Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

I WAS BORN, BUT... (1932)
Interesting film by Yasujiro Ozu about two schoolboys who move with their parents to a Tokyo suburb. As they begin school and deal with bullies, their faith in their father is shaken when they see him acting subservient to his boss. They don't understand yet the compromises adults have to make and the roles they sometimes have to play to get by and provide for their families. Ozu made this film without sound, a rare choice in 1932. Deliberately paced, but engrossing. ***1/2

What exactly happened to Spike Lee? When did he get so tone deaf? I guess I've been sort of rediscovering his early work in the past year. Almost a year ago, I watched his third film, Do the Right Thing, for the first time in a couple of decades; what got away from me at age 13 seemed insightful and utterly vital at 36. Back in April, I saw his second film, School Daze, for the first time, and found the film bold, honest, frank and revealing. Now I've watched Lee's first film, She's Gotta Have It, and find myself once again impressed by his voice as a filmmaker and his ability to present multiple viewpoints honestly and frankly. This is a director that I nowadays consider--dismissively, I'll admit--sexist and over-indulgent. When did things change? Maybe I should just keep going through his work to try and pinpoint when it happened. These days, I get either impatient (Miracle at St. Anna) or annoyed (Inside Man) with his films. Sometimes (She Hate Me), I'm openly derisive of them. But his first three films, at least, are utterly engrossing.

This film is especially revolutionary in its depiction of an African-American woman's struggle for independence. Valuing her personal freedom more than being in a relationship, she juggles three suitors, loving the best parts of them, impatient with their worst faults, while living life as an artist in Brooklyn. For each of her men, it's frustrating that she won't just make a decision, but she rejects any attempts to own her. It's clearly done on a low budget, but the inexperience of most of the key people involved makes the film feel alive and energetic; it has something to say and it says it with vibrant characters and a sense of humor. It's a black and white film, but there's one color sequence that I found really magical. I also liked that, unlike other independent films of the time, it shows its characters not as starving artists or as living on the fringes of crime, but as upscale urbanites. ****

One thing I like about this film is that it is almost relentlessly positive about sex and porn. I'm not interested in seeing another film that judges women for getting into pornography; the downward spiral thing is played out, and it's actually refreshing to see a movie where porn doesn't ruin a woman. The problem here is that the movie has no other point of view on its subject. Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw) runs away from home with her best friend/mascot/pet (Dev Patel) and then she just sort of ends up in porn and then it ruins most of her relationships (with her friend, her mother, her uninteresting boyfriend played by James Franco--they all let her down with their disapproval), but she still ends up fine, I guess. For the most part, she's so dim and such a blank that she barely seems to notice things happening to her, and that's where it really kind of infuriates me. She reminds me a little of too many women I've bad experiences with--women that demand unquestioning acceptance without compromise and who seem to genuinely believe that things just happen to them and don't really notice other people. But she's also a total blank slate. She only reacts to things instead of engaging even the terms of her own life. Everything she does is motivated by other people in her life, but she doesn't take responsibility for any of the damage she causes. The film itself seems to take the same route, and neither the story nor the non-character at the center of it are interesting. The only story going on here that's really that interesting is the story of one of Angelina's porn directors (played by Heather Graham) who becomes smitten/mildly obsessed with her, and how it affects her relationship with her girlfriend of several years, but even that doesn't have any real emotional weight behind it. Hinshaw is beautiful and ravishing and seems to enjoy being naked, but her performance is so hollow, and she's not given a real character to play, so it all adds up to nothing. It's nice that the film doesn't make her feel bad for doing porn. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to feel anything about anything. *1/2

ALI (2001)
I don't really care much for Will Smith anymore, but this is one hell of a great performance. I wish it had been in a better film that gave him room to be more nuanced and play more emotions. Smith embodies Muhammad Ali here, and the film focuses on the perfect decade of his life to focus on--gaining the world championship, then a protracted legal battle to stay out of the Army on principle (and the film makes it clear it was a principled decision), and then his regaining of the title at the Rumble in the Jungle--but the film doesn't really stop to give Ali time to enjoy it all. I actually like the way Michael Mann holds scenes for a long time; I like the way the film gives us impressions of a life and half-conversations of dialogue. I like the feel of that, which is a bit unpolished but engrossing. But didn't Ali ever get to just enjoy himself? Did he find amusement in his fame? Ali here is portrayed as driven and determined and principled and brave and iconic, but I would have liked to have seen that balanced out a little more. The movie just wants to focus on the man's career and his boxing and his struggle; it doesn't breathe to allow us more insight into Ali the man. He's too distant to really root for. The best scenes in the film, I think, are between Ali and Howard Cosell (Jon Voight), when we see more of Ali's human side, more of the trash-talking joker Ali could play. Smith looks like he's having fun in those scenes, and he plays them really well. I wish the film had given us more of that guy. Instead, he's mostly reserved when he's not being symbolic. It's pretty good, but I wish it had just been more engaging. ***

