Monday, March 29, 2010

Asian FIGHT!

宮本武蔵 (Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto), 1954
Dir: Hiroshi Inagaki

Often described as the Japanese Gone With the Wind (1939), this film surely meets that reputation. I did not know this before I got it, but it seemed pretty apparent after the film gets going. There's a battle at the beginning where two young men get to fulfill their dreams of becoming samaurai (or at least try to be), some huffing and puffing, and a lot of over acting, with head honcho Toshirō Mifune leading the gesticulating crowd. The films then splits into wild Mifune as a fugitive on the lam, and lame, bad Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni) skulking about with a widow and her daughter in Kyoto, though he is betrothed to Otsu (Yachigusa Kaoru). This eventually gets to the point where Mifune goes into training mode to quell his wildness and become a true samurai, but luckily there are no montages. The end is a segway into the second film of the trilogy, but I can't honestly say that this did anything for me to make me want to go watch that. There are some pretty shots but that's about it.


大醉俠 (Come Drink With Me), 1967
Dir: King Hu

I'm not sure why I've never seen this, but I'm glad I have now. This "rebirth" of Wuxia is overblown, irreverent and awesome enough to make it the just the kind of "classic" kung fu that I was looking for. I might say that it is slightly dated as far as the action goes, but King Hu said he was far more interested in translating dance into the combat than in trying to make it be "realistic," which is pretty obvious. Characters with names like Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei, who is "Jade Fox" in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Drunken Cat and Jade-Faced Tiger only compliment the awesome score and ridiculous overacting in parts. But I mean this in the best way possible. It might not be as funny as I'd like (well, besides crazy faces and everyone screaming "I will send you to heaven!"), but to any martial arts/Asian action fan this is a must.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ride Lonesome

Ride Lonesome, 1959
Dir: Budd Boetticher

If there was ever a director who could be accused of recycling a "set-up," it's Boetticher. It's not that the stories of all of these films are the same, it's just that they basically unfold the same way. Ride Lonesome doesn't really do anything to differentiate itself from the other really great Boetticher films, or Westerns for that matter, but I can't help but feeling that this is the most complete of all these films that I've seen.

The most obvious element to help Boetticher “pull away” from other Westerns would be the breathtaking cinematography that is just as vast and open as it is rigorous and formal. He has to overcome the conventions of the whole shot/reverse shot setup within the expanded space of cinemascope. Scorsese sort of talks about this in the extras of the DVD, which is pretty interesting if you're into DVD extras. Despite my own initial skepticism, Boetticher makes this film feel as controlled as his less talkative efforts. That’s not to say Ride Lonesome is a chatty relationship film. I would argue that it is a film about relationships, but with very sparse and deadpan comedic dialogue. A perfect example of the film’s simple and straight-forward dialogue would be Karen Steele’s attempt to question the profession of Scott’s character. “You don’t seem like the kind of man who would hunt people for money” she says, to which he quickly responds, “I am.” It was actually at this specific moment that I realized just how important dialogue (or lack thereof) is important in Westerns as well as how great Burt Kennedy was at bringing that perfect tone to the dialogue in Boetticher’s films.

Ride Lonesome does have its own set of characters to make it at least superficially different from other Westerns as well. Scott’s prisoner is played by James Best here, and he has very little flair to add to the film. The way Boetticher downplays Best’s role is sort of brilliant though. He’s a criminal, alright, but not even remotely charming. One gets the sense that it is a constant struggle for Scott’s character to resist killing Best. It eliminates a slightly theatrical lining that’s found in other Westerns, even really good ones. Sure, more flamboyant actors might be more likely to initially impress people, but I like how Best is occassionally treated so poorly by everyone else. That’s not really an acting accomplishment, just a narrative related one. The film as a whole, though, is a great accomplishment in every possible category.


Friday, March 26, 2010

A Prophet

Un Prophète (A Prophet), 2009
Dir: Jacques Audiard

Hey, it's art-house Thursday! What's that? You say that everyday is art-house day here? Well, I guess that is true, but this is special in that I actually went to the art house tonight. So what have we here? It's A Prophet, which stays true to the sort of extreme cinema verite style (watch the first "mission" that the Corsicans give Malik (Tahar Rahim) and you'll know what I mean) that's coming out of France these days. A bit conventional plot-wise (most of us are well acquainted with this kind of story) but strong performances, subtle directing (half of the choices I really liked and half I didn't like at all, especially the dumb dream stuff and visions; but all that is pretty much a crap-shoot with me anyway) and the perfect amount of attention to the minutiae of incarceration makes it rise way above the regular Hollywood prison drama, or even your run-o-the-mill gangster flick. This is a bit of both and it definitely works in it's favor. It's been long since I rooted so much for a hero to overcome his obstacles, especially because the movie doesn't go out of its way to make him heroic, even if you know that he will become a "prophet."


