Thought I'd check out the only Sarah Polley movie I'd missed, ahead of hopefully seeing Women Talking tomorrow. It's my least favorite of the three I've seen, which is not an insult ... I think Stories We Tell is an outright classic, and Away from Her was also very good. Take This Waltz has a lot going for it, starting with Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Sarah Silverman. Polley paints a loving picture of Toronto (Luc Montpellier is the cinematographer) ... Polley idealizes Toronto, and the summer setting gives us a different Canada than we're used to (people have fans on in their homes because it's hot). The film is an effective rom-com (or better, rom-drama).
But there's one big problem, at least for me. Take This Waltz is about a married couple, Margot and Lou, still in love, but together just long enough to reveal a few empty spaces. The wife cute-meets a man who lives across the street, and much of the movie is in the will-they/won't they vein. The problem is that man, played by Luke Kirby, struck me as a creepy stalker more than a possible love partner. Williams does a great job of expressing the yearnings of her character ... I want her to find happiness. But I never wanted her to connect with this creepy guy.
I don't know who to blame. Polley, for creating the character? Kirby, for portraying the character? Me, for disliking the character? All I know is, while I understood why Margot was drifting away from Lou, she could do a lot better than Mr. Stalker Guy. (Not to mention, he works as a pedicab driver in Toronto, an excess of cute that never worked.)
I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2022 for the first time. I gave all of them a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Sorted by release year:
The first Geezer movie in a month, and we had to deal with a few holdups. It was my turn to pick, and I got tickets for Black Adam, but I wasn't feeling too good, so I exchanged them for tickets the next day. But we didn't feel much better, so we opted to stay home. I read that November 3 is Godzilla Day, so I hunted down a Godzilla movie for us to watch. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack got some good reviews, so I chose that one.
I've seen a lot of Godzilla movies, although not as many as the real fans. I saw the original from 1954, saw Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), and many more, right up to last year's Godzilla vs. Kong (my favorite is the 2014 Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla). I looked up some info about this new-to-me movie ... fans were looking forward to it because director Shusuke Kaneko had done good things with a Gamera reboot (three films in the late 90s). GMK (as it is known to fans) is something of a reboot itself, existing in a universe where only the original happened (although there's a brief dig at the 1998 American crapfest). It's 50 years later, and Godzilla hasn't been seen since 1954. But he turns up, and in this one, he is a pure bad guy. The other titular giant monsters rise to fight him, along with Baragon, who for some reason doesn't make it into the title. There is some humor that I couldn't tell whether it was intentional, acting that was reasonably good (especially from Chiharu Niiyama), and excellent special effects beyond the guys in monster suits (not just guys ... Rie Ōta was Baragon, and she was the first female suit actor to be a kaiju in a Godzilla movie). It's entirely possible this is a better movie than Black Adam ... maybe we made out in the end.
Anything I watch while on vacation will be driven by devices. If I'm going to watch a movie on my Kindle, I'm not picking a big-screen classic. Criterion is streaming lots of horror movies this October, including a bunch of Japanese movies from Ishirō Honda that were staples of my TV watching as a kid. The Mysterians came fairly early in his monster-movie career, and before he died, Honda said it was his favorite.
These posts will mostly be quickies... I'm typing this on my phone, for instance, which encourages brevity. The Mysterians is more science-fiction than monster movie, as an alien race from a destroyed planet comes to Earth ("in peace") looking for a place to relocate. No one takes them seriously... All they want is a small piece of land. They also want to teach the Earth people about the dangers of nuclear war (the reason their planet was destroyed). Like I say, sounds OK to me, but the reactions by the humans are completely hostile, with first the Japanese and then the entire Earth increasing their military response (and failing against the superior technology of the aliens).
Oh, there's one more thing: the aliens are largely radioactive, they have trouble making healthy babies, so they want to take a few female humans for mating purposes.
It's all predictably loony. It's fun watching these movies with subtitles. It's as if they quit being Saturday afternoon junk and become art films. The effects are good in The Mysterians. But I think it's a stretch to call it a clear classic outside of its genre.
Like Someone in Love was one of the last pictures from the noted Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (Where Is the Friend's House?, Close-Up, Certified Copy). While I have only seen a small portion of the many films from Kiarostami, I've never seen one I didn't like, and Close-Up was probably the best film of 1990. Kiarostami filmed Like Someone in Love in Japan with a Japanese cast speaking Japanese, and you'd think the result would be a bit distanced from Japanese culture. But it actually has the feel of a Japanese film ... Ozu is often mentioned in discussions of the movie.
