The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
“There is no place like home”. Housing is an important but often overlooked topic in films (see my discussion of two notable films about housing here). The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019, tells the story of Jimmie Fails (actor playing “himself”), a young man stuck in a series of menial jobs, but dreaming of a better life and still attached to his old childhood home, which is now an expensive Victorian house in an affluent area of San Francisco. His loyal friend and aspiring playwright Montgomery Allen is always ready to offer Jimmie his own place or rather the place of his parents to sleep in, but Jimmy is set only on one thing – to get one particular house which he believes his father built in 1943 and is prepared to do anything to reclaim it. This cinematic debut from Joe Talbot may be an imperfect film, but it has so many distinguishable characteristics and particular eccentricities that it becomes quite impossible to compare it to anything else. Visually-entrancing, The Last Black Man in San Francisco puts the concept of nostalgia, the spirit of ordinary, under-privileged people, their hopes, dreams and rights, as well as one touching friendship, at the very centre of its low-key drama.
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The Mauritanian (2020)
Based on the memoir Guantamano Diary (2015), this film tells the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (played by Tahar Rahim), a man from Mauritania who was arrested on heresy some time after the 9/11 terrorist attack and then spent in total 14 years (from 2002 to 2016) in the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba without charge or trial. Jodie Foster plays his lawyer Nancy Hollander who is determined to see that her client gets a fair trial despite the extremely serious allegations against him, and Benedict Cumberbatch (12 Years a Slave (2013)) plays military prosecutor Stuart Couch who is more than determined to avenge the attack on America, especially since he knows one of its direct victims personally. Despite its slightly uneven narrative, this film by Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void (2003)) is an intelligent legal drama bolstered by the powerful performances from both Tahar Rahim (A Prophet (2009)) and Jodie Foster (Money Monster (2016)). The film, which undoubtedly will make many people uncomfortable, clearly shows the Guantanamo Bay abuses through the eyes of one innocent and sympathetic man.
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Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and there are many interesting films of this or last year which are based on true stories, including Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Tesla, Hillbilly Elegy, The Dig and The Mauritanian. Crime and war films are often inspired by real stories (Catch Me If You Can , The Pianist ) and I previously compiled a list of 25 “Must-See” Biographical Films (see also my related list of 5 Great Films About Adventurers Based on Real Stories). Below are five films which were based on, or inspired by, real stories which, in turn, are simply remarkable.
I. The Sound of Music 
The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, might have been a book and a theatrical musical once, but it was also based on an incredible true story. In her memoir titled The Story of the Trapp Family Singers , Maria von Trapp tells the story of her family who originally came from Salzburg, Austria, but who were then forced to cross borders and emigrate to America to escape Nazi persecutions in Europe.
Even though the true story was dramatized substantially for the film, it remained true in essence. So, in reality, a young woman from a religious background did come to work in the Trapp family, but not as a governess, but as a tutor to one of the children (who were in reality ten in number, not seven as in the film). Georg von Trapp was the father in the family, and Maria (as this was the name of the woman/the author) came to love the children first (and only then the father) (source). Georg, who was in reality a much kinder person than in the film, did marry Maria, and the family eventually travelled to Italy and America, and not to Switzerland as in the film. The Sound of Music is also not the only film to be based on Maria von Trapp’s memoir. Previously, Wolfgang Liebeneiner directed a German film The Trapp Family , which was also based on The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.
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I. The Servant (1963)
Directed by Joseph Losey, The Servant is considered by some to be one of the finest British films. It tells of Tony (James Fox), a flamboyant member of the upper class, who has just moved in to his central London residence after a period spent in Africa. He immediately hires a man-servant for himself, demure, respectful and knowledgeable Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde). Hugo not only knows how to cook and take care of a house, but he is also an expert interior decorator and has been a gentleman’s servant for many notable Lordships. This tale of a friction between the upstairs and the downstairs reaches the zenith of tension when Hugo introduces “his sister” (Sarah Miles) to the household and when Tony’s own fiancée (Susan Stewart) decides to make the house her own dominion. The Servant works delightfully as a satire on class differences and servitude, showing a thin line that often separates usefulness from a nuisance, and kindness from submissiveness. This tale of hidden corruption has a frightening change of dynamics.
Continue reading “Recently Watched: Films: The Servant (1963), A Kiss Before Dying (1956) & Isle of the Dead (1945)”
I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake is a kind of film whose theme of the individual vs. the system, brutal honesty and underlying power make it a compulsory watch for everyone. The story centres on Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year old widowed carpenter living in the UK, who is forced to rely on the benefits system (welfare system) to support himself after his doctor diagnosed him with heart problems. What follows is his experience being part of that system where a person is just a number and where there is little place for basic human understanding and compassion. All this may sound mundane and even dull, but the film is anything but that. Under Loach’s nuanced direction, we follow Blake as he makes friends with a single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and does everything in his power to make his own and others’ lives bearable. The true power of this gentle, realistic film that displays the kindness of others and human hope, lies in showing ordinary people struggling on a daily basis against the system that is paradoxically designed to keep them in the same miserable place.
