Friday, September 29, 2023

Turning Red

Turning Red
(Domee Shi, 2022) Meilin "Mei-Mei" Lee (Rosalie Chiang) is a precocious 13-year old living in the Toronto of 2002. Smart, even effervescent, she is a young adult on the cusp of change, a "tween" in every sense of the word. To her parents, Ming (Sandra Oh) and Jin (Orion Lee), she is a studious, obedient, respectful child, who is only too happy to excel at school, and forego her friends and outside activities to help with the family business, the temple dedicated to her ancestor Sun Yee. She is a credit to her family. But, there must be a debit somewhere. In her own words:
The number one rule in my family? Honor your parents. They're the supreme beings who gave you life who sweated and sacrificed so much to put a roof over your head, food on your plate, an epic amount of food. The least you can do in return is every single thing they ask. 'Course some people are like, Be careful. Honoring your parents sounds great, but if you take it too far, well, you might forget to honor yourself. Luckily, I don't have that problem. I'm Meilin Lee. And ever since I turned 13, I've been doin' my own thing, makin' my own moves; 24/7/365. I wear what I want, say what I want, and I will not hesitate to do a spontaneous cartwheel if I feel so moved!
At school, she is just as industrious...and spontaneous, invoking some envy and taunting from some school-mates, but never from from her posse of gal-pals, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park). The girls are like musketeers, unquestioningly loyal and all dedicated to the hero-worship of the boy-band, 4*Town (their songs provided by Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell), whose posters adorn their walls and their pre-pubescent minds and are just dreeeeeeeeeeeamy! (*squeeallllll!!!*)

But, despite the rock-solid priorities and the high SAT potentials there is one thing that is starting to crowd into her thoughts: boys. For example, the monosyllabic clerk at the Daisy Mart convenience store down the block, Devon. Mei-Mei 's Devon, although this may be peer-perception because the rest of her squad 's Devon. It's not Big-L Love, because it's more like merely emoji-love, but, still, in the privacy of her bed-room and her notebook, she starts doodling fantasy pictures of Devon and when Mom finds out, it is SO embarrassing.
But it gets worse (it gets worse!!!) Mother Ming marches Mei down to the Daisey Mart and confronts the clueless clerk—she blames the clerk, not her little princess—for being a bad influence on her innocent daughter and she does it in front of "people"...and
Devon...and she could. just. DIE! And the next day, she has to go to school and EVERYBODY will know and it will be just one long humiliation only interrupted by school-bells. She. could. just. DIE. Instead, she has a nightmare involving warring factions in her brain—the temple, her family, and the boys NOT in her life. And she wakes up a giant red panda.
You heard me. She wakes up a giant red panda. Seems that's the family curse, handed down on the matriarchal side, but Mei doesn't know that. All she knows it's she's a "big fat monster" and stinks of fur. Her horror attracts the attention of her Mother, who assumes it's another "curse" ("has the red peony bloomed?") and that Mei has had her first visit from "her little friend". Well, it ain't little. And it's no friend. And it's going to be SO inconvenient at school.
Turning Red (the common phrase for "embarrassment") is not so much about Myth as about Metaphor. Oh, it's sneaky about it, hitting the nail squarely on the head a couple times...and kudos for doing so (hopefully, it'll spark some talk about "women's issues" at home), but creator Shi and her screenwriters,
and , are talking about other issues beyond mere menstruation. Mei's ursinethropy may remind of "the monthly" but it's more about the hormonal transition from child to young adult, where you're taught to think, but not for yourself. Her transformations have nothing to do with estrogen, but, instead, from moments of high anxiety and high emotion.
This is bad timing for a teen-ager, but The Ancient Ones seemed to have known what they were doing—the pandification was given to Sun Yee in order that she might protect her family and village in times of conflict—as teens are nothing but conflict. Being the sharp tack that she is, Mei comes to learn that she can control her emotions, "zen out" and she transforms back into her original self....well, a ginger version of herself. Except, there's that "raging hormone" thing again...sometimes Mei just can't control herself. Life happens.
