film fatales #202: trouble every day (claire denis, 2001)

Claire Denis (Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum) is a favorite director of mine, and I looked forward to Trouble Every Day, but I was aware that it is not as acclaimed as her other movies (it has the lowest Metascore, 40, of any film she has directed). I think that low Metascore is understandable, and Trouble Every Day isn't up to her best. But it's an interesting attempt to make an arty erotic horror movie ... I'm thinking of Park Chan-wook's Thirst, which is a better movie than Trouble Every Day but has a similar blend of sex and gore shown with arty excellence.

Trouble Every Day seems like it is going to be a vampire movie, but it turns into something different, which allows for subtexts that don't necessarily match those of vampire pictures. Denis shows a connection between erotic attraction and cannibalism that is unexpected. It's thought-provoking, but I'm not convinced it goes deeper than the basic connection. Once you get what Denis is doing, there's not much else to say about that connection, leaving an arty horror movie that isn't all that great.

The acting is variable. Béatrice Dalle (Betty Blue) brings her idiosyncratic presence to her scenes, but Vincent Gallo is too low-key ... he struggles with what he has become, but his struggle isn't moving because Gallo is inert. There is also a big plot hole at the beginning (not that horror doesn't often have plot holes): Gallo plays a recently-married man who, we assume, has become intimate with his new wife, but given what we learn of him in the movie, it's impossible for his wife not to have noticed long before. It's hard to suspend disbelief in this case.

Despite that Metascore, the film is #793 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #103 on the 21st century list.

the tale of the princess kaguya (isao takahata, 2013)

It's true, when I read "Studio Ghibli", I tend to think "Hayao Miyazaki". But Studio Ghibli was founded by Miyazaki, producer Toshio Suzuki, and Isao Takahata. Over the years, Takahata was involved in some of the studio's greatest films: Grave of the Fireflies, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki's Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, and others. One thing that separates Takahata from people like Miyazaki is that he performs many different roles in the movies ... he was even the musical director for Kiki. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was his final film before his death. The problem for me is that I don't know enough about the process of creating animated movies, so it's not clear to me what role Takahata plays in Kaguya. He is the director and co-writer, but to the best of my knowledge, he doesn't do the animation. I'd be happy to be better informed about this, but Takahata appears to be a titan of animated films without being himself an animator.

Which doesn't really matter ... The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a beautiful film, no matter who we credit. Takahata seems to be the guiding vision behind the film. It has the look of animated watercolors ... it doesn't really look like any other film that comes to mind. The story is based on an old Japanese story about a bamboo cutter. It is filled with fantastical elements, yet the story is straightforward. It is currently #350 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (which had its most recent update on February 1). Nominated for an Oscar as Best Animated Feature (the winner was Big Hero 6).

I watched the English dub, with Chloë Grace Moretz as the Princess. She is fine. I don't want to be a broken record, but this movie really is beautiful, and wonderful to watch.

red beard (akira kurosawa, 1965)

Highly acclaimed film from a highly acclaimed director, #784 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. I think Kurosawa is one of our greatest directors, but Red Beard was not one of my favorites.

While it is a period piece starring Toshiro Mifune, it's not what you expect. The period is Japan in the 1800s, and Mifune plays a doctor at a rural hospital clinic for the poor. This is an intriguing concept for a Kurosawa movie, but it's more than three hours, and it feels endless. It's episodic, and the most interesting material comes in the last hour, after an intermission. Which if you do the math means there are two hours of setup to get to the good stuff. Obviously, its elevated reputation tells you that many people disagree with me. I wish the first two hours had been cut in half (at least), and I found the film hard to get through.

