Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Burmese Harp

The Burmese Harp ("Biruma no tategoto")(Kon Ichikawa, 1956) Sublime Japanese war story (based on a children's book by Michio Takeyama) about an Imperial troop in Burma set during the last days of the Second World War. Led by a former choir-master, Captain Inouye (Rentarô Mikumi), the men comfort themselves with song, and on the practical side, communicate in hostile territory through a code of music. Leaving aside the fact that music might not be the perfect sound to "blend" in the jungle, the film does make the point of it as a universal language in one miraculous scene. As the troops sit huddled in a hut in a Burmese village awaiting an ambush by Allied forces, the tension becomes unbearable. As a ruse to draw them in and trick the enemy that they are relaxing rather than poised over their weapons, the men begin to sing "Hanyu No Yado," a plaintive song of home. To their astonishment, the Allies begin to chime in, as the melody bears a remarkable similarity to passages of "Home, Sweet Home." For a time, the enemy forces combine as they perform and listen and unite. The war has ended. The Allies are not there to attack, but to inform the Japanese troops and confiscate their weapons, and the music's common ground has provided a demilitarized zone between cultures. No one dies that night.
But the war goes on. The Americans are having a tough time convincing die-hard Japanese soldiers that hostilities have ended. In their temporary prison camp, the troop is asked to help in bringing in the still-fighting men. Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), the self-taught player of the difficult Burmese lute, volunteers and is seemingly lost in a battle to the death among British and Japanese forces.
But, on their way to the Mudon prison camp, Captain Inouye passes a lone Buddhist monk, who resembles Mizushima, and speculation begins about his fate.
It's a moving, satisfying film about comradeship and duty and how the two combine and divide us. It's also beautifully composed and shot. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Kon Ichikawa was a replacement director on the project, but it was a story that he particularly loved. His troops aren't interchangeable soldiers, they are individuals who react to situations differently, dream of home and family and are frequently repulsed by the nature of their war. Ichikawa uses the jungle settings as vast backdrops that dwarf the men--swallows them, throwing them back in time amidst the stone idols that litter the landscape. Slow, stately and passionate, The Burmese Harp is one of the greatest war films I've ever seen.

Ichikawa remade color...1985.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Aladdin (2019)

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Arabia
A Whole Re-Cycled World

Disney's live-action remake of Aladdin is a tough sell. Oh, don't misunderstand; it's a good movie—one might even say it's the best of Disney's kamikaze efforts to flesh out their revered animated classics—the art they established and are best known for—maybe in their fiscal attempt to find a tent-pole franchise (as if the parent company doesn't have enough of those) to crank out every couple of years, rather than roll the digital dice and counting on their new film to be as hot as Frozen.*