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Decision at Sundown

Decision at Sundown, 1957
Dir: Budd Boetticher

So somehow I missed this in the time line of Boetticher films, but that might apt considering what this is. That's not to say that this is really bad, in fact, most if not all of the characters are really great in this, it's just that that there are too many scenes where characters are telling you exactly what the film is about. Maybe I'm being too picky, but I guess that just comes with watching way too many films.

Decision at Sundown is great, but I can't help but feel slightly disappointed by all those scenes. The plot isn't nearly as thrusting as most films, but Charles Lang has the pen again and Boetticher does his best again to loosen it up. There is again a sort of narrative set up that can be missed if you are not looking for it. Randolph Scott is Burt Allision, back in great mode, his lone gun (with a sidekick, so maybe not so lone at first) is out for vengeance against Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), a man he claims "stole" his wife while he was away during the war (Civil, of course). In fact, according to Allison, Kimbrough "ruined" her to the point that she committed suicide. Kimbrough has been the local boss in Sundown for a few years and has most of the town folks under his thumb, including the sheriff (Andrew Duggan). Allison rides into town and starts talking shit about Kimbrough right away, and everyone gets nervous because he's getting married to Lucy Summerton (Karen Steele) that very day. The scene during the wedding where Allison doesn't "hold his peace" is great, and he soon finds himself entrenched in the stable against the whole town, and we soon start to realize that his vengeance might not be so justified.

Allison and Kimbrough are both great characters, two flawed men who are bound to duel. The sherriff is loyal to Kimbrough up until the point where his life is on the line, the local doctor (John Archer) has his own gripes about Kimbrough but has never been able to deal with him, and then there's Ruby (Valerie French), a woman who's in love with Kimbrough but is not batting an eye over the wedding and maybe that's because she knows where Kimbrough's true affections lie. Anyway, this might be the first film I've seen where there are sort of two endings but the last one, the one which actually ends the film, is amazing, as opposed to the other way around, which usually happens. This could probably get a 4, but whatever. The grading is all pointless anyway really.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

4 Japanese Films

砂の女 (Woman in the Dunes), 1964
Hiroshi Teshigahara

There's really a lot of great stuff in this. It's just that the film begins to drag and I mean really fucking drag at some points. There's certain movies where half way through, despite loving it you get the feeling there's nothing much more the film can offer. This is sort of how I felt. I mean, I did enjoy the rest of the film but not nearly on the same level. It gets sort of tedious after a while, I suppose. The ending is really bad too. Teshigahara's decision to show the main character's "missing persons" report is something you'd probably see in a Twilight Zone episode. It's almost like he's saying, "Hey, did you ever know a person that went missing? Well, maybe they're enduring something like this?!" - just feels kinda gimmicky. Everything else though, I completely love. The Eraserhead-esque visual style, the perfectly framed shots and the (surprisingly) great acting. The story is about this guy in the Japanese boonies who gets tricked by locals and is sort of stuck in this hut where he can't escape and is forced to shovel sand. There is, of course, a woman there too. There's a lot of philosophical stuff that goes with this ("Am I shoveling to live, or am I living to shovel?") mostly associated with Sartre or Beckett, but most of it is only implied so it's never unbearable. I was quite surprised to see how well the academy ratio worked in a film that I thought was going to be filled with landscapes. Instead, it's a much more claustrophobic piece.


座頭市物語 (The Tale of Zatoichi), 1962
Dir: Kenji Misumi

This kind of gets stuck in between something that wants to be taken seriously (which I'm almost positive it does) and something that should be completely ridiculous. I mean it's about a blind swordsman, and this is the first film of the "classic" samurai saga that would include 26 films from 1962 to 1989. There's typical Yakuza stuff in this, and also the "don't underestimate me" stuff that is in every shonen anime ever ("He's just a blind guy!'). Other than that though, this can be pretty fun. Shintaru Katsu actually does a decent job of playing a blind man, and Hirate (Shigeru Amachi) is a pretty all right "villain." The fact that the girl is "begging" to be with him at the end is kind of unbelievable ("My yakuza boyfriend is such a dick! All he does is drink and gamble. But you, you're so nice and mature. Take me with you! Blahblahblah!"), so the fact that he rejects her and continues his wandering life did not matter that much to me as it might to someone else. Hey, you can watch this on Hulu! Might be worth it...


