- Once (2006)
- All the President's Men (1976)
- Being John Malkovich (1999)
- In the Year of the Pig (1968)
- In The Mood For Love (2000)
- Hole, The (1960)
- Tokyo Story (1953)
- Ocean’s Eleven Blu-Ray Review
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- Gilda (1946)
- Rounders (1998)
- Masque of the Red Death, The (1964)
- Django Unchained (2012)
- Fat City (1972)
- Amélie (2001)
- All That Jazz (1979)
- Night of the Hunter, The (1955)
- King of Comedy, The (1983)
- Manhattan (1979)
- Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
- Sullivan's Travels (1941)
- Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The (1994)
- Hecklefest Four-Word Film Reviews! August '12 - Week 4
- Playtime (1967)
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
- Haunted Castle, The (1921)
- Last Wave, The (1977)
- Naked Lunch (1991) * Weird and Wacky *
- Phantom Carriage, The (1921)
- Lolita (1962)
From Art-House Obscurity To Grindhouse Schlock - With A Special Focus On '1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die'
Thursday, May 9th, 2013
As for that aforementioned club, the web-address is super simple:
Visit. Read. Join. Post.
All are welcome.
New Posts This Week:
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Most Recent Reviews and Commentary:
Genre: Drama Music Romance (Ireland)
Starring: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Directed By: John Carney (On The Edge)
Overview: In Ireland, a busker and a Czech girl share a passion for music that leads them to invest in recording a demo tape.
Once stars a couple of actors who haven’t really acted in anything before or since, and is directed by a man who’s only done a couple of things himself. So how did Once manage to be so important that it needs to be seen Before You Die? The easy answer is that this music movie won the Oscar for Best Song. The better answer is that the actors and their director are musicians first and Once is music before all else.
We begin by meeting ‘the Guy’ (Glen Hansard). He’s a tall and slightly morose Dubliner playing music on the street for change. We’re serenaded by his impressive Folk Rock while an Irishman pissing in a nearby alley proceeds to steal his guitar case. Such is the life of a lonely busker. Later the quiet, almost mousey ‘Girl’ (the Czech Markéta Irglová), meets him on the street and chats him up. His ‘real’ job is as a vacuum cleaner repairman at his dad’s shop. Well, would you look at that: the Girl just so happens to have a broken vacuum cleaner, as well as a passion for music. He plays the guitar, she plays the piano and together they spend the day getting to know one another, and playing music. Quickly their friendship grows and, in pursuit of his dreams with the Girl’s encouragement, they rent a recording studio for the weekend so he can make a proper demo tape.
Let me begin with several caveats: firstly, my musical tastes are particular. In my old age, I am getting more tolerant but I would never describe ‘Folk Rock’ as ever being in my top 5 genres. Second, most musicals, as a rule, drive me claw-my-face-off-crazy – luckily Once isn’t what I’d call a musical, it’s just a couple of people and their music, 15 songs in all. Thirdly, there’s ‘Romance’, the film genre that is slightly less toilet-worthy than Romantic Comedy. Those three warnings being given, I’d say that’s high praise for Carney’s film when I say plainly, Once is a great film with a great story and great songs. Period. It’s not too light. It’s not too heavy. It’s comedic without being a comedy. The characters are honest and though not complex, their current situation is more complicated – read original – than you find in a typical love story.
Shot on a small, portable and affordable Sony HVR-Z1, the video quality isn’t high-budget slick high-def. The total budget was about $160,000 US actually. I’d even go so far as to call the cinematography pedestrian compared to what we’re used to seeing these days, but it suits Once well, it really works; it’s ‘earthy’, it’s ‘indie’, it’s chic and hip without being cheap and hipster. Add 15 songs that are each enjoyable to hear, including the hit "Falling Slowly" that won them the Oscar, and you're sure to get along with Once just fine.
Performance: 8 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 9
Overall Rating: 82% (...Maybe Even Twice)
Whether it’s your first night out or if you’ve been together for years, Once is, in two words: Date Movie.