It's just that the 1992 animation version was so highly regarded—after they'd made their company best, Beauty and the Beast—as it was the last of the Menken-Ashman collaborations (the duo that revived the Disney animation brand in the 1980's under the Jeffrey Katzenberg regime) and it had the audacity to cast Robin Williams and the brio to match his improvisational pace with cell-drawings (principally by the gifted Eric Goldberg), and pulled it off with a manic energy that was simply breath-taking. It showed Disney wasn't the stodgy old cartoon company—they still took chances and aimed for the stars, not the fences.
Now, they're just happy to make return-trips. That's okay, if you want to start the development and generating cash, but it doesn't have the risk of charting new territory or any kind of innovation. Or risk.
Grumble aside, this cartoon-made-flesh does as good a job creating a similarly pleasing experience as its ink variety, and generating a similar amount of controversy as the original faced when it opened. Toss the bitching—they're tempests in an oil lamp; the studio has kept out Howard Ashman's original controversial lyrics and bent over backwards to have the "proper" ethnic casting (although the actress playing Princess Jasmine, Naomi Scott, is half-Indian if you want to make your picket sign accurate—she's great in the part, by the way, "despite" that fact) and beefed up the Princess' character and back-story, so the character is even more plucky than she was and less of a character for males to rescue.
Aladdin (played by Mena Massoud) is a parentless "street-rat", surviving on the streets of Agrabah near the Jordan River, by stealing anything he can get his thieving hands on. But, he's not such a bad sort, as he'll lift some food from the market and split it with his monkey Abu (voiced by Frank Welker again), then split it again with street urchins (1992 version) or a family (2019 version). There's a nice compression of the first film as Aladdin has an introductory song ("One Jump Ahead"), then meets Agrabah's Princess Jasmine (Scott), who is wandering the city-streets mingling with the people. Aladdin is immediately smitten and the princess introduces herself to him as "Dalia," the princess' handmaiden, to avoid detection. That song now serves as the song accompanying Aladdin and the princess running from the Royal Guard when she takes some bread to give to hungry kids. 
Aladdin takes "Daliah" to his make-shift home, where they start to get to know each other—other than the fact she's actually the princess—when she makes her excuses to leave because she sees over at the palace that there is a large cortege arriving, bearing another suitor for her. Her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban) wants to marry her off, but, by decree, only royalty will be considered for the job. So, she begs off to meet the latest creep to try and woo her...leaving Aladdin with half-steeped tea and, to his shock, the princess' bracelet—given to her by her mother—which has been stolen by Abu. Bad monkey. No banana.
Meanwhile, back at the palace, the Royal Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) has other plots-threads to plot. In an attempt to gain more power (he hates being "second best," poor boy), he has been using thieves to try and wrest the Magic Lamp that lies buried in the Cave of Wonders far from Agrabah. He's had little success as the Cave keeps chomping down on his thieves, while telling him that the only one who can enter must be "a diamond in the rough." In other words, bright, but not multi-faceted.
Aladdin, discovering that Abu has "Daliah's" bracelet, makes his own excuse to sneak into the palace to return it to her...and bring her tea. Still thinking she's "Daliah"—the real Daliah (Nasim Pedrad, who's delightful) tries to pretend she's the princess and sort of doesn't—Aladdin promises that he will try and see her again, but that becomes unlikely as he is arrested by the Royal Guard.
He is taken by the Guard to the Cave of Wonders, where Jafar tells him that the woman he met was not the handmaiden, but the actual princess. He instructs him to retrieve the lamp, and Jafar will make him a rich enough man to impress the princess—but don't take anything else...or he will be killed, either by the cave or by Jafar. Abu, however, is too dazzled by the many jewels in the cave (or it merely thinks "Hey, the kid will get killed, not me") so he takes a really big red ruby just as Aladdin grabs the lamp.

The cave, of course, is not happy, so decides to...cave. But, not before Aladdin, in trying to get Jafar his prize, discovers what a heel the Vizier is, and only manages to survive by the interventions of Abu and a Magic Flying Carpet—which (I neglected to mention) Aladdin had rescued in the cave. 
Oh. And Abu steals the lamp back from Jafar. Cut to the jinn, they rub the lamp, genie appears and it's Will Smith and not Robin Williams...

...which, as it turns out, is not a bad thing. Bless Will Smith, who knew...just knew...that everybody was going to compare him to Williams** and he would always come up short. And he took the job, anyway. And, surprise, he makes it his own. He's great in this. Lines are similar, but Smith brings his own charm to it and his own spin and he's a lot of fun. Check out the video below of the first minute of "Prince Ali"—it's a pinch slower (just ever so slightly), but he sells the thing for all it's worth...and (here's a plus), you can understand the lyrics without having to go to the internet. 
Yes, he definitely is contemporary (and I didn't hear you complaining when Williams had his period accurate William F. Buckley imitation come out of the genie), but then, Disney has never been too concerned with any flavor of the times other than the audience's. Smith isn't doing stand-up—he's bringing the most out of the material using his particular gifts and they are considerable. This is not an either/or situation. Both interpretations can exist without replacing one or the other. Both are applaudable; Williams created one of the greatest vocal performances in cartoons (on a par with Mel Blanc) and Smith has done as much with his as is humanly possible.
Now, Robin Williams is the stand-out of the 92 version; everybody else in it is competent  and gets the job done. This version, there's more pressure on the actors because they have no help from animators enhancing their performances. They gotta do all the work themselves, and they live up to it. Massoud's Aladdin is less of a bland Tom Cruise stand-in and he does a lovely job of playing amusingly painful discomfort—and more than one time I thought "was he dubbed by Hayden Christensen?" as he stammered through a line. Vast improvement.
And I found Negahban's performance as Jafar fascinating. He's not the angular Basil Rathbone type as the cartoon, but a seething one with large dead eyes that burn through the screen and an expressiveness that is subtle and slightly quirky. It's a performance that reminded me of the intensity of the young Christopher Lee, who could mime evil with only the slightest hint of acting. When he unloads and takes it to "11" in the final act, it's a lovely bit of CGI-chewing. 
And Scott is a real find, capable of the comedy but with a serene grace that, well, basically explodes when called on to belt out a song—and director Ritchie loves taking advantage of that by giving her...not one...but two moments in the movie where she swings into the camera and pegs the VU-meter, that might cause some to rock back in their theater-seats. I would advise audience members to watch out for their knees whenever she has a solo. Could be painful.
If one wonders why the movie has expanded to two hours from the ninety minutes of the original, chalk it up to the slightly slower pacing of real life from animation...and the dancing. There are a few extended dance sequences that pad the pace a bit.

