Wednesday, December 24, 2014

My Seven Favorite Christmas Films/TV Specials

I like Christmas. The main reason I like it is the embracing of optimism and the recharging of your soul with Good Will Towards Others. So each year I enjoy watching the same classical movies and TV specials to help pump me up for dealing with the same old Evil we have to face everyday...which is probably true of all of you, too, right? In my Christmas circuit, though, I usually don't watch ALL of my choices every year; I usually skip a year. For example, I'll watch Grinch this year but not Frosty, then put Frosty back on the rotation circuit for next year. I'm sure some of you will disagree with my choices, but here in no particular order are My Magnificent Seven Christmas Films. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Last Emperor (Best Picture 1987)

I saw this film for the first time when I was in Japan. It was a big deal at the time, not only because of the story of Japan's neighbor, but also because Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto played the evil Japanese agent Amakasu and helped write the original music (with Cong Su and David Byrne of the Talking Heads). When they won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, Sakamoto was catapulted into the realm of superstar in Japan.
The other thing I remember about The Last Emperor and Japan is that there is a scene when the Emperor, after he has lost everything and is in a Communist Chinese reformatory prison, watches documentary footage of the Japanese attacks in China. Specifically, there are scenes of The Rape of Nanjing, the incident where the Japanese Imperial Army murdered millions of Chinese civilians. These scenes were edited out by the Japanese distributor on its first showing in Japan, citing that the footage was too graphic for Japanese audiences. It was eventually re-instated, I believe. China and the film's director both registered angry complaints.
The Last Emperor is a three hour extravaganza by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, best known to me at the time as the director of the soft-porn film Last Tango In Paris (with Marlon Brando). He was the first Western film maker to get permission to film in The Forbidden City in Beijing, so he took full advantage of the freedom he was given. Honestly, for the first 90 minutes the real star of the film is the architecture of that national treasure! When the action finally leaves Beijing and moves to Tientsin and Manchuria, it's not just because of the locale change that the action lags, but it does have something to do with it.
The real problem with this sweeping film is that the protagonist is not engaging. The film starts slowly, at the Russo-Chinese border of Manchuria in 1950. Here we encounter Pu Yi, the former Emperor of China and Manchuria, as portrayed by John Lone. He is a broken man who attempts to commit suicide in the train station restroom. It is a dark, dreary scene; in fact, the blood oozing out of his veins is the first color we get in the film. The red segues into "the past," where a 3 year-old Pu Yi is taken from his mother and brought to the palace in The Forbidden City to be made Emperor. The colors and pageantry of his childhood life are in *very* stark contrast to where he ended up.
From there we bounce back between the child as he ages and the elderly, imprisoned Pu Yi as he goes through "rehabilitation" in prison. It becomes clear that Pu Yi was pampered and spoiled as a child, so he grew up with a certain delusion of grandeur. He doesn't know how to make things happen, so consistently is used by others. The worst example, of course, is his being made the head of the puppet state in Manchuria, actually run by the Japanese Imperial Army. Sakamoto as the Japanese agent is pure slime and Evil. When he finds out that Pu Yi's opium-addict wife is pregnant, but not with Pu Yi's child, he blackmails poor Pu Yi in a scene that is actually painful to watch. Later in the prison we learn that Pu Yi has signed off on all accusations that were put before him, even those he could not possibly have been responsible for. When confronted by the prison governor, he breaks down and cries, "Everything was my fault!" We finally understand the weight on his shoulders and the glaze behind his eyes.
As the adult Pu Yi, John Lone is in the majority of the later scenes and holds his own against a stellar supporting cast. Unfortunately, as mentioned already he is the lead but not the protagonist. He plays against his cast, but does not really play *with* them, if that makes sense. Still, it is a shame that he was not even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, as he does a great job literally holding the film together. Among the rest of the cast, Peter O'Toole as his English tutor is especially memorable, and not just because he's Peter O'Toole. As Reginald Johnston he brings a "foreign" presence to the proceedings, helping to "free" Pu Yi's thinking, gently guiding it from the walls of the Forbidden City to the whole world. Joan Chen is brought in as his wife in an arranged marriage, and is fantastic in all of her scenes. Vivian Wu as the Imperial Consort Wen Hsiu also lights up every scene she is in, especially her last as she demands a divorce. And in the dark and dreary "present," the prison governor (Ying RuoCheng) is Pu Yi's only ally, gently teaching him how to be a better man.
The only drawback I noticed in the film itself is the lack of a clear chronology. Why did Pu Yi get named Emperor when his mother and father seemed to still be alive? When and why did he stop being the Emperor? Why didn't his family live with him in the palace? Why was he finally kicked out of the Forbidden City? Specific background facts would have made it easier for me to understand what was actually happening, but I guess this is a minor quibble.
The Last Emperor was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning all of them. Certainly the direction, screenplay, and music are all memorable, but truly the art direction and costuming are fantastic. There were no actors nominated, unless you count the Forbidden City (which won). If you are interested in China or Chinese history, or watching a man wrestle with the issue of his own self-worth, you will enjoy this film.

