaps Danish censors were not amused by a scene in which the girl dances the hula in nothing but a grass skirt and a lei. The novelist Graham Greene was still writing film review to pay the bills in 1937, when he wrote of the John Ford-directed Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie “the owners of a child star are like leaseholders—their property diminishes in value every year.” Fox producer Winfield Sheehan responded to his star property growing up by having her costumed in even short dresses and given more childish roles in an attempt to offset her growing spurts. Greene’s review continues with a now infamous passage:
Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood that is only skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers–middle-aged men and clergymen–respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.
Twentieth Century Fox took seriously the need to protect the squeaky-clean image of its top star and sued for libel. Greene fled the controversy to Mexico, which was to change the course of his career. There may have been some dirty old men seated in the darkness of theaters when Temple’s films lit up the screen. Some also appear in her autobiography. She recalled that Wizard of Oz producer Arthur Freed revealed himself to the 11-year-old after a meeting to discuss her playing Dorothy Gale. But I would prefer to agree with FDR and say that the boundless optimism Shirley Temple radiated on screen helps viewers, both then and today, forget our problems for a time.
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.
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.
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.