上意討ち 拝領妻始末 (Samurai Rebellion), 1967
Dir: Masaki Kobayashi

Here's something where overacting, one-dimensional characters and too much talky and not enough killy make me completely lose interest. I think that Harakiri (1962) suffers from a lot of the same problems, but this is not even close to being as cool as that. I mean, I know Mifune overacts all the time (check next review), but most of the time I don't care. Samurai are supposed to mask their emotions right? Tatsuya Nakadai is great in this as usual, though he kind of loses his edge for a moment at the end. Kobayashi just doesn't have a whole lot to say. The whole "Japanese feudal life was terrible. I am against any authoritarian power" isn't a terrible thing to have in your movie, but when it's what your movie is about, it's gonna be overblown, which of course this is. If it weren't for the meticulously perfect cinematography, this might be a complete loss for me.


羅生門 (Roshomon), 1950
Dir: Akira Kurusawa

Yup, just saw this for the first time. And yes, I get why this was the first big Japanese film to make a huge international splash. It's because it's totally easy. Sure, there's the "who dunnit?" stuff, which is interesting, but the other stuff just gets to me. Every scene that is at the Roshomon Temple is exposition, and it's really annoying. Oh, the film is about the ambiguity of human nature? Rain? Ohhh. The rest of the film couldn't tell me that? If the stuff at the temple and even the trial weren't in this, I might think this was really great. People make a big deal about the dappled lighting in the grove scenes for all the right reasons, though. That is the way to portray ambiguity. You don't need some dumb monologue to tell everyone. The production values and cinematic ingenuity are all top notch. The acting also leaves a lot to be desired. Mifune is annoying retarded as the bandit, but you get the point. This is the third movie that I've seen with Masayuki Mori (the murdered samurai) and I must say that I'm a big fan. He is the only really good performance in this. So yeah, I get it, but it doesn't mean that I have to love this.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Buchanan Rides Alone

Buchanan Rides Alone, 1958
Dir: Budd Boetticher

Definitely a step down in terms of complete Western awesomeness, but Boetticher throws in enough of his great touches to make this really good. I mean, at the start of the film, Randolf Scott's Buchanan is a completely different kind of reserved, lonesome gun than I want him to be. While that sense of psychology is also implied here, Scott himself is much more open and even sort of funny, in that hokey kind of Western way. I mean, Scott is still great, and a guy you can't really get a bead on (I mean, he sticks up for the Mexican after he shoots the son). I think I kinda missed the clever plot set-up, but that's because I wasn't looking for it. Boetticher and Screenwriter Burt Kennedy just weren't that interested in a "conventional" plot in the last two films I saw, and that's what I liked about them. Maybe it's because Kennedy had nothing to do with this film, as Charles Lang wrote it.

There's nothing about Buchanan that gets as fleshed out as other characters that Scott plays, but I really want it to. He's a West Texan coming into a California border town after having been a hired gun in Mexican revolution. These south-of-the-border sympathies come out when he rushes to the aid of a young Mexican (Manuel Rojas) who kills the rabble rousing son of the most powerful man in town (Tol Avery). Avery, who plays a judge, also has two brothers in town, one of whom is the sheriff (Barry Kelley) who is already on Buchanan's bad side. The tensions in the family soon start to twist the town around in trying to to turn the murder in each of their respective advantages. There's nothing that interesting in these characters, but there is one, Carbo (Craig Stevens), who is that great character who seems at odds with what Scott stands for, but ends up being the only one who resonates with him. This usually ends up with the inevitable showdown, but here the stuff with the powerful family sort of overwhelms it, which can be good or bad, depending on what you want from a film in the first place.

Watching this film does reinforce how little interest Boetticher had in crafting action narratives, and quick dramatic turns. This is by far the most plot-centered film in the whole ranown cannon, but it sorts of explains why the other efforts tend to have extremely similar structures. This is really the only Boetticher film that I can think of that comes pretty darn close to being a conventional “exciting” action movie, which certainly isn’t a problem for me. As usual, the visuals and Scott’s acting are enough to overcome any tiny problems. It’s not as amazing as Boetticher’s other work that I've seen, but it is a really accomplished piece of arty “genre” cinema. So clearly, that last sentence is either going to intrigue you or turn you off. I'm pretty sure you know what it does for me.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Hedgehog in the Fog

Ёжик в тумане (Hedgehog in the Fog), 1975
Dir: Yuriy Norshteyn

And also...he thought about the horse: how is she, the fog?


Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer, 2010
Dir: Roman Polanski

Oh, wow, welcome back to the present, dork. Found some time to get out to the theaters? Yup, it felt good to watch the big screen. And after 4 years of being out of commission, Big Roman is back, baby! What controversy? Roman doesn't give a anal fizzzuck! Alright now, butt raping joking asides, let's talk about the The Ghost Writer. It's a testament to Polanski's abilities as a director that he could make mediocre actors Kim Cattrall and Jim Belushi so watchable. Though they both suck. Especially Cattrall. Have you ever watched someone act when they're trying to use/lose an accent and they just keep slipping in and out of it? That's what watching Catrall is. There are many echoes here of Polanski's previous work; The Tenant (1976) comes to mind first (this, of course, is not nearly as weird though). At times, there is almost this sense of cinematic exaggeration that Werner Herzog is doing now as well. I doubt it is for the same reason, though. And all the characters, even protagonist Ewan MacGregor, are not really that interesting. They're just one dimensional cartoons. Just look at Pierce Brosnan as the ex-Prime Minister, who is actually cast to a T for this. There was also no way the ending was ever going to live up to what was building, and of course, it didn't, although I really did enjoy the last shot. So mainly, it's just fun to watch him spin out a conspiracy story that all can relate to (oh rampant American imperialism, you're just such an east target!) that also has his trademark humor in it. Is it profound? Not really, but as a thriller you could do far worse.


Friday, March 12, 2010

The History of Adele H.

L'Histoire d'Adèle H. (The History of Adele H.), 1975
Dir: François Truffaut

Is there something obsessive about love, the constant act of overvaluation? Truffaut's mid-70s query finds its lens set on Adele Hugo (Isabelle Adjani), the youngest daughter of great French writer Victor Hugo, as she fanatcally follows around her "true love," the English soldier Lt. Albert Pinson (Bruce Robinson), who is a womanizer (unless he is in a scene with Adele, almost always seen with a different woman. The setting for most of the film is in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Pinson is stationed, with the backdrop of all the intrigue that was going on in the city during the American Civil War (so, 1862). Along with her obsession, she is haunted by the drowning death of her older sister, Leopoldine, a vision which frequents her nightmares. At first, we might think that Adele is just there to set straight some misunderstanding between the two, despite the fact that she is there under an assumed name. But we soon start to understand that Adele is crazy, a compulsive liar who will tell a fib for no reason. Pleas from her family and a distressed Lt. Pinson to return home to her father's exile on Guernsey are ignored. The obsession gets so bad that she writes to her father that they are going to be married, and insists on being called Madam Pinson. Of course the rouse is uncovered but Adele is undaunted. Her father sends her money to come home, but she spends it to follow Albert to Barbados, where she finally loses all semblance of sanity, not even recognizing Lt. Pinson when he goes to confront her again. In a epilogue, we learn that she was brought back to her father by an Barbadian woman and then she was institutionalized. She lived there until she died in 1915. A sad story about a sad woman under Truffaut's sympathetic eye with his cinematic touch.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Super Tuesday Japanese Jamboree!!

No work + Spring Break = lots of movie watching. So that's bad news for general motivation. Good news for the blog.

女が階段を上る時 (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs), 1960
Dir: Mikio Naruse

Like the Douglas Sirk films made in Hollywood around the same time, it's easy to understand why someone would place Naruse in the "woman's film" category and not take him seriously. It really misses the whole point of this film though. It just seems that Naruse had no problem being assigned these types of "working-class dramas" by Toho because he could still do the things he wanted to do. And that of course, is to make a general critique of modern Japanese society filled with tons of character development and scuzzy people. The film is about Keiko aka Mama (Hideko Takamine), who is a widowed bar hostess in Tokyo coming to a crossroads in her life. Should she try to get married again and live a comfortable life, or try to get enough patronage from her clients (or maybe just one client) to open her own bar? So you can see how this can have been misconstrued into some weepy melodrama, but that is pretty much the opposite of this. Bar Hostesses in Japan are similar to geisha (though probably lower on the social totem pole) in that they get paid to entertain men. The hostesses basically get paid to pretend to give a shit about old, rich guys while they drink and smoke and make shitty jokes. Mama is receiving pressure from all sides to pick (patrons who want her to open a bar, patrons who want her to marry (preferably to them), her family who needs money) but she is being pushed up against a wall. She has very little money because she has to spend it all to keep up the appearance that she lives a "luxurious" life style. She starts looking at bars that she might buy, and is helped out by Kenichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), the bar manager, who has some unrequited feelings for her. It's interesting to see him without a sword in his hand, but he is a pretty awesome vague "friend" in this. It's never exactly obvious that the relationship is never meant to be, but the way it unfolds, especially at the end, seems appropriate with the mood set in the film. It's also appropriate of where Mama is at the end of the film. After all she goes through, she's still stuck.


