Movie Reviews by Mark Leeper

The Funeral (1996) -- The Ghost of April (1996)

We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!

The Funeral (1996)

In large part this is an old
fashioned anti-crime morality tale. Abel Ferrara
does some of his best directorial work to date in
this story of a family of three gangster brothers
When the youngest of the brothers is murdered and
eldest has to avenge the crime, the family begins
to disintegrate. The dark piece of cinema, in tone
and in lighting, looks at each of the three
brothers, each with his own viewpoint on violence
and in an odd way his own brand of idealism. This
is a violent film, occasionally graphically
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4)

In 1936 the Tempio brothers are three small-time criminal enforcers, first generation immigrants from Italy. Ray (played by Christopher Walken) is by default the patriarch of the family and controls the others with a heavy hand. He is quiet and introspective. Chez (Chris Penn) is volatile and given to short emotional bursts. The youngest was Johnny (Vincent Gallo) who developed a social conscience and was leaning toward the Communists whose meetings he had visited. I say "was" since as the film opens Johnny is being brought into the house of his brother Ray in a coffin. Johnny has been murdered and Ray knows that it is his job to track down the murderer. This is not directly for revenge, but because in the philosophy he has been taught the killer has to eliminate anyone who might be coming after him in vengeance. These are the Old Country values that at the age of thirteen back in Italy Ray was told he must learn to run the family when his father died. His responsibilities at that young age included the cold-blooded execution of a family enemy. So Ray and Chez must find out who killed their twenty-two-year-old younger brother. The story is told in present action and in extended flashbacks. The screenplay by Nicholas St. John delves into the forging of the violent family with scenes from Ray's childhood and the action in the month or so leading up to the killing of Johnny. It also shows how the violence of the family poisons each remaining brother's family life. Ray is married to Jeanette (Annabella Sciorra), as intelligent as her husband and just as assertive. She rages against the pain while Chez's wife Clara (Isabella Rossellini) quietly bears all. THE FUNERAL is like a de-romanticized THE GODFATHER on a smaller scale, and often with more believable conflict and more realistic dialogue.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film was Vincent Gallo's performance. He plays with a certain tension just beneath the surface and has a lively performance style and an unforgettable--not to say "homely"--face. The face and style remind one of the early performances of John Turturro. Director Abel Ferrara probably has some of the best performances of any of his films in THE FUNERAL. He has overcome some of the self-indulgent over-acting in films like MS. 45. Some of the most effective performances come from the actresses playing the two wives, Annabella Sciorra and Isabella Rossellini, reacting differently as they see their lives unraveling as their husbands are pulled into the events that follow the killing. Only Christopher Walken, in the top-billed role, seems a trifle too reserved for the proceedings.

Nicholas St. John's screenplay has some nice touches. Each of the brothers has his own style of idealism and his feeling of how things ought to be. These interpretations are based in large part on each's views of Catholicism and each's responsibility to the family. Ferrara has a penchant for melodrama and this film has it, though it has always been hard to do a gangster films without a least some melodrama. Ferrara is a sort of outsider as a filmmaker. He was not aiming at making one of the great gangster classics, he just wanted to tell a superficially simple story and create some characters of some depth. This is not an ambitious film, but there certainly are some nice touches. I would give it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

The Ghost of April (1996)

This 1988 Japanese film seems to be
an IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE aimed at teenagers. An
average high school girl hovers between life and
death, wanting to die, but discovers the value of
life and of being herself. The film is a little
light in approach, but is quite watchable.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4)

The ghost story is a staple of Japanese cinema. Such films as KWAIDAN and THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA are popular examples. But almost all of the ghost stories we see coming out of Japan are first period pieces and ghost stories only second. Whether there are many contemporary ghost stories made in Japan that we do not see in the United States I do not know. THE GHOST OF APRIL is a film I saw at the Japan Foundation Kyoto Office and it is radically different from the Japanese ghost stories that have come to my country. Many of these are morality tales of wronged people coming back for revenge. This 1988 film is about a contemporary teenager and seems to be aimed at teens in Japan. The plot is at once reminiscent of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, and A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

As the film opens Hatsuko (played by Nakajima Tomoko) seems to be in a mysterious state of half life and half death. She walks barefoot through misty landscapes and floats in clouds. She does not know how she has gotten in this state until a guardian comes along to explain to her. Gennojo (Yanagiba Toshiro) tells her he is like her. He is dead but is not yet ready to pass on to the next world where all memories of the past life are erased. Gennojo has been in this state since early this century when he was killed by a balloon of his own devising. Hatsuko is shown her last day when she rebuffed the school geek Natsuyama (Tsunoda Eisuke) who claims to be able to see ghosts. She also was spoken to by her heartthrob Tsudanuma. Then on her way home she followed the whimper of a puppy into an abandoned factory where she was killed by a falling girder. But there is a complication. She is in this half-state because she accepted death even as the girder was falling. The girder missed her and she was hit by only a bento lunchbox. That would not have been fatal, but for her acceptance of death. This means Hatsuko has the choice of life and death. But she prefers death with Gennojo to her unhappy life.

This is a film of uneven production quality. Konaka Kazuya who directs and co-wrote the screenplay with Seki Kenji has some nice images, but he let some sloppiness sneak into the production. In one scene the puppy who fits into the plot seems to be staring at the camera rather than at anything in the scene. The plot loses some credibility when one of the characters invents a ghost detector. The viewer suspends some disbelief just to accept that ghosts exist. Asking the acceptance of a second far-fetched premise is a mistake. The last few minutes of the film also seem to weaken the story with familiar cliche. On the other hand there is a very effective scene involving the souls of dead birds and the climax is nicely done.

It is not easy to judge acting in a language you do not understand. Mis-delivered lines may go completely unnoticed. Still the actors do a reasonable job. Yanagiba is most notable as the otherworldly balloonist. This is not a film about or engendering deep emotions, but it is a reasonable film for a young audience.

THE GHOST OF APRIL (April is the month, not a character) is a different sort of Japanese ghost story aimed at teen but watchable for adults. I give it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.


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