Genre: Mystery Drama
Starring: Robert Redford (The Sting • The Natural), Dustin Hoffman (Ishtar • Kramer vs. Kramer)
Directed By: Alan J. Pakula (The Pelican Brief • Klute)
Overview: Based on the true story of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein as they investigate the burglary that unearthed the Watergate scandal.
After police arrest five men for breaking into the Democratic Party National headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office building, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) goes to court to investigate the burglars. He is shocked when he learns the alleged thieves being arraigned include two ex-CIA operatives. His investigation begins and the men are quickly linked to E. Howard Hunt, a man who worked for the CIA and who was on President Richard Nixon’s advisory staff. The story is too big for one man so another Washington Post journalist, Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), is assigned to help. We follow these two investigative reporters as they dig for facts, and, with the particular assistance of a man known only as ‘Deep Throat’ (played with a Noir penchant by Hal Holbrook), they strive to uncover what seems to point to an epic conspiracy.
All The President's Men isn’t the kind of movie whose 138 minutes are filled with beautiful images that make your eyes twinkle. It’s dense. It’s wordy. It’s intricate. Names fly around at a fever pitch. It could easily be called confusing. All The President's Men’s characters are ever surrounded by bland spaces, darkened parking garages and the manmade landscapes of paper-laden newsroom desks. But All The President's Men is exciting, it’s dramatic without being ostentatious: phone calls chasing men around offices, conversations thick with innuendo and backpedalled denials, late night interviews of nervous secret sources, clandestine underground garage meetings with whispered half-hints - All The President's Men presents the regular workday that Woodward and Bernstein face with an intrigue rooted in realism. This procedural does a magnificent job of locking us in the process of the investigative work; the cinematography frequently features minutes-long shots of Robert Redford, at his desk, working the phones, chasing a new lead, writing down a new name. We see him chipping away at a hard monolith and wonder if a concrete chunk will come loose. And whenever the trail gets cold, ‘Deep Throat’ steps in and says something enticing and iconic, like “Follow The Money”.
Aside from the true story that made this movie possible, what sets All The President's Men apart is the incredible talent of our lead actors, Hoffman and Redford. Redford in particular plays the 9-month newbie reporter Bob Woodward with an energy becoming of his youthful experience. When he hits a lead, we can see his heart racing. When he jumps, we feel the rush of discovery along with him. It was Pakula’s wise decision to show so many close-ups of him. I would never describe All The President's Men as art film, but its artistry is incredible, its emotion is raw and honest.
Yes, All The President's Men’s is a dense film, but modern historians, political intrigue lovers and fans of docu-drama would be happy to consider repeat viewings to help connect the dots that might have gotten vague the first time around.
Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 9 Mood: 8
Overall Rating: 84% (Be Out To Get Them)
My wonderful guest made an interesting point when she asked how well this film would hold up with today’s younger audiences. Would those who might not have the original historical context get excited to see this version of the Watergate scandal? Most of us know how it all ended, but since the events of the film are rooted in the investigation rather than the aftermath, All The President's Men’s plays out much like a mystery, doing a fine job of keeping us in suspense. I admit that knowing the context makes the film better, shows us the precise steps that were taken to get to that end that made history. Had I thought about the question before my viewing, I might have an opinion. As it stands, I don’t know. So I guess I’m asking you, dear readers: “Out of context, does All The President's Men tell the story well enough to be properly understood, to be properly enjoyed?”
And in Post Script, I can’t help but think about the context of the universal ‘-gate’ suffix added to political scandals. Do 20-year-olds know that all the ‘-gates’ originate from Watergate? Ask your kids for me. Let me know how your survey turned out.
P.P.S. Here’s a few important ‘-gates’ to get you worked up:
And a weird ridiculous one:
Genre: Comedy Fantasy Drama
Directed By: Spike Jonze (Adaptation. • Where the Wild Things Are)
Overview: While working a new job as a filing clerk, a puppeteer finds a portal into actor John Malkovich’s mind.
