Movie Diary 9/6/2010

Sanshiro Sugata and Sanshiro Sugata Part Two (Akira Kurosawa, 1943/45). Kurosawa was already Kurosawa with his first film, a martial-arts movie with clean lines and the director’s stylistic traits firmly in place. The follow-up movie must wade through some obligatory anti-American propaganda crap, but it comes around for some good business with two revenge-minded brothers confronting the hero.

The Most Beautiful (Kurosawa, 1944). Strange propaganda project about young women working at an optics factory, and the wartime quotas that push them to the brink. Can’t help but get a queasy feeling watching it, even if Kurosawa brings off some finely-tuned directing moments.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (Kurosawa, 1945). Studio-bound expansion of a traditional play, which takes away Kurosawa’s feel for nature and weather. You can see why the central situation had proved popular on stage, however. And it’s one of the great titles.

Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2009). Missed it last year. It had to have been better in a theater with a lot of people – on TV it’s not the same sort of gotcha.

The Monolith Monsters (John Sherwood, 1957). Rocks from space, growing to killer form when water is added. A movie about people talking about ways of solving problems.

1954 Ten Best Movies

Toshiro Mifune, Seven Samurai

This is another year where one of the greatest movies ever made comes in at the #2 slot (see also 1948). How could I relegate Sansho the Bailiff, Kenji Mizoguchi’s epic masterpiece, which on certain days and in certain moods I think might be the best film in cinema history, to runner-up status? Only because in 1954 Mizoguchi’s countryman Akira Kurosawa made perhaps the all-time Movie in the same year, an achievement difficult to deny.

Or vice versa. Maybe the only movie that could top the visceral excitement of Seven Samurai is the mystical journey taken in Sansho. The two films are dissimilar but each leaves you with the sense of having taken a voyage, in space but also in time: each traces an epic arc that makes the world look different in the aftermath. Yes, people say that about movies; but in this case, the trip is vast.

The undeniable Japanese surge during this era (which, on a less exalted level, also included the first Godzilla movie in 1954) is matched by other national cinemas, for the 1950s was a remarkable decade in film in general. ’54 doesn’t stand out as the best year of the decade – the European directors who will dominate the generation to come are still sorting themselves out somehow – but it’s still strong at the top. In Hollywood, the phase of grown-up social-relevence films was topped by On the Waterfront, and the tendency to locate the unease beneath the postwar boom years was getting underway (Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession opened the door to his string of classics). And Hitchcock was Hitchcock, but even more so. The ten best movies of 1954:

1. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa)

2. Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi)

3. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)

4. On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan)

5. Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini)

6. Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray)

7. La Strada (Federico Fellini)

8. The Far Country (Anthony Mann)

9. A Star is Born (George Cukor)

10. Crime Wave (Andre de Toth)

The good year for Italian cinema continues with the next slot: Luchino Visconti’s Senso, which ties with Magnificent Obsession as rich melodramas writ large. Speaking of which, Gordon Douglas’s Young at Heart is a superb drama that contrasts dark (Frank Sinatra) with light (Doris Day) in a really interesting way. And the first half of Sabrina is one of the best movies Billy Wilder made, and the rest isn’t bad, either.

In the next bunch there’s the Huston lark Beat the Devil, David Lean’s impeccably-made Hobson’s Choice, and three Bunuel pictures: Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Wuthering Heights, and Illusion Travels by Streetcar. Ingmar Bergman did the excellent A Lesson in Love and Jacques Becker did the irresistible Touchez pas au Grisbi, a memorable evocation of the man’s-man world of the French crime picture.

And a special 1954 award to John Williams – the actor, not the composer – who played the police inspector in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (a performance the director was clearly enjoying) and Audrey Hepburn’s scrupulous father in Sabrina. That’s an awfully fine year for a character actor who never really ascended the heights.

Chloe Greenberg’s Sweetgrass (Weekly Links)

Gerwig/Ifans/Stiller: Greenberg

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Greenberg.

by Robert Horton

Before he got sidetracked into multiplex stardom, Ben Stiller earned a reputation for biting, satirical work that had a distinctly darkish tone: his sketch comedy show, his performance in “Permanent Midnight,” his directing of “The Cable Guy.”

