Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wes Anderson Roundtable #1: Bottle Rocket (short and feature)


Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in our Wes Anderson Roundtable.

Loren Greenblatt: The thing that strikes me about Wes Anderson in comparison to the other directors we’ve talked about is that while Cameron and Del Toro are certainly very stylized, they are also among the small percentage of directors with public personas that are separate from their films. Cameron is famously prickly and arrogant, whereas Del Toro is a happy 10-year-old on a sugar binge. Anderson, on the other hand, has a sort of invisible persona. He does interviews galore but I feel the general public knows him primarily as an extension of his visual style than as his own person, and I think that’s by design.

Max O’Connell: Well, he’s a very private person, and I think he wants to be known for his work more than his personality. And his work is well known: for a while in the early 2000s, he spawned more imitators than anyone on the art house scene since Tarantino. It also makes his work ripe for parody, both good (Wes Anderson Spider-Man) and terrible (SNL’s The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders, which makes references in place of jokes). But before Wes Anderson was the most idiosyncratic comedic director working today, he was just some kid from Austin, Texas.

LG: He went to University of Texas where he met two of his most important collaborators, Luke and Owen Wilson. Soon, they started planning a feature film called Bottle Rocket, which eventually became a delightful 13-minute short. The short is self-contained but it’s meant to be part of a larger story. The idea was that this was part one, and they’d keep making them, like installments in a serial. The story centers on Dignan and Anthony (Owen and Luke Wilson, respectively), best buddies planning a house burglary.

MO: The short played at Sundance, where it got them noticed by a lot of people, most noticeably Polly Platt (the ex-wife of Peter Bogdanovich who had worked as a writer or production designer on most of his notable films) and one of her frequent production partners, none other than James L. Brooks.  And it’s easy to see why. Clearly Anderson and co are on a budget, and it’s much rougher and looser than we’ve come to expect from him, but I love how from the beginning of his career, he mostly knows what he’s doing. The editing is really crisp. Everything feels very exact.

LG: It’s rough, but it derives certain energy from that roughness. His music choices are already really interesting; the use of jazz throughout almost makes it feel like a more high-energy Woody Allen movie. Also you can already see a lot of his personal quirks – there’s already his very peculiar type of close-up and insert shots and his whimsical, freewheeling characters, particularly Owen Wilson (who co-wrote the short).

MO: You talked about his visual quirks. Obviously, he doesn’t really have the money to do those dioramas or the anamorphic widescreen he’s known for, but he’s also got a lot of throwbacks to a number of French New Wave movies he’s a fan of. I’m fond of a shot near a pinball machine that deliberately evokes The 400 Blows, which has similarly likable (if much younger) troublemakers. But there’s also nods to more peculiar influences: he uses Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating” theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas when the characters have target practice. And that’s really charming, because it gets to the heart of these characters – they’re crooks, but they’re essentially a bunch of kids.

LG: It’s a very interesting juxtaposition: these people are setting out to do something dangerous that does have victims, but they approach it with childlike innocence. It hints at the reality/fantasy struggle that defines many of Anderson’s films. I wish that idea was fully explored in the feature, but it is clearly there in both incarnations of Bottle Rocket, like many of Anderson’s characters, everyone in here is either bigger than life, or trying to be.

MO: To me, something that struck me in the fantasy/reality divide is how much they’re playing at bigger than life. We don’t see the bookstore robbery that’s shown in the feature version, but they’re kind of playing themselves up as cool criminals, but the movie ends with them betting on a race and Owen Wilson’s character cheating. They’re just a couple of innocent goofs at heart, really.

LG: I really like that scene. It really encapsulates something essential about this material and I wish there were some version of it in the feature.

MO: What are the differences between the short and the feature that strike you, aside from the fact that the former is in black-in-white and the latter is in color.

LG: Well the most comparable section is the feature’s first act, which is more or less a remake of the material in the short. The main difference is that the feature tells that part of the story with more focus. Again, we get Luke and Owen Wilson planning the house robbery, but it’s colored by a new scene where we see Anthony leaving a mental institution. In the end Anthony is much more stable and down to earth, though melancholy, where Dignan is the goofy, wildcard dreamer who’s introduced trying to break Anthony out of the institute, hilariously not realizing that it’s a voluntary stay. Of the two, Dignan is also the ringleader who has a 50-year plan on how the two will become internationally renowned criminals.