Being John Malkovich begins in the fantastical world – a passionate puppet show where a man thrashes about a room in despair. The agile skill and the rich emotion of the piece sucks us right in, properly introducing us to the man pulling the strings, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), an out of work puppeteer who lives with his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) in a New York basement apartment. He has a workshop for his puppets, she has a slew of pets - including a chimpanzee who’s a worthy character by his own right. Lotte suggests to Craig that he look for paying work, and so he makes his way to the 7½ floor of the Mertin Flemmer Building to get a job as a nimble-fingered filing clerk. There he meets Maxine, an attractive, abrasive, self-centered woman with whom he immediately falls in love. Not only is his workplace a space made strange by low ceilings and weird characters, but behind some filing cabinets is a tiny door - a portal to the mind of actor John Malkovich. From here we explore a man, his psyche and the psyches of those who cross the portal’s threshold.
Where Being John Malkovich takes us is odd, imaginative and original while still being accessible to the masses. The fantasy isn’t avant-garde and convoluted in a David Lynch way. As I watched, I couldn’t help but liken it to having an ethereal Michel Gondry quality. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, the fantastical elements of Being John Malkovich do something to our minds that allow us to understand everything that’s going on, while keeping just a hint of the haze that comes with fantastical elements. Only after I looked up Being John Malkovich’s writer, Charlie Kaufman, did I realize he’s the very same Charlie Kaufman who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He’s also written Synecdoche, New York, and the screenplay for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – all films with that wonderfully strange sense of fantasy rooted in this real world.
John Cusack plays Craig as an impassioned dweeb, a man who shines through his art, but is just a touch inept in the life-skills department. It’s no surprise when he gets punched in the face for doing a lascivious yet brilliantly artistic puppet show in front of a child. Cameron Diaz does of a wonderful job of making Lotte look plain and ‘off’. Catherine Keener’s Maxine is a typical bitch and a busy catalyst for the wildness that happens throughout the film. The shining performance, as hoped, comes from John Malkovich himself, played as an otherwise calm and courteous man thrust into a strange situation. Add some outrageously ballistic secondary characters, and Spike Jonze keeps Being John Malkovich’s mood pleasantly off-kilter.
Charlie Kaufman’s script is magical. Though billed as a Comedy, Being John Malkovich downplays much of the humour. There's elements of darkness and madness and passion that make this a little bit more profound, that make it memorable, that make it terrific from beginning to end. But what I believe will keep this movie timeless and unique is the work of puppeteer Phillip Huber. His marionettes combined with his skill are a wonder to behold.
Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 9 Mood: 8
Overall Rating: 84% (Get In His Head)
It’s no surprise that Being John Malkovich is one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I remember those days back in 1999 when it was a film phenom, extremely hyped up but making good on its promise. It was original back then and it’s still as impressive today.
One final note on Phillip Huber: you can see more of his work in the recent Oz, the Great and Powerful.
Starring: Politicians and Military Men
Directed By: Emile de Antonio (Point of Order • Mr. Hoover and I)
Overview: Talking heads, politicians and military brass discuss the whys and wherefores of these early days of American involvement in the Vietnam War.
In The Year of the Pig is a story shown using primarily war footage and interviews. It begins and ends with sardonic juxtaposition. Patriotic music plays while war rages, plays while we see real images of flaccid Vietnamese soldiers falling out of foliage because they’ve been shot to death. We see American men in suits talking about the conflict, one even daring to quote scripture: “Blessed are the peacemakers” he spouts, explaining away the killings in a foreign jungle. Shortly after this crisply-edited introduction, we learn about what brought us to this point. We learn of the French occupation of Vietnam, how it led to an Indochinese war of independence and why the Americans are there now. The documentary also touches on the how: how the Viet Kong take down US fighter jets, how they tunnel underground, and how they feel for their cause. One other wonderful piece of coverage features the story of Thich Quang Duc, the first Buddhist monk who self-immolated himself in public, burning in the street, unflinching for 10 minutes, as a protest against Buddhist persecution.
In The Year of the Pig is a strange sort of documentary. It speaks mostly of America’s military actions in the Vietnam War, a war that - I’d say at least – was the most controversial in American history. What makes In The Year of the Pig so unique in being a documentary of the Vietnamese conflict is that it tells its story not in 1975 when it had ended, but in 1968, at a point many would call ‘the beginning’. Now that I’ve seen this film, I’ve come to learn a thing or two about the muddied lines of when the conflict truly began, and I think it’s important that I go over these a little bit, since so much of In The Year of the Pig looks to the past to explain the present.