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I. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
Chinese director Zhang Yimou tells in his film, which is based on the novel Wives and Concubines by Su Tong, the story of a beautiful nineteen-year-old ex-university student Songlian (Gong Li) who decides to become a concubine in the 1920s China. After her decision, Songlian finds herself in the palace of “red lanterns” which has “four houses” for her husband’s four mistresses. She soon gets acquainted with the elderly and indifferent first Mistress, with the friendly and seemingly happy second Mistress and with the still young and beautiful, but jealous third Mistress. All is well, or is it? The palace’s strange, centuries-old traditions and customs first bewilder Songlian and then force her most shameful qualities out, as her husband randomly shifts the power between the four houses. Songlian soon finds herself in a miniature society and under the patriarchal dominance which she has never imagined to exist, with her husband employing arbitrary and complex policies of rewards and punishments to keep the mistresses in line. In this dangerous game, Songlian realises that she must learn to handle not only the three previous jealous Mistresses, but also her hostile maid Yan’er and the realisation of a lifetime imprisonment. Raise the Red Lantern is a psychologically-intriguing film about one oppressive world where the competition for power, hopelessness, despair and the weight of guilt all mingle as the palace changes people and makes them into forms it desires and the master has planned in advance. With the exquisitely beautiful cinematography (by Zgao Fei), Raise the Red Lantern is one of the most important films of the 1990s. 10/10
Continue reading “Recently Watched: Films: Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Quiz Show (1994) & Close-Up (1990)”
My last review focused on a cellist who was forced to abandon his chosen profession and resort to a more undesirable one. This got me thinking about musicians in films, and I am presenting below seven great films that focus on pianists, their lives and struggles. While some pianists below are completely fictional, such as Ada in The Piano or Tom in The Talented Mr. Ripley, others are based on real-life people, including David Helfgott in Shine and Mozart in Amadeus. In no particular order:
I. The Piano (1993)
“It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters“, said once film critic Roger Ebert, “but about a whole universe of feeling“. Set in the 19th century, Jane Campion’s very fine film tells the story of a psychologically-mute Scottish woman Ada who travels to New Zealand with her young daughter Flora after an arranged marriage. Ada’s passion for music and for hand-crafted piano is touching in the film as she has to face strict social conventions in a foreign land while also longing for the love that is genuine and freely-chosen. The film also has one of the most beautiful soundtracks ever, composed by Michael Nyman.
II. The Pianist (2002)
This film is based on the autobiographical book The Pianist (1946) that tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman. Masterful and unforgettable in every way, the film by Polanski is all about one Jewish man hiding in apartments across Warsaw as the Nazis brutal, evil regime is set to hunt down and kill every remaining Jewish person in the city. The film emphasises the sheer beauty of the piano music, and how it has the power to transcend life, bring out the best in humanity and unite it.
Continue reading “7 Great Films About Pianists”
Departures is the winner of the 2009 Academy Award in the category of the Best Foreign Language Picture. Loosely based on a memoir by Shinmon Aoki titled Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician, it tells the story of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), an ex-cellist who comes to his home town and finds a very undesirable employment as a nōkanshi, a traditional ritual mortician in Japan. The profession attracts strong societal criticism and prejudice, and soon Kobayashi has to justify his choice not only to his wife and those around him, but also to himself, while finding the courage to finally face the most hated man in his life – his own father. Departures is a wonderful film full of humour and touching moments. This film about one man’s journey of self-discovery and finding forgiveness is also an admirable attempt to challenge and to help alleviate the nonsensical and unfair discrimination faced by people who work in this very difficult and challenging profession in Japan.
Continue reading ““Departures” Review”
“People view child actors the same way that girls treat their Barbie dolls” (Mara Wilson, former child actress, Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)).” A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark” (a Chinese proverb). “Childhood experiences are very important to lifelong outcomes…“ (Andrew S. Garner, MD).