We get a better sense of their dynamic. There’s this sense of obligation between the characters. You get the sense that Dignan is doing all this intense planning not just to satisfy his own boyish urges, but to pull Anthony out of his funk in a very misguided way that Anthony doesn’t really want or need. Likewise Anthony goes along with Dignan because he thinks it’ll be good for him, but it in the end it really serves no one and that’s the gag. This complicated tension isn’t there as much in the short, which features a long conversation where they argue over the details of a Starsky and Hutch episode which has a more aimless flavor we associate more with Linklater and Tarantino than Anderson and while it’s fine for the short, it’s ultimately one of the more fortunate casualties of the focus the team brought to the film version.

MO: Yeah. You get hints of it in the short where they start talking about the plans they’ve got, and Dignan compliments Anthony on the things he thought of that wouldn’t have come to mind for Dignan. That’s great, but here, the plan is comically exaggerated. Wes Anderson’s characters always make elaborate plans to try to get themselves out of trouble or sadness. I feel like the diorama thing that we joke about, while we don’t see it visually in Bottle Rocket

LG:  Which might be because he hadn’t come into that as a style. He’s become much more confident over time. And initially, he wanted Bottle Rocket to be much grittier, more like Mean Streets or Drugstore Cowboy (both of which have whimsical touches but aren’t thought of as whimsical films) but as it went along, the writing got more whimsical.

MO: But I feel like during the writing process, he found what worked for him, and I feel like he found his voice more than you do, I think. What I was getting at with the planning was that it’s a kind of way for Wes Anderson characters to make sense of their lives that don’t necessarily make sense. It’s a way for them to try to control things that they can’t really control. Dignan’s 50-year-plan…it’s absurd that he could possibly plan that far ahead, and with purpose.

LG: I think we can identify with that. We’ve had that, “OK, we’re gonna start lifting weights and do that thing we’ve never done,” and it’s a nice exaggeration.

MO: As with a lot of other Anderson narratives, this is to some degree a sad story, because while Dignan’s a big kid, he’s a big kid with a lot of failure and no direction. Anthony’s sister says he’s a liar and worries that if he follows Dignan, he won’t end up going anywhere. His plans don’t really work out, ever. It’s because of the playfulness of Anderson’s style that this isn’t completely downbeat throughout. That’s always been to his credit. Some of that playfulness comes through the music. The target practice scene isn’t as striking, because they don’t have “Skating” again, but some of the other songs are really delightful. They use a song called “Zorro Is Back” after they buy firecrackers after a successful robbery. There’s such life to it. They’re getting a kick of bringing themselves up.

LG: The thing that I think doesn’t work about Bottle Rocket is that undercurrent of melancholy. There’s a little bit of it there, but it’s so much more present as a counterpoint to the whimsy in his later films, where the whimsy is about masking the melancholy, and there’s this cycle of joy and depression, and there’s some teeth to that. I don’t think they get into that enough here. A lot of the characters here are just much flatter than most Wes Anderson characters.

MO: I don’t agree. Granted, it’s going to grow in his next films, but Dignan especially works for me. He’s always been the most loyal friend to Anthony (and vice versa), and as soon as Anthony finds more direction in his love interest Inez (Lumi Cavazos, in a very sweetly handled subplot), Dignan reacts to that very negatively. It’s not just that he’s jealous – Anthony’s the only one who’s there for him. Their other friend, Bob (Bob Musgrave), is sort of part of the gang, but he’s much less committed and much less willing to put up with Dignan’s need to control things.

LG: Also, I get the sense that Dignan doesn’t really like him, that they’re only friends because of Anthony, and he never quite settled in.

MO: I don’t think Dignan dislikes him; they’re just clearly not as close.

LG:  I think the trio is well developed, but when I say some of the characters are flat, I mean a lot of the tertiary characters don’t feel like they’re there at all. Every other film he’s made is so deliberately an ensemble that it’s kind of disappointing coming back to his first film and not seeing that. I feel I’m watching a film that could have been so much richer.

MO: Ok, I see what you mean. Some of them are types, like Bob’s brother “Future Man”, who’s funny in bits but is kind of a cartoon asshole. That’s not terrible necessarily but not at the same level he’s going to operate at later.

LG: How about in Rushmore, where we have another bully who has a humanizing moment or two.