Many consider the Vietnam War as beginning on January 30th, 1968 with a large scale attack known as the Tet Offensive, only 8 months before the limited release of In The Year of the Pig in Boston’s theaters. The roots of the conflict itself actually begin as early as 1955 with American combat units arriving in 1965. This old history plays a very large part of de Antonio’s documentary; in fact I’d say it’s best reason to watch it. The education that comes from the introduction of the war is something seldom seen, and certainly not something I was familiar with.
What’s most interesting about In The Year of the Pig is that it speaks to us as though the story is already over, that the outcome is irrelevant. The fact that the Vietnam War ended so awkwardly is an interesting testament to this film’s predictive nature. With today’s hindsight, I think it’s this mood that has made In The Year of the Pig stand the test of time. I think it’s the reason we find it in the 1001 book. And, if nothing else, In The Year of the Pig made me want to learn more, not only for this film review, but to fill some historical gaps as well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make me want to watch de Antonio’s documentary a second time; it makes me want to go elsewhere for my information, to a place where there isn’t a constant droning blabber that makes the words vanish from memory immediately.
I’ve read that In The Year of the Pig has ‘moments of anti-American sentiment’. I would entirely disagree. I think it’s completely one-sided and rather biased. It presents Ho Chi Minh as a freedom fighter and liberator while speaking of America as an aggressor - it’s not surprising that theaters playing this film received bomb threats. Whenever an American does say something sensible, it seems to be edited in a way that throws an ironic context onto it; perhaps that’s partly because we know how badly this conflict ended. I'm not saying all this because I felt the American side of this story needed to be better defended - quite the opposite - I'm just saying that In The Year of the Pig is not journalistically 'fair'.
In The Year of the Pig is less about soldiers and more about suits. Unfortunately politics is not in my official list of interests, and if it’s not in yours either, you may find yourself drowning in talking heads. I was happy to be educated on the history, but when it came to talk about the soc /poli-sci stuff, I just couldn’t stay focussed. Being extremely politically oriented, it’s interesting to see how people thought in those days - how they said such paranoid and xenophobic words in their speeches – but if you were looking for something that focussed more on the human side, you should avoid the extremely pollitically oriented In The Year of the Pig.
Performance: 6 Cinematography: 7 Script: 7 Plot: 7 Mood: 6
Overall Rating: 64% (A Little Sloppy)
In the Year of the Pig is a documentary I was looking forward to seeing for quite some time. Ever since I saw its cover, I eagerly awaited the day it would find its way to my screen. I knew I would love it. I knew it would teach me the futility of war. Unfortunately it spoke at me instead of to me. The poignant images were so plentiful as to get lost, and the stories were almost non-existent, replaced instead by political commentary, recounted usually in a coldly philosophical and newsy drone that put me to sleep. When I woke up and rewound it, very little of what I’d seen has stayed with me, leaving me to recall fonder memories of Winter Soldier (1972). Yes, Winter Soldier is less political, less cerebral, more impassioned and more human in its recounting of the worst this war had to offer. That’s my preference, and that’s my recommendation.
And P.S., if you’re still interested in seeing this, might I recommend you watch the 2003 The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara shortly thereafter, since he speaks a little on his Vietnam experiences. It would be an interesting juxtaposition to In The Year of the Pig, when he was a young U.S. Secretary of Defence.
Genre: Romantic Drama (Hong Kong, France)
Starring: Maggie Cheung (Supercop • 2046), Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Hero • Infernal Affairs)
Directed By: Wong Kar Wai (Happy Together • Chungking Express)
Overview: A man and a woman living next to each other fall in love while suspecting their spouses are having an affair abroad.
Wong Kar Wai’s films aren’t known for their intricately tight plots. He’s a far more fluid ‘let’s explore human nature’s romantic side’ kind of guy. In fact he doesn’t even really use a script. Three of his films are featured in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book: Happy Together, Chungking Express, and this, his most famous, In the Mood for Love. Let’s explore it together shall we?
