‘Last Days in the Desert’ looks at Christ’s Journey toward Death

According to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus Christ fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean Desert, a wasteland in what is now Israel and the West Bank, east of Jerusalem. During this time there, Christ was tempted by the Satan. In Rodrigo Garcia’s “Last Days in the Desert,” a haggard-looking Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and Satan, and his inner dialogues are set against the mundane problems of an impoverished family.

Shoot in less than two months at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, “”Last Days” begins with Jesus alone walking. If you’ve ever been in the desert, you might think this is insanity–wandering into a desert alone. Borrego Springs had a record high of 122 fahrenheit and record low of 20. The Judean Desert recorded 103.5 F in the summer. Walking isn’t an easy task. Water is scarce and so are humans. Away of the city of Jerusalem, Jesus has time to think. There is life in the desert, but it is more subtle and yet stripped down to the basics of water, food and a incessant nagging desperation for both.

Away from the distractions of friends and family and abundant food, Jesus comes upon a family of three: father, son and mother. The mother seems much younger than the father. The father, played by 63-year-old Ciarán Hinds, loves the desert. He endeavors to build a house from stone and what little wood can be found, assuming that his son,  played with a yearning earnestness by Tye Sheridan, will remain in this desert and continue this meager, isolated homestead. The mother, played by the 46-year-old  Israeli Academy Award-winning Ayelet Zurer, is ill. She spends most of the time, lying down under the shade of a bare bones tent as if waiting for death. She is not cheerful nor angry. She has given up thinking about her future and only hopes that her son will be happy. The son wants to please his father and his mother, but longs to go to the city, Jerusalem. The devil asks how Jesus will resolve this problem.

The solution comes from the father. He has an idea. The son, however, refuses to do as his father wishes. The results is brutally tragic. Yet that is life for the poor and faith comes from not having everything you’ve prayed for easily granted or even granted in the fashion that you consider best. That is for the writers of fairytales and even in their original tellings, fairytales were gruesome at times.

Garcia captures the quiet desperation of the desert and yet cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki also shows us the other worldly wonder of Anza-Borrego subbing for the Judean Desert. It makes you want to visit this local bit of desert. McGregor’s Jesus hesitates to take on the mantel of responsibility, knowing that giving hope to the hopeless is not the same as answering their prayers with easy solutions. He knows that suffering is part of the human condition. As the devil, McGregor flashes with anger and impatience, mirroring the inner battle we all must face.

Yet at the end, as the writer Garcia reminds us that Jesus did die for our sins and as he left the desert and headed back to civilization, he left behind any hope for a peaceful life, dying in a way deemed appropriate for the civilization he came to save. Some felt this segment was unnecessary, but it forces one to think of the young son who must live with the thought that his father died for him. The movie clearly becomes about fathers and sons and the sacrifices one makes for the other.

Jasper, which plays a role in this tragedy, is a type of quartz, an aggregate of microgranular quartz, that is opaque and often red due to iron inclusions. There is actually a Jasper Trail in Anza-Borrego. Jasper can be found in California as well as other states. Jasper is one of the stones of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Perhaps we should all take time for contemplation in the desert and listen to the subtle sounds of life and learn to appreciate the small things that mean so much to survival there: water, food, shade, hospitality and  kindness. “Last Days in the Desert”  opens May 13 at the Monica Film Canter, but will open on May 20th at the Pasadena Playhouse 7.

Themes and advice from ‘Captain America: Civil War’ composer Henry Jackson

When the prologue 1991 scenes of “Captain America: Civil War” begin, you might feel something somewhat familiar even before you even see the Winter Soldier, brainwashed Bucky Barnes, best friend of the titular superhero.  Your intuition won’t be wrong.

Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes has his own motif, a musical symbol that was created by Oxford-educated and former EDM musician Henry Jackman.  Jackman composed the music for the grimmer second Captain America film, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” working with directors Anthony and Joe Russo. This third installment brings the Russos and Jackman back together. While our superheroes might be having a civil war, this threesome has developed a good working relationship according to Jackman.

In a recent telephone interview Jackman said, “The very first time I spoke with the Russos, I was in London. It was a phone conference.” They sent him the script for “The Winter Soldier.” As he recalls, “It was a very open, general discussion about the kind of tone the movie should have. It should have a contemporary flavor, a deliberate departure from the first which was a period piece and very nostalgic. The second movie dragged Captain America into the 21st century as a fish out of water.” That movie has a more “sonic vocabulary” whereas “Civil War” is “more symphonic” and has more orchestra.

From Jackman’s perspective, working on a movie makes “changes in a way that is sort of invisible” between people. Having gone through the whole experience when everyone’s happy with the score, “you don’t think about it; you sort of form a team and develop a way of working.” And when they trust you enough, you have room to make your own musical innovations although they will come with musical ideas. “It’s like a known territory. Once you’ve driven there a few times, you know.”

However, because the two movies are tonally different, “Civil War” is a completely different journey. “You can’t pick up a lot of the music from the second film” as a result. That means the “whole creative journey will be different.”

While Jackman’s process varies from movie to movie, with “Civil War” he explained, “I actually got to read the script eight months before I started to compose the music.” He was able to get a few ideas, worked out on the piano.  Then he was able to see the first rough version minus a few special effect shots. “The script can be very inspiring,” Jackman said. “From that, you’ll know what you’ll need to write.” In some ways it is better to read “the printed page away from the distractions of the special effects.” It’s like viewing “the architectural blueprints before the building goes up.”

“At the very end of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier,’ right at the end of that is the beginning of the motif.” Because the Winter Soldier was “such an angry machine” there wasn’t much that could be done during the second Captain America movie. In this movie, however, “the motif then got picked up and developed orchestrally at the very opening of the movie after the flutes.” Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier isn’t the only one with a motif.

Listen carefully, especially if you see the movie for a second or third time. When Tony Stark goes after that new young recruit, Spider-Man, toward the end of that segment is “the DNA of his motif” and that appears a little more heroically at the end, when he’s fully in the fray. The motif is “expanded into a grand orchestral version.”

For aspiring composers, Jackman noted that there are not basic guidelines for working with a director. “Each director is so wildly different. Some are incredibly hands on; some incredibly trusting.” Some directors even have “quite an advanced musical vocabulary to express themselves with.” Yet others “don’t engage in musical specifics, giving directions in a more filmmaking sense, talking about characters instead of half-diminished chords.”

At this point, Jackman, who followed up scoring “The Winter Soldier” with a BAFTA-nominated score for “Captain Phillips,” doesn’t have to audition. When he started out, he did audition and do things on spec. He attended a “harry Potter incredibly strict musical school” where he “sang six hours a day” (St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School) and became well-versed in religious music from the 16th and 17th century. Jackman studied at Eton College,Framlingham College and Oxford according to Wikipedia. His father was a musician and helped build Jackman’s knowledge base and enthusiasm for music.  Some days, his father would tell him, “You have to listen to this” and it could be anything from opera to Paul Simon–anything and everything if it’s worth listening to.