So his role in the new movie “Greenberg” is not a change in his career, but a return. This small-scaled picture is the kind that sometimes gets called bittersweet, except in this case it’s mostly just bitter.

Fortunately — in no small part because of Stiller’s instinct for comedy — it’s also funny.

“Greenberg” is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, whose movies “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding” established his ability to make you cringe and laugh at the same time. “Greenberg” is much in that vein, although the locale has shifted from East Coast to West. Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, who’s come to L.A. to house-sit at his brother’s place for a few weeks. Roger’s had some sort of breakdown, and maybe taking care of the dog and relaxing by the pool will help him get it together.

A variety of pitfalls lie in his way: his attraction to his brother’s housekeeper (Greta Gerwig), for one, but also the old wounds carried around by his friends, who felt abandoned when he walked out on their band many years earlier.

Rhys Ifans is especially good as Roger’s closest friend, who puts up with his manchild buddy despite Roger’s thoughtlessness. Baumbach’s wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also co-wrote the film’s story, contributes a short but tart role as an ex-girlfriend with zero interest in revisiting old times.

But most of the movie takes place between Stiller and Gerwig. You might not have heard of her; this is Gerwig’s first mainstream picture, after appearing in a series of ultra-low-budget movies dubbed “mumblecore.” Gerwig was obviously a movie star from the moment she came onscreen in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” so Baumbach is shrewd in putting her here as a fresh new face. Seeing her naturalistic style next to Stiller’s practiced comic timing is a nicely unpredictable spectacle.

Stiller is terrific, by the way. Roger isn’t particularly likable, and Stiller has to find a way to keep us curious about him — which, with the help of Baumbach’s sharp script and eye for hazy California afternoons, he does.

Given what people said about “Margot,” which I thought was excellent, Baumbach’s acerbic, unsparing style is not for everybody. Fair enough. But this guy is a real “noticer” of human behavior, a job we allot to artists and writers. And sometimes that job ain’t pretty.

Sweetgrass. “Instantly joins the list of great Western images in movies.”

Hot Tub Time Machine. “Get to the next genitalia reference.”

Mother.

by Robert Horton

Maternal love, or at least maternal energy, has rarely been as pointed as it is in “Mother,” a bizarre new offering from the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. The movie’s a study in parental willpower.

The mother here does not seem to have a name; she’s just Mother, like Anthony Perkins’ mom in “Psycho.” Mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) must constantly watch out for her grown son (Won Bin), who is not quite right in the head. (The casting apparently has more impact in Korea: Kim is known for her beloved maternal roles on Korean television, while Won is something of a Robert Pattinson-style heartthrob in Asia.)

She runs an extra-legal business in medicinal herbs and acupuncture — none of which can help her son, who keeps getting in trouble because of his simple-mindedness. At the center of the film is an incident in which a local girl is murdered, her body left hanging over the roof of a small building. The idiot son was seen talking to her shortly before her death and his inability to answer basic questions about the incident makes him the perfect suspect for the crime.

Which is where Mother goes into gear. The protective instincts are fully engaged and the film almost threatens to become a detective story, with Mother barreling around town trying to find out information.

The movie is pitched somewhere between David Lynch-like depths of perversity (this is a strange little town) and out-and-out comedy. Which I guess could describe a David Lynch movie, too.

Director Bong Joon-ho’s previous film was the international monster-movie hit “The Host,” a decidedly original take on the subject of giant things that slither from rivers. Like that movie, “Mother” has a tendency to meander, browsing outside its plot and losing its forward motion at times.

If you’re taken by the film’s ferociously twisted main character, this might not matter too much. Bong is illustrating an exaggerated version of motherly devotion, and Kim Hye-ja’s Mother is so wildly determined in her quest that you’ll probably have to sign on just to see what she’s capable of doing next.

Chloe. “A cerebral exercise.”