One other quibble: the whole "Tell Her the Truth" lesson on which the movie is based—that Aladdin should come clean about not being a prince and just be himself to impress the princess. Oh, yes, hear, hear. Honesty is the best policy. But, the devil on my shoulder would like him to cap his confession with a "That's who I am...'Daliah!'" Okay, a bit churlish, I know, discretion being the better part of valor...but at least they have that one thing in common.
But, on the whole, a good show, actually worthy of the effort, and Ritchie shows himself very deft at spectacle, even using more of an eye-popping palette of colors than the desaturated look he favored in his last few films. And he makes the thing move like crazy, approaching the zip of animation, which gives it far more energy and verve than the last few Disney films that tried to move beyond the animation table. It doesn't replace the animated version. But it certainly becomes it.

* Makes me wonder why they don't just make a movie called "Cash-Cow" and admit it.

** Compounded by the fact that Williams is dead, and everybody—now that he's gone—has a case of the "guilt's" because they didn't appreciate him nearly enough when he was alive. Cue the Joni Mitchell song.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Don't Make a Scene: The Americanization of Emily

The Story: This is a tough one. And, by the way, Happy Memorial Day.

I've been sitting on this scene from The Americanization of Emily for awhile, trying to think of the best time to post it. I was thinking around D-Day—June 6th—as that WWII event is depicted in the film, but it didn't seem right, somehow.

But, Memorial Day, that's right on the nose...maybe too much. It's the day we honor our war dead—hopefully, we recall their sacrifice over the barbecues—and think about "the last full measure of devotion" that sacrifice represents. That's not something to be taken lightly...or dismissed...ever.

And it should taken for granted, thought of as the cost of doing business, or as "acceptable" losses. Or "the way things are."

That's the point of the scene. Admitted coward Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Madison knows war, survived it, and never wants to experience it again. More importantly, he dreads that his younger brother might get so swept up in the cause that he will enlist, and possibly not survive, and for that, he will have none of the sentimentalization and blithe acceptance of the status quo, none of the ribbons, none of the speeches, none of the Memorials. It makes war too glamorous, too attractive and something to aspire to. Such thoughts kill people.

It would be easy to let people live with their dreams, coping mechanisms, reassurances, justifications and excuses. It's a bitter truth pill to say that the reality might be healthier, not only for mental health, but also for all children approaching 18.

Paddy Chayevsky, he of Network, Marty, and The Hospital, as was typical for him, wrote the scene with a sophistication and bitter humor that blunts the radicalism of what's being said. His monologists never seem like "cranks" because their arguments are well thought-out, articulate, and, even though they may expose your worst fears, at their core, reasonable. There may be cruelty here, but for Madison, it's "life or death" and that requires a hard dose of reality, without illusion.

Maybe the best memorial is to cast illusion aside and vow to prevent such things, so that we need never chisel another name on another memorial, and tend to the ones who've come back from the last failure to do so.   

The Set-Up: Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Madison (James Garner) is a "dog-robber"—a procurer—for the U.S. Navy stationed in England during WWII, and specifically for Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas). It's a good job, but, more importantly, it keeps him out of combat. He has made the acquaintance of one Emily Barham (Julie Andrews), a member of the motor pool, and they have become infatuated with each other, despite him being American—but, as she's lost her father, brother, and husband to the war, she's happy that he's breathing. Things are moving along nicely—Emily has invited Charlie to meet her mother (Joyce Grenfell).

Bing! Bong!

CHARLIE: Hello, Emily.
EMILY: Hello.
EMILY: You're just in time for tea.