Jackman advises that people who want to score for the movies must have “an open-mindedness musically.” He explained, “As a musician and a composer, you have to be artistically flexible and be able to do a number of different things, from superhero film huge and symphonic and operatic classic music.” And then three months later, you might be scoring a film “about the stock market” which is “quirky and electronica.” Then “four months after that, you’d have a film set in 16th century France.” Film composers need to “inhabit wilding different musical landscapes” that are “almost like different countries or wearing different clothes or eating different kinds of foods.”

This is different from a recording artist. “They aren’t wildly jumping around,” he noted. One doesn’t expect Beyoncé to be composing 16th century harpsichord music. Listening to scores one must consider the purpose of the music. “There really aren’t rules,” he commented for judging scores as critics often do. “A very quirky film where the music is sort of willfully at odds with the film” is obviously problematic, he stated. “In general, the purpose of the music of the film is not to counteract but to complement. People should not be taken out of the dramatic experience.” When the music “is so out of sync, you’ll be feeling a tension” or if the music is “so badly done that its distracting” then the film’s composer has failed. However, Jackman also added, “If you’re hearing something in the music which appears not to sync with the theme such as a thriller, it might be deliberate. You might think, ‘I feel confused: He appears to be friendly, but why is the music telling me something is wrong?'” In such cases, the music is foreshadowing, but also developing the character.  Jackman contends that counter intuitively, “The two most important skills that they don’t tell you in college are political skills and literary skills. Film composer must understand literary criticism, character development and narrative structure.

To be a successful film composer, Jackman stated, “You need a spectacular amount of perseverance. I started at 19 and didn’t get noticed until my thirties.” Then there’s physical endurance required for the hours required to complete a project on deadline.

While Jackman claims he avoids listening to his own work because “when I hear it, I just remember all the work,” he does say the upcoming “Birth of a Nation” has “a level of musical honesty to it that might be the truest.” “Birth of a Nation” will be released this fall.  Otherwise, Jackman chose the “Alien” score as “one of the most influential” and recommends the double CD that has the original “more gorgeously romantic” version and the reworked new version with “spooky, innovative orchestrations.” He also found the “Predator” score music had  “very sophisticated harmony.”

One thing Jackman is sensitive about is that “very often music of an outstanding nature has been written to a movie that is appallingly bad.” Think the Adam Sandler movie “Pixels.” Jackman scored for that one as well. Conversely, he added, “Music which is quite average attached to an average film gets a lot of attention.” Then there “are very average music attached to outstanding films” that go on to win awards because award voters are “wrapped up in an overall experience.” Jackman jokes, “I want to set up my own musicological Oscars to give due credit to scores that were completely unnoticed because they were attached to awful movies.” For him, Ennio Morricone would be the recipient of “at least 15 retroactive awards.”

With “Captain America: Civil Wars” doing well both at the box office and with critics, Jackman’s scores might be in the running for a few awards, too. If you have the chance, review the second movie, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” before you go and let your subconscious pick up some cues that you might later, on a second or third viewing, deliberately listen for. Who knows? In the future, there may be a compilation album of the motifs of Marvel movies and Jackman’s scores will surely be on it.

‘Belladonna of Sadness’ and the problem of portraying rape

One of the problems a movie industry dominated by men struggles with is the topic of rape. April was Sexual Assault Awareness Month first declared by President Barack Obama in 2009. You probably didn’t hear much about it because it’s a topic many people prefer not to discuss. “Belladonna of Sadness” (哀しみのベラドンナ) is a Japanese animated feature film produced in 1973 when it was given a limited release in the U.S. A digital restoration is being released nationwide this month. In Los Angeles, the film is screening at The Cinefamily from May 13-19.

It’s more of a curiosity than a film worth recommending. Belladonna is another name for the deadly nightshade. There is, of course, a reason the plant is called deadly. Although the perennial herbaceous plant (rhizomatous hemicryptophyte) is poisonous, it was once as a medicine, a cosmetic and a poison. The name means “beautiful woman” in Italian and the herb was made into eyedrops that dilated the pupils of the eyes, something that naturally happens when one is strongly aroused sexually. Mimicking sexual arousal made women appear beautiful and thus the name. The Japanese title uses the word for the plant instead of the Japanese word for beautiful woman, emphasizing the relationship with the plant as well as the foreign nature of the tale.

In this movie, a handsome peasant couple are in love: Jeanne (voiced by Aiko Nagayama) and Jean (Katsutaka Ito). Being a peasant mean being at the mercy of the local lord. As was the custom, the couple and their families ask for permission from the local baron for the marriage. They have sold one cow, but the baron demands the price of ten.  Jeanne is particularly beautiful with long luscious eyelashes and curling hair that ends past her waist. The baron decides to take the droit du seigneur, or right of the lord, also known as the right of the first night. There’s some controversy as to wether this is fact or fiction. Yet surely, there is no debate that lords and knights raped peasant women. Jeanne is raped by the baron and his courtiers. The rape is depicted in demurely graphic illustrations that do not depict the penis, but do symbolically imagine red bats and a throbbing red crevice that transverses Jeanne’s body.

While there is horror, there is also eroticism. Rape is still presented as horrific, but beautiful.  Jeanne is finally thrown out of the castle, her clothes in tatters and the courtiers watching. She returns to Jean who suggests they forget about the past. She cannot. A small phallic demon tempts her to move toward revenge, playing in her hands as if asking her to jack him off. This is definitely not a cartoon for children.

The baron decides he needs to fund a war. Jean becomes a tax collector, but when he can’t squeeze enough money from the local peasants, the baron cuts off his hand. Jeanne then is urged by another demon to ask the local moneylender, a man who has even refused the baron, for a loan. She becomes a moneylender.

When the baron returns from war, his wife urges him to condemn Jeanne as a witch. Jean becomes so fearful of being punished because of this vendetta, he locks Jeanne out. She finds refuge in the forest and meets with the devil who grants her magical powers. She then leads a rebellion against the tyranny of the feudal lords and the Catholic Church which supports this right of the first night. In the end, she’s revealed to be Jeanne d’Arc, or as we know her, Joan of Arc. You can imagine this animation didn’t go over well with the French Catholic Church nor fans of Joan of Arc.

The transparent watercolor illustrations were heavily influenced by Gustav Klimt, Tarot illustrations and Art Nouveau. The lines are lyrical waves and gracefully undulate. The coloring is often blotchy, as if to emphasize the hand-drawn nature. The animation itself is limited. Much of the “action” is supplies by panning down stills or zooming in or out of stills.

