Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Raise the Red Lantern

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After her father’s death, nineteen year old Songlian is forced to marry the lord of a powerful family. Fifty year old Chen has already three wives, each of them living in separate houses within the great castle. Each night Chen must decide with which wife to spend the night and a red lantern is lit in front of the house of his choice. And each wife schemes and plots to make sure it’s hers. However, things get out of hand…

Stars: Li Gong, Jingwu Ma, Saifei He

Director: Zhang Yimou

Rated: PG

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  The early 90’s were bountiful times for US audiences “discovering” foreign films.  While usually relegated to the small art-house cinemas, the independent film and foreign film market really exploded around the beginning of that decade.  Nowadays foreign films play next door to the latest slapstick comedy and indie films are being given their due.

Chinese films have always been of interest to me and the more they have a historical or cultural angle, the better.  Raise the Red Lantern was a nominee for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars in 1991 and was on numerous critics best of lists for that year and the decade itself.  As I’ve become more varied in my tastes in movies I’m starting to circle back to films like Raise the Red Lantern…films I was too young to see at the time or neglected due to other interests.  How much great cinema have I missed?

Li has been a major force in Asian cinema but has never really showed much interest in being a crossover star in the US.  Despite strong performances in Memoirs of a Geisha and the otherwise insipid Miami Vice, Li works steadily in China and is quite well respected.  She seems to excel at playing characters like she inhabits here – strong willed women that are difficult to like but layered enough to root for.

Opening on a close up of Songlian’s (Li) face as she and an offscreen voice of her stepmother weigh her options on a future, Songlian eventually makes the decision to become one of the wives of a wealthy Master.  Though the Master plays a large role in the movie, we only ever see him in long shots but never his face.  It’s a strong choice for Zhang to direct the movie and utilize the back of an actor’s head more than his face.  It works, though, in illustrating the detached nature of Songlian and her feeling toward the life she indeed chose for herself.

Newly dubbed Fourth Mistress, Songlian is appropriately the fourth wife and we are treated to several showcases of cultural significance regarding the pecking order of the wives.  It’s a theme that was revived in one of the plots portrayed in The Joy Luck Club.  Here though is a movie that is squarely centered on the wives and their various schemes to be in the good favor of the master.

Chief rivals for Fourth Mistress are Mistresses 2 and 3…both with their own secrets and tricks up their sleeves.  It could have easily turned into a cat-fight-y and bitchy battle of the wills amongst the women but there is high art to be had and a not-so-sincere smile is used in place of a nasty quip.  One is never quite sure who the good guy is which makes the developments of the last hour so deliriously watchable.

Fourth Mistress is no heroine and you’d be hard pressed to side with her in most occasions.  She seems unnecessarily selfish and cruel to everyone around here…but maybe that is the American voice in me talking.  We’re so trained in siding with the “new girl” but that is turned on its ear here…she can be as wicked as the next and true to form she sets into motion several major events that threaten to tear the household apart. 

Beautifully shot on a labyrinth of a compound fortress and aided by a score with a chorus of voices that is both ominous and soothing, Raise the Red Lantern is deservedly a high point in Asian cinema.  While it may be a bit too Westernized to truly speak to the cultural points of the era, it was tremendously entertaining and memorable.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ The Secret Garden (1993)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: From the classic Frances Hodgon Burnett novel, a young girl discovers an abandoned garden on her uncle’s large Victorian country estate, as well as an invalid cousin she didn’t realize she had. With the help of a local boy, the girl sets out to restore the garden.

Stars: Kate Maberly, Maggie Smith, Heydon Prowse, John Lynch, Laura Crossley, Andrew Knott  

Director: Agnieszka Holland

Rated: G

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I’m always surprised that more people haven’t seen this excellent adaptation of the beloved children’s book.  Perhaps it is Holland’s adult slant on the tale that really pushes it to the next level.  Everything here is handled with a sure hand from a mature perspective so you never feel like you’re watching a “kid’s” movie…it just happens to be a story involving children.

