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.]

3-iron (kim ki-duk, 2004)

This is the tenth 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 10 is called Korean Cinema Homework Week:

Following Parasite's incredible hot streak and the pleasant surprise of it winning Best Picture at the Oscar's, a lot of people were curious as to where start when looking into more South Korean cinema. Thankfully, Katie Rife, senior writer at The A.V. Club, offered up some recommendations for those looking for some guidance. Take a look!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Katie Rife's Korean Cinema Homework list.

I had seen about half of the movies on the list, and was happy to check out 3-Iron from Kim Ki-duk, who directed Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, which I watched a few months ago. I said of that movie, "Nothing is 'real' at all on some level, but it doesn't play as fantasy", and that holds to some extent for 3-Iron. 3-Iron seems more 'real' at first, but as the movie goes on, it feels more fantastic. The plot, as established at the beginning, has young Tae-suk (Jae Hee) as someone who breaks into people's houses when they aren't at home, settling in, fixing things, doing laundry, eating, then leaving before they return. It seems rather ingenious, and when he is caught by Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), an abused wife, she comes with him and joins on his sprees. This is clever, and if a bit like a tall tale, Kim presents it in a relatively realistic way. But Sun-hwa's husband wants revenge, the police are corrupt, and gradually Tae-suk demonstrates skills that are at least a little magical. None of this is hard to follow, but the magic sneaks up on you, and to be honest, by the end of the film, I wasn't quite sure if I'd actually seen any fantasy at all.

The two main characters never talk, leaving the actors to work via facial expressions ... it's fine, especially since the two are gorgeous to look at. Kim has little interest in the mainstream, and from what I've seen, the mainstream probably has little interest in his work. But at least based on the two films I've seen, he mostly avoids the abstract, even as he walks a line between real and fantasy. #573 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. Among the movies chosen to meet this challenge were Oldboy, Memories of Murder, Mother, The Host, The Handmaiden, Snowpiercer, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and Burning.

creature feature: godzilla raids again (motoyoshi oda, 1955)

The original Godzilla was a big hit, and Toho Studios wasted little time (less than six months) getting a sequel out. The logic behind bringing Godzilla back from the dead is handled with a reasonable amount of believability, considering we're talking giant monsters here. Turns out the H-bomb tests that awoke the first Godzilla managed to bring more back to life. So in this movie, we get a second Godzilla, along with Anguirus, a quadrupedal monster who gets the privilege of being the first monster to fight Godzilla (in the original film, Godzilla was the only monster). Their battles are OK, given the limitations of having two guys in suits pretending to be monsters. Godzilla dispatches Anguirus, although not before much of Osaka is destroyed. The subtext of Japan being destroyed due to the detritus of nuclear bombs is less clearly a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki ... there is no explicit anti-American sentiment.

There isn't anything to make Godzilla Raids Again into a classic, but compared to some of the later entries that emphasized kids, it's a tolerable time-waster. There is some silly humorous banter a few times, but mostly, you get two monsters fighting, a city destroyed, and then a novel way to kill off Godzilla once again (this time it involves an avalanche).

The Americanized version was bizarre, as might be expected. It was dubbed instead of subtitled (the version I watched now was subtitled and from the Criterion Collection), with constant narration. For reasons that are not clear, Godzilla is named Gigantis, and the movie is titled Gigantis, the Fire Monster. The American version wasn't released until 1959, on a double bill with Teenagers from Outer Space.

creature feature: rodan (ishirô honda, 1956)

I chose this for the nostalgia factor, as I usually do with these Creature Features. I watched Rodan many times when I was a kid, and while in my memory it was just another crappy Japanese monster movie, that's what I was in the mood for.

But I'm not entirely sure that's what I ended up with. For I noticed the Criterion Channel had Rodan, their version was 10 minutes longer than the one on Amazon I was going to watch, and, well, it was Criterion after all. So I checked them out, and what I saw was not the movie I watched as a kid. This was subtitled, the print had been improved ... in short, it was Rodan the way it was intended. (Afterwards, I peeked at the Amazon version for a few minutes ... the print was crappy, it was dubbed, and the opening was an invention for the American market. In other words, it was the movie I grew up on. I'm glad I chose Criterion.)