The Last Emperor
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1987*
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Directed  by Bernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay by Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci

As you watch this notice the spectacle:
the costumes, the locations, the extras, the music...
it's all so amazing!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Broadcast News
Fatal Attraction
Hope And Glory
Compared to The Last Emperor, none of these are Best Pictures. Broadcast News is a great drama about television news and the direction it was heading in. Any fan of current so-called "news" should watch this for a history lesson. Fatal Attraction is the story of Michael Douglas sleeping with Glenn Close; why it made this list is beyond me. Hope And Glory is the autobiographical film by director John Boorman about growing up in WWII London. And Moonstruck is the romantic comedy starring Cher and Nicholas Cage. Cher won Best Actress for her role, and Olympia Dukakis won Best Supporting Actress. It's a cute, charming little film. Also this year, Sean Connery won Best Supporting Actor for his unforgettable role in The Untouchables, and Michael Douglas won Best Actor for his role in Wall Street. Greed is good?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Platoon (Best Picture of 1986)

I remember watching Platoon while I was in college. I went with several friends to see it, and I remember one of my girl friends saying that she thought all three leads were handsome. I remember thinking that the film itself was not attractive. I guess that was the point.

Platoon tells the story of newbie Chris, a fresh-faced Charlie Sheen, who arrives in Viet Nam to "do his part." His grandfather had fought in WWI, and his father in WWII, so now it was his turn. He quit college and enlisted. The time is September 1967; we know this because there is a screen shot that tells us.  For his first weeks he is lonely and afraid; no one talks to the new guys because their fatality rate is so high. Chris begins to regret his decision. Slowly he becomes acclimated, and we meet the men in his platoon. Unfortunately, most of them go by too fast for me to catch their names. Tom Berenger is the heavily-scarred Sergeant Barnes. He runs the outfit, even though Mark Moses is the genial Lieutenant who is nominally in charge. There are another few sergeants, but the one who catches our eye is Sergeant Elias, played by Willem Dafoe. He seems to genuinely care about his men. Forest Whittaker, Jonny Depp, and Keith David play some of the other men in the platoon whose names I didn't catch.