This slightly Jane Eyre-eqse tale is one we’ve seen told in other film adaptations (the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie is also pretty good), stage versions and even a Broadway musical.  Young Mary Lennox is spoiled, selfish, and has just lost her parents in India.  Returning to England to live as a ward to her only relative she is becomes another inhabitant of Mistelthwaite Manor.  Her adventures around the house lead her to the titular secret garden and suddenly a world/home that looked dark has a ray of light.

Maberly makes a good Mary with her pinched face and haughty attitude brought on by being treated as an afterthought by her equally entitled parents.  As she learns to do things on her own and keep herself company we see her cold exterior melt and her youth return.  Prowse and Knott are her two companions…and regardless of position they are truly her equals.  Smith can do no wrong and leaves no eyebrow un-raised as an uptight housekeeper that knows things should change but feels it is out of her place to do so. 

All told, this is a film that has only gotten better as the years go by.  It’s absolutely a product of 90’s family-fare filmmaking but it is wonderful to see a movie free of animation or obtrusive special effects.  The studio has wisely put the telling of this story in the hands of a capable crew and company.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Still of the Night

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Manhattan psychiatrist probes a patient’s murder and falls for the victim’s mysterious mistress.

Stars: Roy Scheider, Meryl Streep, Jessica Tandy, Sara Botsford

Director: Robert Benton

Rated:  PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s not a huge shocker if you hadn’t heard of this early 80’s thriller.  Director Benton was coming off the boffo success of Kramer vs Kramer which netted both him and Streep their first Oscars.  Writing specifically for Streep, he gave her a nice role (and a great monologue toward the end) that she filmed before moving on to really becoming MERYL STREEP.  It’s not a movie that’s generous with substance and I think nearly 30 years later its lost a great deal of it’s original thrll…but one can imagine this sophisticated mystery being very effective in its day considering the wave of gruesome slasher films being released at the same time.

I remember watching this movie for the first time nearly a decade ago and enjoying it’s brisk feel.  Watching it again recently I was struck how pedestrian some of the sequences are with Scheider saying and doing things that make little sense other than to forward the picture to its conclusion.  For a psychiatrist that sticks to the ethical code in some situations he’s remarkably forthcoming about patient information and crossing moral lines in others.  There are some pacing issues to note, such as Scheider’s covert attempt to break into an office that takes about ten times as long as it should considering the time pressure he’s under.  You find yourself as a viewer talking back to the screen, urging him to hurry the heck up.  Another issue I had with it was Streep’s incessant action of pushing her hair away from her face…maybe it’s just me but I think she could have rocked a barrette fairly well and still maintained her Hitchock Blonde-like status.  Third billed Tandy is wasted here in two short scenes and one wonders if the part was either cut down or not intended for a star of her caliber…but to be fair as popular as Tandy was she really hit a career high in the late 80’s with the one two punch of Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes.  Still, her presence here only reminds me of how much she is missed.

While the film hasn’t aged the best and may have some moments where a good eye roll will help you through, there’s no denying that there are a few spine-tingling moments.  Much of this is accomplished with old-fashioned camera work that keeps the audience as in the dark as our characters.  Ok, Ok…maybe by the third time a character sees a pitch black hallway and enters anyway you’ll call foul but I dare you not to feel your heart racing a bit.  The final ten minutes are pretty nifty…and Streep has a great Scream Queen Scream.