Yet the story gets too caught up with the beauty and eroticize both the rape and subsequent descent into degradation. Instead of becoming a threatening weapon, the phallus is a playful puppet that tempts Jeanne as she learns to control it. When she finally surrenders to the devil, strands of her hair entangle small versions of her in different sexual positions having sex in many ways with herself. The comic mixes with the luridly erotic. Does it work? Not for the modern sensibility and the contemporary concept of rape. Nor will a story that makes the beloved Joan of Arc the less than saintly sexual adventuress somewhat ennobled by a righteous indignation over first night rights.

Much of the narrative is sung with music by Masahiko Sato and narration by Chinatsu Nakayama.  The music is sweet and that doesn’t help the problematic view of rape and outrage social movements.This is sexual assault made beautiful and a saint made a sinner. The movie premiered in 1973. Susan Brownmiller’s groundbreaking books “Against our Will: Men, Women, and Rape” was first published in 1975.  The women’s movement and the publication of the book pushed for change and attitudes have changed tremendously since the 1970s. “Belladonna of Sadness” remains an uneasy relic of those confused times. For dates and places in and out of Los Angeles, visit the Cinelicious Pics website.


#NotYourGeisha: Post Modern Orientalism

Memoirs of a Geisha, Part I: Memoirs of Post Modern Orientalism

We’ve been hearing claims that Hollywood can’t make a big movie with an ethnic Asian female lead. Asian actresses are not #WhitewashedOUT if the woman is playing a prostitute as in the 2005 movie “Memoirs of a Geisha.” The movie was based on Arthur Golden’s 1997 best-selling novel of the same name.

For me, this is a deal-breaker of a movie. When I hear people comment that the movie doesn’t support stereotypes, or praise it for its authenticity, I’m filled with a blazing anger and a suffocating sadness. Some things never seem to change.

Golden received a bachelor’s degree in art history, specializing in Japanese art from Harvard. He went on to get a masters in Japanese history from Columbia. I have never seen the full movie, but I have read the book as well as anthropologist Liza Dalby’s book “Geisha” (who as consultant for the movie) and the rebuttal to Golden’s book, Mineko Iwasaki’s 2002 “Geisha: A Life.” After reading Golden’s book, I felt it was impossible that anything good could come of it. After seeing the preview trailers which featured very un-Japanese dance segments and after reading Iwasaki’s account and learning about her lawsuit, I felt my worst fears had been realized.

If you read the reviews on Amazon.com, then out of 3,286 reviews, the novel has a 68 percent rating of five stars. The movie has a 61 percent five-star rating (out of 724). The top customer review of the movie mentions “the reserved nature of Asian women,” as if all the women of the earth’s most populous continent that is home to many different cultures shared essentially the same values, at least for women.

In his movie review, Roger Ebert wrote, “I suspect that the more you know about Japan and movies, the less you will enjoy ‘Memoirs of a Geisha.” Much of what I know about Japan I learned from Japanese movies, and on that basis I know this is not a movie about actual geishas, but depends on the romanticism of female subjection. The heroines here look so very beautiful and their world is so visually enchanting as they lived trapped in sexual slavery.”  Yet he also acknowledged that he could list Japanese movies that better illustrate a different view of geisha, “but the last thing the audience for ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ wants to see is a more truthful film with less gorgeous women and shabbier production values.” This movie’s audience wanted to see “beauty, sex, tradition and exoticism all choreographed into a dance of strategy and desire.”

While he acknowledged that a geisha “is not technically a prostitute,”  he asserted that they were prostitutes and clarified by stating, “certainly the traditions of the geisha house are culturally fascinating,” but continued by writing, “if the movie had been set in the West, it would be perceived as about children sold into prostitution.” Ultimately, he felt the somewhat uneasy about the movie, in the same manner he had for the 1978 “Pretty Baby” where Brooke Shields played a 12-year-old girl having her virginity auctioned away in New Orleans, but concluded by writing “The difference is that ‘Pretty Baby’ doesn’t evoke nostalgia, or regret the passing of the world it depicts.”

Ebert didn’t object to the Chinese women playing the leads, but he doesn’t speak Japanese. In her 2006 essay, “Orientalism and the Binary of Fact and Fiction in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha,” Kimiko Akita notes that “Westerners would not recognize any differences between the movements or speech of Chinese and Japanese actresses. Asian-accented English might seem fetchingly exotic to Western ears.” Akita graduated from Nanzan Junior College in Japan and eventually earned her Ph.D. in Communication from Ohio University. She currently teaches at Aichi Prefectural University in the Foreign Studies department in Japan.

For Akita, who applies Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, the success of both the book and the movie “tells us something about the American cultural tastes for the Orient,” and signifies “Orientals” as “a sexualized and exoticized object to be commodified by the West.” As per Said, Akita finds the “Orient” a Western construction and the popularity of the book and the movie illustrate an appetite for “postmodern American Orientalism.”

Chillingly, Akita asserts that the book “has been adopted for use in literature and other humanities classes at some U.S. colleges and universities.” For Akita, “Memoirs” imposes “barriers to better intercultural understanding and communication.” In the movie, Akita finds that the use of an American Occupation soldier  evokes nostalgia for U.S. dominance of Japan after World War II.” Golden establishes that “the colonizer is privileged to sexualize and consume the bodies of the colonized, who welcome their advances.” In the book, Sayuri explains that “All the stories about invading Americans soldiers raping and killing us had turned out to be wrong; and in fact, we gradually came to realize that the Americans on the whole were remarkably kind.”

Akita doesn’t mention this, however, rape did occur during the American Occupation of Japan, but others such as Terese Svoboda (“U.S. Courts-Martial in Occupation Japan: Rape, Race and Censorship“) notes that rape, robbery and even murder were problems under the Occupation Army. The information was suppressed in Japanese and non-Japanese papers once the Occupation became more established. Svoboda also notes some of the incidents included gang rapes and “institutionalized rape.” That complicated the case of the comfort women of all races, in addition to the finding that rape was not a war crime in both the tribunals at both Nuremberg and Tokyo. Svoboda found that race was indeed an issue in the prosecution of rape. In Europe, black soldiers were more likely to face execution than white soldiers. In Japan, those records are murkier according to Svoboda. Svoboda writes, “Although white and black soldiers were convicted of rape in both theaters during the war, only black servicemen were executed for this crime.” Erasing this evidence of rape, clouds other issues, including the so-called comfort women.