MO: Yeah. And here’s the thing: that bully has a similar turnaround as Future Man, but Future Man’s is off-screen and isn’t as convincing because we get less of him.

LG: Exactly.

MO: What do you think of James Caan’s character, Mr. Henry, the landscaper/thief who mentored Dignan once upon a time?

LG:  He didn’t make much of an impression on me, as a character or a performance, which is a problem because he’s built up so much as this bigger-than-life father figure to Dignan that he wants to be emulate.

MO: And for me, it’s a bit of an odd complaint, because most of these sketched characters are funny, but they’re not at the level we hold Anderson’s later works at. I do think a lot of the style is still there, though. The conversational rhythms are classic Wes. Like right before the bookstore robbery, where Dignan puts a piece of tape over his nose, and his friends look at him and ask, “Why are you putting tape over your nose?” His answer: “Exactly!” And then during the robbery, he loses patience with the bookstore owner and calls him an idiot, and when the man gets touchy over being called an idiot, he’s sincerely sorry about it. Because he really is just a big kid playing at being the tough guy. So much of it is there, he’s just growing still.

LG: That part is fantastic and it’s important to note there were a lot of issues during filming that might have inhibited what Anderson/Wilson were trying to do. In my research I got the sense that it was a contentious production between Brooks and Anderson. For instance, Anderson wanted to shoot it in the anamorphic widescreen format that’s become his signature outside of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom (and the upcoming The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is at least partially in Academy Ratio), but wasn’t allowed to because the process is more expensive and would have slowed down the production with the added lighting concerns.

MO: And it’s understandable that Brooks might balk, but it is clearly something that’s missing from Bottle Rocket, and it limits what he can do, visually.

LG: One of the things that his particular use of that aspect ratio signals is that they don’t take place in the real world, they take place in Wes Anderson Land, this magical, primary colored place, where everything is dioramas, fantasy and depression. This film, you can see bits of that style peeking out, especially in the final heist, which is the most Andersonian bit in the whole film. But it’s not all the way there. It’s on the border of Wes Anderson Land.

MO: A little bit, yeah…I think part of it is him still figuring out his style and working on a budget. But I feel like the primary characters and the relationships are there. A lot of the influences are there, too. We mentioned Truffaut, which is still there, but I also see a lot of J.D. Salinger. I see a lot of that in the more withdrawn, sad aspect of the characters, especially Anthony. He’s trying to protect his younger sister, his sister’s cynicism takes it out of him…

LG: I do like that the little 10-year-old sister is clearly the more mature of the two. It’s a fun bit I wish there was more of.

MO: It’s a fun bit, and it’s indicative of what Anderson’s going to be doing for a long time with these people who are stuck because of emotional trauma. With Anthony, we hear bits about a bad relationship that sent him to check into a mental hospital. It’s nice that he’s able to get taken out of that. Dignan’s version of getting out of arrested development is being able to pull off – well, not pull off, because it’s a total failure, but he tries, damn it.

LG: I do love Kumar Pullana, the older Indian actor who Wes Anderson cast a lot before his recent death. He plays an old safecracker who can’t remember how to crack the safe.

MO: My understanding was that he never actually knew, which to me might be even funnier.

LG: I get the sense that he’s done it before. I do love the exchange, “I lost my touch, man! I lost my touch!” Dignan: “Did you even ever have a touch?” To me that’s one of the more interesting exchanges in the whole film. As he goes on, he gets better with subtext and dialogue. I feel in the better version of this film, “Did you ever even have the touch” would be the thesis statement for a few of Anderson’s films, including this one.

MO: Maybe, but that’s an older man’s movie, and this is a younger man’s movie, so I don’t think that really fits. I see a lot of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson in the whole tale of upstarts trying to break in and one of them wondering if it’s even for him. It’s a nice parallel to them trying to break into Hollywood and not knowing if they’re going to make it.

LG: Absolutely, it’s hard not to view it that way. It’s a first film about people trying to make it in something and struggling to do it. It might have not been conscious, but you can’t help but take it from there.

MO: Are there any other things that are formally impressive to you? It is a pretty striking debut.

LG: Oh, absolutely. I don’t think it’s all there, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in it. He’s starting to use these dolly shots, colors are a big thing. There are these themes of mental illness and arrested development that he’ll continue to develop. And outside of Martin Scorsese, there are very few filmmakers who use music as surprisingly. It’s not just that he uses a Rolling Stones song. He uses “2000 Man”, a really wonderful song from Their Satanic Majesties Request, probably one of the least regarded classic-era Stones albums. It fits so wonderfully.