Kurosawa and cinematographers Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito make effective use of light and shadow ... the film looks powerful. But it's no classic.

geezer cinema: the boy and the heron (hayao miyazaki, 2023)

My 11th Miyazaki movie, and I still haven't seen one that was bad ... well, I wasn't a big fan of his first (The Castle of Cagliostro), but it's all been smooth sailing since. While each of his movies are distinctive, I repeat myself when I write about them, because his movies are recognizably his ... they are different from each other, yet unmistakably Miyazaki. It's not that he's an example of the old auteur theory; he doesn't repeat little bits of work that call back to earlier movies. To give an example of what I mean, many (most? all?) of his films include little creatures which tend to be adorable, tend to get in the way, tend to charm the audience ... but they are different each time. There's the black blobs in Howl's Moving Castle (which, now that I think of it, aren't particularly small or adorable), the white thingies with heads that crack sideways in Princess Mononoke, and my favorites, the soot thingies from Spirited Away. Totoro is enormous, of course, but he's a lot like those little creatures. And, to quote myself, Hollywood is capable of creating special effects that cause your jaw to drop, but Miyazaki creates special effects out of his brain. I spent a lot of The Boy and the Heron imagining the kind of person who could create such a movie.

Watching The Boy and the Heron, I found myself regularly in awe. I kept moving my head to see everything (and we weren't even watching the IMAX version).

And perhaps the most telling aspect of the movie, at least in terms of my appreciation for Miyazaki's work, is that while I loved it just as much as the above indicates, I think if I made a ranked list of his movies, The Boy and the Heron would be, oh, fifth-highest at best. I think any of his movies would be good as a starting point for new viewers (maybe not The Castle of Cagliostro), but I suppose Totoro is the most iconic way into Miyazaki's world. I still think Mononoke and Spirited Away are his best, but I'm just splitting hairs. Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest film makers of all time.

geezer cinema: godzilla minus one (takashi yamazaki, 2023)

Depending on who's counting, there are close to 40 Godzilla movies at this point. I've now seen 11 or 12 of them. Before Minus One, I considered the 2014 version directed by Gareth Edwards to be the best. Now, I can't decide. So I'll break it down and say that Godzilla Minus One is the best Japanese Godzilla movie ever.

You can't have a good Godzilla movie without a well-made monster, and Minus One pulls that off and then some. Many (most?) Godzilla movies include other monsters with whom Godzilla fights or, occasionally, teams up with. Minus One returns to the 1954 original: there are no other monsters. I would argue that there are two keys that make Minus One such a fine movie (not just a fine Godzilla movie). One is that Yamazaki takes us back in time. Minus One begins in 1945, at the end of World War II. This returns us to the concept of Godzilla as a manifestation of the horrors of post-atomic bomb Japan. There is no explicit connection between Godzilla and Hiroshima/Nagasaki, but later in the film, Godzilla mutates to a much larger size because of U.S. nuclear tests. Also, when Japan asks for help, the Americans decline, saying they don't want to upset the tenuous relations with the Soviet Union.

The second key is the human characters. You don't realize until you see Minus One just how unimportant humans are in most monster movies. They are there to further the plot or to speechify explanations of what is happening. But Yamazaki gives us characters of depth, gives them arcs that are believable and that we care about. It's not that this part of Minus One is great ... good, sure, but this is still Godzilla we're talking about. But good character arcs are so rare in a movie like this that we get involved in their actions. When the character drama takes center stage, you don't wonder what Godzilla is doing ... you want to know how those characters are doing.

This results in perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire movie. When Godzilla Minus One comes to an end, there's not a dry eye in the house. And it's not because we feel sorry for the big fella ... there is nothing likable about this Godzilla. No, it's the people who elicit an emotional reaction that is earned, not cheap. That as much as anything is why I place Godzilla Minus One at the top of the Godzilla list.

revisiting the 9s: red cliff (john woo, 2008)

[This is the nineteenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10.]