Race was in issue during World War II and it remains an issue now in real life and at the movies. In cinematic history, “Memoirs of a Geisha” was preceded by  the 1997 “Amistad,” the 1992 “Malcolm X,” the 1985 “The Color Purple,” the 1996 “Waiting to Exhale,” the 2008 “The Great Debaters,” the 1993 “The Joy Luck Club,” and Ang Lee’s 2000 “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Yet there was also the 1999 “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “Memoirs” was followed by the 2008 Sony movie, “21.” While black history was being explored and even celebrated and novels by black writers were making it to the screen, the choice of “Memoirs,” even for a Japanese company like Sony, was a step backward in race relations and international understanding.

Amy Tan’s book “The Joy Luck Club” indicated that novels by and about East Asians as American immigrants could be successful. “Crouching Tiger” demonstrated that foreign language films with Asian casts could be blockbusters.   On the other hand, “Snow Falling” harked back to the World War II mentality that American-born Asians were more Asian than American by casting a Japanese actress who spoke English with a Japanese accent even though she was playing an American-born woman of Japanese ethnicity. “Memoirs” presented Chinese and Japanese women as essentially the same in physical appearance and foreign accents.  According to Akita, the Japanese culture played little significance in the movie.

“Memoirs” as both a translated book and a movie was not successful in Japan although it seems to have increased interest in Japan in the U.S and other areas. In that respect, “Memoirs” was not unlike the mini series “Shogun”–a hit in the U.S. and a flop in Japan.

Memoirs of a Geisha, Part II: How Are Geisha or Nerd Stereotypes Harmful?

Someone asked me how has a book or movie like “Memoirs” hurt me? While I admit that some people embrace stereotypes and some women may enjoy being exotica, I do not. I suspect that when some people hire me, they assume I will fit inside a neat template, one that involves a demure, submissive woman once I find my inner geisha. That is likely what inspired a slightly inebriated Japanese American supervisor to throw a punch at my face at a company party. Soon after, the whole company was forced to take sensitivity training when my immediate supervisor admitted that one of his problems with me was that I didn’t talk like a girl should to a man.

Dating online, I found that identifying myself as being of Japanese ethnicity made me astoundingly popular with Asian a distant second. In online forays,  men–Asian, black and white,  would then instruct me on how to be more Japanese. Black and white men could barely refrain from telling me how they were superior to Asian men, forgetting that my father and brother would be Asian. By putting Asian men down, they were casting derogatory remarks at my family. Moreover, polite rejections brought angry declarations that the men had fornicated with my mother for a couple of bucks overseas; Why did I consider myself so precious?

The stereotype that Chris Rock used at the Oscars of precociously intelligent and geeky kids was one aspect of me when I was in grade school, but that stereotype hurts me because it assumes that my achievements are not made through individual determination and hard work. This stereotype also sets a resentful burden on ethnic Asians who wouldn’t qualify for Mensa. Then there are other assumptions linked to it: Asians and other “intelligent” minorities are work horses rather than racehorses and accountants aren’t sexy–they are almost asexual.

Culturally, the geisha was a relatively recent development in Japanese history and the percentage of women in the profession then and now is relatively low. There were and are male geisha.  Sometimes, faux geisha have passed for the real thing for foreigners with fetishes and Oriental fantasies. Geisha is a female-dominant closed society. All of this doesn’t fit into the Western narrative of women as commodities. The samurai have a longer history in Japan than the geisha and yet only constituted a small part of the population, about 10 percent. Japan shouldn’t be simplistically defined by the samurai and the geisha.

Like other countries, Japan has had exceptional women. Why not focus on them instead of geisha? France had Joan of Arc; France and Poland have scientist Marie Curie; England had Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. Japan had Murasaki Shikibu, the writer of the world’s first novel; Masako Hojo, the widow of Yoritomo Minamoto and a powerful political figure in her own right; Tomoe Gozen, a female warrior during the Genpei War, and during time of Queen Victoria’s reign, Takeko Nakano, who fought during the Boshin War. Why aren’t big budget American movies made about these women? And if they were, would an ethnic Asian be allowed to play the roles or would these roles be whitewashed like “21” or “Ghost in the Shell”?

Roger learned about Japanese culture from Japanese movies. The movies can both instruct and mislead. Roger gave the 2003 Tom Cruise flick “The Last Samurai” three and a half stars. He wrote, “The battle scenes are stirring and elegantly mounted, but they are less about who wins than about what can be proven by dying. Beautifully designed, intelligently written, acted with conviction, it’s an uncommonly thoughtful epic.” The movie was well received in Japan as well although the Mainichi Shimbun writer Tomomi Katsuta considered the portrayal of the noble samurai as  a bit dated (the Oscar-nominated “The Twilight Samurai” came out in 2002). Katsuta told the New York Times, “Our image of samurai are that they were more corrupt (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/04/movies/land-of-the-rising-cliche.html). Another ethnocentric and less than authentic touch in “The Last Samurai,” attributed all the contributions of other nations (such as France and Great Britain and Japan’s long-time partner the Netherlands) to the United States.

“Memoirs of a Geisha,” made for $85 million and grossed $158 million internationally. It had the second highest per theater average in 2005. That flies in the face of current claims regarding the casting of Scarlett Johansson for “Ghost in the Shell” that there are no ethnic Asian women who could open a major movie. Scarlett Johanssson is 31. Zhang Ziyi is 37. Does that six years really make a difference? Or have things really changed in Hollywood between when “Memoirs” was made and now? Or is the casting of Scarlett Johansson just another example of Asian heroes being #WhitewashedOUT as in “21” and “The Last Airbender”?

Has the image of Asian women changed since Suzie Wong and Madame Butterfly? “Memoirs” garnered considerable negative attention amongst Asian American women in the U.S. nationwide just prior to its Hollywood premiere when a casting call went out for “beautiful Asian women” to dress up and “mingle in character” for the official premiere party <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/04/movies/land-of-the-rising-cliche.html&gt;. There were numerous complaints about the treatment of Asian women as being essentially the same and a commodity no different from the ice sculpture or an inflatable palm tree,  and some questioned why attractive Asian men were not needed to create “the ambience of ancient Japan, circa 1870s.” Did any American firm send out casting calls for beautiful black women to dress up and mingle in character as maids for a 2011 premiere party for “The Help” or as Rayettes for a 2004 premiere party for “Ray”?

Wouldn’t most women of any color prefer to be a superhero, a warrior woman, than what Americans imagine a geisha is–prostitute? Interpreting  the “Memoirs” geisha as representing the true geisha and the essence of Japanese womanhood is sliding down the slippery slope of the science fiction horror story “The Stepford Wives.”  Do other women have similar experiences now, a decade after I’ve stopped dating? I’d be intrigued to know if you’ve felt the need to tell men or women: “I’m #NotYourGeisha.”




‘Captain America: Civil War’ adds a welcome dose of humor

Marvel fans will go no matter what critics write, but of the three Captain America movies, “Captain America: Civil War” has an dizzying amount of action, while lightening this superhero heavy outing with a welcome dose of humor. Besides the ever sardonic Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the addition of Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) increase the comic quip load per battle.