Now I don't want to go too far. I've watched a lot of kaiju movies, so I have a tolerance for them, but I don't think of them as great movies. Rodan came from the 50s, when the movies were still taken fairly seriously, so it's a decent film ... this isn't Son of Godzilla. But it's decent, no more. While eventually we get the usual brief explanation of events being related to nuclear bomb testing, there is a moment early on when a scientist suggests maybe climate change is to blame ... which was surprising, to say the least!

It's hard to recommend Rodan. If you're the type who can handle subtitles, you're likely not that interested in Rodan. And if you just want nostalgia, the dubbed version on Amazon is a mess. Still, I enjoyed myself.

One last anecdote. We had a friend who was an artist, and one day we were driving in a car and I was in the backseat with his kids. They had some toys to play with, one of which was a little pterodactyl. I picked it up and said, "Rodan!" Our artist friend in the front seat immediately launched into a discussion of the great sculpture Rodin. It was pretty interesting, too. I didn't have the heart to tell him I was talking about a Japanese monster. Or maybe I just didn't want to expose my love of junk culture.

Here's a trailer for the American version:

geezer cinema: revisiting princess mononoke (hayao miyazaki, 1997)

It was my wife's turn to pick a Geezer movie, and she had never seen Princess Mononoke, so she chose it. It is the best of the 45 movies we've watched so far in Geezer Cinema. I wrote about it way back in 2005:

It's an oddball epic, weird and beautiful and brutal by turns, sometimes weird and beautiful and brutal at the same time.

I often get a bit lost in the plots of these Ghibli movies, and Princess Mononoke was no exception, but they are so loony in their pretty aesthetic that it hardly matters. Hollywood is capable of creating special effects that cause your jaw to drop, but Miyazaki creates special effects out of his brain ... he's always got some little character that's unlike anything you've ever seen before (this time it's the white thingies whose heads crack sideways), and there's wild boars that transform into squiggly monster things (Miyazaki always manages to include beings that would fit comfortably into a futuristic Philip K. Dick book ... Dick would give them names like greebs), and stunning landscapes, and heroic young women, and complex characters with complex motivations ... this isn't just a good cartoon, this is a great movie.

And the thing is, even the plot got to me this time, for as the film nears its end, I was caught up in the narrative, gasping and moaning and, of course, dropping my jaw in amazement.

I should add that the version I watched was in Japanese with subtitles ... there's an American Disney DVD with Claire Danes doing the voice-over for the title character, and I have no idea if it's any good ... in general, I don't mind dubbing when it comes to animation, I'm just saying, caveat emptor and all that if you watch the American version.

I agree with all of the above, although this time, we watched the English dub on Blu-ray. I'd bought that Blu-ray to watch with our grandson, but his mom did a little research and found that this movie is not suited for a sensitive 7-year-old. I have to say she's right ... there's a reason it's rated PG-13. The English dub was fine ... it's been a long time since I watched the original, so I can't make much of a comparison. None of the voices seemed awful. The Blu-ray picture was gorgeous, which matters a lot for this movie (my previous time I was watching a DVD from a quasi-legal box set). I also noticed the score by Joe Hisaishi, which was truly fitted to the epic nature of the movie. Fifteen years later, Princess Mononoke remains my favorite Ghibli movie.

Here is a Letterboxd list of the Studio Ghibli films I have seen:

sisters of the gion (kenji mizoguchi, 1936)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 27 is called "Kinema Junpo Week".

Kinema Junpo is Japan's oldest and premiere cinema magazine. Once a decade they poll Japanese critics to name the best Japanese films of all time. 2009 was their biggest poll yet, with just short of 200 films listed. Like with the 1,001 Films... list, there may be a new version of this list after the publication of this Season Challenge, and if so, you are free to choose a film from either the 2009 version or the 2019 version.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Kinema Junpo’s Greatest Japanese Films list.

This is my third Mizoguchi film (after Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff), which is not enough for me to have any useful opinions about his work as a whole. I came to Sisters of the Gion cold ... among other things, I didn't know what the title meant. (Gion is a famous geisha district in Kyoto, although I don't know how it might have been different in 1936, when the film was not only made but when it takes place.) The movie is indeed about two geisha sisters. One of the primary themes is generational; the older sister, Umekichi, has more traditional views about the role of the geisha, while the younger, Omocha, resists traditions. Mizoguchi doesn't choose sides, but Omocha does appear to have more control of her life, and her role in the film is the more active of the two. Umekichi is reactive, responding to things as they happen, while Omocha makes those things happen, often to benefit Umekichi (Omocha is always out for herself, as well). I don't know if it's a cultural thing, but I liked Omocha more than I liked her sister. As I say, though, Mizoguchi isn't choosing sides ... neither sister is able to escape their place in society.