In 2008, I wrote about Red Cliff, "John Woo returns to China, makes two-part historical epic, regains his Mojo. I haven't had time to really think about this movie yet ... what it 'means.' But it's a marvelous thing to watch, with some fascinating battle scenes." More to the point, I wrote the following about Red Cliff II the next year:

There are two essential items going on here, the strategy preparing for battle, and the battle itself (as I recall, it was much the same in Part One). I’m not a fan of “war strategy” movies, but this stuff is fascinating. It takes place in the early 3rd century, so the weapons aren’t very advanced. But they are put to ingenious uses, and the overall strategies on both sides are interesting mostly because of the point/counterpoint feel. The leaders on both sides know how war is “supposed” to be fought, and there’s a bit of game theory going on, as first one side and then another attempts to figure out how the other will vary from the norm, so that they can themselves vary in a useful manner. The result would please the A-Team’s Hannibal … as you watch in admiration, you think “I love it when a plan comes together.” The final battle sequence is as good as any you’ve seen. The only problem is that we’re getting aesthetic pleasure from the deaths of tens of thousands of people, and while there are brief moments when we’re reminded of the deceased, for the most part our reaction is more “Wow!” than “poor fellow.” This was true in Woo’s HK action films, of course, but the scale here is far beyond that of a movie like Hard Boiled. Still, watching Woo put all the pieces together in such a way that the audience can clearly follow the action mirrors the way the warlords put the pieces of their plans together.

I did indeed rate Red Cliff 9/10, which is why it's in this series. I gave the second film a 10/10, and I'm not sure why I thought it was the better of the two films ... they are equals. In fact, in some ways they are exactly equals: in America, the films were combined into a shorter version (also called Red Cliff), and I'm pretty sure Woo thought of them as two parts of the same movie. I have never seen the shorter version. This time around, I was taken by the acting. I've seen Tony Leung in 12 movies ... I've never given one of his pictures less than 7/10, and I've given my top 10/10 rating to four of them. Chow Yun-Fat was the HK actor who first got my attention, but over the years, I think Tony Leung Chiu-wai may have overtaken him. Heck, he might be my favorite actor of all time from any country. (I re-watched both movies back-to-back over the past two days.)

revisiting the 9s: good night, and good luck (george clooney, 2005)

[This is the eighteenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10.]

In 2006, I wrote about Good Night, and Good Luck:

George Clooney has crafted a concise account of a specific moment in time, kept the attention of the audience while dealing with material that could easily have been drab, made several important decisions as a director that greatly enhance the movie (the black and white look, the apparent accuracy of the depiction of newsrooms in the 50s, getting David Strathairn to play Ed Murrow), and brought it all home in less than 100 minutes. The focus of the film is remarkable, in subject matter (it's not about the entire career of Murrow, or of McCarthy for that matter, but only about the period when they crossed swords) and in settings (most of the film takes place in cramped quarters inside a news studio).

And Clooney's underlying argument, that today's press doesn't do its job, that today's Joe McCarthys are not called on their lunacy, that in fact today's Joe McCarthys are as often as not members of the media themselves, is a good one.

And yet (and how many films are there where I don't ever say "and yet"?) ... the precision, the conciseness, the focus, means that the film's vision of Edward R. Murrow is too narrow. There's too much hero worshiping, and Murrow's career was more complicated than what we see in this film. This makes the movie, in retrospect, seem a bit untrustworthy.

And while Clooney mostly makes smart moves as a director, his decision to include musical interludes is a bad one. The interludes are fine in and of themselves, and they might even work in a more surreal film. But here, with Clooney striving for the maximum in authenticity, it's just odd and confusing to see Dianne Reeves singing sultry tunes somewhere in the CBS studios.

The movie is nominated for six Oscars, and they are a mixed bunch. Best Picture? Possibly. Best Director? Also possible. Best Actor? Why not? Best Cinematography and Art Direction? It really shines in these areas, even if I'm not quite sure what "art direction" means. Best Screenplay? Here, I'd have to disagree ... much of the best dialogue in the film is taken directly from transcripts from Murrow's television shows, and I can't see honoring such a process with a Best Screenplay award (maybe if it was in the "previously published" section instead of the "written directly for the screen" section).

I don't have a lot to add, except that I think I was a bit hard on the film, meaning if it had come out in the 1950s, I would have already given it a 10. I complained about the music interludes, but this time, they seemed right. I still think Best Screenplay is a bit of a stretch, except everything in the film, real footage and speeches and "acted" material, is blended perfectly. Good Night, and Good Luck is an exceptional film.

perfect blue (satoshi kon, 1997)

Perfect Blue was the debut feature for director Satoshi Kon. The influence of this film, as well as the rest of Kon's productions, goes beyond just the world of Japanese anime. Darren Aronofsky's work, in particular Black Swan, owes a lot to Kon ... Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro are also often mentioned as being influenced by Kon.

