The Rare Review

Movies, books, music and TV

The Undervalued: “The King of Masks”

ABEB34BB-C348-4105-90D8-5D51F0D31283In the West, the lives of most little girls are hardly devoid of privileges and delights.  In China of the 1930s, however, little girls were rigidly undervalued and sold by their impoverished parents (or keepers) to ensure all-around survival.

“Doggie” (Zhou Ron-Ying), the child in the Chinese picture The King of Masks (1996), has keepers, not parents.  An elderly street performer, Wang (Zhu Xu), is fooled into thinking she is a young boy and buys her, only to be shocked and dismayed when it transpires she is a girl.  It is only a boy who can inherit Wang’s silk mask entertainment trade after he dies.  Not without pity, the old man allows “Doggie” to work for him, but a string of awful misfortunes makes it, for a while, impossible for him to support her.

Many a theme receives attention in Wu Tianming‘s rich film:  childhood destitution, the ubiquity of injustice, the seeming need (when it is a need) for accepting fate, pariahism.  For all its dramatics, King is no masterpiece of drama—it needs a sturdier plot—but it is interesting and beautifully chaste.  It ends on a sentimental note but it is also an affecting film.

(In Mandarin with English subtitles)

Natalie And Paul And . . . “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”

I gave Paul Mazursky‘s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) a second chance and liked it a little better this time. It’s the one about confusion over sexual values (in the late Sixties) and emerging freedom itself, if that’s what it is. The initial sequence is smart in how it suggests that traditional religious beliefs have been supplanted by touchy-feely, therapeutic balderdash. This and the rest of the film, moreover, is well—and artistically—directed by Mazursky.

I still find the writing by Mazursky and Larry Tucker dissatisfying, however. Too often the talk gets boring. The resolution at the end doesn’t work because Dyan Cannon‘s Alice is the only one in the quartet who hasn’t injured someone by having an affair. She and her husband Ted (Elliot Gould) are not in the same moral position. I believe the picture should be seen, though, especially since it stars a breathtakingly beautiful Natalie Wood, a true star. Why wasn’t she seen on movie screens more often after this film?

Bog Oak: The Story, “The Black Madonna”

A black statue of the Madonna, carved out of bog oak, is set up at the Church of the Sacred Heart. Lou and Raymond Parker, married, are a nice, liberal-minded Catholic couple; and Lou in particular eventually tries to trust “the black Madonna” for a miracle. But she is treating a mere statue as if it were a talisman, which—in this Muriel Spark short story—it seems to be. It isn’t a god, however: Lou and Raymond are inattentive to God.

Lou, desirous of a baby, gets her miracle. The liberal lady has always been open-minded about black folks, and has tried to keep snobbishness at bay, but she gives birth to a black baby (what a talisman!) and doesn’t want it. She freaks out. A black baby from a black Madonna made of oak. It is incongruous, of course, but it happens in an incongruous world where there is said to be a distinction in the Parkers’ circumstance between a morally good thing and a right thing. Not so.

The Base And The Blues, “Biloxi Blues”

In 1988, Mike Nichols released his movie version of Biloxi Blues, the Neil Simon play. Focused on military recruits at a Biloxi, Mississippi base, it is a bouncy comedy about the ugliness of army life and is also somewhat nostalgic about it. Ably acted by Matthew Broderick, Eugene Jerome is Simon’s alter ego, aspiring to write, oft with the blues. But not always. In one day he loses his virginity to a prostitute and falls in love with a high school girl.

This leads me to the complaint that everything in Simon’s story is too pat. And there is crisp dialogue, to be sure, but it could stand to be a bit funnier and even wittier. Nichols directed, but unlike other of the man’s works, the film is basically inartistic. Re two thespians: Corey Parker is wonderful as a recruit called Epstein, and Christopher Walken is virtually hypnotic and droll.

Another Tale Of Peter And M.J.: “Spider-Man 2”

Cover of "Spider-Man - The Motion Picture...

Cover via Amazon

The 2004 Spider-Man 2 is another Sam Raimi success.  Again Tobey Maguire plays the titular superhero: not a very interesting actor here, he is nonetheless passable.  Kirsten Dunst was cast in these flicks before she got good.

The film asks:  What does it take to create in Peter Parker the desire to be a superhero (a desire he is losing)?  The answer is when Mary Jane (Dunst) urgently needs a savior.  Above all—or just about—Spider-Man 2 is a love story.

Raimi’s scenes and footage are pleasantly resonant, if often familiar.  It was smart of him, after showing Spidey merrily swinging amid the tall buildings, to end his movie with a closeup of Mary Jane watching at a window.  A touch of class.

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