Like Someone in Love features three primary characters: Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a college student who also works as a call girl, her boyfriend Noriaki (Ryô Kase), and an elderly client (Tadashi Okuno). According to Kiarostami, Tadashi "had earned his living in film for 50 years, but had never uttered a line. He was a professional extra." It's an interesting piece of casting ... Tadashi Okuno was not an amateur, but he had a self-effacing presence that make his character feel natural in his imperfections. There is something resembling a plot, but you don't come to the movie wondering "what happens next". The forward progression of the film derives from the gradual unfolding of the characters as we learn more about them. However, it's never clear if the characters see themselves as progressing. We are on the outside, watching them, and from that we get the distancing I mentioned earlier.
There is a lot of dialogue in Like Someone in Love, and much of the film takes place indoors, in cramped environs. Nothing seems very private. We are stuck in close quarters with the characters, even as we as an audience are distanced from the people we see on the screen. In one remarkable scene (like many, it takes place inside a car), Akiko listens to a series of voicemails from her grandmother, which we hear, but Kiarostami shoots from outside the car, through the windows.
Like Someone in Love was shot entirely in digital, and the look can be distracting for those of us who still expect movies to look like film. In any event, the cinematography is impressive throughout. #403 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
The life of the titular Oharu may remind you of Job. Actually, I made that observation about another Mizoguchi film: "The family at the center of Sansho the Bailiff is filled with good people .... They suffer, oh do they suffer, like Job, or like Björk in Dancer in the Dark." Oharu (spoiler alert) loses her first love (played by Toshirô Mifune) to an execution. She is sent to be the mistress to a lord, meant to bring him an heir. When she succeeds, the lord sends her back home. Her father puts her out to be a courtesan ... she fails and returns home again. She goes to serve a family ... the wife tosses her out. She marries ... her husband is murdered. She tries to become a nun ... she is raped and thrown out of the convent. She becomes a prostitute, but she is aged and in rejected by potential customers.
It's all too much, and in some ways the comparison to a heroine from an early von Trier movie is apt. But Kinuyo Tanaka does remarkable things with Oharu. She feels the low points, at times she is overwhelmed, yet there is something about the actress that suggests inner strength. That strength might be almost comedic if Mizoguchi took a different approach. The film is on Oharu's side, and it paints a dismal portrait of life for a woman in 17th-century Japan. But I'm never sure about Mizoguchi's sympathies. #260 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Woman in the Dunes is the story of a Japanese entomologist who misses his bus while hunting for specimens among sand dunes, and is invited by the local village people to stay the night at a woman's house, prior to catching the bus in the morning. He is lowered into a pit via a rope ladder, and finds the woman living within the dunes in a ramshackle building. Here, he wakes up in the morning and finds the ladder is missing:
Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Face of Another) works with a great team here, including composer Tôru Takemitsu and cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa. There is a lot going on in the film, even if the plot itself seems almost stagnant. The entire setup is nonsense: a woman living in a sand dune, a trapped man joining her against his will. But it never feels like the setup matters in a realistic manner. We're watching an allegory. What's amazing, though, is that despite the enforced oddities of the setting, Teshigahara throughout convinces us that what we are seeing is real. The agonies of the scientist are no less upsetting because it's hard to imagine a person actually getting kept in a hut in a sand pit. Teshigahara always brings us back to the existential nightmare of the individual.
Capitalism itself comes under scrutiny, and again, the film doesn't make "real" sense but the critique is strong. It's confusing, but apparently the villagers can make money selling sand to a construction company. Don't think about it too hard ... instead, think about how the woman in the dunes (and her tenant) are trapped in the hut, performing endless, backbreaking work just so the construction company can make a profit.
And there's more. The sexual tension is alive, and both Eiji Okada and Kyōko Kishida do wonders with their parts ... they are a primary reason why the characters seem more real than allegorical. Meanwhile, Takemitsu's score is intrusive in the best ways.
I had put off seeing Woman in the Dunes for many years because it just seemed silly. But now that I have seen it, I can say that "silly" is the least important note about the movie. #383 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Here is a brief clip of Siskel and Ebert rhapsodizing over the film. It's ironic that they talk about how beautiful the movie is, given that the clip itself is just awful, but that's YouTube for you.
While the Oscars are not always a good way to judge the quality of a film, sometimes you can learn something from the nominations. Does anyone think "I want to see Four Good Days because it got a nomination for Best Song"? But the four Oscar nominations for Drive My Car are not only appropriate (in that a win in any or all of its categories would be deserved), but informative: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best International Feature. Given nothing other than the Oscar noms, it's probably safe to assume that Drive My Car is at the least a better movie than Four Good Days (which I admit as of this writing I have not seen).