And things happen in movies. The challenge in this involves timing and responsibility. On the one hand—the one where her friends are, their favorite band 4*Town is on tour and doing a date in Toronto. Problem? Mother Ming will NOT, absolutely NOT, allow Mei to go to the concert and will CERTAINLY not fork over the $100 bucks for a ticket (uh, remember, this is all taking place in 2002, so tickets did not bankrupt as they do today). No prob', Ming and her gal-pals will find a way. On the furry hand, the whole panda-rama can be taken care of, as it has for centuries, will a ceremony held on the occasion of a blood moon, where the panda spirit will be "re-located" to an amulet Mei will wear around her neck. It pays to accessorize.
Does it all go according to plan? What do you think? We're talking teens here.
What DOES go well is Pixar. Director Shi won an Oscar for her hilarious, emotional but wonderfully off-beat short Bao, and here, she's just as precise in her comedy timing and her way of combining heart and hilarity, about the burdens of cultural expectation (and sub-textually, a woman's lot in life) like a Looney-Tunes Amy Tan novel. And she's hip enough that she throws in quick anime and emoji references that only "ups" the game and lowers the age-requirement for "getting" the wit. This is really good stuff.
In fact, the only quibble I have is that Disney chose—in their infinite attempts to keep Disney product in theaters and Pixar product on their streaming service—to only release it in L.A. and New York theaters for the shortest available time for Oscar consideration. This is a "Big-Screen" movie, the better to appreciate the artistry of the Pixar pixelators who worked so many months to get the details 'just so." Audiences would have clamored for it if it was available (despite the pearl-clutching of some Social Watchdogs).
If anything, it should be Disney that is turning red.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder
Otto Preminger, 1959) The novel of "Anatomy of a Murder" (by judge John D. Voelker and based on a 1952 murder case where he was the defense attorney) was a number one best-seller in 1958—and on the New York Times Best-Seller List for 62 weeks!—so it was fast-tracked to the movies with a tight script and un-fussy but frame-filling direction by Otto Preminger. The German producer-director shot it in one mere month and had it edited and scored ready for previewing 21 days after that. That could be the reason why the film is a whopping 161 minutes long, or it could just be that the film is so full of good stuff there wasn't anything to cut out.
But, "that stuff" was enough to make it controversial—and even banned in a couple places—in the U.S. of the 1950's. Preminger always enjoyed thumbing his nose at the Hays Code, and Anatomy of a Murder's constant harping on rape, torn panties, spermatogenesis, penetration, contraception and the terms "climax," "bitch" and "slut" were enough to draw people away from their televisions—where married couples couldn't sleep in the same bed—and into theaters (although star  James Stewart's own father considered it "a dirty picture").
Stewart plays, well, basically author-judge Voelker, loving the law and fishing. Retired D.A. Paul Biegler (Stewart) is enjoying a happy retirement—forced on him by being voted out of his district attorney position—of fishing and free jazz when he's approached by Laura Manion (
Lee Remick) to defend her Army Lieutenant husband, Fred (Ben Gazzara), who has been arrested for murder in nearby Thunder Bay, Michigan. The victim was a local innkeeper named Barney Quill. Meeting Mannion in prison, Biegler finds him admitting to the murder, but defends it saying that Quill raped his wife. He also claims that he has no memory of killing Quill, just the sort of detail Biegler can hook his defense on.
With his secretary sardonic Maida Rutledge (
Eve Arden) and alcoholic colleague Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell), the small consortium start doing research in the law stacks and strategizing their defense of Manion, which will entail a little manipulation of the facts...or at least some creative presentation. For instance, Manion's lack of recall lends itself to a defense precedent for temporary insanity based on "irresistible impulse"—that'll mean expert witnesses whose theories might lead to debunking by cross-examination.
Then, there's the matter of  Laura Manion, who is (shall we say?) a little "loose"—not only in her manner, but also with the facts— andcould be smeared at trial for "provoking" her attacker—the usual "tarnish the victim" strategy. So, she is coached, given a make-over, and presented in such a way at trial to be as unprovocative as possible. But, the facts of the case and Quill's attack can't be denied, try as the prosecuting team—local D.A. Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) and stringer, big-city prosecutor April Dancer (George C. Scott, in one of his early highly acidic roles)—might, so they go after the tenuous "irresistible impulse" defense and the Manion's volatile married life. This creates a highly charged trial with Dancer's vicious cobra-like questioning and Biegler's "courtroom theatrics" thundering back and forth. One would swear 50% of the dialog consists of "Objection!" Pity the poor judge (played by Joseph N. Welch, he was made famous by the Army-McCarthy hearingsand had no shame to exploit it!).