If Mizoguchi takes a side, it's against the exploitation of women inherent in the system. Omocha rebels against that system; she also pays a bigger price than her sister in the end.

Isuzu Yamada plays Omocha. She was only 19 when the film was made, but she had already been in movies for six years. She was in several Kurosawa films I have seen, though admittedly I don't remember her. Yôko Umemura (Umekichi) was already in her 30s and had been in movies since the early-20s, although again, I haven't seen them. Both do good jobs here, but it's hard from the perspective of the U.S. in 2020 to ascertain just how good.

It's hard to find clips of Sisters of the Gion ... this video from YouTube claims to be a trailer, but it's actually the beginning of the movie, when a once-thriving businessman sits while his belongings are auctioned off. The clip is a nice example of Mizoguchi's love of long takes.

by request: burning (chang-dong lee, 2018)

This is a tough one. I've seen one other film from Chang-dong Lee, Secret Sunshine, which I liked quite a bit. The Metacritic score for Burning was 90/100 ("Universal acclaim"). It's # 116 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. And it came up recently in a comment from a friend I respect who called it "my favorite film last year -- and one of my favorite films of the 2000s" (hence, "by request", although he didn't specifically make a request).

But Burning mostly left me scratching my head.

It falls into a few categories I've invented over the years. There's the "It wasn't made for me" category, usually combined with "Director achieved their aims", resulting in a movie I don't much like but that I nonetheless respect. (The patron saint of these categories is Terrence Malick.) Perhaps a bigger reason I was left unsatisfied is less because of a category and more because of a taste preference (although I guess that falls under "not for me"). I don't often like ambiguity in a movie, especially when I think it is purposeful. I used to complain about this, but over time I've realized it's more about me than about the filmmaker. I never understand the byzantine plots of international spy thrillers, and am always asking my wife, "what just happened?" (She has her own version of this ... if a movie mostly ignores narrative thrust, she is likely to ask, "is this about anything?" But she never loses her place in a spy thriller.) With movies like that, I'm left to appreciate the action, or the acting, or anything that doesn't remind me I have no idea what is going on.

Chang-dong Lee is intent on ambiguity in Burning. In one interview, Lee used the words "ambiguity" or "ambiguous" 11 times. It comes as no surprise, then, that his film is filled with ambiguity. I love movies that are non-judgmental towards their very human characters (Sid and Nancy), and that's a form of ambiguity. But Lee's ambiguities are larger than simple characters ... in the interview, he says "I wanted ... to discuss the ambiguities of the world we live in and how there seems to be no answer to the questions that we have today". Lee is up to something, to be sure, which is why I'd categorize it as "Director achieved their aims" ... he wanted to discuss ambiguity in the world, and he did so by making an ambiguous film. But, as I said before, my brain doesn't work right for this kind of purposeful ambiguity. More often that not, I'm wondering, "what is this about" or "what is happening" or "is this entire movie made up in the head of the main character"? And that gets in the way of my appreciation for the film.

As I was watching, I was thinking about a favorite movie of mine, L'Avventura. In that movie, a group of upper-class people are on a yachting cruise when one seemingly key character disappears. Her friends try to find her, but they soon lose interest. Only two of them stick with the search, but ultimately they are hardly better than the others, eventually beginning an affair. One of Antonioni's points is that these people are so self-absorbed that the loss of their friend means little or nothing to them. The audience may wonder whatever happened to the missing woman, but like the characters, we push that question to the back burner ... it's not what makes the movie interesting.

A woman disappears in Burning, too. But here, one character really cares about her fate. In fact, he obsesses about it, and that obsession is crucial to the film. We never find out what happened to her, or even if she existed ... ambiguity. But Lee makes us care about what happens to her. When Antonioni decides not to explain his disappearing woman, he is commenting on the way the people in the film have forgotten her. But Lee, in focusing on the man's obsession, invites us to understand what has happened, and when he purposely skips that information in order to maintain his ambiguity, well, he achieved his aim of discussing the ambiguities of the world, by making an ambiguous picture ... and that's going to end up in my "not for me" category.