The movie begins in 1991 in Siberia. HYDRA revives Sgt. James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) from his chilly slumber. He’s been brainwashed to become an obedient soldier for anyone who utters the trigger words. He then is sent on a mission and told to make it look like an accident and leave no survivors. Roaring down a lonely country road on a motorcycle, he causes a large American car to crash. In the trunk, he takes five blue packages of a super-soldier serum. We don’t see who the passengers are, suspiciously crucial information. We also don’t see how the serum is used.

Flashing forward, we’re in Lagos, Nigeria. I don’t know about your email, but I’ve learned from mine that  a deal coming from Nigeria is always an iffy proposition. So it is for the Avengers. It’s a year after Ultron’s defeat and that destructive battle. The world has grown weary of the superhero caused casualties of war and no generals are around to give stirring nationalistic speeches to write them off as patriotic collateral damage. No techie spins out calculations of what-if scenarios comparing the damage and the dead and disasters minus superhero intervention as they do with World War II and the atom bombs.

In this global climate, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) prevent Brock Rumlow (Frank Gillo) from stealing a biological weapon, but when Rumlow turns suicide bomber, Wanda lifts the bomb away from Rogers, but it explodes in a building. Those scenes might remind you of 9/11 and the Twin Towers. The world has changed for us and it has changed for the Avengers.

Shift to a suspiciously young Tony Stark, talking with his mother and father. Remembering the last time he saw them, trying to replay his memory when he was a sulky, lazy, womanizing teen and they were on their way to a journey they would not finish. It was the last time he would see them. An older Stark appears.

This isn’t a holo deck in a Star Trek movie, but part of a demonstration at MIT (sorry Caltech–you already have “The Big Bang” TV series). Stark is doing a presentation to a packed audience of students, demonstrating BARF, a means of clearing traumatic memories.  Stark has given all the students a grant to do their research, asking them to hold true to the MIT tradition to generate, disseminate and preserve knowledge.  The reason for his immense generosity is the enormity of his guilt. A woman (Alfre Woodard) he meets adds to that guilt by making it personal and giving it a name: Charlie Spencer. He was a young idealistic man accidentally killed by the Avengers.

While the Avengers were created to save the world and keep the peace, some people are calling them vigilantes.  At the Avengers’ headquarters, the Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross calls the Avengers dangerous. The United Nations are going to meet and 117 nations (currently there are 196 real countries–including Taiwan– in the world and 193 countries are members of the UN–not including the fictional ones in the Marvelverse) will be signing the Sokovia Accords which will be a means of monitoring and controlling the superhuman population. Does this begin to sound like the plot of the animated feature “The Incredibles”?

There is no super family here and there’s no disgruntled fan boy. Instead, we have Tony Stark and Pepper Potts having a time out. Captain America’s beloved Peggy Carter dies and at her funeral he meets her niece Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp). With no woman to guide them, Tony Stark and Captain America are opposing leaders for a team divided over the Accords.

At the Accords in Vienna, another bombing results in the death of T’Chaka. The bomber appears to be the Winter Soldier. T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa wants revenge. Rogers and Wilson track down Bucky against the UN Accords, but Bucky doesn’t seem to know about the Vienna bombing. The Avengers have fallen into a trap. We know this because the imprisonment pod he’s in is designated D-23. Disney fans will know what that means. The psych evaluator turns out to be the man we saw first in a hotel room with a large bomb who later was torturing a man for the book containing the trigger words introduced in the 1991 sequence.

That is our villain: Colonel Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl ) and he killed the original psychiatrist and disguised as the Winter Soldier set the bomb off in Vienna and he now sets off the human weapon of mass destruction: the real Winter Soldier by saying the trigger words. The two escape from the Avengers.

Now Rogers must make a decision: save his old friend or stay with his team. Despite his background as a soldier, Rogers breaks ranks and the Avengers become divided into law-abiding and outlaws. Rogers and Wilson are able to get Bucky back, but learn that Zemo is heading for the Siberia facility that holds five Winter Soldiers waiting to be activated who are more lethal than Bucky was. To bolster his team, Rogers recruits Ant-Man while Tony Stark recruits Spider-Man.

Team Captain America (#TeamCap) is:

  1. Captain America
  2. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
  3. Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier
  4. Sam Wilson/Falcon
  5. Vision (Paul Bettany)
  6. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)

Team Iron Man (#TeamIronMan) is:

  1. Iron Man
  2. James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine
  3. Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)
  4. Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)
  5. Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland)
  6. T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)

The two teams battle it out as Rogers and Bucky attempt to pursue Hemut to Siberia. Spider-Man, with a suit upgrade thanks to Stark, has a gee-whiz wonder of a kid on his first big adventure (His Aunt Mae, played by Marisa Tomei, isn’t an old lady).

While Rogers and Bucky escape, T’Challa pursues them as does Iron Man, both without the permission of the U.N. The rest of Team Captain America are incarcerated in a prison submerged in a stormy ocean with Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), a member of the Joint Counter Terrorism Center, overseeing them.

If you’re color coding, you’ll note that while T’Challa isn’t an official Avenger, each team has a pink member (a woman with long red hair) and a black male. That also goes for the five sleeping Winter Soldiers which includes an unnamed black member and a woman (except the pink member has long blonde hair). One supposes that Vision would count as an AI. This movie cuts out the Latino element in Ant-man. Asian element remains in the animated Marvelverse of Big Hero Six but doesn’t extend to this part of the franchise. Although Asians are 60 percent of the world population and while Marvel does have other ethnic Asian (including East Asian) characters, Asians are not represented in this Marvelverse. In this part of Marvelverse the diversity  conversation is still black and white. Otherwise, this is the best of the three Captain America movies. It has humor. It gives Captain America a love interest. It gives a weary Tony Stark/Iron Man angst. It just doesn’t give us real diversity.

‘Dough’ has double standard and dubious plot

While “Dough” might find some fans amongst the 420-friendly crowd, this enemies-united-against-a-common enemy, is a dubious mix of standards and attitudes that don’t make for a satisfying film feast.

An old Jewish baker Nat Dayan (Jonathan Pryce) runs the bakery, Dayan & Son,  in a low-rent part of London that was founded his father, but his lawyer son (Daniel Caltagirone) will not be carrying on the business. Nat’s assistant quits and leaves Nat in a bind.

Ayyash (Jerome Holder) is a young fatherless Muslim immigrant from Africa who makes money by dealing drugs. The father is out of the picture, but in Africa. His mother cleans up Nat’s bakery. She sees an opportunity for Ayyash to learn a trade and convinces Nat to take him on as an apprentice.