Anatomy of a Murder is different than most of the trial depictions that 1959 audiences were used to. Saturated with previous courtroom dramas and the weekly trials of "Perry Mason" on television, viewers were seeing these things as mystery stories, with the investigating going on in real time only to have the solution revealed at the end. This one, however, already has the "whodunnit" sorted out before the first swing of the gavel. The emphasis is on debate, advocacy, counter-arguments, presentation, theatrics, and, frankly, scoring points with the jury. It's more like a real trial process is, but with better lines and better actors.'s a hell of lot less boring. But, then, the law SHOULD be boring. Theatrics only muddy the head-waters to the truth. And to justice.
Scott goes in for the kill: "Barney Quill was WHAT, Miss Pilant?!"
But, it's also a movie on the cusp of change, especially with the actors, a mix of old Hollywood, young Turks, and The Method, the clashing styles all giving off friction-sparks in the proceedings. It is a genuine thrill to watch aging pro Stewart at full volume going after the intensely malevolent Scott and more than holding his own, or watch him back off and scrutinize the inscrutable performance of Gazzara. Stewart always makes it look easy, but he was a student of the acting form with a vast array of tricks in his kit-bag. He navigates the styles and generations of actors like a well-tuned sports car, constantly and smoothly shifting.
It's always a pleasure to sit back and judge Anatomy of a Murder. It sure beats jury-duty.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Don't Make a Scene: The Color Purple

The Story: The Color Purple
was a big leap for director Steven Spielberg. First off, he didn't want to do it. More accurately, when he was approached by Executive Producer Quincy Jones, he didn't think he was the right director for it—he felt an African-American director should helm it. He also thought that he wasn't well enough acquainted with Southern culture to make it feel authentic.

Novelist Alice Walker ddn't want him to do it, either...until she saw his E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial. Quincy Jones maintained that if Spielberg didn't direct it, it wouldn't get made. All interesting arguments. Spielberg—whose last film was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and had been spending his time developing his "Amazing Stories" TV show—left enough of his gee-whizzery behind, but still maintained a Master's flair for story-telling.
As today's scene demonstrates. 
Usually, when directors do this sort of cutting back and forth, they do a 1 to 1 kind of relationship: the tea-kettle screams/cut to a train whistle belching steam. It's a bit obvious and a little someone just noticed you can make so obvious a transition.
But, the Spielberg sequence of Celie discovering what is contained in her sister's long-hidden letters to her is almost all transitions. Transitions that tenuously connect the long-separated sisters, whether it be the glaring sun that they both share hemispheres away, or the rhythms of roof-leaks into pots and pans into tribal rhythms, it shows the character of Celie lost in the ever-more-sophisticated language of her sister's writing, and having it inform her life, as well. The transitions are nearly seamless on first viewing; subsequent watches will show edits on shots of elephants and trucks, but the transition of Celie reading in church while parish  celebrants slowly fade from her attention is visually stunning. You just know at these moments that the rest of the world fades away from the contents of those letters.
Say what you will about Spielberg's appropriateness to direct this one, but he sure knew how to. 
The Set-Up: After a life-time of abuse, Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) has found a small comfort from the constant Hell of life as the married slave of M.R. Johnson (Danny Glover). She has discovered that he has hidden letters sent to her from her beloved sister Nettie (Akosua Busia), who was banished from the house after she fought off a sexual assault. Finally, Celie is able to read those letters, which she does whenever she has a moment to herself.
Celie sits on the porch. She SEES Mr. and Harpo working in the distance.  
She pulls a letter from her dress and begins to read.
NETTIE (Age 14 V.O.)
CELIE (READING) Dear Celie, 
NETTIE (Age 14 V.O.) CELIE (READING) the reason I am in Africa is because...
NETTIE (Age 14 V.O.) CELIE (READING) of the missionaries that was supposed to go with
NETTIE (Age 14 V.O.)
CELIE (READING) Corrine and Samuel to help with the children and setting up school suddenly married a man ... 
CELIE (READING) and NETTIE (Age 14 V.O.) and I came in her place.
I wrote you a letter to you almost every day on the ship.
CELIE's voice fades and NETTIE's voice becomes prominent as CELIE stops reading aloud.
NETTIE (Age 14 V.O.)
On my first sight of the Africa coast, something struck in my soul, Celie
Celie looks up from her letter at the fiery Georgia sunset.