Start with the screenplay. Ryusuke Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe are adapting a short story by Haruki Murakami, but you could argue they are also adapting the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya. The lead character, Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), is a theater actor and director (the film is filled with the atmosphere of the theater). He directs an adaptation of Uncle Vanya, to which he applies an interesting twist: the various actors speak in different languages, including one who uses sign language. At first, the actors don't always understand each other, but as they become connected to their characters, they can apply what they know about the other characters in their responses to those others, even when different languages are being used.
Hamaguchi manages to create a three-hour movie that gently brings us along for the ride (pun not intended). There are no slow or unimportant moments or scenes. We gradually learn about the characters in depth, and their relationships quietly change the better they know each other. Hamaguichi and cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya work to offer a combination of beautiful scenery, interiors where the play is being prepared, and long sequences in a car, which requires lots of closeups. Part of the communication process is non-verbal ... while people talk in the car, we see their faces filling the screen, and we interpret the dialogue through those faces.
The key relationship is between Yūsuke and the driver, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), hired to chauffeur him around during the production of Uncle Vanya. They seem to have little in common ... he is old enough to be her father, and she performs her job efficiently but mostly silently. Over time, though, they reveal parts of themselves to the other, and find they have a shared humanity that touches them and touches the audience. (Thankfully, this never turns into a romance.)
Drive My Car is never confusing, even as it blends so many different elements. The acting, especially from the leads, is excellent. Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay? I've seen all the Director candidate movies, and Hamaguchi or Steven Spielberg are the best, plus Hamaguchi's film is better. The adaptation(s) is unique and it works. I wouldn't be upset if it won Best Picture ... my favorite movie of the year (Summer of Soul) did not get nominated, and other than that omission, there are no 2021 movies that are better than Drive My Car. Whatever might have kept you from watching (it has subtitles, it doesn't have superheroes, it's 3 hours long), get over it. Drive My Car is an instant classic.
When discussing auteurs, we usually stick to live-action filmmakers, which makes sense based on audiences' relationships with animation (outside of Japan, anyway). Here we take a moment to see creators who have made a name and signature style for themselves through an animated medium. Considered omitting Miyazaki since he is the exception to the rule, but it's for that same reason I had to keep him in.
This was the first feature directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and it didn't do much for me, the first time I've thought that about one of his films (I've seen ten). I don't know much about the background of Arsène Lupin III, who starred in manga series going back to 1967. The Castle of Cagliostro presents Lupin in a more genial tone, apparently, which wasn't necessarily popular at the time but which has become more accepted as Miyazaki emerged as one of our greatest film makers. In this case, the characters didn't appeal to me, and I didn't really care about the plot. There is a good fight scene near the end that takes place within the works of a large clock tower, and the drawings of some of the secondary characters are intriguing. Ultimately, I just didn't care enough to get excited.
Popular choices for this challenge included Paprika and Millennium Actress, both by Satoshi Kon.
"Japanese horror (also known as J-horror) is horror fiction arising from popular culture in Japan, generally noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre differing from the traditional Western representation of horror. Mediums in which Japanese horror fiction is showcased include literature, film, anime, video games, and artwork. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror, tension building (suspense), and supernatural horror, particularly involving ghosts (yūrei) and poltergeists. Other Japanese horror fiction contains themes of folk religion such as possession, exorcism, shamanism, precognition, and yōkai."
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen J-Horror film.
YotsuyaKaidan has been called the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time, dating back to its first appearance as a kabuki play in 1825. It has been made into numerous films, starting in 1912, and Nakagawa's version is often considered the best. Nakagawa directed more than 100 movies in his career, including several horror films in the late-50s/early-60s. I came to The Ghost of Yotsuya as a beginner ... for me, it was just another Japanese horror movie, since I didn't have the cultural context the story carries with Japanese audiences. It was occasionally hard to follow, but in a good way ... it added to the supernatural elements in the film.
There are murders from the start, but the ghosts only emerge gradually. Much of the film is interesting, but without the horror aspect I expected. It's almost a character study for much of its running time. But when the ghosts come out, the supernatural horror moves to the front, building on what has come before. There is a visual splendor whenever the film moves outdoors, but most of the time, we're inside with the characters.
The Ghost of Yotsuya might appeal more to an arthouse audience than to one looking for gore and horror, but it succeeds on either level.
Among the choices of others for the Challenge was Kuroneko.