Sunday, July 24, 2005

Films Recently Seen

Ladies In Lavender: The main characters in this film, set in the south of England just before the outbreak of World War 2, are two elderly ladies, Ursula (Judi Dench) and Janet (Maggie Smith) who live in a cottage by the sea. One day they find a young man lying on the beach, seemingly dead. But when they feel his pulse, it is still beating. So they carry him home, and, over several weeks, care for him while he recovers. It turns out he is Polish and had fallen off a ship.

So the story is about the growing bond between the two ladies and the young man, Andreas (Daniel Bruehl) and, in particular, the infatuation Ursula slowly develops for him, probably because she has been without a man all her life – unlike Janet who, in her youth, had been betrothed to a soldier who had died in the trenches of World War 1. When Andreas finally departs, Ursula is totally crushed and, in a very moving scene, weeps heartrendingly on her sister’s shoulder. It reminds us that feelings of romantic yearning and love can be as acute in the old as in the young.

The film also reminds us that an entire generation of young men in the warring nations of Europe in World War 1 was wiped out, resulting in millions of young women of that generation, like Ursula and Janet, never getting married and having families.

Ladies in Lavender has been described as being for the Masterpiece Theatre crowd. Probably it is, but that is no reason not to see it, for I consider it excellent.

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Batman Begins: I saw this film partly because the only review I’d read of it was somewhat positive, and because I felt the need to seek the comfort and quiet of an air-conditioned theatre to escape a spell of hot weather which, as is the nature of hot weather, caused legions of the shirtless Boys of Summer to emerge from their caves, the better to inflict their foul presences and noise on everyone around them, including me.

Even though it tried hard in the beginning, Batman Begins turned out to be little different from the usual eardrum-splitting special-effects fare suitable for teenage boys. While watching the film, I asked myself why it is that most mainstream American films are suitable only for teenaged boys. Well, I suppose it is that teenaged boys are most of the ones who shell out money to watch the movies which show in all the cineplexes throughout the Great North American Heartland.

Why just teenaged boys? Don’t as many teenaged girls attend movies as their boyfriends do? Possibly. But even in our enlightened times of the equality of women, it will be their male partners who will decide in most cases what movies they will enjoy together as a couple. Of course this won’t be all the time, given there are “chick flicks”. But there are infinitely more Bruce Willis shoot ‘em up films out there, than there are “chick flicks”.

So, getting back to Batman Begins, if you are a teenaged boy or an emotionally retarded adult male, you’ll probably love it. If you are someone other, try your luck elsewhere.

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Cinderella Man: Even before I decided to go see this film, I figured I would like it because I’ve liked all the previous films Ron Howard has directed and, well, I have a weakness for the “sweet science” which I vicariously satisfy by watching ESPN’s Friday Night Fights whenever possible.

In case you’ve just returned from the dark side of the moon, I’ll explain that Cinderella Man tells the story of James J Braddock (Russell Crowe) who was briefly heavyweight boxing champion of the world during the 1930s. However, Cinderella Man is not merely a boxing film, but is a film which portrays what life was like for so many on the wrong side of the railway tracks during the Great Depression.

Even though from the wrong side of the tracks, James J Braddock had sufficient talent but, more importantly, the grit as a boxer to become a heavyweight contender. Then he lost a couple of important fights, and slid downhill to the extent that he and his wife and children were forced to exist hand-to-mouth on little more than the smell of an oil rag in one of the Hoovervilles – the shanty towns which were ubiquitous during those times.

Then Braddock got a chance to go against an up-and-coming fighter looking for an easy opponent as a tune-up for a shot at the heavyweight crown. Improbably, Braddock won, and so, soon after, got a shot at the champ, the brilliant Max Baer, who liked to party more than train. Braddock won a close decision, and thus entered history’s books.

Braddock’s story is about a man’s perseverance to overcome insuperable odds and adversity, which he couldn’t have done without the love and devotion of his wife Mae (Rene Zellweger) and their children. It is a sort of “Rocky”, but with real-life characters.

As with Ron Howard’s other films, Cinderella Man is filmed in a straight-forward quite old-fashioned way, which allows us, the viewers, to connect emotionally with the characters. So it is the opposite of cool, and is all the better for that.

If you haven’t seen Cinderella Man, please do, for it will warm the cockles of your heart, and make you aware of a period of American history in the sharpest contrast to today’s post war affluent society which is simply taken for granted by its beneficiaries at their peril.

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Saving Face: The main characters in this film, directed by Alice Wu, are denizens of New York’s Chinese-American community. Wil (Michelle Krusiec) an early twenty-something, newly qualified surgeon, is looking to enjoy her new-found freedom. Then her 48 year-old mother (Joan Chen) reveals to her that she is pregnant. Wil’s mother’s elderly parents are scandalized by this because she no longer has a husband (its not made clear what happened to him). And what’s more, Wil’s mother won’t reveal who the father is. And she has now to find somewhere to live because her parents, with whom she lives, decide to kick her out. So she moves in with Wil.

Meanwhile Wil is being pursued by a dancer, Vivian (Lynn Chen) who fancies her, and Wil, too, finds herself attracted to Vivian. But Wil feels compelled to hide this lesbian relationship from her conservative Chinese-born mother who, in turn, is having to go out on dates with men dredged up by her parents as possible husbands, for it would be too much of a disgrace to have a daughter who is a single mother.

This, then, is the bare bones of Saving Face. But what is particularly appealing about this film is that it is a comparative rarity - an American film with principal characters other than “white”.

Although the US is now only 65% “white”, one would never think so, judging by the whiteness of American, particularly Hollywood, films, where the well-rounded principal characters are invariably “white”, with actors of African or Asian or other non-European descent, reduced to playing stereotyped supporting roles.

Films starring Denzel Washington notwithstanding, about the only film of recent years I can think of, with African-Americans in non-stereotyped roles, was Sunshine State, directed by John Sales.

As to Asian-Americans in Hollywood, can it be said that their position today is meaningfully any better than in the days of Anna May Wong, a famous and beautiful Chinese-American actress of the 1920s and 1930’s, who could never get a principal role in a Hollywood film because she was “Chinese”, and had to go overseas to Europe where her opportunities were much better?

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