The red orb of the setting sun.  
NETTIE (Age 14 V.O.) a large bell. And I just vibrated.
Then, suddenly ...
a quartet of giraffes gallop silhouetted across the sun.
Nettie runs across the red orb of the sun. 
She is still 14, for that is the way CELIE WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER HER.
CELIE rocks in her chair.
NETTIE (Age 14 V.O.)
It has been a long time since I had...
NETTIE (Age 14 V.O.)
...time to write. But, always...
NETTIE (Age 14 V.O.)
No matter what I'm doing...
Angle on MR. Mr. and Harpo walk up the porch steps and so Mr. rises in front of the African sun.
NETTIE (Age 14 V.O.)
I'm writing you...dear C...
Hey Celie, what about gimme a cold drink? 
Celie gets up from her chair and closes the screen door behind her
with a bang. 
Mr. looks at Harpo as if to say "what's her problem?" 
The whole extended family is having a picnic. Harpo, Jack and Odessa are barbequing hot dogs and hamburgers. Mr. and Grady are fishing at the other end of the lake (and paying more attention to the bottle of whiskey than to the fish). Shug is teaching Squeak some blues standards, while Swain strums the guitar. Right near them a church picnic is going on, which includes the preacher, Loretta and her ladies, and the rest of the congregation (about 40 people). When the preacher hears Shug and Squeak sing the blues, he sends a withering glance and she stops singing, only Squeak continues. The preacher and the church ladies start up a hymn. Celie sits by herself on a blanket and unfolds another letter. She gets up. She walks away from the others.
NETTIE (14 year V.O.) Olinka is four days march through the bush from the harbor. 
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
Do you know what a jungle is? 

She walks by some bushes. The lake lies in the BG where we SEE the family having a picnic. The bushes grow denser as Celie walks by them, reading the letter as she goes. 
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
Well, there are trees and more trees on top of that. 
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
And big. They look so big, like they were built. 
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
And vines and ferns. 
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
And animals. And noises.
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
That make you wonder...
Celie looks up at the Georgia ferns.
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
What is lurking there behind the shadows... 
CELIE'S POV She SEES something move in the ferns. She hears a crackling of twigs.
NETTIE (14 year V.O.) ...
of that big bush?
ANGLE ON CELIE Her eyes as big as saucers. 
CELIE'S POV - ANGLE ON THE BUSH The bush is green and dense.
Twigs and branches crackle as
an elephant lumbers through the bush.
ANGLE ON NETTIE (14 years old), SAMUEL, OLIVIA, ADAM, and CORRINE (little children). They watch the elephant coming through the bush at a safe distance.
Their porters point excitedly at the elephant. Nettie has her arm protectively around Adam and Olivia, whose eyes are as big as saucers. 
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
We're up at five o'clock for a light...
NETTIE (14 year V.O.) ...
breakfast of millet, porridge and fruit and the morning classes.
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
We teach the children English, readin'
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
...writin', history, geography, arithmetic, and the stories...
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
...of the Bible.
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
Some of the...
Twigs CRACKLE as a pheasant runs through the undergrowth- 
She jumps back from the bush and holds her heart as she watches the pheasant run. Celie puts the letter in her pocket. She walks back to the lake.
It's raining. Celie sits in her favorite chair and pulls out another letter. 
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
...older children are used to coming to the
mission school, but the smaller ones are not.
She begins to read, but her attention wanders to the tin cans that are placed under the leaks in the porch roof.
NETTIE (14 year V.O.)
Their mothers sometimes drag 'em here, kickin' and screamin.' They're all boys. Olivia is the only girl.
The rain drips into the tin cans and makes a pleasant, almost melodic sound. 
The drums are sonorous and are in the exact rhythm as the rain dripping into the tin cans. 
We are in the hut of the elders where the young boys of the tribe are being taught how to play the drums. 
EXT. VILLAGE - DAY Olivia and a young African girl, TASH!, are standing outside the hut of the elders and watch the little boys inside. Olivia makes a move to go inside, but one of the elders wags his finger at her. It's quite clear that this is taboo for girls. 
There is a little African girl called Tashi, 
and she plays with Olivia after school.  
"Whv can't Tashi come to school?"... 
she asked me. When I...
told her that the Olinka don't believe in educating girls, 
she said quick as a flash, "They are like...
...white people at home... 
...who don't want black people to learn". 
