One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

30 11 2008

Despite some of the most visually stunning touches in Kurosawa’s career, this, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to its potential. For a story that sounds so plotless and natural, Kurosawa sure does go a long way to make it feel confined to some sort of theatrical structure. The concept of two poverty-stricken lovers running around and trying to make the most of the day is wonderful on paper, but when realized, at least by Kurosawa, it comes off as one of his most awkward films. Truth be told, maybe he couldn’t take control of something devoid of any dramatic turns. It feels like Kurosawa trying to be Hiroshi Shimizu, but anyone who watches at least one Shimizu film knows that his sensibility is nearly impossible to emulate.

In some odd way, this actually seems like some sort of reaction against Shimizu’s work, though if it is than it is also a great misinterpretation of his work. Masako, played by the wonderful Chieko Nakakita (who would go on to work frequently with Naruse), represents the relentlessly optimistic side of the young couple’s relationship. Her husband to be, Yuzo, is sort of the opposite. Early on, the couples dynamic creates more than a few funny sequences, one of the most notable being the one where they inspect an apartment far outside of their price range. Their dialogue does begin to sound like Kurosawa’s mouthpieces, but they do prompt plenty of thinking – “How can one dream in such a world?” wonders Yuzo, which Masako responds with “In such a world, one has to have dreams.” Simple, not particularly insightful, but it does address how the public should respond to a postwar world.

Kurosawa does brilliantly shift his film’s tone from ponderous and downbeat to happy and hopeful rather quickly, but he does so in a very believable manner. Masako is stumped on how to cheer Yuzo up, but then they walk right in the middle of a baseball game taking place on the streets. Yuzo is excited, even if others observe that he’s a bit too old. Somehow, I think that is exactly the point. It is sort of implied that Yuzo sees baseball as a sign of his childhood and he attempts to escape the harsh reality of adult life by participating in a game inhabited exclusively by youngsters.

There seems to be a similar pattern (downbeat then hopeful) echoing through the first hour and a half of the film, but it takes a very crude turn to the end in which Masako talks directly to the audience and Yuzo imagines orchestrating Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The sequence before it, featuring the couple mentally designing their imaginary cafe exists on a similar ground. It is the Schubert sequence, which seems fairly long, that marks the film “shark jumping” moment, when a well-intended social drama tries to become some sort of experimental and grand statement about humanity. I understand why Kurosawa wanted to physically involve the audience, but even the overwhelming sense of earnestness can’t cancel out the slightly gimmicky feel. Kurosawa’s heart (and head) is in the right place here, but it just doesn’t gel that well with his aesthetic.

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Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987)

30 11 2008

This is, by a fairly decent margin, the most impressive Abbas Kiarostami film I’ve seen. I probably need to revisit Close-Up and Taste of Cherry sometime in the future, but I still don’t remember them being as simple and straight-forward as this film is. I mean this in a positive way, of course. Kiarostami takes a really setup: a little boy must return a notebook back to its owner, one of his classmates. If said classmate does not do his homework in this notebook, then he will be expelled. It’s the sort of thing that could have easily been dramatic and silly in the hands of someone less capable, but in Kiarostami’s, it is a gorgeous examination of life in rural Iran.

The protagonist, a quiet wide-eyed eight year named Ahmed, is an ideal student. The boy who sits next to him, Mohamed, isn’t. The teacher makes a mockery of him when he forgets to do his homework in a notebook for the third time, something that is seen as unacceptable. On their way out, Ahmed accidentally takes Mohamed’s notebook and doesn’t realize it until school has long since concluded. Ahmed skillfully dodges his own responsibilities at home to look for his friend’s home.

Kiarostami’s influences seem very obvious here, but it’s not really a problem. The whole way in which the drama unfolds is very Antonioni-esque. In other words, it’s just a little boy wandering around town stumbling into some very poignant and moving moments. The music, which is actually really great, definitely seems to be a nod to Satyajit Ray, especially considering that it is put up against scenes like a little boy chasing a donkey.

Oddly enough, the scene towards the end where Ahmed is befriended by an elderly man sort of reminds me of Mike Leigh’s Naked, specifically the scene in which Johnny has that philosophical conversation with the secuirty guard. The conversation has a much different tone here, it definitely relies on the same innocence found in Linda Manz character in Days of Heaven (a performance which inadvertently shaped the way younger children are depicted) but it has the same sort of dynamic as Leigh’s film. It’s fitting, though, since both Leigh and Kiarostami tend to be seen as “socially-concious” directors but both offer much more.





Joan the Maid 1: The Battles (1994)

27 11 2008

Honestly, I’ve never been all that enamored by the story of Joan of Arc and I find it pretty difficult to believe that there are other cinephiles out there that think differently. Yet, there seems to be about a thousand different cinematic adaptation of the tragedy. Rivette’s adaptation, made in 1994 and starring the always lovely Sandrine Bonnaire is the sort of film I have to make exceptions for. Certainly, the narrative isn’t all intriguing, but Rivette with all of his minimalistic powers, makes the story feel so free and open, which corresponds perfectly with the type of landscapes that the amazing William Lubtchansky captures. Not one of Rivette’s best films, but certainly one of his best-looking.