It’s 1962 Hong Kong and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) move into tenement apartments next to each other on the same day. Their meeting is inevitable, especially since the movers constantly mistake their belongs. They’re both married but their spouses go abroad, leaving the two of them to pass by one another and exchange pleasantries until their attraction forces them to admit it to themselves and eventually to each other. They both also realize that their spouses are most likely having an affair with each other. The story might seem like it would write itself from this point but Wong Kar Wai plays out the love story of In the Mood for Love differently. Rather than immediately jumping into a 9½ Weeks-style love affair, the characters resist. They live in the dense, judging population of 1960s Hong Kong. They want to stay loyal to their values, to their spouses, and with this as their biggest barrier, we explore their growing romantic love for one another and what may or may not come of it.
Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays Mo-wan fairly straight. Handsome and dapper, he’s an intelligent and patient man. He is the Yin to Li-zhen’s Yang. Though she’s a calm woman, her appearance is vibrant. Fashion has rarely been something I’ve pointed out in film, but William Chang’s incredible costume design for Li-zhen’s 60s cheongsams is absolutely one of the reasons to watch In the Mood for Love. What’s more, Wong Kar Wai knew it and frequently shows Maggie Cheung in full shots to dwell on the beauty she exudes – her dresses are gorgeous.
In the Mood for Love’s storytelling style does some wonderful things to manipulate his audience. Most obvious is how we never really meet Li-zhen’s husband or Mo-wan’s wife. We hear the husband’s voice and we see the wife briefly from the back, but these serve as nothing more than providing proof that these people exist. It adds an ethereal element to our protagonists spouses that makes us side with our heroes, that makes us wonder why they’re even bothering to resist their passions.
Unfortunately the pacing often hurts. For the first twelve minutes, for the last five, and for a smattering of moments throughout, I just wandered off in my own mind, drawn away from shots that enhanced what I’ll call those ‘etheral’ or ‘pastoral’ moments. This overall atmosphere is no surprise, Wong having used a similar effects in Chungking Express, but I had trouble enjoying them. Still there are incredible scenes. My favourite has Li-zhen and Mo-wan in a stage in their friendship when they no longer have any doubt that there is an attraction between them. They are dining out and Li-zhen asks Mo-wan to order for her what his wife would eat. She, in turn, orders for Mo-wan what her husband would. We cut to Li-zhen eating a steak. Mo-wan adds some hot chili sauce to her plate. Li-zhen dips in her steak, takes a bite, and although obviously not enjoying the experience, keeps doing it, her voice strained from the heat. For one night this couple lives vicariously as the other’s spouse, and is a terrific scene that paves the way for a growing unlikely romance.
In the Mood for Love is absolutely an Art-House film, and though the pacing is as loose as the plot, it’s not surprising that it found its’ way to the pages of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. I can’t safely recommend it to everyone, but it’s definitely romantic.
Performance: 7 Cinematography: 8 Script: 7 Plot: 7 Mood: 6
Overall Rating: 70% (You Might Just Have To Be In The Mood Already…)
Unfortunately my viewing experience was not ideal. The muted colour palette of In the Mood for Love, with shocks of vibrant splashes of colour was unfortunately muddied by our host’s projector, turning dusky corners into imperceptible blacks and bright clothing merely noticeably lighter… perhaps a proper screening would have made those plotless pastoral moments beauteous to behold.
Genre: Crime Drama Thriller (France)
Starring: Marc Michel, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy (The Night Porter),
Directed By: Jacques Becker (Touchez pas au grisbi • Casque d'or)
Overview: The Hole is based on the true story of five men as they attempt to dig their way out of a Parisian prison in 1947.
The Hole is, at first glance, a fairly standard prison-break film: a bunch of guys, a chance at escape with a focus on the process by which these prisoners dig may not seem like something exceptional enough to warrant being in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. The Hole, however has much to set it apart. From the simple fact that it’s a beautifully restored Criterion Collection Janus film, to the unique dynamic these inmates have with each other and their jailers, to the interesting character developments and sub-plots, to the enthralling cinematic style, Becker’s French film, Le trou, is one worthy of exploration - both for cinema history’s sake and for a genuinely good time.
