woman in the dunes (hiroshi teshigahara, 1964)

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.


drive my car (ryusuke hamaguchi, 2021)

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.


lupin the third: the castle of cagliostro (hayao miyazaki, 1979)

This is the twelfth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 12 is called "Animated Auteurs Week":

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 week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by one of the following animated auterus: Ralph BakshiSylvain ChometDon HertzfeldtSatoshi KonHayao MiyazakiTomm MooreBill PlymptonIsao Takahata, or Masaaki Yuasa.

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.


the ghost of yotsuya (nobuo nakagawa, 1959)

This is the eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 8 is called "J-Horror Week":

From Wikipedia:

"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.

Yotsuya Kaidan 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.


happy together (wong kar-wai, 1997)

Happy Together is the 6th Wong Kar-wai feature I have seen (he has ten to his name, along with a segment in an anthology film). I think of him as one of my favorite directors, although in an erratically-updated Letterboxd Directors list (I last added to it last December), Wong is only ranked at #50. In the complicated system I came up with, Wong is punished perhaps too harshly for Fallen Angels, which I didn't care for (although I can't even remember seeing it, to be honest). Still, Wong has given us one all-time classic (In the Mood for Love, the first great film of the 21st century), and another that has rewarded multiple viewings (Chungking Express). Wong like to work with people he has been with before, and Happy Together shares with those other two films a star (Tony Leung), a cinematographer (Christopher Doyle), and an editor (William Chang). Leung has in fact been in seven Wong films, while the other main actors have also done repeated work for Wong (Leslie Cheung in three and Chang Chen in four). Wong must bring something special to the table for so many actors to want to work with him time and again, given that the productions for his films are rarely easy. For one thing, Wong isn't big on scripts, which I would imagine keeps the actors on their toes. (This was Chang's first film with Wong, and his part didn't even exist when filming started.)

Happy Together was made just before the Handover of Hong Kong. Wong filmed in Argentina, and the location gives the movie a different feel from other Wong films. There have been many attempts to interpret the film as directly commenting on the Handover; I don't feel knowledgeable enough to offer my own. Instead, I see the film as the story of a gay couple who fall into the "can't be with you, can't be without you" trap. It's easy to see why they are together. It's also easy to see why they continually break up. In fact, the repetitious nature of their relationship means eventually the film loses fire ... there's only so many times we can see them fight, split, and make up before it becomes a bit boring. Chang's insertion into the story (Leslie Cheung was unavailable due to a concert tour) helps by interrupting the repetition.

The film looks great, of course, with the shots of Iguazu Falls defying belief. #332 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

I should note I watched the recent restoration, which is a bit different from the original. Wong described the restoration, which extended to several others of his films:

During the process of restoring the pictures that you are about to watch, we were caught in a dilemma between restoring these films to the form in which the audience had remembered them and how I had originally envisioned them. There was so much that we could change, and I decided to take the second path as it would represent my most vivid vision of these films. For that reason, the following changes were made....

During a fire accident in 2019, we lost some of the original negative of Happy Together. In the ensuing months, we tried to restore the negative as much as we could, but a portion of it had been permanently damaged. We lost not only some of the picture, but also the sound in those reels.

As a result, I had to shorten some of Tony’s monologues, but with the amazing work of L’Immagine Ritrovata, we managed to restore most of the scenes to better quality....

As the saying goes: “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Since the beginning of this process, these words have reminded me to treat this as an opportunity to present these restorations as a new work from a different vantage point in my career.

Having arrived at the end of this process, these words still hold true.

I invite the audience to join me on starting afresh, as these are not the same films, and we are no longer the same audience.


three resurrected drunkards (nagisa oshima, 1968)

This is the thirty-first film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 31 is called "Director Recommendations: Bong Joon-ho Week".

As of this writing, the Academy Awards for 2021 are set for this week, but who's to say what the future holds? Regardless, let's indulge in some of the films that Best Screenplay/Director/Film winner Bong Joon-ho has decided are noteworthy.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film recommended by Bong Joon-ho.