I doubt anyone could argue against the claim that Carl Dreyer’s The Trial of Joan of Arc is the most famous cinematic adaptation of the story. Inevitably, every subsequent “Joan” film has been compared to this standard and yet, Rivette’s film has so little in common with Dreyer’s that one gets the feeling that it was Rivette’s intention to take the opposite approach. While Dreyer’s film is claustrophobic and emotionally violent, Rivette’s is calm and open – something that can apply to most of Rivette’s best work. It may be blasphemy (no pun intended) but Rivette does more for me. On the other hand, they are completely different films, and probably shouldn’t be compared in the first place.

Again, I must stress that I have very little interest in such history, which of course, makes even Rivette’s best technical work a little bit dry. Had it not been for the fact that the film features one of the greatest actresses of all-time, photographed by one of the greatest cinematographers of all-time, all composed by one of the greatest directors of …all-time, then there would have been no chance. I wouldn’t have even bothered. As it stands, the film is a great example of Rivette’s mastery but without any interesting content to make the film one of his best. Enjoyable to watch, but there’s about ten other Rivette films I’d rather see instead.





The Kiss of Death (1977)

27 11 2008

Another very impressive early feature from Mike Leigh. This one is a bit more accessible, and by result, a bit lighter than Bleak Moments. It is a bit closer to being a formally conventional film with many of the minimalistic elements of that film replaced with a slightly more conscious “comedic” sensibility. Leigh’s insightful observations remain, though, and they are still the most essential part of his work. The characters are still rather difficult to sympathize with, but in this particular case, their interactions are quite funny. I guess some people are turned off by Leigh’s more upbeat approach here, but I don’t think it makes this film any less natural.

Considering the much more light and charming tone, this does fit closer to being Leigh’s version of an Ozu film, at least more so than Bleak Moments. Of course, the strength of both directors lies in their abilities to balance the comedic with the tragic. Here, Leigh begins to closely associate the two tones in the way that Ozu’s best work often does. Sometimes the funniest scenes are also the most heartbreaking. In other words, there are more than a few sequences that “hit close to home” here, even though I can’t help but find the characters to be slightly obnoxious at times.

That is essentially the only thing that keeps this from being a masterpiece. For a majority of its running time, I felt as though this was better than Bleak Moments. That film, for all its awkward mumbling glory, could use a smile or two. Ultimately, Leigh redeems himself with one of his most formally austere films. This film, on the other hand, is a tad bit bland, but seems to have the ever important element of humor. While I cannot relate completely to Trevor, I do find many of his attempts at human interaction to be very bittersweet. On the other hand, I find his temper, though only subtly hinted at, to be the sort of dramatic element that keeps me from calling this a masterpiece. It’s a wonderful film, no doubt, but I could have done without some of the “serious” narrative turns.





Diamonds of the Night (1964)

26 11 2008

Lately, it seems like I’ve been watching a lot of rather unique films, but this has to be the single most unique cinematic experience I’ve had in a long time. A 63 minute movie that is essentially just two guys running and walking through a forest, but of course, it is so much more than that. Jan Nemec probably had about 45 minutes worth of a footage but the groundbreaking editing extends it to a cloudy, dreamy, and completely heartbreaking hour long masterpiece. There’s literally only about one page of a dialogue in the whole film, which of course, fits in perfectly with my cinematic ideal.

I really can’t emphasize how much Nemec accomplishes with so little. Half of the film is just two guys walking through a forest. I can’t but wonder how crazy his actors thought he was when he told them what they would have to do. Honestly, I would have been a bit scared and under the impression that this guy had no idea what he was doing. Nemec probably didn’t know what he was doing, but that definitely works in his favor. When I first saw Herzog’s Aguirre two or three years ago, it was a landmark in my own movie watching career because it presented the opportunity for film to exist without any sense of a “narrative structure.” This does the exact same thing.

Plenty of the films I talk about here can be classified as “plotless” but even slow minimalistic Asian films have something of a story to them, or at least a dramatic thrust, or some context to the characters. Nemec’s film on the other hand, starts with none of these elements and only slowly reveals the past of his protagonists through carefuly composed flashes to the past. Calling these sequences “flashbacks” create a completely false impression. Some of the things Nemec cuts to have little to no signifigance, but that’s what makes them so powerful. It seems like the two protagonists are trying to retrace their steps to explain how they got into their current situation, but it all remains a mystery.

Some of the elliptical flashes are repeated throughout the entire film with either small amendments or no changes at all. One could argue that Nemec is just padding his film’s length, but this repetition seems to reinforce the importance of memories. All of these flashes are hauntingly poetic with a poignancy obtained by the current situation the two lead characters are in. I say “current” but I feel that completely disagrees with what makes the film so special and that is how flawlessly it demolishes a sense of time which corresponds to the runaway lifestyle of the two men.

