Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Review: "The Good Earth" (1937)

One of the big classic DVD releases next week will be "The Charlie Chan Chanthology"; a collection of six of the popular Charlie Chan mysteries from the 30's and 40's. The movies function as mysteries and work well at that level, but some modern audiences can't get past the sight of a Caucasian in heavy make up playing an Asian. It was a typical practice in Hollywood at that time, but one should keep in mind that all of these performances were not created equal. Even though Sidney Toler's performance of Chan was at times cliched, Chan was also often portrayed as the smartest person in the room. He was a sympathetic character that people could admire. The other side of this coin being, for example, Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's". The less said about that, the better.

Which leads us to "The Good Earth", a drama that chronicles the rise, fall, and rise again of farmer Wang Lung and his family. The sight of Paul Muni, whom I was familiar with through "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang", as Wang Lung was distracting when I first saw him. I was oddly reminded of Patrick Stewart in Cardasian make-up on an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation". However, Wang Lung is such a energetic optimist for most of the film, you end up focusing more on his character than his appearance. Wang Lung's wife O-Lan, played by Louise Ranier, spends most of the film offsetting Muni by looking sad and sallow. Ranier won a Best Actress Oscar for this role, and it looks well deserved. Although she's given much more dialogue in the film than in the book, Ranier still has to often communicate by looks instead of words, and she does this splendidly.

Although there are elements that seek to portray the individuality of China and its culture, the story is broadly a human one that anyone can relate to. In fact, the story dynamic often mirrors "Gone with the Wind", which would be released two years later. Both portray a family with modest prosperity who encounter disaster, drought and starvation, only to claw their way back up and become even richer than before, but at the cost of family. Repeatedly in "The Good Earth", Wang Lung emphasizes the importance and value in owning your own land. By the third time he said this, I half expected Scarlett O'Hara's father to step from behind a tree and start spouting about Tara.

Special mention should be given to the locust swarm sequence near the end. It was a big special effect/selling point for the film when it first came out, and It holds up as the most exciting part of the film. I've only seen one other film that tried a locust swarm like this, the German film "Nowhere in Africa", and the effectiveness of both sequences can stand side by side even though they are over sixty years apart.

In contrast to 1937, audiences today have far more options for this kind of story and can easily find more authentic productions (i.e. completely filmed in China with an entire cast of Chinese actors instead of just the supporting players). Still, one should never discount a well told story, which "The Good Earth" certainly is.

Seven out of Ten

Yaphet Kotto Quote of the Month: June 2004

The name that I've taken on for this Blog is a character played by actor Yaphet Kotto in the 1988 action/comedy "Midnight Run". Near the beginning of the film, his badge is stolen by Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro). For the rest of the film, Mosely keeps getting reports of differenet people using his badge to impersonate him. So, in this sense, consider me the next.

So, apropo of nothing, i will be posting a Yaphet Kotto quote of the month. Here's a quote from "Midnight Run" for June:

Alonzo Mosely: What should be of prime importance to you is that you're looking at ten years just for impersonating an FBI agent.
Jack Walsh: 10 years?
Alonzo Mosely: Yep.
Jack Walsh: How comes no one's after you?
By the way, I know that it's actually spelled "Mosely" and I've spelled it "Mosley". To hell with it. I'm too lazy to go back and change it now.

Review: "Bend of the River" (1952)

At the conclusion of "The Seven Samurai", the surviving members of the original seven look out over the farmers at work in the fields. The peasants can now continue their lives of planting and harvest. The samurai, on the other hand, have once again lost their purpose now that the bandits have been defeated. When Hollywood remade this film as "The Magnificent Seven", this bittersweet ending was exchanged with the victorious gunslingers riding into the sunset. Although they decided not to dwell on the reality of the gunslinger's existence, there would be other westerns that would.

Leave it to Jimmy Stewart to tackle the dark half. Having established his Capra feel-good credentials, he went on to explore more complicated characters in a series of westerns. "Bend of the River" was one of the first of these, and places Stewart in the Pacific Northwest leading settlers to a new territory. Along the way, he picks up a likeable stranger played by Arthur Kennedy. It's soon revealed that both men have dangerous pasts. One wishes to make that leap to farming and leave his past behind. The other doesn't seem able to, or maybe just doesn't much care to.

This is an exciting western with good acting, a good story and great cinematography. It's also nice to see a western that chooses a different part of the US besides the barren southwest for its setting. If there are any faults with it, it's in two of the characters. The first is Adam, played by the legendary, and infamous, Stepin Fetchit. The "massa" routine that he's now reviled for is more a distraction than anything else. Fortunately, his scenes are few. The other character that isn't given much more to do, yet gets near-top billing, is Trey played by Rock Hudson. Honestly, he doesn't do a lot in the story and he could have been taken out altogether and not hurt the movie much.

In the recognizable faces category, Harry Morgan, otherwise known as Col. Potter from "MASH", plays a failed miner. Morgan had a fruitful career in westerns long before "MASH" and even "Dragnet". He can also be spotted in "The Ox Bow Incident" and "High Noon", both highly recommended. Also, one of the chief settlers is played by Francis Bavier, known to most people as Aunt Bee from "The Andy Griffith Show".

Eight out of Ten

Monday, June 28, 2004

Please be gentle

Although I've been an avid reader of blogs for years, this is my first try at doing one of my own. To anyone who's reading this, thanks for stopping by. I'll be sure to post something incredibly interesting in the next few days. Also, as soon as I figure it out, I'll be creating a list of my favorite blogs. So stay tuned.

In case you're wondering...

...the title of this brand spankin' new blog was one I came up with years ago. This is the definition:

A-cren-tro-py (a 'kren trO pE) n. A trend to disorder due to religious fanaticism and a propensity towards armed conflict

Not a new concept by any means, but an even more recognizable one these days.