雨月物語 (Ugetsu), 1953
Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi

Ugetsu is a ghost story, but it is really about love, temptation and redemption. Now, there's nothing wrong with that, but after watching the extreme bummers of Ozu and Naruse, the ending could almost feel like a cop out if Mizoguchi wasn't being so awesome. Beautiful cinematography, great mise-en-scene and poetic statements definitely pull this right back into my wheelhouse. The medieval war setting seems the perfect place to build an eerie atmosphere, and Mizoguchi nails it. The characters can be a bit too silly occasionally, especially Tōbei (Eitarô Ozawa), who will go any lengths to become a famous samurai (although he is a farmer with no armor or spear). On the other hand, all the women in this are great, and Genjurô's (Masayuki Mori) tribulations are heartfelt as he has to cope with the affections of a dead spirit (Machiko Kyô) while surviving the brutal life of a peasant during wartime. The end is actually really great, a sort of elegy for lost love and passing time. If you haven't checked this out, it's streaming on Netflix. It's really great.


Onibaba, 1964
Dir: Kaneto Shindô

Ohhhh-ho! So this is where M. Night got his idea for The Village (2004). Not the retarded stuff about living in a forest only a couple of miles from real civilization, but the use of "fear of the unknown," especially by elders against youths. You know when they dress up like those monsters to keep all the kids afraid. That's kind of what this is. An old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in the tall grasses near a river in 14th century Japan, and while the never seen war lasts, they kill unsuspecting samurai that stumble into the grasses, strip their bodies and sell the goods for food and whatnot. They dispose of the bodies in a dark hole in the ground. The first time they do this, there's all are these weird noises coming from it like bodies being ripped apart, so I was thinking, "So there's a demon woman who lives in that hole that they have to appease or something?" I guess it's a big red herring or something that I missed but it's completely pointless. Life among the grasses gets thrown for a loop when Hachi (Kei Satô) returns from the wars, but without Kichi, the son/husband of the women. At first there is resentment from both women about this, but soon, all three are tangled in a game of lust that ends up being what the film is really about. Hachi makes it known right away that he has been warring for a long time and that he really wants a woman. He even yells it in to that dark pit. The affair soon starts, much to the resentment of the mother, who is still upset at Hachi while also being sexually frustrated herself (watch her hump a really big tree; phallic symbol much?). The part about a "onibaba" is when, after killing another lost samurai who came upon her hut, the mother takes his creepy mask and starts to play upon the the seeds of fear of the unnatural in the younger woman that she has been planting. Whenever the younger woman decides to go running to get to Hachi, the older woman will pop out of the grasses and scare the shit out of her. In the end, this backfires on her (is she really a demon!?!?!?) and the ending is beyond vague. I usually like that kind of gesture, but here it just kind of seems like they didn't know how to end it. I think film buffs are really into this because there is a lot of great technical stuff in this, especially the great black and white photography which does a great job in help setting the mood of this film. I just think that what's going on in it can be kind of retarded.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Seven Men from Now

Seven Men from Now, 1956
Dir: Budd Boetticher

Fuck. I think I might have to wait until the end of watching all the "Ranown" films before I try to rank them because after watching two of them, I have been blown away by both. I think this might even be better than The Tall T (1957), and that's saying something. The visuals are great and poetic, as expected, but it is really Randolph Scott's turn as Ben Stride that makes this one so special. I understand that this will give the impression to many people that his performance, since it is so important, is probably really over the top and energetic, but it is the exact opposite. I've talked about this before, but this is classic Western protagonist type passiveness and Scott totally nails it. Again.