We begin by being introduced to Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel), an amiable young inmate who’s being transferred to a new cell - already filled to capacity with four other men. Naturally I expected this whole scene to be full of chest-bumping bravado, one where these four prisoners would set house rules for the new worthless slag invading their space. Imagine my surprise when Becker’s script of José Giovanni’s novel took a far more humanitarian approach. The four prisoners, upset at the reduced space, complain politely to the guards rather than to Claude. Gaspard, for his part, gladly shares his food with the men – who accept it as a gift. I found this to be a refreshing way to move towards the next act, to accept that these people begin with respect for one another. The Hole goes further still. Surprisingly, refreshingly, the guards, the chiefs - even the warden – have a healthy and respectful relationship with the men in their prisons. There’s violence, but it isn’t shown in the way that we’re used to seeing in American contemporary prison films and television. Paris’s Santé prison is filled with men acting as men do rather than in extremes of pervasive fear or mad with the wrath of caged animals. This dynamic sets a unique mood that lets us immerse ourselves in the tension of the digging and the plan of escape rather than the tension of the characters who would do harm or be victimized by those around them.
The other men in the cell include the jolly and philosophic Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier), and the amusingly lazy and laisser-faire Geo Cassine (Michel Constantin). The strong and well-respected Manu Borelli (Philippe Leroy) often leads them. Their plan of escape is led by the older, calculating Roland Darbant (Jean Keraudy). Jean comes close to stealing the show through his grand sincerity. He’s an actor with a tirelessly watchful and cautious eye. His two missing fingers add a delicious subtext to his character. He’s a natural, which is not surprising since he was one of the men who inspired the novel – a novel based on the hole that Jean Keraudy and four other men dug in 1947. It was genius for Jacques Becker to include Jean in his film.
These five men aren’t quite incarcerated. Rather they’re all either awaiting their final sentencing or the results of appeals. They all face long jail terms and need to hurry in their attempt to dig their way free of prison before they’re taken to their final destinations. This adds yet another element of tension - these men can’t take weeks to plan this carefully, they have mere days. From here The Hole includes snippets of character development and other prison drama, but these serve as short breaks amidst the lion’s share that is the digging, the logistics and the exploration of getting out, and it’s where The Hole shines. The often wordless way by which these five men work, and the cinematic focus that Jacques Becker places on that process, does an excellent job of putting us there - where the action is, in our face. One of the most memorable scenes is when our men begin their dig. With a metal bedpost and a lookout, they try to break a hole in the floor. The camera’s lens fixes itself on the slab of unrelenting concrete for minutes at a time. We watch a tense, slow progression. We can’t help but notice that time is going by, that the risk of getting caught is ramping up and that the banging is too loud to be safe for much longer. Becker routinely uses these real-time, suspenseful shots effectively throughout the film, creating some truly memorable and exciting scenes.
Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 9
Overall Rating: 84% (Profound)
Being Criterion, The Hole may not find a grand audience in the mainstream. It’s not full of fast-paced dramatic action in the same way that we’re accustomed to seeing in Hollywood cinema. For the rest of us, however, with a visual storytelling style very reminiscent of The Wages of Fear, this gorgeous black-and-white film has a wonderful way of locking us in the moment, leaving us completely enthralled in the stress and physical exertion these men are going through to be free.
Genre: Drama (Japan)
Directed By: Yasujirô Ozu (Floating Weeds • The End of Summer)
Overview: This is the story of two aging parents travelling to Tokyo for the first time, to visit their grown children.
This recent viewing of Tokyo Story was my first screening of Yasujirô Ozu’s work. Within eight minutes I quickly grew apprehensive of what the next two hours would bring, as well as making me wonder how I’ll take An Autumn Afternoon and Floating Weeds, the other two Ozu films contained within the pages of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book that is – usually - my ever-enjoyable quest.