This was a weird one, and I admit I wasn't prepared. The only film I'd seen by Nagisa Ôshima was the notorious In the Realm of the Senses, and that was outrageous enough that I should have been prepared for anything. Perhaps my usual insistence at knowing as little as possible beforehand hurt me here ... if I knew people saw 60s Godard in Ôshima, I might have cut him more slack. I found Three Resurrected Drunkards incomprehensible a lot of the time, but then, people often say that about those Godard films I love.

My confusion is twofold. First, Ôshima really does mess with the audience here. More than one person has said that they thought their disc player had malfunctioned halfway through the movie, because Ôshima suddenly repeats what has come before with very few changes ... the characters seem to have learned from their earlier escapades, something like Groundhog Day, but the similarities between the first half and the second are so striking it throws us off (purposely, I'm sure). Ôshima works overtime with the repetition as the film nears its conclusion, by which time I was at least more prepared. But I never did see the point of it (again, many people think the same of Godard).

The second problem was my lack of knowledge about Japanese culture in the late-60s. There is a lot going on in Three Resurrected Drunkards that went right over my head, although some post-viewing research at least clued me in a bit. It helps to know something about the relationship between Japan and outsiders, especially Korea. The film is also critical of the American presence in Vietnam, at a time when such criticism was vital. But I didn't necessarily pick up on it more than casually. The reuse of the iconic Eddie Adams photograph of the execution of a prisoner is interesting, if uncertain, in its multiple recreations by the film's heroes, and the appearance of the actual photograph in another confusing sequence at the end mostly muddled whatever meanings we were meant to discern. In fairness, though, a lot of this could be explained by my not knowing the cultural milieu of the film.

The most interesting piece of trivia (and it was not trivial to the people who saw the film when it came out) is that the three main characters are played by members of the folk-pop band The Folk Crusaders. The fractured, goofy beginning of the film suggests for many a Japanese version of a Richard Lester Beatles movie. It's unclear how this is connected, but the film's title is a take on a hit song by The Folk Crusaders, "Kaette Kita Yopparai", and that song pops up throughout the movie.

Three Resurrected Drunkards is a good movie for people who like off-the-wall entertainment. I wish I liked it. I didn't.


apart from you (mikio naruse, 1933)

This is the twenty-eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 28 is called "Eclipse Week".

Described by some as the B-sides of art house cinema. the Eclipse series by Criterion offers fairly underseen films a chance to garner a new audience through boxsets covering specific directors and writers, and even lesser known movements or moments in time. I realize that this is probably where you're going to have the most trouble tracking some of these down, but they're far from inaccessible. Well, in terms of availability anyway.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Criterion's Eclipse series.

I didn't realize until I started that Apart from You is a silent movie, despite its 1933 release. I knew nothing of the film beforehand ... I didn't know the work of writer/director Mikio Naruse, and I had only seen a couple of movies that included anyone from the cast of this one. This is a benefit of the Eclipse series. Indeed, of the 184 films in the above list, I had only seen 9 before Apart from You.

The movie only runs 61 minutes, and I admit I was glad, because I wasn't really captured by the film. There is some interesting material about the lives of geisha, and some sympathy towards them for being victims of poverty. But I never connected with the love story between the son of a geisha and another geisha who is his mother's co-worker. Also, Naruse makes good use of push-in shots that zoom in on a character, but after the 50th time, it was more annoying than effective.


godzilla: king of the monsters (michael dougherty, 2019)

I've been impressed enough by the previews for Godzilla vs. Kong that I decided I needed to prep. I'd seen the first film in the series, Godzilla, and liked it a lot. I began to catchup recently by watching Kong: Skull Island, which was a bit of a drop but still entertaining. Now I've seen Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and the drop is a lot bigger.

This one brings out a bunch of the Japanese originals ... Mothra, Ghidorah, Rodan, and of course Godzilla, all of whom are listed in the credits as playing themselves. This is more fun if you're a fan, although Rodan seems less important to the plot. Michael Dougherty shows his love for the genre, and the film isn't condescending. It's just not very good.

