Mar 262016
 

 

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By: Bryant Daniels

When we critics sit down to write a film review there are several items that need to be considered about the subject of our criticisms: what year was the release, what was the country of origin, was the movie successful in its attempt, etc… This criteria especially helps when you are attempting to translate a foreign film into modern terminology. Some films become a struggle though, especially when viewing them through 20th century eyes, and Apostasy is no exception.

Based on the book “The Broken Commandment” and released in 1948, Apostasy is a Japanese film that attempts to take on just maybe more than it can chew. It is the story of a Japanese school teacher, Ushimatsu Segawa, dealing with tradition versus government reform on a personal level. The film takes place in 1904, and the Japanese government has currently dissolved the caste system, and while the burgeoning metropolis areas are accepting this movement, the smaller communities are hanging on to the caste tradition. Ushimatsu is teaching in one of these very towns, and in the course of events it is revealed that Ushimatsu is from an outcast family and has been hiding this very fact from his friends and co-workers. This sets up the story to move into a territory of social commentary on several items.

Per my previous statement, there are several thematic elements being juggled by the director, Keisuke Kinoshita, and a master at interweaving these elements he is not. At some point, the storytelling gets bogged down by “the message(s?) of the film”. Mr. Kinoshita is grappling with everything from social structure ideas, the rights of women, fair labor treatment, personal responsibility to one’s self, and the list goes on and on and on. Often times Apostasy comes across like a Bob Dylan song in motion, especially 60’s Dylan, when he was sitting on the pavement and talking about the government, only not handled nearly as well as Dylan handled his revolutionary tunes. The issue is the thematic elements often trip over each other without ever successfully developing any fleshed out concepts or results. The only element that gets a proper treatment is the core idea from the original story, the belief that true happiness comes with being generally okay with who you are and where you come from. Don’t get me wrong, the convoluted delivery of the core ideas doesn’t make the film any harder to watch, it’s just a pet peeve of mine when directors allow ideas to overtake and bog down the narrative.

What does work in Apostasy is the beauty of the film it’s self. It is gorgeous. The scenery is captured with the mastery of a classically trained painter, and the emotion that was drawn out of me when I was watching the background pass by was worth the viewing alone. The score was perfectly cued, and the cinematography moved in a fluid and structured motion, allowing for the images captured on screen to be fully rendered. What also works is the majority of the performances and the masterful pacing of the film. It flows with a unique and fast style that doesn’t hesitate to transition quickly from scene to scene. Now, I said the majority of the performances, and earlier I also said when we review these films, we have to consider several criteria, that brings me to the lead in the film. The actor playing Ushimatsu Segawa was the only performance that really bugged me. Now, this was 1948, so I will forgive some of the histrionics, but when the rest of the cast played with subtle emotion and intelligent delivery, it makes me wonder if the lead actor wasn’t some form of Keanu Reeves in his day?

Overall: Convoluted thematic elements, a weak lead performance, masterful cinematography, perfect editing, and a wonderful score make for a mixed viewing.

Apostasy – 1948

Running time: 99 Minutes

Directed by: Keisuke Kinoshita

Written by: Eijirô Hisaita

Starring: Ryô Ikebe, Yôko Katsuragi, and Osamu Takizawa

Rating: – 6.5/10

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Mar 052016
 

the-lady-vanishes-1938

 

By: Bryant Daniels

If The Lady Vanishes had taken its original course and been directed by Roy William Nell instead of Alfred Hitchcock it would have been a very different movie. Not that there’s anything wrong with Roy William Nell, after all, he was the man that brought us Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. I just can’t imagine it would have the same lasting legacy as it does today, and that would be a shame.

When Leonard Maltin puts a film on a “100 Movies to See” list, then you know there has to be some reason for its spot. Unlike the first two Criterion films I reviewed, La Grande Illusion  and Seven Samurai, The Lady Vanishes does not hold the same thematic weight, or even necessarily the same technical achievements. However, what it does maintain is an ever entertaining narrative, creative story telling, wonderfully selfish characters, and a perfectly dark sense of humor that reflects Hitchcock’s early years.

The Lady Vanishes is a train mystery, in fact, I think it may be the greatest train mystery ever put to film. It follows the story of a group of people who get wrapped up in to a conspiracy that is either being used to drive Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood, Hungry Hill) crazy, or has a goal that is more sinister in nature. Rounding out the cast are Michael Redgrave (The Importance of Being Earnest) as the love interest Gilbert, and Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, two characters who would return in future films not directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The entire cast plays perfectly as a group of staunch British citizens caught in what is seemingly an impossible situation. The humor when the seemingly isolated parties are brought together brings more laughs than the majority of modern comedies, and it is easy to see where the Python’s would later borrow from Hitchcock.