Despite everything I've said, there is plenty to like about Burning. The actors portraying the three main characters (Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jun, and Yeun Sang-yeop) are wonderful. This was Jun's first movie, and it doesn't show ... she effectively shows us the complicated nature of her character. Yoo is masterful in showing the way his obsession gradually grows. Most notably, at least for American viewers, is Yuen as the most mysterious character of them all ... notable because we know him as Steven Yuen from The Walking Dead, mysterious because we learn so little about him, and Yuen's facial expressions suggest a self-satisfied knowledge, as if we don't know, but he knows everyone else.

I am going on and on about a movie that will appeal to many ... all those critical raves, not to mention that of my friend, are evidence of that. Even as I complain, I find myself wanting to watch it again, see if it makes more sense. So if, for instance, you are intrigued by a movie where a greenhouse may not be just a greenhouse but a metaphor for something else, where your interpretation of the meaning of those greenhouses is a key to the story and your reaction to it, and where that meaning will inevitable be ambiguous ... then you should check out Burning.

what i watched

African-American Directors Series: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, 2018). I waited too long to watch this movie. It got critical raves, and won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but I'm not a huge Marvel fan, not a huge Spider-Man fan, not a huge fan of animated features that don't come from Miyazaki. Plus, my wife, who is a fan of the Marvel movies, is the one who usually takes me to see them, and this one didn't interest her.

Well, I've finally seen it, and it is every bit as good as people said. Endlessly inventive and full of surprises. I guess fans of the comics weren't as surprised as I, who hadn't read any of the related versions. They knew that the Spider-Verse featured multiple versions of Spider-Man ... I was unspoiled and thus amazed.

Into the Spider-Verse is a bit like if Philip K. Dick had written a Marvel book. We get at least two Spider-Mans, a Spider-Woman, a Spider-Man Noir, even Spider-Ham ("Peter Porker"). Each has distinguishing characteristics, and not just visually ... time is taken to give depth to each character. It's an ambitious movie, but those ambitions are extended beyond the usual spectacle to include a human element.

I've often wondered if the use of big name stars is a good thing for animation. There are so many great voice actors out there that deserve the work. Nonetheless, there are some excellent voices here, a tribute to the actors and/or the person in charge of casting the film (Mary Hidalgo is her name). Not all of them were megastars ... Nicolas Cage plays Spider-Man Noir, and Mahershala Ali and his two Oscars have an important role, but they are outliers in cast with folks like Brian Tyree Henry, Kimiko Glenn, and Kathryn Hahn. (Stan Lee even manages to work in his last cameo.) 

Champions of Into the Spider-Verse were right. To use a cliché, it's not just a good animated film, it's a very good film, period. Fans of Marvel will like it. People who don't often take in superhero movies will like it. I liked it.

Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989). Slowly but surely, I am working my way through the films of Jim Jarmusch. One thing I've noticed is how consistent he is ... I've given the same rating to every one I've seen (Down by Law, Broken Flowers, Only Lovers Left Alive). Mystery Train is no different. Jarmusch has a style, one that is recognizable and influential. Jarmusch is not intimidated by a low budget (under $3 million for Mystery Train). He doesn't rush things, and cinematographer Robby Müller, a frequent Jarmusch collaborator, ensures that Mystery Train looks wonderful, even when showing us the scuzzier sides of Memphis. There is nothing accidental here.

There are a lot of characters in Mystery Train, and Jarmusch and the actors make those characters memorable. The main narrative is broken into three segments that are marginally connected in terms of plot, but perhaps more connected by theme. Of course, Elvis is the key connector. Two young Japanese tourists come to Memphis to see Graceland. An Italian woman has a vision of The King in her cheap motel room. Joe Strummer's character is nicknamed "Elvis" for his sideburns, if nothing else. And Memphis is a character, as well.

The cast seems like a gimmick, until you realize that Screamin' Jay Hawkins gives arguably the best performance in the film (certainly the most enjoyable), that Joe Strummer makes a fine tortured man dumped by his woman, that many in the cast are connected to others we know (Cinqué Lee is Spike's brother, Nicoletta Braschi is married to Roberto Benigni, who appeared in Down by Law, Elizabeth Bracco is Lorraine's sister) and all are good.

shoplifters (hirokazu kore-eda, 2018)

This terrific movie was recommended by Bright Wall/Dark Room. They provide recommendations for people who support their site, and they claim those recommendations are personalized ... plus they come from real people, not algorithms. Weird thing is, outside of telling them when I joined that I'd like to know more about 21st century movies and listing five favorites, I've told them nothing. I assume the subsequent recommendations are rather random. Thing is, they are always good ... Shoplifters might be the best, but none are less than good. And when they recommend something I've already seen, it's invariably something I like.