CHARLIE: Thank you. 
EMILY: You brought me some chocolates?  
CHARLIE: Two boxes of Hershey's.
EMILY: That's very American of you, Charlie. You just had to bring along some small token of opulence. I don't want them. 
EMILY: You Yanks can't even show affection without buying something.
CHARLIE: Don't get into a state over it. I thought you liked chocolates.
EMILY: I do! But my country's at war... and we're doing without chocolates for a while. I don't want oranges or eggs or soap flakes, either. 
EMILY: Don't show me how profitable it'll be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don't Americanize me.
EMILY: That's my father. He lost a leg in the first war. 
EMILY: Got the Victoria Cross for that. He died in an air raid a week after that portrait was painted.
EMILY: That's my brother, there. His name was Charlie, too, by the way. 
EMILY: He was shot down during the blitz. Sacrificed himself to save his squadron.
EMILY: The one you're looking at now is my husband.
CHARLIE: He looks like a rake.
EMILY: Yes. He was very bawdy. I was insane about him. 
EMILY: He died at Tobruk. 
EMILY: The rest of the lot there are cousins. There's two of them still living. 
EMILY: I must say the family's been thinned out nicely one way or another. 
EMILY: Charlie, before we go out to my mum, I must tell you... she's a bit mad. You'll like her very much. She's very funny. 
EMILY: But she may yatter away about my father and my brother... as though they were still alive. Just go along with her. Do you understand?
CHARLIE: I understand. You don't want my Hershey bars.
EMILY: I think it profane to enjoy this war.
CHARLIE: I never realized what a sensual satisfaction grieving is for women.
EMILY: I'm not sure that's a very tasteful thing for you to say.
CHARLIE: I'm not sentimental about war. I see nothing noble in widows.
EMILY: You're jealous of my husband. I like that.
EMILY: Mother.
MRS. BARHAM: You've brought chocolates, two whole boxfuls. What a treasure trove.
EMILY: I already refused them. - 
CHARLIE: On ascetic grounds. -
MRS. BARHAM: You're an absolute flatulent, Emily.
EMILY: Take the things if you want them.
MRS. BARHAM: I shall have one later and save the rest for your father.
MRS. BARHAM: You must be Emily's new lover since she hasn't bothered to introduce us.
CHARLIE: You must be her mother.
MRS. BARHAM: You found the chink in my armor. What are your religious views? -
CHARLIE: I'm a practicing coward. -
MRS. BARHAM: That's very fervent of you.
EMILY: I should have known you two would get on. You're as dotty as she is, Charlie.
CHARLIE: Before the war, I was an assistant night manager...of a diplomatic hotel in Washington, D.C.
EMILY: What made you say that? Lord, I feel like Alice at the tea party.
MRS. BARHAM: He's going to tell us about a religious experience.
CHARLIE: It was my job as assistant night manager to arrange things... for many of the great historical figures on great historical missions.
MRS. BARHAM: What exactly did you arrange?
CHARLIE: Usually I arranged girls, but individual tastes varied, of course.
MRS. BARHAM: Of course.
CHARLIE: It's useful work, anyway, especially in a war. I was offered all sorts of commissions in the Army and the Navy. The one I have now. Adm. Jessup phoned me to join his staff... but I'd always been a little embarrassed by my job at the hotel... 
CHARLIE: ...and I wanted to do something redeeming. 
CHARLIE: (Did you ever notice that) War is the only chance a man has to do something redeeming. That's why war is so attractive. -
MRS. BARHAM: War's very handsome, I agree.
CHARLIE: At any rate, I turned down Adm. Jessup's offer... and I enlisted in the Marines as a private. I even applied for combat service. My wife... 
CHARLIE: all appearances a perfectly sensible woman... 

CHARLIE:...encouraged me in this idiotic decision. Seven months later, I found myself invading the Solomon Islands. There I was splashing away in the shoals of Guadalcanal. It occurred to me a man could get killed doing this kind of thing. 

CHARLIE: Fact is...

CHARLIE: ...most of the men splashing along with me were screaming in agony and dying like flies. 

CHARLIE:  Those were brave men dying there. Peacetime, they'd all been normal, decent cowards...frightened of their wives, trembling before their bosses... 

CHARLIE:...terrified of the passing of the years. 