An aging retried couple from the southern Japanese village of Onomichi are preparing to make their first trip to Tokyo. There, they look forward to spending time with their children and grandchildren. Their son Koichi (So Yamamura), is a pediatrician too busy to spend time with his own children, let alone his parents. Next is their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura), who seems more put out than pleased by the visit of her mother (Chieko Higashiyama) and father (Chishû Ryû). Finally there is Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the young daughter-in-law who lost her husband eight years ago during the war. Noriko, although not a blood relation, is pleased to entertain her in-laws, including taking them sightseeing and giving them spending money while they stay in Tokyo. It is a family drama that explores the dynamic between this family and their everyday lives while their parents are in town.
Setsuko Hara, without a doubt, steals the show. Her smiling youth shines beautifully on the screen and her character’s personality and backstory gives her a dramatic advantage over the others. Unfortunately this isn’t saying much since the other characters are woefully bland. Setsuko’s Noriko is given the greatest opportunity to engage in the most profound of Tokyo Story’s conversations, whether it’s with her oft-neglected in-laws or her still unmarried sister-in-law Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa). With the exception of one scene where the father, Shukichi, spends a drunken night out with old friends, the only scenes that make Tokyo Story tolerable are those that have Setsuko front and center.
There are several unfortunate aspects of Tokyo Story. First is the irony of the title itself, given how little there is of ‘Tokyo’ and how little ‘Story’ there actually is. I enjoy a nice pastoral film on occasion. There’s something to be said about a meditative tale now and again. Human Drama is one of my favourite genres; they can do such a wonderful job of showcasing brilliant writing and acting. Tokyo Story is… not… one of those. As I watched, I wondered why the script was so dry, lines often tediously repetitive. A conversation in the first scene that focussed far too much on finding an air cushion made me fear for what was to come. Another missed opportunity was a scene where a drunken Shukichi stumbled to his eldest daughter Shige’s home late at night. What could have made for an intense dramatic scene was instead nothing more than a repetitive, infantile, high-pitched, one-sided, whiney tantrum from the middle-aged eldest daughter. It wasn’t ‘endearing’. It wasn’t ‘insightful’. It was shrill and annoying.
And through it all was the acting. I considered that perhaps Ozu decided to use a technique that would become common in the New Wave movement, namely using unskilled actors rather that professionals. It would explain how wooden everyone was in their acting, their cadence, their movement. Not so. The talent was, in fact, 'talented'. Were it not for Setsuko Hara, I may just have given up.
Cinematographically, Tokyo Story offers no respite either. Ozu prides himself in his low, static shots. In fact, there is only one shot in which the camera actually moves. Naturally there are some interior shots that are brilliantly composed, but intentional as it may be, stasis leads to tedium. I can only take so much of a typical square interior of a typical Japanese house followed by another typical square interior of another typical Japanese house before exhaling a tired sigh. When the family finally went sightseeing, I was relieved to see what 1953's Tokyo cityscapes would bring. Sadly, that too was not to be. The scene showed us no sights besides a tour bus, and was cut short. It merely represented a day’s trip, only to bring us to another typical square interior of another typical Japanese house.
This three-act story has its faults, and ones that will certainly not appeal to the general public. With so few scenes happening outside, it played out like a cheap two-set play. I saw a bevy of lost opportunities. Rather than getting into Tokyo Story, I found myself trapped in its claustrophobic confines. Rather than becoming immersed in Ozu’s characters, I was drowning in their clingy, cloying presence. Rather than finishing another little-known masterpiece from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, I was disappointed at the drama and entertainment that I was denied.
Performance: 7 Cinematography: 5 Script: 6 Plot: 7 Mood: 5
Overall Rating: 60% (More Snorey than Story)
In 1947, Akira Kurosawa’s inexpensive One Wonderful Sunday took us out into a bombed-out still-healing Tokyo. In 1949, his Stray Dog showed us a rather dramatic version of the forever-changed streets of a post-War Tokyo. In 1952, his brilliant Ikiru showed us Tokyo’s bureaucratic side as it worked its way free from occupation. Perhaps it’s outright unfair to compare any Japanese director to Japan’s greatest, but I expected much, much more from Yasujirô Ozu than I got - most notably Tokyo itself.