Providing support is Lee Marvin as Masters, a villain, of sort, but one that is on remotely friendly terms with Stride. He is a full, breathing character who you can never quite get a bead on. The film’s romantic thrust is courtesy of Gail Russell as Annie Greer, the wife of a naive and much less masculine (at least in comparison to Stride or Masters) man, John Greer. Greer can obviously be compared to the spineless husband in The Tall T, but Greer ends up being a much better character by the end. The Greer couple happens upon Ben Stride in the middle of the desert while they’re on their way to California to take advantage of a job opening. Stride helps get the Greers out of a mud puddle, and they respond by inviting him on their journey. This all happens within the scope of about ten minutes, which provides a perfection explanation of Boetticher’s pace. Perhaps equating his sense of pacing to Antonioni would make film buffs scoff (I can fucking hear it), but he definitely seems to be in the same ballpark.

Also in the first ten minutes, is one of the most brilliant moments in the entire film. As Stride and John Greer wash up their respective horses, Annie takes a swim some distance away. She begins to sing, and her song begins to eclipse the awkward and clumsy attempts by her husband to make conversation with Stride. To inadvertently quote the back of the DVD box, Stride is a no-nonsense character, and yet he constantly finds himself stuck with people filled with nonsense. Only Stride’s nemesis, Masters, seems to be on the same (emotional) page, which also, in a way, foreshadows the "lost brothers" relationship of the head robber and Scott in The Tall T.

Oddly enough, the emotional sensibility of every western protagonist is called in to question only a couple minutes later in the film when Masters grills John on how he was able to end up with Annie. He mentions how he and Stride are tough, simple minded men with no time for fancy concepts like love, while John, being sensitive, does. Obviously, Stride and Masters are the more superficially masculine men, but the implication (from screenwriter Burt Kennedy) is that they are just as soft. This isn’t a groundbreaking hypothesis, but it is one of the few times I can personally recall a Western present the topic so openly. There’s all the usual great Boetticher goodness in this movie, too, which also contributes a good deal to its greatness.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Tokyo Story

東京物語 (Tokyo Story), 1953
Dir: Yasujiro Ozu

I'm trying to get more into Asian cinema because, from what I've seen, it seems to flow with my own personal aesthetic and pacing. Considering "classics," it seems appropriate to start with a Yasujiro Ozu film, who is probably the bedrock of Japanese cinema. In comparison to say someone like Kurosawa, Ozu is a polar opposite in style and cinematic interests, and Kurosawa and others who really came about in the late 40s and 50s seem to be an intense reaction to Ozu and his strict technical style. I'm going to be honest and say that this film probably is dated, but it only bothered me in the beginning when I really didn't know what to expect. I'm also going to say that I know the majority of modern movie-going people will not enjoy this, or rather, even if they were trying to enjoy this, they wouldn't be able to sit through it. It's not exciting. It's certainly not entertainment. Well, maybe it can be in its own way, if you watch films because you know they can be so much more than just entertainment.

Every review you ever come upon about this will talk about how simple the story, but I suppose that that can not be stressed enough. It is the whole point of the film. An aging couple from a small seaside village come to Tokyo to visit their adult children. I think that this had a powerful impact on me because it is really a lot like a Ford film, a simple story with very subtle messages and subtle characters. It's about how people treat one another, how different generations deal with one another (the great shots of grandma walking around with the younger grandson, asking questions and getting no responses), how society impacts our personal relationships. It's about life. That's a cliche response, I know, but life goes on (as they say), and children grow apart from their parents as they make their own lives. The truly sad thing about all the characters is they they really do love one another, but Japanese culture and the hustle and bustle of modernity rarely let them be informal with one another, which makes the few moments of sincere emotional expression all the more powerful. The "measured" pacing works extremely well with the content. Then again, I'm never one to really complain about that sort of thing.

Ozu's camera is low (as in height off the ground) all the time, and his signature "pillow" shots are fantastic. The camera rarely moves (except in one shot, which is actually a very beautiful tracking shot) and cuts are kept to a minimum. I think the very claustrophobic feeling Ozu creates by confining his characters inside for most of the film's running time only heightens the beauty that is being placed on the images outside. There's a sort of "epiphany" feeling that he creates whenever the camera goes outside, which is great. One thing that I did not expect was the awesome music, sort of a classic Hollywoodish score with a melancholy tone that works well with some of the shots that Ozu inserts of empty hallways or lonely smokestacks. Maybe a little too expressive of what's running under the film, but it worked for me. Ozu also seems just a good at photographing drunk people as someone like Cassavetes. The entire "reunion" scene is incredible and sad. It might help if you watch this clip to get a sense of what Ozu is all about, even his glib humor, or if you would actually want to watch 2 hours and 15 minutes of it. I know it sounds like I'm slagging it again, but I think I'm just being realistic about how most people would react to it.