For some reason, the name Hirokazu Kore-eda didn't ring a bell, so I thought I was discovering this great unknown-to-me talent when I watched and loved Shoplifters. Turns out I've seen two others of his films and liked them a lot, as well (Still Walking and Nobody Knows). At this point, I'm ready to say that Kore-eda is a name I will no longer forget.

In earlier comments, I'd written that Kore-eda "rejects melodrama". About Nobody Knows, I said that he "offers up a melodramatic setting and then refuses to sensationalize the material. There are scenes here to match any weeper, but the tugs at our heartstrings never bludgeon us. Kore-eda allows us to come to the melodrama on our own terms." This is true once again in Shoplifters, which could easily fall off the edge into cheap sentimentality. It never happens. It's a film that I think benefits from being spoiler-free, so I'll be vague here, but Shoplifters is about family, in this case a specific family that is unique. Without turning it into a lecture, Kore-eda invites us to consider what makes a family into a family. This particular family, who among other things shoplift (OK, that's a spoiler I guess), don't always walk on the "right" side of the law, but it's all in the name of closeness.

With about half an hour to go, though, the plot, which has taken a backseat to characterization until then, takes over. We learn more about the family as the outside world sees them, and it's quite a contrast with how we've come to know them. It is here that Kore-eda's refusal to get sentimental works best ... the harsh realities that ensue lead to well-earned emotions for the audience. Since I hate cheap sentiment, I am impressed that Kore-eda has now made three melodramatic movies that avoid being cheap.

The three female leads, Sakura Andô, Kirin Kiki, and Mayu Matsuoka, are particular standouts, but all of the acting is good, including that of the children. #444 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Here is a spoiler-ific trailer:

film fatales #55: la ciénaga (lucrecia martel, 2001)

La Ciénaga is a damp movie. You get sweaty just watching it. It represents Lucrecia Martel's artistic rendition of her childhood. Wikipedia offers this description of the film's background:

Lucrecia Martel's screenplay for the film won the Sundance Institute/NHK Award in 1999; this award honors and supports emerging independent filmmakers. The jury suggested she re-write the script to follow a more traditional structure around one or two protagonists, but she chose instead to retain the script's diffuse nature.

Martel has said in media interviews that the story is based on "memories of her own family." She has also said, "I know what kind of film I've made. Not a very easy one! For me, it's not a realistic film. It's something strange, a little weird. It's the kind of film where you can't tell what's going to happen, and I wanted the audience to be very uncomfortable from the beginning."

La Ciénaga is believable in a way that might suggest realism, or at least a form of magic realism (Martel and her film are from Argentina). But it is neither. It's realism with a twist ... the situations are recognizable and seemingly mundane, but Martel presents them in an off-center way. That awards jury knew what they were talking about. They were wrong about what La Ciénaga needed, and Martel didn't fall for their suggestions. But if she wanted to make a more straightforward movie, a traditional structure would have helped. It's just that she wasn't interested in that structure.

You can overstate the oddness of La Ciénaga. I expected something like Un Chien Andalou, but it's not nearly as obscure. You need to settle into its rhythms, you need to accept that Martel isn't going to hold your hand, but there's a difference between wanting the audience to be uncomfortable and making a movie that did not connect with an audience. Scenes begin and end in the middle, you aren't always immediately sure where you are, but you aren't lost.

And the lack of audience comfort mirrors the discomfort of the characters. The adults drink to escape their boredom, the kids run around trying to make something out of their boredom, and the Amerindian servants are looked down on by the grown-ups and loved by the kids. No one is happy, although most of them aren't exactly sad, either.

Martel makes great use of sound. At times, La Ciénaga plays like a horror movie ... sounds, many of them from nature, constantly lead us to expect something ominous is about to happen.

"La Ciénaga" means "The Swamp", and that accurately identifies the milieu in which these characters exist. There is a filthy swimming pool that serves a reminder of this, although the metaphor is perhaps a bit too on target. But overall, Martel's first feature is confident and promising.

La Ciénaga is #107 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)