One night while the platoon is out in the field the veteran on watch falls asleep and the Viet Cong manage to walk up almost on top of their platoon. Chris is awake because he can't sleep, but he has set his rifle aside, just out of reach. There is a great moment of tension as the enemy gets closer and closer. There is a huge fight, and several men are killed. Chris has now proved his worth, and begins to be accepted into the ranks. Later, back at the base camp there is a riveting scene after he is invited to smoke marijuana with "the cool guys." He ends up breathing in smoke from Sgt Elias' empty rifle. Phallic symbolism, as well as military symbolism, permeates the scene.
Boredom replaces fear until the platoon goes on another mission on New Years Day 1968. They find a deserted enemy bunker, but booby traps kill two men, and another guard is grabbed and left elsewhere for them to find. The platoon is on high alert when they come to a village. They pillage it, raping some of the women, murdering indiscriminately. Chris is disgusted, but it is Sgt. Elias who steps up and fights Sgt. Barnes to stop it. "Good" and "Evil" have now been established, and the rest of the movie is Chris torn between the two father figures. In case we didn't pick up on it ourselves, at the end of the film Chris the Narrator tells us that it was difficult to choose between the two father figures.
Now there is a Civil War between the men in the platoon, some with Barnes and some with Elias. The captain tells everyone that the incident in the village will be investigated later, but for now they all need to work together. Elias leads a few men on a mission to prevent a cross-fire from getting set up, and during this mission Barnes shoots Elias. As the platoon is evacuated by helicopters, everyone sees the wounded but still living Elias attempt to escape from the VC, then dying spectacularly, hands thrown up to Heaven. Chris suspects Barnes, but has no proof. Barnes confronts Chris and Elias' "cool guys" but knows there is nothing that they can do. The next night the VC attacks in hordes, and everyone goes crazy trying to kill the enemy and to survive. Bombs drop on their area just as Chris and Barnes meet up, and Barnes appears poised to kill Chris. Instead, Chris wakes up the next morning and shoots Barnes. He was wounded during the carnage, so is placed on a helicopter and air-lifted away.
The film ends with Chris' narration, looking back on the carnage. He tells us that he went on to try to live a good life, trying to find meaning in something, to honor the men who didn't make it back. The film had started with a quote from Eccliastes, "Rejoice oh young man in your youth." It ends with a dedication to all the men who had served in Viet Nam.

For the record, I am not a fan of war films. I find the idea of trying to make sense of something as senseless as war is a waste of everyone's time. War does not lend itself to a linear story. That being said, as a portrait of Chris, and his specific experiences, this is not a bad film. The scenery (filmed in the Philippines) is impressive. The directing is outstanding, especially the extended scenes in the middle of the jungle. The actors are all excellent. Dafoe and Berenger were both nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but neither won. Keith David, especially, as one of the first men to befriend Charlie Sheen's character, is outstanding.  However, the men are little more than pieces to be moved in the story. The story is where the film is weak. As I said, the film is fine as a simple chronological sequence of events; there is no "story." Platoon is not everyone's type of film, I am sure, but it is well done if the subject matter interests you.

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1986*
Produced by Arnold Kopelston
Directed  by Oliver Stone
Screenplay by Oliver Stone

You will get a real feeling for the Seriousness of the film from this trailer

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Children Of A Lesser God
Hannah And Her Sisters
The Mission
A Room With A View
At the time of the nominations I saw each of these films except for Hannah And Her Sisters, which I finally saw yesterday. Children Of A Lesser God is a terrific romance about hearing impaired Marlee Matlin having a relationship with sign language teacher William Hurt. She won the Best Actress Oscar, currently the youngest actress (21) to do so, and the only actually hearing-impaired person to ever win any Academy Award. She beat out Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, by the way. The Mission is an old-fashioned "epic" starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons as they work for or against a Jesuit mission in South America. The film by Roland Joffe is breath-taking. A Room With A View is the film version of the E.M. Forster novel about love in Edwardian England. And Hannah And Her Sisters? I watched it because it won Best Supporting awards for Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine, who are the best part of just another Woody Allen film about middle class insecurities.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Out of Africa (Best Picture of 1985)

This film about Africa always reminds me of Japan. It came out in 1984 but did not arrive in Japan until 1985. I was an exchange student and it was one of the films I saw while I was living in Sendai, Miyagi. In fact, my friend, the only other American in town, saw the movie quite a few times. I'm pretty sure I saw it at least twice. Later I came across the book Out of Africa by Isak Dinesan and read it. And *that* happened while I was in Japan, too. So the film is very sentimental to me. However...that doesn't make it a great film.