How to Train Your Dragon. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Think of it as “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Viking Years.” The new movie “How to Train Your Dragon” proves that being an undersized lad was no easier back in the days of horn helmets and fur vests than it is today.

“Dragon” is based on a kiddie book, but the story has been changed to fit the needs of a 3D animated extravaganza. Given the pizzazz of this fun picture, the changes were probably apt.

We are in some pre-historic Nordic place, where Vikings have thick Scottish brogues and even thicker chests. The exception is young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a scrawny lad unlikely to follow in the warrior footsteps of his manly-man father (Gerard Butler).

Ah, but can Hiccup surprise everybody by discovering the secret behind the frequent dragon attacks, even to the point of befriending the most feared dragon of all?

Of course he can, especially if the movie is toting a message about the virtues of kindness and generosity over fear and endless warfare. The movie reaches back to the tale of Androcles removing a thorn from a lion’s paw, and the advantages that might result from such an act.

Although “Dragon” will show in 3D in many theaters, it doesn’t Mickey Mouse the technique; not all that many spears and fire-breathing dragon come flying at your face. Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who also did “Lilo & Stitch,” emphasize character over effect. Not that there’s any shortage of effects: when the movie wants to swoop and crash and conjure up a few hundred dragons, it does so on a positively “Avatar”-esque scale.

But mostly we hang out with Hiccup and his new dragon pal, or follow Hiccup as he goes to dragon-slaying school with his tomboy rival Astrid (America Ferrara) and other guys who seem much more like future Vikings than Hiccup. And even though this comes from the DreamWorks folks (the “Shrek” studio), there are virtually no pop-culture jokes or topical references, for which I give thanks. In fact, the film gets a nice balance between smart-funny and big-hearted, and it passes the big test of kid-oriented films, which is that it will entertain adults as much as small fry.

The only remaining question is why the Vikings speak with Scottish accents. Keep in mind that it worked for an ogre named Shrek, and if the historical basis seems flimsy, well, you probably don’t even believe in dragons.

The Art of the Steal. “Raises questions that go far beyond the world of art.”

Plus an interview with Dean DeBlois, co-director of Dragon.

And I talk with Steve Scher on KUOW’s “Weekday” about Akira Kurosawa: here. The movie bit begins at 14 minutes in.

High and Low

Here’s another oldie: a program note about a Kurosawa classic, written in 1981 for a University of Washington film series – thus readers are assumed to have just watched the movie. High and Low turns up on my Ten Best of 1963 list, too. – Robert Horton

Cinema is a window, a window through which we are privileged to watch people and things as they move and break and dance and die. The window can be maneuvered gracefully around people, so that we can observe things from swirling, unbroken flight—as in the way a film director like Max Ophuls made movies. The window might change its perspective many times in a few seconds, showing us different sides of images from angles we didn’t even know existed, to the point where we may wonder if the barriers are gone and we’re now surrounded by the action—as in the way Sam Peckinpah makes many of his sequences. The window may also resolutely sit and watch, unmoving but fascinated by the dynamism within the frame, as people come and go and perform—as in the way Charlie Chaplin made movies.

Akira Kurosawa can do it all, and so, for that matter, can the three guys named above. It’s a pleasure to watch someone manipulate a frame (particularly a CinemaScope—make that TohoScope—frame) the way Kurosawa does; he knows that the decision about what to include and exclude from a frame may be the most important in a film. He takes pride in the window. He also knows, good director that he is, that by the end of a movie the audience should come to know that what they have been witnessing is not only a window; it is also, unavoidably, a mirror.

Kurosawa’s High and Low begins with an unusually seedy and ugly credits sequence; but after the first smoke-filled images of metropolis, we begin the narrative proper with a window; through this window, that same metropolis is still visible. A man moves across the window—it’s dark in the room, and since the only light is entering from the window, behind the man, we can’t clearly make him out. He crosses the room, the camera panning to accommodate, and flicks on a light. Okay, let the action begin.

