Saturday, March 29, 2014

Imitation of Life (1959)

    Your Critic Sticks
       His Neck Out

(Dear reader: Please bear in mind that the language herein was typical of that used in 1959 when this review was written.)

Of the crowd that recently emerged from the narrow lobby of the Warner Theater, it can be stated with certainty that one hundred percent of the women carried sopping wet handkerchiefs in their purses. The men in the crowd could only be pleased that their little women had a good cry, for they themselves could never succumb to the tear tugs of motherly love and sacrifice.
The story is pretty complicated; it’s really two stories. One is about a “perfect featured” widow (Lana Turner) with a child. She, the widow, is determined to become an actress even if she’s getting into the struggle a bit late, five years too late according to the script. But from a cold water flat in New York as her initial base of operations, she eventually makes the big time, though it involves tossing over a decent and ambitious photographer (John Gavin) who genuinely loves her. Ten years of stardom later she realizes the attainment of her goal has brought her no happiness. Of course, by now she’s living like an Egyptian queen and enjoying every minute of it, though her duty to her by then teenage daughter (Sandra Dee) gives her a twinge now and then and inevitably she has to give in to concentrating on the more enduring substances of life.
The other story is about the ambitious widow’s colored and also widowed maid (Juanita Moore) and her daughter (Susan Kohner) who is physically able and fanatically determined to pass as white. The daughter’s problem is insoluble and the mother’s problem over the daughter’s problem is equally so. There is no resolution. Only a girl’s stricken conscience for having rejected her mother comes of it.

Those are the two stories given far simpler than author Fannie Hurst cared to put them. You may rightly ask what has one to do with the other, and the answer is, obviously, very little. Their connection is contrived. Perhaps the author intended that one contrast a mother’s neglect of her child with the other of a mother’s extreme love. If so, then the theory of neglecting the young ones wins out. You may even go further and ask: what’s the film trying to say? Presumably the answer is success does not always bring happiness. But even this thesis won’t hold up because all ends pleasantly, or else it’s implied that it will, and the miseries of success have certainly brought some pretty elegant surroundings for the majority of the characters in which to live out their lives.

 Directed by Douglas Sirk
Screenplay by Eleanore Griffin and Allan Scott
Reviewed by Hugh on 5/14/1959

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Magician

When Suz suggested that I review The Magician again after 54 years I thought it was a brilliant suggestion. I was intrigued by the idea of comparing an elderly reviewer’s point of view with that of a reviewer in his thirties. (A 1960 glowing review of the film appeared here on February 26th 2014.) I’m quite removed from the kind of person I used to be when I was young. Yes, a person in his or her thirties is barely wet behind the ears from my current perspective. Seeing and reviewing this movie again is a revelation, not only about myself, but, yes, about how movies have changed.

As I watched the movie unfold last night, I experienced one surprise after another. Failing to recall how it began, that it did so in a forest, that there were several unfamiliar characters beside the principal ones, including one that was dying, I realized that it was all new to me, AGAIN.

The theme of the movie - what is reality? – runs deep. But I felt that the goings on among the minor characters diluted the suspense and depth of the revelations that were to come. In fact, I found their interactions a distraction. In my earlier review I failed to point out that the magician is revealed as a charlatan, even by his wife, yet those who believed in his magic are in denial. I also forgot how ordinary, even weak a person, the magician became once bereft of his  “mask.” Nor had I recalled that his destroyed reputation was made whole again by a newly scheduled performance at the very end. All of this that I had once found remarkable, somehow seemed suddenly ordinary, or was it?

Perhaps I’ve become accustomed to the American way of telling a story on the screen rather than the French way, Ingmar Bergman’s stated preferred way. Today in moviemaking, episodes are brief, barely minutes, even seconds; action is relentless; subtlety rare; little is left for the imagination. In other words, Bergman’s movies may seem old fashioned to today’s generations. But as I pondered what I was watching, opened my mind, kept patient, let go and allowed myself to react without judgment, I discovered that the movie had really not lost one iota of its original touch. 

Reviewed by Hugh 54 years after his first review in 1960

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Hunt (2012)

One would not normally think that the hero of a film would be a man accused of having a sexual episode with a child, especially the daughter of the man’s best friend. Nor would one expect that such an accusation would be based strictly on the child’s statement, when it is common knowledge that children typically lie.  Just ask a teacher.

Well, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a kindergarten teacher who loves children and plays with them during recess, is loved by the children as well. One little girl in particular, Klara, (Annika Wedderkopp), completely enamored of Lucas, expresses her innocent love by kissing him on the lips. Troubled by such an intimate gesture, Lucas explains to the child that it’s not proper to kiss him. But Klara, hurt by his “rejection,” resolves to punish him by telling the school principal, Grethe (Susse Wold), that Lucas had exhibited his hardened penis, an image that her older brother had shown her on his computer.

Thus the scene was set for the town’s destruction of this good and innocent man. On questioning the child, the adults led her on to confirm their belief in his guilt.  Eventually, the entire town, despite the fact that he was once admired and had many friends, came to believe the accusing child. Even the other schoolchildren join Klara in claiming that Lucas had abused them as well. It was as if a gradual process of condemnation had overwhelmed the community.

Lucas, a divorced man, had a teen-age son who eventually came to his side, and was beaten as a result. He had a woman friend that knew the kind of exemplary man he was, yet doubted his innocence. His best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) would believe his accusing daughter rather than Lucas whose sterling character he knew intimately. But during a church service, Lucas, mad with anger, rose and beat his friend in front of the congregation until he was taken and thrown out of the church. From that angry act, Theo began to suspect that Lucas was truly innocent. However, even though the court found the accusation baseless, the townspeople persisted in branding him guilty.  

Most remarkable, Lucas showed no hostility toward Klara for what she had done. Indeed, he was solicitous. Finally, on seeing Lucas bloodied, walking with a limp, a shell of his old self, Klara tells her father that he is truly innocent. As a result Lucas recovers the acceptance of his friends who had doubted him, but in one final scene the question remains: is that truly the case?

This is a difficult and fascinating film to watch, as the injustice mounts before your very eyes.  It is a courageous film. You can’t help but sympathize with Lucas, yet you can understand the hostility of the people. I am reminded of the terrible crimes committed by priests whose victims have now come clean. If you choose to watch The Hunt you will not forget it easily. By the way, the acting and direction is superb.

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Story by Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg
Reviewed by Hugh