MO: I love the use of “Over and Done With” by the Proclaimers when Dignan and Anthony have to leave Inez behind. That brings me up so much, to the point where it almost feels like “Judy Is a Punk” in The Royal Tenenbaums. It makes me so happy that he has such imagination on how to use songs and finds the perfect commentaries on his scenes.

LG: The other thing I really love is Owen Wilson. That character is the most successful thing in the movie. He’s such a Wes Anderson character, right up to the animal noises he makes for signals, or the line “Let’s get lucky!” that he shouts before robberies. It’s infectiously joyous. He and Luke Wilson haven’t been served well by Hollywood as well as they should have. He’s a wonderful presence on screen. To me, there are some other things that are off. It’s a bit aimless structurally, and not in a way that really works. And you like that romance more than I do. There’s a sweetness to it, but it is a relationship where they sense each other’s innate sweetness and dignity, but because there’s a language barrier they’re doing a lot of projection onto each other. That’s something a more mature Wes Anderson would have gotten into more.

MO: Maybe, but that didn’t bother me nearly as much. Maybe it’s because they’re less complicated characters, but it’s a simple thing of lonely souls connecting for me, I think. At any rate, Anthony’s relationship with Dignan is more important, it’s the conceit of the film. One of them has outgrown this goofball stuff, where the other knows he won’t have much left when his friend moves on. That leads to a lot of great moments. Much as I like the romance, the stuff that comes out of it is a lot more interesting. There’s a great shot where Wes plays with deep focus: Dignan is in the background playing pool while Anthony and Inez are romancing on the front porch. And then in the background, Dignan gets the shit kicked out of him, and Anthony isn’t able to protect him. And then there’s a great cut to Dignan having to put ice on a bloody lip, and there’s a growing distance between the two. I also love Dignan’s reaction of pure, tantrum anger after Anthony gives the money they stole to Inez. He throws a rock, punches a friend, and fumes. It’s understandable, more so because Anthony is moving away from his plans.

LG: And I don’t think Anthony was ever that committed. He’s doing it for his friend. There’s a great bit in the beginning where he sneaks out of a mental hospital he voluntarily checked into, because he wants Dignan to feel like he’s helping him escape. One thing I do want to make sure we hit is that visually, it doesn’t fit into Wes Anderson Land, but conceptually, it’s one of his more archly stylized pieces. In his other films, especially his next two, his characters are living with a recognizable reality in some way. In his later films, the balance tips back the other way. They’re deep-sea divers or something dealing with real problems. Fantasy trappings for real problems, and there’s something similar going on here, we got this fantasy gang of wannabe crooks who are sorta dealing with real issues. He won’t try something this out there again until he reaches a more confident place.

MO: Hmm. I see it being more archly stylized, maybe, because Dignan’s trying to escape the realities of his life.

LG: But we never see those realities.

MO: Yes we do. He has nothing else to live for. When he goes back into town after making up with Anthony and he’s planning to pull off a big job, he’s got that great yellow jumpsuit that feels like it belongs in a Wes Anderson movie. Future Man comes along and mocks him, saying he looks like a rodeo clown or a banana, which stings because Dignan actually really likes this getup. And Future Man mentions that Dignan used to mow lawns, which he doesn't anymore. Dignan couldn’t make it in the real world. This is his way of getting out of that.

LG: Yeah, but he was mowing the lawn as a front for the robberies. He couldn’t do that right. That’s a nice bit, but I never felt enough of that simmering pain.

MO: You talked about how Dignan’s robbery is one of the best bits. How about his sacrifice to save Anthony?

LG: By the end, it’s become a proper Wes Anderson film, but a lot of the rest is phasing in and out. Some bits are there, some bits don’t hit like they should.

MO: Then I’m also curious how you interpret the last shot. Anderson does that great slow-motion thing at his films’ endings or in another key moment. Here, the film ends on a slow motion shot of Dignan, in prison, being led back in after Anthony and Bob visit him. He’s looking back at his friends, and I feel like now he’s dealing with the real consequences of his fantasy, even though he did get to do something good for his friends. How do you interpret that shot?