Heartfelt film by Kenji Mizoguchi about a woman who works as a telephone operator for a pharmaceutical company in Osaka. She agrees to become the mistress of her company's tyrannical boss in order to help her father clear a debt, then becomes mistress to another executive to help pay her brother's college tuition. Because of these actions, she is ostracized by the very family she tried to aid, as well as her boyfriend and all of society. The film doesn't let viewers off the hook for reinforcing a society that oftentimes puts women in the position where she only has one option available, and then punishes her for taking it. ***1/2

Another film by Ozu, itself somewhat of a remake of I Was Born, But.... This takes place in a similar Tokyo suburb that is becoming very westernized, and focuses on the difficulties of one family. Everyone believes the mother, Mrs. Hayashi, has stolen the monthly dues of the local women's club, but the money was actually misplaced by Mrs. Haraguchi's senile mother. When the Hayashi children decide to go on strike and stop speaking to any adults until their parents agree to buy them a television, Mrs. Haraguchi thinks she's being snubbed and tries to turn the local housewives against the family. This all flows organically, in a quiet, keenly observed film. Ozu is an excellent filmmaker, and I love the way everything in this neighborhood ends up coming together. I've loved a number of Ozu films, but this is my favorite. ****

As a note to that: I watched two Yasujiro Ozu films recorded from TCM this week, and both times the hosts (Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz) insisted that Ozu was kind of Japan's "third genius," insisting that he wasn't as internationally respected or appreciated as Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. That's the opposite of my experience; I've been reading Roger Ebert since 1988, and he always talked up Ozu, almost always putting Floating Weeds or Tokyo Story on the list of his favorite films. Mizoguchi I'd never heard of until I was a bit older. Interesting how you can have a different perspective from what the popular version is.

Masterful, but obscure film about a German town in the year leading up to World War I, where tension and acts of violence create a sort of encroaching madness that is never really cleared up. The film challenges us to find order in a world that is piling up with disorder, and I think it's a courageous choice to never really tie it off and explain what's happened. It begins with a doctor who has an accident with a trip wire. We never know who placed it there; we will never know who is behind many of the acts of violence that begin to occur with seeming randomness. There is an interesting humanity under the surface; it seems cold and clinical at first, but I found it merely objective. We are being shown key facts, but it never adds up to an ordered whole. Life seldom does, and we've merely got to go on living it. It's the same here. Director Michael Haneke is making some genuine points about our willingness to surrender ourselves and our freedom and even our search for truth in the face of danger. Bad things simply happen just because they happen, and we can only find a balance in it. ****

"I believe if there's any kind of God it wouldn't be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it's almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt."

That line of dialogue really jumped out at me in this film. It says a lot about how I feel about both life and about what I most look for these days in movies. Here we have two people in their early twenties (Ethan Hawke and the luminous Julie Delpy) returning from separate trips, meet each other on a train in Austria, and decide to get off and spend the next 12 hours together before he has to catch a flight home to America, after which she'll resume her journey to Paris. There's nothing manufactured in the film's story; it's just these two, getting to know each other, falling in love, and then finally separating. But during that brief amount of time, the film creates that magic described above; the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. They are spontaneous and uninhibited, because they're strangers in an unfamiliar place, and when they're detached from the world, they have the freedom to be caught up only in each other. It has the effect of taking them outside of time and place (and even outside of their generation, despite its reputation as a Generation X movie), and peeling back the layers. There's no time for lies or schemes or illusions; it's just two people dropping the artifice and being open to one another and, briefly, the world. It's beautiful. There's one scene where the two of them, realizing their feelings for one another, sit in a listening booth, each trying to look at the other and turning away before the other looks back. The film does more with that series of looks than many films about young people falling in love do in 90 minutes. ****

1 comment:

Kelly Sedinger said...

BEFORE SUNRISE is amazing. So is its sequel, BEFORE SUNSET, which brings the characters together again, seven or eight years later. There was a third one, but I haven't seen it yet. I need to rewatch them all.