That doesn’t make Ayyash stop dealing and gives Ayyash a good cover job, making his drug dealer boss (Ian Hart) happy as well. One day, Ayyash does more than sell packets of marijuana with baked goods; he puts marijuana in the dough. That secret ingredient makes people happy and increases business. Some of the customers know what their getting; others do not.

The sudden success puts a damper on the plans of a developer, Cotton (Philip Davis) who wants to buy out the business owner, the flirtatious Joanna (Pauline Collins) and to buy out the remaining five years Nat has on his lease contract. He wants to build big, and wipe out the small shops in a move toward gentrification.

You can probably already see where this is going. You probably didn’t need to read this review to know Ayyash and Nat would have their spats and yet finally find a happy ending. Jewish man and Muslim man will find harmony and help each other.

Big business, including the drug business, is the common enemy and Ayyash’s involvement with criminal activity are explained away as what else could he do? That might not be so convincing for some. Being credible doesn’t get in the way of a happy ending.  “Dough” opened Friday at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7.



LAAPFF 2016: ‘Pali Road’ is a perplexing and less than pleasing romantic myster

Old Pali Road on Oahu is a winding road rumored to be haunted or at least the site of various hauntings. The movie, “Pali Road,” takes the mystical doings of folk lore, adds an Asian folk tale and tacks this on to a contemporary mystery to make an unsatisfying romance.

The travel guide Weird U.S. mentions a half-face ghost on Old Pali Road, a  young girl left to rot after being strangled by a jump rope after she had been raped.  It reports that she has been seen skipping rope, her long black hair tossed with each hop and her eyes bulging out as if frozen by her last moments.

Pali Road leads to Pali Lookout where Honolulu Magazine tells us, “one of the bloodiest battles in Hawai’i’s history occurred” when “Kamemehameha’s warriors forced Maui chief Kalanikupule’s men to their deaths off the cliff.” That deed left 400 warriors dead, but united the Hawaiian Islands under King Kamemehameha I.

“Pali Road” isn’t a horror flick so there’s no rotting girl skipping rope nor ghostly warriors falling to their death. Instead a young doctor named Lily (Michelle Chen) is haunted by what might have been. Lily has been dating an earnest teacher, Neal Lang (Jackson Rathbone). He’s an easy-going guy and when he’s introduced to Lily’s ex-boyfriend, Dr. Mitch Kayne (Sung Kang), we can easily understand why Lily chose him over this particular doctor. Kayne is a jerk, trying to snub Neal while all three are at a social function.

Neal and Lily take a drive up Pali Road. Looking down from there, Neal brings out a pop-up card that he and his students have made. It relates the Chinese/Japanese folk tale of Tanabata or “Evening of the Seventh.” In that tale, the stars Vega, the Weaver Maid/Princess and Altair, the Cow herder. They are in love, but they neglect their duties. The gods then decide they must be separated and place the Silver River (the Milky Way) between them. They are only allowed to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, when the magpies build an bridge. Using this tale, Neil proposes to Lily; the pop-up of the magpie bridge at the center of the card holds an engagement ring.

Lily doesn’t accept. It’s not the right time, she claims. As they drive down Pali Road, Neal asks her when will it be the right time. Lily wonders if it wouldn’t be better if she had never met Neal. The mysterious forces at Pali Road must have been listening. Fate decides to separate them; they have an accident. When Lily awakens next, she is in bed and married to Mitch Kayne. What’s more they have a little boy, James (Maddox Lim), and no one remembers Neal.

Lily doesn’t recognize this life and she lives between flashes of her past and desperate attempts to find evidence of Neal and her memories of them together in her new reality. She sees a therapist (Henry Ian Cusick) and leans on her friend Amy (Lauren Sweetser).

Under director Jonathan Lim, Doc Pedrolie and Victoria Arch’s script doesn’t give us the emotional pull we need to sympathize with either Chen’s Lily or Kang’s mystified Mitch. Kayne comes off as too much of a jerk and somewhat sleazy in his introductory scenes. We can easily see why Lily left him, but not why Lily should have ever considered him. After Lily’s accident, that makes it hard for us to sympathize with Mitch as a husband. Oahu may be a small island, but Lily surely has more choices unless the post-accident Mitch is a totally different guy in this different alternative timeline. Some parts of the alternative reality don’t make sense such as the complete disappearance of Neal’s workplace.

If Lim had been able to elicit more nuanced performances from Chen and Kang, perhaps we would have seen and felt the chemistry between Lily and Mitch and understood she had two choices of almost equal suitors. The alternative reality scenes also have a sterile feeling. I understand the decision of the colder light and blue hues, but the life is too immaculate and orderly. We do feel the beauty of Oahu, but we don’t see the more ordinary places where even successful doctors might venture. After all, even President Obama has Waiola Shave Ice in Kapahulu.

If you do go to see “Pali Road,” pay careful attention to what an old woman says at the beginning. For romantics, love ultimately wins in this movie although the ending is more bittersweet than happy. “Pali Road” is currently opened Friday and is currently at AMC Atlantic Times Square 14, AMC Burbank Town Center 8 and AMC Puente Hills 20.



RIP Prince of Purple

Just an hour ago, I was searching for it, thinking it was in my cedar chest, but finding it in a watermelon-themed basket that I had once used as part of a prize-winning costume to portray melon + collie. I had thought about my raspberry beret earlier this month, thinking I would take it with me to Ebertfest, but decided against it.  I bought the beret on a whim, from a store that no longer exists in a city where I no longer live.

I was dressed head-to-toe in purple when I read the news of his death, running for between and during classes. In the evening, I drove through Los Angeles traffic to a festival opening where the organizers mentioned Prince in their opening remarks, and after the movie, they played his music. The tent housing the after-party was too crowded; no one was dancing.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t need liquor to get me out on the dance floor. I think I can remember flashes of what I was wearing when I was dancing to “Let’s Go Crazy” in a time before swing and tango turned my world around. By then, I had joined a legion of purple loving people, proud to be a member of a kingdom led by a doe-eyed Prince. When I first saw “Purple Rain”  I was excited by Prince’s electric stage presence and his dance moves. The promise made by “Purple Rain” went unfulfilled when Prince took control and directed himself in movies like “Under the Cherry Moon.”  I would have totally loved to wear those long frock coats and frilly shirts he sported in either movie.  In another era, he would have been called a dandy. In today’s world of Cosplay and steampunk, his costumes would still be fashionable. Thanks to MTV and music videos, Prince will live on forever young.

Thanks to YouTube, you can see dance videos where dance lovers compare his moves to other fine dancing men–James Brown and Michael Jackson. Just remember, Prince often danced in high heeled shoes that Ginger Rogers might have once worn. Just remember, his generosity that allowed a Chicago-based ballet company, Joffrey,  to raid his catalog to choreograph “Billboards,” and he waived the royalty fees. Just remember, he once played a Super Bowl halftime show during a torrential rain. Good night sweet Prince of Purple.

‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder’ Is Fiendishly Funny

Are you tired of the gruesome and the gauche, committing murder and mayhem without machine guns and machinery without the slightest concern for good manners? Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) has just the tonic for you, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” This fiendishly funny musical hit Broadway in 2013 and won four Tonys, including Best Musical. The production at the Ahmanson is without a misstep and murderously marvelous and continues until May 1.

The story takes place in London in 1909. Queen Victoria has died (1901). King Edward was a fashionable man and his reign was short. Edward VII would be dead in May of 1910. Women still didn’t have the vote (they’d have to wait until 1918 for a limited rights and 1928 for full rights to all women over the age of 21). World War I was still a few years away (1914).

The play is based on a novel 1907 novel by Roy Horniman, “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.” The book inspired the 1949 movie “King Hearts and Coronets.” (Horniman did serve in World War I.) The title of the movie was taken from a Tennyson poem “Lady Clara Vere de Vere, “King Hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood.” What is most notable is the careful transition from the protagonist being half Jewish by his father in the original novel to half Italian in the 1949 movie to  half Spanish (Castilian) in the musical. According to an article in The Guardian, while some have found the novel to be anti-semitic, the man credited with rescuing this novel from obscurity, Simon Heffer, argues that it actually satirizes anti-semitism generally and the English attitudes toward the rise of Benjamin Disraeli specifically.  The books seems to have been a bit darker, including the murder of a baby.

The musical harks back to the movie which can be streamed on Amazon Video ($2.99).  The movie made Time magazine’s top 100 list as well as the BFI Top 100 British films.

In the musical, the audience if forewarned by a group of mourners, properly dressed in black.

For those of you of weaker constitution

For those of you who may be faint of heart
This is a tale of revenge and retribution
So if you’re smart
Before we start
You’d best depart
You’d best depart

An usher fainted in the aisle
A nun from Leicester lost her wits
You might avoid the first or second row

Blood may spill
And spines may chill
It’s ghastly – still
We thought you ought to know
It’s only just past eight
It’s not too late
For God’s sake!
For God’s sake
For God’s sake go!

On stage, there is a smaller stage on to which the cast steps on and off of. The back stage of this quaint stage is a screen on which different images are projected at times. We meet the Lord Montague “Monty” D’Ysquith Navarro, the ninth Earl of Highhurst, who is in prison on trial for murder. He tells the audience he is writing his true story, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

From there, we flashback to 1907. Monty’s mother has just passed away. In the movie, our murderous hero’s mother had raised him with the bitter knowledge of his supposed rightful rank and schooled him in his lineage and the succession line that prevents him from being a duke.  In the musical, he has been raised totally oblivious to his matrilineal heritage. It is only after his washerwoman mother has passed away that his mother’s old nursemaid, a Miss Marietta Shingle (Mary Van Arsdel) informs Monty (Kevin Massey) that he is a member of the D’Ysquith family. His mother Isobel was disinherited after marrying a Spanish musician. Monty is ninth in line for the earldom of Highhurst.  Encouraged by Shingle, Monty writes a letter to Lord Asquith D’Ysquith, Sr. (John Rapson) who is the head of the family banking house and inquires for a position. One hilarious conceit that the musical holds over from the movie is that all the D’Ysquith members in the way of our lad’s lordly ambitions are played by the same actor.

His new found though distant link to aristocracy and wealth gives Monty hope. He’s been in love with the beautiful Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams), but she is a high-maintenance type of girl with an eye on another guy with property. While she accepts Monty’s dubious story, she notes that he’s eight people away from being a lord.

Monty receives a reply from Asquith D’Ysquith Junior (John Rapson) who warns him against contacting the family again and using the family name, completely denying the existence of Isobel. Monty isn’t quite ready to let this go and take a tour of Highhurst on visitors day. The spirits take over the portraits and warn Monty away. He meets the current Earl (also Rapson) who expresses his distaste and incomprehension of the common folk (“I Don’t Understand the Poor”).

Monty then decides to make an appeal to one of the weaker links in the line up: Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith. At the ancestral family church, the dotty old man gives Monty a tour and remembers Isobel, but refuses to get involved in family matters and intercede on Monty’s behalf.  When the tipsy reverend loses his balance on the bell tower, Monty lets the wind and the reverend’s old age and inebriation cause the man’s demise. He simply refuses to give a helping hand.

Temptation leads Monty further astray when he observes the boorish arrogant Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr with his mistress. Monty follows them on their secret rendezvous at a winter resort and although he intends to poison the man (“Poison in My Pocket”), he settles instead for an ice skating accident. In the movie, this death takes place during a relaxing retreat on the river.

Back in London, Monty receives a letter from the grief-stricken Asquith D’Ysquith who apologizes for his son’s rude letter and offers Monty a job. With a comfortable salary, Monty finds that Sibella still prefers the other man and is engaged to him.

In his next cousinly encounter, Monty meets Henry D’Ysquith, a man married but really more interested being with the boys. Through Henry, Monty meets Henry’s sister Phoebe and decides that she’d be the perfect wife for him since he can’t have Sibella and Phoebe does not stand in the way of his succession to becoming an earl. When Henry suffers to a lavender-scented death, Monty is there to console Phoebe.

While Phoebe is a good counterpoint to Sibella, the most delightful innovation in this retelling of the story is the unmarried Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith. Like Monty, she is a social climber, but she desperately needs a cause to improve her social position.

With her Monty is helpful in the most solicitously devious ways. Monty sings, “If I may your Ladyship, one hears about such terrible poverty in Egypt these days.”

Hyacinth replies, “Egypt. Land of the pharaohs and of Moses the Israelite.
Home to the great pyramids and the sphinx. That’s it! We’ll populate an orphanage in Cairo, with foundlings from the reeds along the Nile. To watch a creature grow, to swaddle it and know the joy of its pathetic little smile.”

As she and her entourage head off to Egypt, Monty confides, “And off she went, what I failed to tell her was that a violent uprising against the empire was imminent and no British citizen was considered safe, so you can imagine my surprise when Lady Hyacinth returned to London quite unharmed.”

Hyacinth is something like that cat who always comes back.  Monty then suggests, “You’ve heard of course of the untouchables in India.”

Hyacinth takes he advice, “India. Land of Hindus and Muslims, of tamarind and saffron. Exotic and unknowable. That’s it! We’ll find ourselves some lepers in the Punjab. The hopeless and the wretched and the cursed. Forgotten and Unblessed”

Monty then tells the audience, what important information he failed to provide the blustery Hyacinth with. Hyacinth doesn’t quite have nine lives, but close.