CHARLIE:  But war had made them gallant. They had been greedy men. Now they were self-sacrificing. They had been selfish. Now they were generous. War isn't hell at all. Man at his best. The highest morality he's capable of.

EMILY: Never mind all that. What's this about a wife?

CHARLIE: That night, I sat in the jungles of Guadalcanal... waiting to be killed, sopping wet. 
CHARLIE: It was then I had my blinding revelation.

CHARLIE: I discovered I was a coward. That's my new religion. 
CHARLIE: I'm a big believer in it. Cowardice will save the world. 
CHARLIE:  It's not war that's insane, you see. 
CHARLIE: It's the morality of it. It's not greed and ambition that makes wars. It's goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons... for liberation or manifest destiny... always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war we've managed to butcher... some 10,000,000 humans in the interest of humanity. Next war, it seems we'll have to destroy all of man... in order to preserve his damn dignity. 
CHARLIE: It's not war that's unnatural to us. It's virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue we shall have soldiers. So I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.
MRS. BARHAM: That was exalting, Commander. Absolutely occult.
EMILY: Yes, well, never mind the metaphysics, Commander. Let's get back to your wife.
CHARLIE: Needless to say, that first night, I wrote Adm. Jessup, saying... "For heaven's sakes, get me out of this. " 
CHARLIE: Two weeks later, I was transferred back to Washington. I raced home to my wife... - 
CHARLIE: And found her with another man. - 
EMILY: Oh Good
CHARLIE: Lord, no. My wife, who had deceived me more times before the war than I care to think about was now having the time of her life being faithful. 
CHARLIE: She was furious with me for coming back. There was no reason for her being virtuous anymore. 
CHARLIE: She promptly sued me for divorce on the grounds of religious differences. 
CHARLIE: I was a self-preservationist... and she was a high Anglican sentimentalist. 
EMILY: Well...
EMILY: You're fair game, then.
MRS. BARHAM: After every war, you know, we always find out how unnecessary it was... 
MRS. BARHAM: ...and after this I'm sure all the generals will write books about the blunders made by other generals and statesmen will publish their secret diaries... 

MRS. BARHAM: ...and it'll show beyond any shadow of doubt that war could easily have been avoided in the first place. 
MRS. BARHAM: The rest of us, of course, will be left with the job of bandaging the wounded and burying the dead.
CHARLIE: I don't trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham. 
CHARLIE: It's the generals with the bloodiest records... who are the first to shout what a hell it is. 
CHARLIE: It's always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parades.
EMILY: That was unkind, Charlie, and very rude.
CHARLIE: We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals...or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogeys.
CHARLIE: It's the rest of us who build statues to those generals... and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead... and shrines of our battlefields. 

CHARLIE: We wear our widow's weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham... and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices. 

CHARLIE: My brother died at Anzio.
EMILY: I didn't know that, Charlie.
CHARLIE: Yes. An everyday soldier's death, no special heroism involved. 
CHARLIE: They buried what pieces they found of him. 
CHARLIE: But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud.
MRS. BARHAM: You're very hard on your mother. It seems a harmless enough pretense to me.
CHARLIE: No, Mrs. Barham. 
CHARLIE: No. You see, now my other brother can't wait to reach enlistment age. - 
CHARLIE: That'll be in September. -
CHARLIE: Maybe ministers and generals blunder us into war, Mrs. Barham... the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. 
CHARLIE: What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She's under constant sedation... and terrified she may wake up one morning... and find her last son has run off to be brave. 
CHARLIE: I don't think I was rude or unkind before. Do you, Mrs. Barham?
MRS. BARHAM: You better push off, Emily, if you've got to get to work.
EMILY: Give my best to Father, then.
MRS. BARHAM: Your father died in the blitz... and your brother died a brave and pointless death in December 1940. - 
MRS. BARHAM: I've carried on much too long with all this. -
EMILY: Mother.
MRS. BARHAM: No, do go. Honestly, I'd much rather be alone. Really, I mean it. 
MRS. BARHAM: You're a kind man, Commander. 
MRS. BARHAM: I hope you'll come again.
CHARLIE: Thank you, ma'am. I'd like to.

The Americanization of Emily

Words by Paddy Chayefsky

Pictures by Philip H. Lathrop and Arthur Hiller.

The Americanization of Emily is available on M-G-M Home Video.