If there is one problem with the movie, it is the slightly odd conclusion. After fifty minutes of pure kinetic energy, sub-Buñuel social humor begins to creep in. What is being said here is of little interest to me, but it does seem like Nemec is satirizing something. The fact that the main characters seem to be escaping from a train headed to a concentration camp implies that some statement is going to be made, but the best thing about the film is how it completely sheds that context.





Bleak Moments (1971)

24 11 2008

I caught a late afternoon / early evening showing of Mike Leigh’s latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky before returning home to a viewing of this, his very first film. Though I had seen Leigh’s Naked before and was well aware of what he was capable of, I was still completely blown away by this. The fact that it is such an accomplished film but still is Leigh’s first is jaw-dropping in and of itself, but he really takes uncomfortable and awkward scenes of dialogue to another level here. This has got to be a pretty big reference point for “modern mumblecore filmmaking” even more so than Cassavetes’ films, which are more commonly referenced alongside the recent DIY American filmmakers.

The painfully awkward pauses are the only substantial connection. On a formal level, Leigh, at least here with this film, has more in common with Bresson. He does stick to rather conventional compositions, but the length of his shots, the emphasis on sound, and the connection between the two? All that stuff is extremely Bressonian. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a story involving a quiet, desperate, and beautiful girl who is uncomfortable with her surroundings, alienated by her way of living and so on. At the same time, Leigh’s perfect balance of sensitivity made me immediately think of Ozu. None of this is intended to downplay what a unique experience watching this film is, but it is so unique that I can’t help but proclaim it as some odd mixture of some of my favorite directors.

The film structures itself around the life of a tragic young woman named Sylvia, a secretary who is too busy tending to her mentally challenged sister to ever find a love life. Meanwhile, a poverty-striken musician moves into her garage, providing some temporary company. Things begin to complicate when a school teacher, Peter, also enters her life and begins to act as a romantic interest. This all sounds potentially socially driven, a la Leigh’s peer Ken Loach, but it really isn’t at all. Sylvia’s mentally challenged sister for instance is not some detail added in to make the film bleaker. It is never actually told whether or not she has problems or not, but it is slowly revealed.

The poor musician is handled with similar sensitivity. He comes awfully close to making a genuine connection with Sylvia. Even though he fails, his character is never reduced the simplicity of his social status. For as much as Leigh’s work is considered socially-concious, it is equally emotionally-concious. In fact, I’d say this is only a social film if one approaches it in a very surface level way. If Leigh truly had a political agenda he wouldn’t put so much time into creating such tension and cringe-worthy feelings of awkwardness among his characters. At times, their awkward moments become unbearable, creating an almost painful and truthful type of suspense.





Saddle the Wind (1958)

23 11 2008

There’s two big selling points for western “outsiders” here: one is that the film features one of John Cassavetes’ earliest performances and the other is that Rod Serling, who would go on to create perhaps the single most famous television show, wrote the script. Unfortunately, the film never really transcend the novelty of these selling points. It is extremely exciting and somewhat weird to see Cassavetes act within beautiful technicolor cinemascope landscapes, but everything else is pretty unremarkable. I can’t really say its everything I dislike about “bad” westerns, but instead, it tries way too hard to be deep and complex. In all honesty, it’s extremely predictable.

Essentially, the story is built around the relationship of two brothers: Tony Sinclair and Steve Sinclair. The former, played by Cassavetes, is a young and impulsive man with an inability to relax. The latter, played by Robert Taylor, is the older sibling, the more mature and experienced one. Tony comes back home to the Sinclair valley with his wife to be, Joan Blake. When the man who owns the majority of the valley decides to claim the Sinclair land for himself, Tony is eager to fight back but Steve is willing to accept the decision. Their different outlooks on the situation lead to the decay and eventual death of their relationship.

Maybe it comes from being a big fan of Cassavetes’ work, but I really disliked how his character was written. As soon as he appears on screen it becomes pretty obvious what direction the film is headed in. The condescending tone in which the other characters speak about him is frustrating for some odd reason. It’s not at all like how James Best is spat on relentlessly in Ride Lonesome, I would have preferred that. In this case, he is basically treated like a mentally retarded child incapable of understanding anything about adults, or the “big boys.”

Cassavetes himself is still a joy to watch, even if his character is severly underwritten. The rest of the cast is equally great. Julie London from Anthony Mann’s great Man of the West plays Cassavetes’ love interest. Donald Crisp, another Mann alum, is the superficial “bad guy” i.e the owner of the valley. Oddly enough, I wasn’t really that impressed with Robert Taylor, but he didn’t really do anything wrong, either. I guess this could be called a successful actor-driven western, but that’s just a really nice way to say that it is a enjoyable film with an overwhelmingly unremarkable story.