And begin it does: immediately we’re dropped into a world of corporate scheming and personal back-biting. The fellow who at the nerve center of the shifting frames is Gondo (Toshiro Mifune); this guy is so self-possessed and confident (we won’t know all of the Why for that yet, but will soon be let in on it) that he controls this confrontation even when he’s not saying anything. He’s a man who can keep his cool, even if he is just a tad callous to his chauffeur, a bit cruel to his wife, and perhaps not too interested in his little boy (though they both “like violent games,” as his wife says). Looks like we’re heading into the country of Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well here—industrial hanky-panky, with perhaps a fable of a simple idealist who just wants to make a good pair of shoes. All right, we know from that earlier film that Kurosawa can imbue very personal and cinematically/emotionally justified anguish into even a story top-heavy with social comment, so no problem.

Then the world is broken in two. It’s just a phone call, but few phone calls in the history of cinema can match this lightning-bolt moment. Kurosawa’s cutting and composition in this sequence is just about flawless; the editing is disturbingly jagged and the people, huddled in desperation around a telephone receiver, seem to be falling out of the frame in their panic. Things will never be the same from this point on; lives will be irrevocably altered (some will end) and even the fact that the criminal on the other end of the line has made a clumsy mistake in identification will not remedy that. Thus it’s entirely necessary that Kurosawa bombard us with his editing prowess at this point; in fact, the first ten minutes or so of the film, with rhythmic cutting and pleasing compositions, have been building up for this rupture.

Kurosawa’s ability as an editor will come as a surprise to no one; but let me just pluck one example from High and Low to demonstrate why his reputation is so well-earned. Continue reading

1985 Ten Best Movies

Not what you’d call a strong year, 1985 is central (chronologically and spiritually) to summing up the 1980s in film, a weird combination of bloat, aggression, and the studios losing the ability to turn out respectable and competent audience movies. This was just before Disney woke up from decades-long doldrums, for instance, and their idea of family fare was The Black Cauldron and Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend, the latter as clueless a studio exercise as any that decade (note pitiful attempt to conjure up Raiders mojo in the subtitle). It was the year the normal-enough First Blood franchise morphed into the steroid-saturated Rambo: First Blood II (again the title shift is telling) and Stallone went to the well again with Rocky IV, which brought down the Soviet Union.

ran2Back to the Future was the top-grossing movie and Out of Africa won the Best Picture Oscar, and while those are not bad movies, they describe the year, too. So do The Goonies, Spies Like Us, and The Jewel of the Nile, all substantial hits. Feh. So we turn to the good stuff that emerged, and happily (just like 1982) an Old Master decided to make an Old Masterpiece. Behold the many sensory marvels of Ran, my #1 for 1985.

Other entries require explanation: Blood Simple sometimes has a 1984 date, but it only showed at festivals as far as I can tell, and opened in ’85, so here it is. The documentary Up series of course sprawls across many release dates over the decades, but 28 Up was the first to get really widespread notice outside Britain, and I think it might be the best, most powerful installment of that grandaddy-of-reality-shows saga.

The best movies of 1985:

1. Ran (Akira Kurosawa)

2. 28 Up (Michael Apted)

3. Vagabond (Agnes Varda)

4. Blood Simple (Joel Coen)

5. When Father Was Away on Business (Emir Kusturica)

6. The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg)

7. Prizzi’s Honor (John Huston)

8. A Time to Live and a Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

9. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton) and Brazil (Terry Gilliam)

10. My Life as a Dog (Lasse Hallstom)

The most overrated of that bunch is probably Brazil; most underrated is The Color Purple, which among its other attractions is a remarkable formal exercise and an improvement over the novel. Some good films missing the list: obscurities such as Alpine Fire (by Swiss mystery man Fredi Murer) and Michael Dinner’s Heaven Help Us, as well as big titles such as Silverado, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Witness. Godard had Hail Mary and Romero had Day of the Dead and Albert Brooks had Lost in America, two-thirds of a great movie.

The high European titles up there, by Varda and Kusturica, are devastating pictures. Vagabond might be the clearest, toughest movie of the year, the story of a wanderer who drops off the map – a tonic to the year’s other fantasies.