As Monty progresses up the line of succession, his murders get bloodier although even a beheading is handled by director Darko Tresnjak in a  darkly funny manner. There’s not a single step in Peggy Hickey’s choreography that detracts from the delightfully mannered murders or the questionable love triangle that forms between Monty and his two loves: Phoebe and Sibella which comes to a door-slamming climax when Phoebe decides to marry Monty.

Eventually our greek chorus of mourners express both irritation and anxiety about the frequent funerals befalling the D’Ysquiths (“Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying?”).  Is it a curse? Or is it something suspicious?  Of course, as Monty is in prison, he does get charged with murder, and there’s a bit of mystery since in the musical as well as the movie, Monty is charged with a murder he didn’t commit.

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” continues at the Ahmanson until May 1. The Ahmanson Theatre is located at the Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles (135 North Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012). To buy tickets  call 213.972.4444 or  visit  www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, or go to the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre. Ticket prices start at $25.

British Classic ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ Is Gentlemanly Comedy

If you’re a fan of Alec Guinness and black and white movies, then take a look at the 1949 “King Hearts and Coronets” on Amazon.com. Before Alec Guinness was Obiwan Kenobi, he made a hit on the silver screen portraying eight members of the same illustrious family and in a pre-CGI era, the appearance of all eight together in one scene was a technical marvel.

The movie is based on an Edwardian 1907 book, “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” by Roy Horniman. A few changes have been made, the most notable being the main character in the book is half Jewish. In the movie, our protagonist is half-Italian. The title of the movie refers to  a line in an Alfred Tennyson poem: “Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood.” Robert Hamer directs; Hamer and John Dighton (“The Happiest Days of Your Life” and “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”) also wrote the script.

The movie begins with a man approaching a prison. He is the hangman (Miles Malleson). He’s getting ready to hang a duke.  The man plans to retire after this undertaking which will be the highlight of his career. He’ll be using silk instead of coarse hemp for that aristocratic neck. He worries about the proper manner of addressing the duke (“Your Grace,” he’s informed).

The man destined for the noose, is the Tenth Duke of Chalfont, Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price). Mazzini wasn’t to the manor born; his mother was disowned when she married an Italian opera singer. Her husband (also Price) died on the day of his son’s birth. The mother (Audrey Fildes) schools her son on his pedigree and the bitter milk of rejection. Even the death of her husband, at a time when few women worked, didn’t soften the hearts of her aristocratic relations.

Perhaps it was ambition that cooled  any sympathetic impulses.  His mother was the seventh in line to be duke. Due to a very specific quirk in the title,  the dukedom had the unique privilege of passing from both the female and the male line. No Downton Abbey Lady Mary malady of inheritance here.

Growing up the boy Louis was lonely. His mother only deemed the children of a local doctor as worthy enough despite their gentile poverty. This is how Louis meets and falls in love with the ambitious Sibella. Once out of school, Louis’ mother again writes to her relatives, asking Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, a private banker if he might give a position to her son. Louis goes to work s a draper. When the mother finally dies, she requests to be buried with her family. That request goes unanswered.

Meanwhile, Sibella might love Louis, but she need to marry well. The wealthy, but boring Lionel Holland (John Penrose) proposes and Sibella accepts. Louis meets Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne’s only child,  Ascoyne D’Ascoyne Junior, at his store, but quarrels with him. Louis is dismissed and then vows to dispose of each and every one of the people standing in between him and the title, beginning with the haughty Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, how has a boating mishap while with his mistress.

After writing a letter of condolence to Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, Louis meets Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne who gives him a position in his bank. Lord Ascoyne D’Ascoyne is the kindness referred to in the title. On his climb up to the dukedom, Louis will become engaged to Edith, whom had been married to Henry D’Ascoyne whom Louis murdered. Sibella also becomes interested in Louis, having found Lionel Holland one of the most boring men in the world. Lionel actually comes to beg the duke for a loan to save him from bankruptcy and it is Holland’s death that the duke is going to be executed for.  Sibella has other ideas, one that might save, if the duke with make a deal with her.

Dennis Price would have success later in the BBC TV series “The World of Wooster” between 1965-1967, playing Jeeves with Ian Carmichael as Bertie Wooster. Alec Guinness would go on to other distinctions in acting.

Besides the reference to the Tennyson poem below, the movie also has a line that parodies Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s poem “The Arrow and the Song” and  a line from   the 1728 “The Beggar’s Opera.” The original movie was changed for the American market: The adultery between Sibella and Louis is downplayed, the N-word is deleted and someone discovers Louis’ memoirs before he can retrieve them. The version available on Amazon.com is the original British version.

“Kind Hears and Coronets” was listed in the top 100 films in Time magazine and the BFI top 100 movies. The humor is gentler and the dialogue less funny than the Broadway musical. In both, there is a suggestion of a murder yet to come.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere

By Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)
Of me you shall not win renown:
You thought to break a country heart
For pastime, ere you went to town.
At me you smiled, but unbeguiled
I saw the snare, and I retired;
The daughter of a hundred earls,
You are not one to be desired.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
I know you proud to bear your name;
Your pride is yet no mate for mine,
Too proud to care from whence I came.
Nor would I break for your sweet sake
A heart that dotes on truer charms.
A simple maiden in her flower
Is worth a hundred coats-of-arms.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
Some meeker pupil you must find,
For, were you queen of all that is,
I could not stoop to such a mind.
You sought to prove how I could love,
And my disdain is my reply.
The lion on your old stone gates
Is not more cold to you than I.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
You put strange memories in my head.
Not thrice your branching limes have blown
Since I beheld young Laurence dead.
O, your sweet eyes, your low replies!
A great enchantress you may be;
But there was that across his throat
Which you had hardly cared to see.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
When thus he met his mother’s view,
She had the passion of her kind,
She spake some certain truths of you.
Indeed I heard one bitter word
That scarce is fit for you to hear;
Her manners had not that repose
Which stamps the caste of Vere de Vere.

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
There stands a spectre in your hall;
The guilt of blood is at your door;
You changed a wholesome heart to gall.
You held your course without remorse,
To make him trust his modest worth,
And, last, you fix’d a vacant stare,
And slew him with your noble birth.

Trust me, Clara Vere de Vere,
From yon blue heavens above us bent
The gardener Adam [1] and his wife
Smile at the claims of long descent.
Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.

I know you, Clara Vere de Vere,
You pine among your halls and towers;
The languid light of your proud eyes
Is wearied of the rolling hours.
In glowing health, with boundless wealth,
But sickening of a vague disease,
You know so ill to deal with time,
You needs must play such pranks as these.

Clara, Clara Vere de Vere,
If time be heavy on your hands,
Are there no beggars at your gate,
Nor any poor about your lands?
O, teach the orphan-boy to read,
Or teach the orphan-girl to sew;
Pray Heaven for a human heart,
And let the foolish yeoman go.

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