We all know past childhood or teenage horrors/troubles of such celebrities as Judy Garland, Macaulay Culkin, River Phoenix or Lindsay Lohan. We also know the examples of successful transitions from child actors to adult stars, such as the Harry Potter cast. The point is that the cinema industry has learnt much about the treatment of child actors, but it has also done so at a considerable cost, including in terms of human lives. In this post, I would like to highlight three child actors (some alive and some already dead) who were essentially let down by Hollywood, and their cases were really such that more effort and support should have been given to see these child actors’ transition to adult actors or adults with other careers – especially since so much was done by Hollywood to elevate them to their “star” status from their very young ages. Studios often became the children’s second home in the examples below, and since the children relied so much on that early expectation of praise and success (and money was made out of them), these children and then teenagers had to be helped later to deal with their expected career declines. There are those who blame the pushy parents, and I am not saying that personal factors or choices did not play a role in the cases below, but I also believe that no one should have forgotten that the actors below were also mere children, much more sensitive to their environment, praise and criticism than adults, and, thus, later, needing much more support and reassurance in their careers.
Continue reading ““(Little) Stars in Their Eyes”: How Hollywood Makes and Breaks its Child Actors”
Little Joe (2019)
Little Joe is a British/Austrian/German-produced film that was selected to compete at the Cannes Film Festival 2019. In this story, Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) works at a special laboratory that produces genetically-modified flowers for the public market. Alice and her team have managed to produce one type of a plant that requires much attention from their owners, but, in return, is alleged to “make them happy”. The story takes a disturbing turn when Alice takes one of those new plants (flowers) home, gifts it to her son, Joe, and begins to worry that the pollen that the new flower produces may be infecting people in a sinister way. Probably. If that sounds a bit random and confusing, it is because it is, and the film never makes anything in this story compelling or clearer. Though, at first, the idea behind Little Joe sounds intriguing and the memorable production design does leave an impression, overall, Little Joe is nothing more than a very preposterous, excruciatingly dull and badly-acted picture that, in comparison, will make any episode of a British series EastEnders an immediate Oscar winner. Continue reading ““Little Joe” Review”
Movie titles are important for marketing, and the correct translation of a movie title, taking into account cultural sensitivity, contributes to making that movie a success. It is more surprising, therefore, that some English-language titles are being translated in such a way that leads to all sorts of problems, and at best, may sound very funny and cause confusion. Below, I will present some of those titles, focusing on those titles translated for the benefit of Russian, French and Spanish-speaking audiences.
- Silver Linings Playbook – Russian Translation: Мой парень – псих – literal meaning: My boyfriend – a loony.
This has to be one of the most ridiculous title translations. There is nothing subtle about the Russian title of this film, and the title suggests a cheap comedy flick, rather than a more sophisticated movie which is refreshing, layered and solidly acted.
2. Limitless – Russian Translation: Области тьмы – literal meaning: Zones of darkness.
Not much thought was spent considering this title translation. “The Dark Fields“, the US film’s working title and the original title of the book the film is based upon, was translated, but it still did not make a lot of sense. The title emphasis should have been on the super-powers of the hero, but, instead, the title suggests this is either some UFO-abduction or a mysterious crop circles’ story.
Continue reading “Lost in Translation: Film Titles Gone Astray”
Richard at The Humpo Show has tagged me to get involved in this Unpopular Opinion Tag (Films edition), and I thought it would be great fun since I have to pick three films generally loved by most people, but which I find undeserving of all the hype and explain my choices. Thanks again, Richard!
In particular, the rules are as follows:
- Pick three movies which most people like, except you;
- Tag a minimum of five (or more) other people;
- Thank the person who has tagged you.
So, without further ado, I pick American Beauty (1999), Dead Poets Society (1989) and The Cabin in the Woods (2012). Be warned, spoilers ahead.
I. American Beauty (1999)
IMDb score: 8.4; Rotten Tomatoes score: 88%.
I am a fan of Sam Mendes (see “Revolutionary Road” (2008) and “Skyfall” (2012)), but “American Beauty” is just far from being a great film everyone thinks it is. The film is just a pretentious and self-indulgent portrayal of middle-class family life in the suburban USA. It may appeal to the audience because of its strong performances, alluring direction and cinematography, and its beautiful soundtrack, but its self-conscious, manipulative play with the its melodramatic narrative leaves much to be desired, and all of its characters are unlikable. Through the narrative of our already dead protagonist, middle-aged Lester, “American Beauty” looks at the example of a middle-class suburban life cynically, romanticising the exploitation and commodification of female bodies, the maniac and perverted pursuit of underage girls, and the use of drugs, among other things. The film thinks Lester, played by Kevin Spacey, is another “Great Gatsby”, who died being misunderstood by everyone and because of some unfortunate series of events. In fact, the film glorifies a protagonist that is abusive and manipulative, and that is only too happy to gain and exploit the attention of young girls to satisfy his own sexual needs (Lester Burnham is an anagram of “Humbert learns” (from Nabokov’s controversial “Lolita”). Though some of its scenes are entertaining, the film’s overall self-importance is just laughable, and the messages its sends are, if not shocking, then definitely very tasteless.
Continue reading “Unpopular Opinion Tag (Films)”