Not only does the humor stick throughout The Lady Vanishes, the macabre nature of the story drives the dark mystery in to places that feel very modern. It’s not hard to see why Hitchcock has gone down in history as one of the greatest directors of all time. Now, this earlier work doesn’t have the same atmosphere or technical achievement’s he would later present in Psycho or Vertigo, but what it does display is Hitchcock’s ability to push a story to its limits and succinctly deliver a narrative without wasting a breath. Every scene holds something that is important to the resolution, and that is forward thinking in today’s world of profit and finance.

I cannot urge you to see The Lady Vanishes enough. It is, well, it’s perfect. And I know I’ve given every Criterion film a perfect score, but I honestly cannot find fault this early in the collection.

 – 10/10

The Lady Vanishes – 1938

Starring: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty, Naunton Wayne, and Basil Radford.

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

Running Time: 96 Minutes

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Feb 052016
 

37066_front

By: Bryant Daniels

The idea of reviewing the Criterion Collection by spine numbers, is a daunting task. It’s just not that these films are generally complicated viewing endeavors, or that the collection is large enough to pack a walk in closet; although all of this was considered before I started my journey, the ultimate yoke was, and still is, the task of translating the story of Film that Criterion has been telling since 1984, which was an apt year for the company to start. So, with all due respect, here I go.

If you’re going to start a collection of “important classic and contemporary films,” starting with Renoir’s La Grande Illusion is a brilliant choice; not just because Renoir was voted the fourth greatest director of all time by Sight and Sound magazine, but also because La Grande Illusion may be the most important film within the ever populated war genre.

La Grande Illusion, on a pedestrian level, is about escape, and on a meta level, about escapism. Renoir himself served during WWI, and after sustaining a leg injury, discovered the magic of cinema during his recovery period. So it’s natural that the soldiers in La Grande Illusion find escape through art; whether it be books or music or tall tales of women in short skirts. It’s clear that Renoir draws a point to humanize every soldier in the film through passion. He creates a connecting line for every character. To be clear, there is no true antagonist of the film as one of the main criticisms drawn by Renoir is that war is ultimately futile.

Not only is the vision clear, but it’s poignant, especially today. Within today’s society, we are continually berated with images of silent villains committing evil acts, but we never really consider the motivation. As some will tell you, certain terrorist groups are pure evil, and while I do not condone their actions, there is much more to the story. Renoir’s La Grande Illusion only reminds me that the hidden atrocity of war is the blind killing of a shadowed enemy. In fact, the climax of the film focuses heavily on this subject. It criticizes those who kill without understanding. We often forget that we’re all human, and it’s a tragedy that things such as patriotism, a concept drawn out by invisible borders, propagates the message that murder for country is okay.

Don’t get me completely wrong. Again, I do not condone acts of terrorism. I am just stating that murder without at least some idea of what one is doing is wrong. So, in the majority of cases that involve war, both sides share the blame.

La Grande Illusion also greatly criticizes the once predominant class system of the aristocratic era. Ken Follett’s book about WWI was titled Fall of Giants. It’s partly due to the changing economic state after WWI, but also due to the disappearing class system that occurred after WWI. I feel as though Follett and Renoir would have a great deal to talk about. I also feel that Renoir would be greatly disappointed in today’s world. The class system feels like an archaic thing of the past, but the reality is vastly different from the illusion we hold today. The truth is, the class system still exists. It has just been transported by 90 years of history, and is sitting on the doorstep of the American men and women. Politics have become a perverted system of nepotism and favor. CEO’s play revolving chairs. And truly making it in today’s age is a game of name dropping and under handed deals. What it creates is a society that is not only carrying the weight of a marginalized population, but also a society that is ruled by a percentage of the population determined to pit the country against its self in a twisted cage match.

In one of the final scenes of La Grande Illusion an officer of aristocratic birth sacrifices himself for two lower class soldiers in the ultimate testament to a changing world; one which includes the men and women of lower birth rite in the same count as those born to a silver spoon.  It’s a show of good will, and speaks to the sad truth that without acceptance and requisition of the upper class, the lower class will never be allowed in. And it’s a lesson we’ve forgotten.

Ultimately La Grande Illusion is significant. I could discuss the great “musical” numbers, the progressive style of film making, the gray politics, or the choice of vilifying the situation over the oh so common “bad guy.” But I feel as though Renoir’s work, especially this one, is of greater importance because of how it speaks to today; it presents a message of peace through a revolution that starts at the top. Watch it. It’s a hard, but noble truth.

– 10/10

 

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