Meryl Streep stars as Karen Blixen, who, facing poverty and a lack of prospects, agrees to marry her friend, Baron Blixen. He is on his way to Kenya, so she decides to join him, even though she was actually in love with his brother. This is an odd way to start what turns out to be a rather odd film. The plot of the film can be summed up in a few sentences: Karen goes to Kenya, Karen grows attached to Kenya, her husband sleeps around leaving her lonely, she hooks up with Robert Redford, her coffee plantation burns down, she leaves Africa. (Spoiler alert? It's right there in the title!) Although Streep is fantastic (her European accent is sufficiently exotic) and Redford as hunter-turned-safari-leader Denys exudes a gravity I hadn't noticed from him before, the story doesn't really let them do much. The story is ploddingly slow, and no scenes really stand out. No, the real star of the film is Africa.

If this film is great it is because of the cinematography, the location shooting, and the spectacle. The scene where Karen leads a supply train of oxen through Nairobi is fantastic. The scenes on the plains where Karen is enjoying the antelopes and buffaloes (and is nearly eaten by a lion) are beautiful. And the scenes where Denys flies a bi-plane through Kenya is one of the most beautifully epic scenes I've ever seen. It made me think, "WOW! I want to go to Africa...!' when, you know, I don't really want to go to Africa. That's how powerful this film's cinematography is.

Frankly, there isn't much more to say about this film. It is a romance between two wildly different and independent people set against the vast countryside of Kenya. The characters are re-active in a very pro-active way. Karen cherishes her individualism, yet refers to the people living on "her" land as "her Kikuyu (tribe)." Denys is ruggedly handsome and handsomely rugged; he cherishes his independence, too, but also cherishes Karen in a "I don't want to get married" way. One of his lines about what significance a piece of paper (a marriage license) has on their relationship is a line we hear all the time today. He doesn't want to help the British colony during WWI, yet somehow ends up helping them anyway. The real Denys was British, but Redford obviously isn't, which is somewhat confusing. The most dramatic these two actors get is when he offers to take a woman on a safari, but Karen gets jealous. He fights back, pushing her to admit that she trusts him and does not expect anything to "happen" while he is touring with the woman. Yet she maintains, out of pride or some odd sense of possession of him, that she does not want him to take her. They end up breaking up over this: in his eyes she doesn't trust him, and in her eyes he doesn't respect her perfectly simple  request. My friend and I had many discussions about this relationship when we saw this film, and those discussions came flooding back to me when I watched this again.

By the way, my favorite character in the film is the Kenyan servant Farah, played by Malick Bowens. He is always there, like Batman's Alfred or Robinson Crusoe's Man Friday, stoically helping Karen in all her endeavors. I was greatly impressed by him.

If you have nearly three hours to watch a grand spectacle of Africa, presented in the same vein as Lawrence of Arabia or Gandhi but based on a story more similar to Terms of Endearment, you will enjoy this film.

Out of Africa
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1985*
Produced and Directed by Sydney Pollack
Screenplay by Kurt Luedtke
Based on the books
Out of Africa and Shadows On The Grass
by Isak Dinesen
Isak Dinesen: The Life Of A Story-Teller
by Judith Thurman
Silence Will Speak
by Errol Trzebinski 

I wish the film had moved at such a brisk pace...!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Color Purple
Kiss Of The Spider-Woman
Prizzi's Honor
This is the first time I think that I had actually seen each of the nominees for Best Picture while they were out in "first run" distribution. This is because I was in Japan for nearly a year, and the one way to hear English was to go to the movies (TV was all in Japanese, duh). Witness was a huge success in Japan, by the way. Harrison Ford was excellent as the policeman trying to protect an Amish boy who witnesses a murder while visiting NYC. Ford was nominated for Best Actor for this role. Jack Nicholson was also nominated for his role in Prizzi's Honor as a mob hit-man who faces off against another mob assassin who turns out to be his girl-friend! And William Hurt won Best Actor for his role in Kiss Of The Spider-Woman, a dark film about political prisoners in Central America. That leaves only The Color Purple, the film of the book by Alice Walker that earned Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey, and Whoopi Goldberg acting nominations but ended up not winning any awards at all. The book was better.