Tashi and Olivia run to a hut.
Oh, she is sharp, Celie.
Olivia and Tashi sit in a hut covered with little strips of paper. A chair is labeled "Chair" in Olinka. The tabie is labled "Table" in Olinka. And on the entrance there are three pieces of paper. One that reads "Door" in Olinka, one that reads "Sky" in Olinka, and one that reads "Sun" in Olinka.
Whenever Tashi can get away from the chores her mother assigns her, 
she and Olivia secret hide themselves in my hut.
For Olivia right now, she alone is Africa.
and everything she learns she shares with Tashi ....
Sound familiar? 
Celie has just left the village and walks toward Mr.s house by the side of the road with two grocery bags under her arms. In the unforgiving light of the afternoon sun we see how working on Mr.'s farm has aged her. Her hair is graying, she has squint lines around her eyes, and her hands are gnarled from washing and plowing. 
NETTIE (V.O.) Five whole years have gone by and the first thing I should tell you about is the road. 
o.s. Celie hears the digging of shovels and the sound of a work song.
She SEES a chain gang working on the side of the road (made up of mostly black prisoners). They are straightening out the railroad tracks.
They sing a work song (WE HEAR AN AFRICAN BEAT IN TEE DISTANCE) while their white overseers and black trustees stand by.
At first, 
there was the faintest sound of movement in the forest.
A kind of low hummin'.
Then there was choppin' and the sound of draggin'.
Then, the scent. Some days there's smoke.
Now, after two months, during which...
Native BLACKS are using shovels and trucks to build a road in the jungle, and sing AN AFRICAN WORK SONG while their WHITE overseers stand by.
NETTIE (V.O.) I or the children or Corrine has been sick, 
NETTIE (V.O.) all we hear is choppin' and scrapin' and draggin'. And everyday, we smell smoke. 
Today, one of the boys in my afternoon class burst out as he entered. 
"The road approaches! The road approaches!"
SOUND OVER ANGLE ON THE CONGREGATION As THEY CLAP THEIR HANDS as the preacher sways back and forth. 
She sits as far away from Mr. as possible and stares at her open prayer book. 
The prayer book hides another letter from Nettie.
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.) Dear Celie. The white man is building a road, 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.) and it finallv reached 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
the Casaba fields about nine months ago:
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
Well, the morning after the road was finished, as far as Olinka was concerned, 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
what should we discover but that the road builders were back at work! 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
They have instructions to continue to build the road another 30 miles 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
and continue it on its present course 
right through the village. 
ANGLE ON THE PREACHER He leads the congregation into the most MOURNFUL GOSPEL SONG. 
A truck drives through the wall and flattens the altar. 
A bulldozer flattens the school building.
Samuel, Nettie and Corrine run towards the school building.
They are followed by Adam, Tashi, and Olivia, who are all teenagers now.
Soldiers with rifles push Samuel and Nettie back. 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
The road builders didn't deviate an inch
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
from the plan the Big Man was following.
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
Every hut that lay in the proposed road-path...
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
...was leveled. 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
And, Celie, our church, 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
our school, 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
my hut, 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
all went down in a matter of hours.
A soldier shoves Tashi as she tries to place herself in front of the bulldozer. Enraged, Adam punches one soldier. Only Samuel's imposing presence keeps Adam from getting beat up.
Adam has his arm protectively around Tashi's shoulders as she watches the building being leveled. 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
But the worst has yet to be told. 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
Sweet Corrine died from fever and grief 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
and we buried her in the Olinka way. 
Four Olinka men hold Corrine's bodv up. She is wrapped in bark cloth. Samuel, leaning on Nettie, Olivia, Adam and Tashi (who comforts Adam) follow. They are dressed in white native robes and their faces are painted white.
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
But, Celie, 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
my dear, sweet sister, 
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.) ...
we'll all be coming home soon if we can work something out with the United States Immigration, cause they don't know if we're American or African, or missionary.  
The Olinka follow the procession SINGING A NATIVE SONG OF MOURNING. They bury Corrine under a tree. 
ANGLE ON ADAM, TASHI, (Teenagers), NETTIE (14 years old) AND SAMUEL Their tears streak the white paint on their faces as they watch Corrine's body being laid to rest.
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
Just pray for us, Celie.
NETTIE (14 year old V.O.)
...and watch for me in the sunset.
The Color Purple is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.