We're invited to care about the characters, and the cast is impressive. But the characters never get deeper than their stereotypical base: family struggling over events in the earlier movie, Japanese scientists with more understanding of the monsters, smart-ass American scientist, Charles Dance as a bad guy. Hey, these are stereotypes for a reason ... they make it easy for us to slide into the movie. But when we are asked to actually care about them, to react emotionally to them, I didn't care and didn't get emotional.

Perhaps it's a bit of a surprise, given the all-star cast, but the standout is someone making her first appearance in a feature film: Millie Bobby Brown, who had already established herself via the television series Stranger Things. Brown only just turned 17, but you can see she'll have a solid future. She isn't just playing the cute factor. Indeed, Brown is the one person who convinced me her character was worthy of an emotional response from the audience.

As for the action, it's fine, as expected, although during the climactic battle, they kept switching attention to the humans when all I wanted to see was Godzilla going up against Ghidorah. Truth is, the action in the Godzilla vs. Kong trailer excited me more.


ocean waves (tomomi mochizuki, 1993)

This is the seventeenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 17 is called "GKIDS Week".

For over a decade, GKIDS has been a godsend for the distribution of foreign, independent, and adult animation. Through a large line of Blu-rays and theatrical re-releases, this company has opened the door to the world of animation for those looking to cross the threshold. Recently, they obtained the rights to distribute the films of Studio Ghibli, so those are definitely on the table here, but I would suggest maybe taking a look at the many other wonderful films GKIDS has made available. Unless you haven't seen Porco Rosso. Get on that shit, a pigman flies a plane. So dope.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film distributed by GKIDS.

It was suggested that we look beyond Studio Ghibli, but Ocean Waves is a Ghibli I'd missed, so I picked it. It is an anomaly in the Ghibli universe, the first one directed by someone other than Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. It was meant to be an opportunity for some of Ghibli's younger members, but it went over budget and over schedule. The film ended up on Japanese television, and wasn't seen in the U.S. for more than 20 years. It's something of a neglected stepchild, which is unfair, but in truth, Ocean Waves is not a typical Studio Ghibli release. It tells the story of a love triangle among three high school teens, and is absent the element of fantasy we've come to expect from films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, which predate it by a few years.

The young woman isn't as interesting as the adventurous girls that feature in Miyazaki movies. In fact, none of the three main characters are particularly interesting, and the plot is rather mundane. Ocean Waves is never less than pleasant, but it rarely rises above that. The film becomes more affecting near the end, as the characters mature, and the theme of nostalgia is more effective once we've gotten a sense of what the lives of these young people were like in high school.

Ultimately, Ocean Waves might play better for an audience unfamiliar with Studio Ghibli. Fans of the studio bring expectations that aren't really served by the movie, and it's not a classic on the level of Princess Mononoke, but that's hardly a reason not to watch it.


geezer cinema: scott pilgrim vs. the world (edgar wright, 2010)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a wildly inventive movie derived from a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley. There's never a dull moment, and you don't know what Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver) will come up with next. For many people, that's enough.

Michael Cera is the titular hero, who falls for Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Ramona has baggage, in the form of seven "Evil Exes", all of whom Scott must defeat if he is to win Ramona. The exes include Chris Evans as a skateboarder, Brandon Routh as a vegan with super powers, Brie Larson as "Envy", and Jason Schwartzman as a rich record mogul. The cast also features Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, and Aubrey Plaza. There are characters named Stephen Stills and Knives Chau (a 17-year-old girl with a crush on Scott).

It's all a bit much, but we're definitely talking Your Mileage May Vary. Some will look at that great cast and the general lunacy, with the feel of video games and music and youth culture, and jump right in. I looked forward to it, and enjoyed it as it was playing, but I was ultimately disappointed. #429 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and I suppose that's not completely silly. (Actually, watching this clip, I realized I'm being way too cranky here. It's a fun movie.)

[Letterboxd list of all the Geezer Cinema movies.]