The ending is not a gut punch. It's not devastating until you really think about. It makes you want to cry about everything, but it's far too subtle (in a good way). It's infused with the Japanese concept of mono no aware, an awareness of the impermanence of things. "Isn't life disappointing?" "Yes, it is."


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

3 Hawks Westerns

We come to another end, my faithful readers. Howard Hawks, one of the greatest directors of the "classic" Hollywood studio era, has had a full working over by me, and I'd say for the most part it's really positive. Not only because he remained independent and freelance when most filmmakers were considered "employees" by their studios, but also because he made some awesome, fun films that truly bring out a sense of who he was. I'm not quite sure if Westerns are the best place to get to his greatest films, maybe The Big Sky (1952), which is actually kind of hard to find, but he knew what he wanted. Which is why the three Westerns here are basically the same movie with slight variations.

Rio Bravo, 1959
Dir: Howard Hawks

Probably the best of the three, despite the fact that this is kind of caught up in John Wayne's Republican bullshit. I mean, when Dean Martin is the best actor in your movie, that's kind of a problem. He actually does a pretty good job as a guilty drunk who gets a job as a deputy sheriff, and does a bunch of weird stuff that you wouldn't expect a pop celebrity to do in a film. Wayne is the sheriff in a town where a powerful rancher (John Russell) wields a great deal of influence. When his brother gets arrested for killing a man, the Hawksian buddy gang of Wayne, Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan must defend the jail from cowboy lackeys and such. That is not a terrible setup for a Western, but you can find clips of Tarantino on the web of him talking about how this is one of the greatest "hangout" movies ever made, so you can guess a lot about what is going on. The banter and zingers aren't nearly as sharp as most of Hawks' "Golden Era" stuff. Ricky Nelson as "Colorado" Ryan is kind of a throwaway. He put out a single to coincide the release of this film called "Restless Kid". The only problem is that the character is anything but, or at least we never know because Hawks doesn't seem to be interested in anything like that. And Brennan. Yeesh. You've heard me bitch about him too much though. You could nit pick the script and characters to death, but Hawks visual choices are actually really interesting. A fun movie, if not "the best western ever," as many claim.


El Dorado, 1967
Dir: Howard Hawks

The jail scenario is reworked first here, with the drunk being the sheriff (Robert Mitchum) and the hired gun (Wayne) being the more responsible one, though he has a bizarre relationship with a much younger woman which is never consummated and Wayne seems perplexed by. It's a common "lonesome cowboy" thing, but it always works, at least for me. He also doesn't play fair at the end in his showdown, which is interesting. In the young gun role, James Caan plays Mississippi, a knife wielding river boy who came out West looking for the men who killed his friend and mentor. Oh yeah, Arthur Hunnicutt > Walter Brennan any day of the week for me. He seems like a much more legitimate fuck up. Plus his The Tall T story of always being drunk on set by shooting vodka in oranges with a needle is incredible. Wayne is hired by a powerful rancher (Ed Asner) to help him win a land war with the Thompson family. All goes wrong at the beginning, as Wayne agrees to back out of his deal at the request of Mitchum, but word does not get to the Thompsons fast enough. One of the sons shoots at Wayne in a panic, and is gunned down by the quicker pro. This misunderstanding perpetuates a hatred from Joey (Michele Cary, a seemingly forgotten pin-up), a Thompson tomboy. Joey eventually shoots Wayne when he leaves, but she doesn't kill him, and is taught a lesson not to fuck with The Duke. The film changes the jail scenario slightly too, as the rancher himself gets put away, and the one coming after the jail is another hired gun (Christopher George). The film then unravels the same way as Rio Bravo, with some differences here and there. Just as fun. Maybe a little weirder too? I don't know. Another decent Western.