Unavailable on DVD and hard to find on VHS, I saw this again on MGMHD.  Try to track this one down…especially if you are a Streep fan.  I wonder what she feels about this picture or what her experience was like making it.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Paradise (1991)

Paradise

The Facts:

Synopsis: An unhappy couple rediscover their lost love for one another when a 10 year old boy comes to visit them for the summer…

Stars: Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith, Elijah Wood, Thora Birch

Director: Mary Agnes Donoghue

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: An American remake of the French film Le Grand Chemin (The Grand Highway), Paradise was conceived as a star-vehicle for the then-married duo of Griffth and Johnson.  Playing a couple teetering on the brink of separation one can’t help but see some real life parallels.  Johnson and Griffth would eventually divorce (for the second time!) in 1996 but here they play well off each other in a sweet, harmless puff of a film that I’ve always found to be a nice diversion.  While the couple receives top billing, the film unquestionably belongs to Wood as a sensitive boy sent to live with his mom’s friend while the mother gets her life together.  The conceit that the mother would leave her son with people he doesn’t know for an entire summer always was a creaky plot contrivance.  The couple has suffered a loss and if the mother and Griffth’s character were such good friends, she would know that a young boy staying with them that is roughly the same age as their son would have been seems a little rough.

Wood was just starting off in Hollywood and from his performance here it’s easy to see why his career took off.  The acting never seems forced or false and he holds his own, creating a character that’s sensitive and justifiably standoffish.  His developing father-son-esque relationship with Johnson brings out the best in both.  I’ve never found Johnson to be an actor to write home about but he does good work here…his scenes with Wood and Griffith have an authenticity that’s hard to fake.  Griffith’s voice will wear on you after a while but she’s remarkably restrained here…she’ll never be as good as she was in Working Girl but this was a departure of a role for her and ultimately she acquits herself nicely.

If Wood makes a good impression here, Birch walks away with the movie.  Precocious, mischievous, and wise beyond her young years she buddies up to Wood and forms a great friendship over the summer.  It would have been so easy to insert a little growing romance between the two but when Birch pats Wood on the back and says “You’re my best friend”…it’s more of a heart-tugger than any unrequited love that could exist between the two.

With a movie filled with some obvious clichés it’s not surprising that this failed to ignite the box office or gather much praise from the critics but never you mind that.  What you have here is an overlooked movie that has a lot of heart and no major agenda.  Give it a spin.

Why Haven’t You Seen These Movies? ~ The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio & A Home of Our Own

Today is my first entry in the “Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie?” category.  I come across movies all the time that I’ve been blind to and others haven’t seen either.  So I’m going through my favorites, old and new, and giving you some ideas if you’re Netflix, Library, DVR, or Tivo queue needs a little pick-me-up.

I’d love to know what your favorites are that you think no one has seen/appreciated!

The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the true story of Evelyn Ryan, an enterprising woman who kept poverty at bay with wit, poetry, and perfect prose during the “contest era” of the 1950s and 1960s.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern

Director: Jane Anderson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

Review:  One of my “go-to” movies if someone is asking me to recommend a movie they’d enjoy.  This sweetly slight film won’t change your life but it’s an underappreciated gem that’s made quite well and is full of winning performances.  Moore, as usual, fits right in to the 50’s/60’s period almost as if she was actually from that era.  At the time this was made Harrelson was just stepping his toe into more dramatic films so he comes across as a little uncomfortable in the role of a troubled father.  It’s a nice look back at a time when contests were held through the mail instead of online and winning $100 meant your large family could eat steak during the week.

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story is located in Los Angeles in the sixties. An energetic widow  Frances Lacey and her six children try to make a dream of theirs come true: to have a home of their own.

Stars: Kathy Bates, Edward Furlong, SoonTek Oh

Director: Tony Bill

Rated: PG

Running Length: 104 minutes

Review:  Another virtually ignored movie from the early 90’s when both Bates and Furlong were riding popularity waves.  Bates has continued to turn in varied supporting performances over the years but I find her to be her best in central roles like this.  Plot wise, this is a pretty standard “Let’s pick up stakes and find a better life for ourselves” film replete with trials, tears, and tribulations.  It’s the strength of the performances top to bottom that elevates this to a memorable level.  Anytime I catch this on TV I find myself getting wrapped up in it again.  Give it a shot…there’s value here.