Sunday, March 25, 2007

Watched March 19-25 2007

The Old Fashioned Way (William Beaudine, 1934)
Poppy (A. Edward Sutherland, 1936)

The new W.C. Fields box a veritable treasure chest. Alas, the only previously unseen film (Poppy) was no gem. Other than some vintage Fieldsian fooling about -- this was a wash-out in terms of dramatic interest, with mostly uninteresting supporting performances. "Old Fashioned Way" -- which I last saw almost 40 years ago -- was another thing entirely. Even better than I remembered. Practically perfect in every way. The kinship with Ozu (noted recently by Dave Kehr) was especially clear here -- as this seemed to owed a debt to Fitzmaurice's "The Barker" just as Ozu's "Story of Floating Weeds" did. On the other hand -- no Ozu lead ever stopped the show in mid-course to engage in a bravura display of inspired juggling. All in good fun.

High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

How can a film with such lovely mountain scenery and good performances by great leads (Bogart and Lupino) be a near-stinker. Well -- a silly, improbable script and almost uniformly bad supporting performances was almost enough to sink this "classic". A dispppointment.

Mori to mizuumi no matsuri / The Outsiders literally Festival of Forests and Lakes (Tomu Uchida, 1958)

Rumor has it that Uchida's story of oppressed Ainu in Japan was inspired (in part) by the westerns of Anthony Mann. I can't verify -- as it has been many decades since I saw any of Mann's films -- but I find the claim easy enough to believe. The use of the landscape, the music, the character dynamics -- all seem to have a bit in common with Hollywood westerns. Unlike Indians in Hollywood films, however, Ainu were rarely the topic of Japanese films. The portrayal here seems to be generally sympathetic -- but pending further deciphering of the unsubbed dialogue, I will refrain from any more definite pronouncement. An excellent cast, featuring Kyoko Kagawa, Ken Takakura, Rentaro Mikumi and Ineko Arima (among many others). More pictures:

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Mahiru no hoshizora / Starlit High Noon (Yosuke Nakagawa, 2005)

A very low key film about a young Taiwanese hitman (WANG Lee-hom) who rusticates in Okinawa between assignments (it turns out he has dual citizenship -- as his mother was Japanese). While there, he goes for regular swims in a pool attended by Yu Kashii (who becomes smitten by him) and does his clothes in a laundromat where he sees (and becomes smitten by) Kyoka Suzuki (who works two jobs to make ends meet -- bento (box lunch) maker and evening-time road crew flag woman). The film flashes back in time -- and shows some hypothetical (wished for) scenarios -- making it a bit hard to hang on to the time line (at points). Meanwhile, his colleagues back in Taiwan are seemingly planning to double-cross him next time he returns there. Nice performances and good cinematography (too bad there were no subs on the DVD).

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Hura gaaru / Hula Girls (LEE Sang-il, 2006)

An utter treat (an happily THIS DVD actually did have subs). One of the biggest hit films of the past year in Japan -- a somewhat fictionalized version of the opening of Japan's first "theme park". Joban, a small mountain town north of Tokyo, had long been dedicated to one task -- mining coal. When that industry began to collapse, the town's business leaders hit on the idea of creating a "Hawaiian Center" to attract tourists (and replace at least some of the lost jobs -- allowing them to hang onto _some_ of their young people). The miners (and laid-off miners -- and soon-to-be laid-off miners) gave the plan a hostile reception -- thinking that money would be better spent keeping the mines alive as long as possible. Some of the young women of the town, however, see the chance to become "hula girls" as a decided step up from what their future would otherwise be. A dancer from Tokyo (Yasuko Matsuyuki) arrives (with plenty of issues in tow) to be the (rather unenthusiastic) hula instructor -- and her enthusiasm does not increase when she finds how unpromising her first batch of students appear to be. Both teacher and students deal with opposition. Our young protagonist (Aoi Yu) gets kicked out of the house by her mother (former action star Junko Fuji) when she refuses to quit the dance program. A sweet and moving film (with only a few trivial wrong notes).

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