Rio Lobo, 1970
Dir: Howard Hawks

Maybe the most bizarre coda to a career ever. It, of course, feels more like a John Wayne vehicle than a Hawks films, which means it's retarded. If you loved The Thing (1951), I'm sure this will float your boat. It is, interestingly enough, the last time Wayne ever portrayed a character from the Civil War. The acting is atrocious, the directing odd and the sum of its parts just too sloppy. It can basically be broken down into three parts. The first part is at the end of the Civil War when Wayne and his Union men are charged with getting some gold via rail through some rough territory. The train is high-jacked by Confederates, but they are all eventually caught. Wayne, for some reason, strikes up a friendship with two of them, and learns that two Union men had sold the info about the train to them. I smell revenge coming! The second part is a slow, lumbering faux-Western surrounding reuniting with one of the Confederate dudes and their getting to Rio Lobo in Texas. That sets up a strange third act, which is the jail scenario. It really plays like a Spaghetti Western, what with sadistic men, blood, horrible acting. Sometimes the badness gets comical but not too often.


Day for Night

Le nuit américaine (Day for Night), 1973
Dir: François Truffaut

An extremely important film for really understanding Truffaut, if not necessarily (in my opinion) his best. In a tradition of films about film making and the people who are involved in that, Day for Night can certainly hold its own against many pretenders. It especially shows the difference between Truffaut and his former friend and colleague, Comrade Dickhead (aka J-L Godard). Even in the early 60s, Godard was already rebelling against a system that had made him famous and made a film, Contempt (1963), about the capitalist aspects of making a movie and all the nonsense that is involved with that. That film is about other things as well though, which is why it is one of his better films. Truffuat, however, is interested in other things. The main question the movie is asking is, "Are movies more important than life?" It seems like a silly question with an obvious answer, but for Truffaut, whose obsession ran deep, it was serious. It correlates back to his early soundbite, "I have always preferred this reflection of life than to life itself."

Day for Night is about the filming of a really bad film, "Meet Pamela," but in essence is about the people involved and how silly it makes them. Tons of things go wrong on the set (drunk actresses, sexual indiscretions, stubborn animal actors, the death of one of the actors), but in the end it's about that these people would not want to be doing anything else. Truffaut plays himself as Ferrara the director, or a slightly silly version not dissimilar to Fritz Lang's director in Contempt. His reoccurring nightmare, one of those dark touches that Truffaut places into his films, of the little boy walking with a cane, turns out to be something far more interesting than any kind of Hitchcock allusion that it could have been. The little boy ends up stealing Citizen Kane (1941) stills from the local cinema, maybe the most personal gesture Truffaut has put into any of the films of his that I have seen. It kind of reminded me of the way kids snag band fliers and poster at shows, sort of sweet and pathetic at the same time. The way that you see Truffaut working with the actors seems to be the exact way he would even if he were not being filmed, never demonstrative and always hands on. Even at one of the darkest moments for the production, after J-P Leaud drops the bombshell on Jaqueline Bisset's (I'd say one of the hotter English actresses ever) husband about their tryst, Truffaut's character, so Truffaut himself, makes something cinematic out of something that is very real. Trying to comfort Bisset in her dressing room, she opens up to him about her feelings of where her life is and how films affect it (she basically wants to quit the biz after her mistake). Truffaut listens patiently to her and then gets her to come around to finish the film. He then changes the dialogue for her character in an important scene to exactly what she said, word for word. So what is more real now? Cinema can teach us lessons that have a greater impact than what we encounter in real life, can it not?

The rest of the crew and actors are just as silly, getting themselves into trouble and obsessing over film, you know, just regular shit that happens on a movie set. It took me a while to get really into the film, once the film and the "non-film" started to blend, but at that point this is great. J-P Leaud is probably the silliest of the lot, playing a version of himself that is huge crybaby and self-involved man child. He goes around telling everyone that he is getting married to the script girl (French pop star, Dani), even going far enough to ask Truffaut to be his best man at the wedding. This is news to her though. After she dumps him for a stunt man, he goes around asking people, "Are women magic?" He gets his best answer from the famed aging actor and "lothario," Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), who it turns out is actually gay. The film really does a great job of bringing out Truffaut's humor, which isn't exactly a bunch of knee slappers but gives you a whole lot to smile about. It all comes back to movies though, and their impact on people. When Joelle (Nathalie Baye, a huge crush, I must admit), personal assistant to the director, hears about Dani's escape with the stunt man, she say "I'd drop a guy for a film, but I'd never drop a film for a guy." That, in a nutshell, is what the film is all about. Even with all the stuff that happens, they all still want to make movies. And at the end, the prop man says, "Well, I guess it's back to unemployment." Sounds right.

(RIP Movie posters. I'm not even sure why I started with you...I just don't care enough anymore.)