Perfect Blue is a remarkable work, justly lionized. It appeals to non-fans of anime, but not because it cheapens its approach ... it's just that Perfect Blue is a movie, not only anime, and while the stylization is highly regarded to this day among anime aficionados, the psychological characterizations and thriller approach makes the movie seem like something Hitchcock might have come up with.

It doesn't need to be compared to other movies to earn our praise ... it stands on its own. But it must be said in advance: the movie earns its trigger warnings. On the one hand, Kon uses a rape scene in a complicated way, and it is not meant to be exciting. But I'm not certain it doesn't go too far, anyway. It's appropriate to the character development of the "victim" (she is an actress, it occurs during a filmed scene, it is not "real"), but it's still brutal, as is much of the film.

mishima: a life in four chapters (paul schrader, 1985)

Forget what you know about biopics, because Mishima is different. The title character, a real-life Japanese writer, has similarities to Travis Bickle, another Paul Schrader creation, if Travis was a well-known educated author. Both are "God's lonely man", but Mishima was able to transform his celebrity into a cult, which is reflected in this movie.

Schrader has a problem: Mishima embodied many things. Schrader broke this down into Mishima's childhood, his success as an author, and his ritual suicide, and leads us through these various parts of Mishima's life with a fascinating use of color. Childhood scenes are in black-and-white, and the "present time" (when he kills himself) is in straightforward documentary-like color. Schrader also uses excerpts from three of Mishima's novels, and these recreations are treated like stage productions, with gaudy, eye-catching colors. The color scheme ensures that we are never lost, even as the film's timeline bounces around.

Schrader presents Mishima at something approaching face value, much as he did with Travis Bickle. We get a sense of the inner being that was Mishima, but Schrader avoids easy explanations. We are left to wonder at this remarkable man who had delusions of grandeur that were at times actually fulfilled. His suicide came as he hoped to lead a coup by soldiers to restore the Emperor to power.

After watching Mishima, I feel I know more about Paul Schrader ... the movies fits well into Schrader's career. The remarkable methods Schrader uses, though, makes me think I still don't know much about the actual Mishima. With Ken Ogata as the adult Mishima, music by Philip Glass, cinematography by John Bailey, and production design by Eiko Ishioka.

dersu uzala (akira kurosawa, 1975)

Dersu Uzala shows up on countless best-of lists, and won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The last time I did a Best Directors list, I had Akira Kurosawa at #3. He has made many all-time classics. Dersu Uzala came late in Kurosawa's career, and to my mind, he still had one great picture to come (Ran). Between that film and Dersu Uzala, he directed one other movie, Kagemusha, which didn't do much for me. I found Dersu Uzala to have many wonderful moments, but they are spread out over almost 2 1/2 hours and the result is too repetitive to maintain its power.

That Dersu Uzala was made at all is impressive. The Japanese film industry had lost confidence in Kurosawa's ability make a profitable film. To the rescue came Mosfilm from the USSR, offering Kurosawa the chance to make a film from a Russian literature source. They were surprised when Kurosawa chose a text little known outside of the USSR, the memoir of a Russian soldier called Dersu Uzala. The film was shot in Russia (it's fascinating to see how Siberia changes with the seasons, defying the popular view that the area is like the Arctic), featuring Russian actors and crew members. (It is said there was only one interpreter on the set.)

There are several themes in the movie. The heart of the film is the relationship between the soldier, leading a surveying expedition, and Dersu, a native of the area whose understanding of nature is priceless to the expedition. There is an underlying theme about the gradual eradication of our roots in nature in the name of "progress", but the friendship of the two men is always foregrounded.

I found Dersu Uzala to be a case of eating my vegetables because they are good for you. I won't soon forget the most memorable moments, but it is not the first movie I will return to when I want a taste of Kurosawa. #468 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.