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Ukikusa monogatari (1934)
Lovely Early Japanese Film
I was able to see The Story of Floating Weeds for the first time recently, thanks to the Criterion Collection's DVD.
I was led to it when I came across Roger Ebert's list of his ten favorite films (written some time ago).
In his notes, Ebert claims Ozu shows us a "different cinematic language" but I find that kind of talk so much blather. Ozu uses his shots effectively to allow the actors to communicate the emotions being portrayed, especially necessary in this silent film.
A third rate company of traveling actors returns to a town after four years. The leader of the troupe had abandoned his lady in this town years before in order to tour with his company. He has fathered a son by the woman, whom he visits whenever he can, but his paternity is kept secret from his son.
What follows is the exposure of the secret and the effect it has on the lives of everyone involved, and some innocent bystanders as well.
The camera is almost always objective, the acting style is somewhat less melodramatic than in American silent films. There are excellent performances by all.
No time period is given for the story, but I have to assume it is earlier than the year the film was made (1934) because there are no automobiles, no radios, no telephones.
The enjoyment of Floating Weeds lies in the story itself and the ability of the director to tell it compellingly. If you demand car chases or food fights, this is not for you.
The Criterion DVD allows you to watch with or without the specially commissioned score. For first viewing, I recommend without.
Death of a Salesman
I found this movie a bargain. It's ninety minutes long, and it seems like I was watching it for three hours.
Set near Baltimore in 1971, "Assassination" is the true story of salesman Sam Bicke, whose troubles eventually lead him to an inept attempt to assassinate President Richard Nixon.
Sean Penn, who always manages to vary his performances somewhat, is excellent as the loser salesman whose mental degeneration causes him to blame Richard Nixon for his own failures of will and character. In time Bicke's growing dysfunction will lead him to believe that killing the President is the only way out.
Despite excellent, subtle performances by the entire cast (usually the sign of a good director) the story is too simple to sustain even ninety minutes, so we're treated to variations on what is essentially the same theme again and again until the final, brief, violent climax. These scenes, which should have had dramatic build and moved the story along, instead repeat what we've already seen. My good will was used up about twenty minutes in, when nothing had yet happened and I grew tired of the talk.
Recommended for Sean Penn fans and those who enjoy naturalistic, non-histrionic acting, but be warned of its soporific qualities.
And Nixon doesn't get assassinated.
Good Script, So-so Movie
Although the script abounds with funny lines, the overall effect of this film is as though someone (Producer? Director? Studio?) took a deft Charlie Chan send up and stamped heavily on it, adding elements clearly inserted for commercial appeal rather than inherent value. These elements do their best to destroy what would have otherwise been an enjoyable hour and a half. As it stands, you'll want to see it for some stellar performances, and because you don't want to miss young Michelle Pfeiffer in one of her earliest roles. She lights up the screen.
Peter Ustinov does his spiffy Warner Oland impression, and a talented cast does its best with the sparkly script but on-again-off-again plot.
Moon Over Harlem (1939)
Blacks Not Stereotyped in Ulmer's Moon Over Harlem
Gangster marries world's kindest, most charitable woman, scams money from her while coming on to her daughter. When gangster is caught by his wife attempting to rape the daughter, he lies and blames the girl. Driven from her mother's home, the girl turns to show business to make a living.
Performances vary from extraordinary (Cora Green) to unusual (Percy Harris) to just plain amateur night. According to the publicity accompanying the dvd of this film, Ulmer made it for $8,000. It seems hard to believe since there are many sets and crowds of people.
Edgar Ulmer's 1939 black programmer was almost lost forever. Several versions of the film were found and re-mastered into a dvd which is at best fair. It is frequently hard to hear and there are occasional bewildering cuts. If you see this movie, remember it was made in the same year as "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz."
The best thing about the movie is it's display of a black working/middle class far from the "street" folks many people tend to associate with Harlem. The movie is never condescending and never portrays blacks as seterotypes. As a glimpse into the life of the average black family in New York in the late '30's, Moon Over Harlem, while it fails as drama, succeeds as history lesson.