LG: Huh. You know what, you’re starting to change my mind on this movie as we talk about it. There is this really sad moment, I don’t know if it’s him facing the consequences, or just being sad because he’s separated from his friends. He’s doing it for them, but there’s also an interesting selfishness in his need to help his friends that I’d have liked to see more. That is an interesting moment, part of the proper Wes Anderson film it turns into at the end.

MO: Okay. Anything else you’d like to add?

LG: I do like it. It’s not my favorite of his works by a long shot, but it is a nice film. For me it falls squarely into the category of messy first films by great directors that show a lot of promise but are still figuring things out.

MO: I feel like had we seen this before his later films, we would’ve been over the moon for it. He’s so confident, and so clearly on the verge of even better things. I’m more impressed with it I think in part because the Dignan character is one of my favorite Wes Anderson characters, and he’s the heart of the film. I think Wes really nails it there.

LG: I’m watching it on mute as we talk here, I agree with you. Dignan makes the movie. The film didn’t do very well, it tested poorly, it was dumped in theaters. But I’m glad Anderson got another shot. Even in this flawed first feature, you can tell this is someone worth watching.

MO: How do you think it compares to the short?

LG: I kind of like the short better. Even though it’s less focused, and the feature does some things better. But I’m so surprised to see this rough style in the short, and that really floored me. I think I’d go A- to the short, and B- to the film.

MO: Wow. I like the short for the same reasons, but the emotional content of the film does get it for me. I’d give an A- to both (using my stupid 100 point scale, it'd be an 82 for the short and an 85 for the feature). 

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Robocop


Grade: 40/C

There’s an instant, knee-jerk reaction of “How dare they!” that greets most movie remakes, regardless of the level of talent behind it. A remake of a movie as beloved as Robocop, Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant, uber-violent satire/action classic, is already fighting an uphill battle. Here’s the thing: the idea of remaking Robocop, while certainly a tall order, isn’t an inherently terrible idea. But director José Padilha doesn’t do anything new with the story, and the film, while well-crafted, is still something of a slog.

Joel Kinnaman stars as Alex Murphy, a cop chasing down a gun-runner in 2028 Detroit. When a pair of crooked cops bomb Murphy’s car, he’s left critically injured. Cue Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), a brilliant scientist working in robotic prosthetics, who’s been hired by OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) to build a cop with the strength of a robot but the conscience of a man. Murphy’s wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) reluctantly signs off on saving him, and he’s turned into a cyborg cop. But Sellars is using Murphy and Norton to strike down a bill that would ban robotic soldiers in the United States, and he’s willing to keep him from his family and control his humanity for his purposes.

At the very least, Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer deserve credit for not repeating the original’s story or tone beat-for-beat, as so many remakes are wont to do. The new Robocop is similarly a takedown of corporate chicanery, but where the original was a prescient satire of Reaganomics, the new one takes a look at machine assassinations (see: drones) and corporate contracts with military organizations. The film also gets a few decent shots at right-wing punditry, with Samuel L. Jackson playing a Bill O’Reilly type given to browbeating anyone with opposing views.

But the film otherwise doesn’t have anything prescient or thoughtful to say about these topics than “it’s bad,” and while it’s admirable in theory to avoid Verhoeven’s careful tone of graphic violence, pointed satire, and 80s action comedy, it plays the story way too straight and dull for it to be engaging. Padilha remains a skillful action director (he did direct Elite Squad, after all), but the shootouts lacks the punch they require, and the stakes of most of the action scenes are maddeningly low.

And Zetumer’s script is an absolute mess. It gives its actors little more to play than stock roles (Kinnaman is Stern Hero, Cornish is Wife, Michael K. Williams is Partner, and Keaton, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earle Haley are Bad Guys), with only Oldman getting more than one note to play as a conflicted scientist. Every character’s decision feels based on where the plot needs to go more than an essential part of their being – Murphy’s transformation from monotone warrior to hero seeking revenge, for example, comes out of an encounter that’s just as much by chance as in the original, but feels far more like an “Oh, shit, we gotta get this moving along” decision. Just about everything about the new film is generic: the villains, the heroes, the city (rather than the original's terrific portrayal of a crime and poverty-ridden Detroit), you name it. The problem with the new Robocop isn’t that it isn’t much like the original, it’s that it should have replaced the humor, violence, and insight of the original with something rather than nothing.


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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

GodzillaMania #3: Godzilla, King of the Monsters!


Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Grade: 56/B-

Raymond Burr. A skillful actor, but also one of the names that have turned into a curse word among Godzilla fans (see also: Roland Emmerich). To be fair, it’s not Burr’s fault that he’s an unnecessary addition to the first American Godzilla film: a man named Edmund Goldman found the Japanese horror classic playing in a small California Chinatown theater, bought the international rights, and sold it to producers Terry Turner and Joseph E. Levine, who then formed a new-ish film around the existing footage by shoehorning in Burr so that western audiences would have an American protagonist to identify with. Released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, it’s not the disaster some make it out to be, but it is almost undeniably damaged goods.

Burr stars as a reporter with the retroactively hilarious name of Steve Martin. He’s on the way to Cairo for United World News, but on his layover in Tokyo, he learns of a monster destroying ships in Japan. Martin accompanies security officer Tomo Iwanaga (Frank Iwanaga, another added actor) to the islands where the creature has attacked, meeting paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi), and her naval officer boyfriend Ogata (Akira Takarada). The creature is Godzilla, and Martin watches in horror as the creature destroys Tokyo, and as his troubled college friend Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) comes up with the only way to destroy the monster, a potentially disastrous weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer.

The new footage was directed and edited Terry Morse, who admired original director Ishirō Honda’s work and strived to match the film’s look. That’s an admirable effort for a dubious project, but the results are spotty, at best. Some of the lighting and set matches are passable enough, but more often the sets are noticeably cheaper, the lighting flat. More embarrassing, Burr (whose work here is professional, if hardly inspired) interacts with the characters from the original version by facing towards whatever direction the original footage is thrown in, then speaking to Asian (?) actors in the new footage who turn their backs to the camera to hide that, no, in fact, they are not Takashi Shimura or Akihiko Hirata.

That’s hardly the only problem with the new version, however: the film is also given a flashback structure that’s meant to fit Martin’s reporter status but mostly feels clumsy. The film opens with shots of a destroyed Tokyo from Honda’s original, then awkwardly intersperses shots of Martin trapped in the wreckage and narration that kills the original’s somber mood. It’s even worse in the next scene, where Martin is brought to the original’s hospital scene, and the narration over the death and pain of the Japanese characters feels as tone deaf as Deckard’s voiceover in Blade Runner. Other reedits are more noticeable when viewed next to Godzilla (Martin traveling to an island that, if one looks at the material from Godzilla, he was already on), but the structural changes give the film a lumpy feel even if one completely forgets about the earlier film.

Then there’s what’s taken out of the film: the film has been trimmed from 95 minutes to 80, which is more notable when one considers the added American footage. There are still a handful of references to the hydrogen bomb, but the film removes any overt references to American testing or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, robbing the film of its prescience. Gone are Shimura’s mournful speeches and the hints that Serizawa was irreparably damaged by World War II, replaced by standard B-movie rationale. At one point, one person asks, “What brought this upon us?” It’s pretty clear that the new edit of the movie doesn’t know.

Still, Honda’s original material is still plenty atmospheric and striking when it’s not being narrated over, and Godzilla is still a great monster. Serizawa’s sacrifice stays too – the film has the decency to keep the Japanese hero, though it makes Burr’s presence seem all the more useless. But the character’s dopey narration interferes again: “The menace was gone. So was a great man. But the whole world could wake up and live again.” It’s a standard happy ending for a film that benefited from being more thoughtful and conflicted, an extraordinary movie turned into something adequate but resolutely ordinary.

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I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.2: Akira Kurosawa's Postwar Films


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

As with any director of his era, Akira Kurosawa was greatly affected by the fallout of World War II. Where half of his features made during the war were at least partially propaganda films, his first two postwar efforts saw him trying to wrestle with how the war shaped the lives of ordinary people. Neither No Regrets for Our Youth nor One Wonderful Sunday can be counted among Kurosawa’s best, but both see the director’s growing thoughtfulness.

No Regrets for Our Youth: 76/B+

Kurosawa’s first postwar feature follows Yukie (Setsuko Hara), the daughter of Kyoto Imperial University professor Yagihara (Denjirō Ōkōchi). Yagihara has been fired from his job for his leftist political views, and a number of his students have taken to protest against the fascist government. Two of Yagihara’s students harbor feelings for Yukie: firebrand activist leader Ryukichi Noge (Susumu Fujita) and the more pragmatic Itokawa (Akitake Kōno).

After the protest fails, Noge spends years in jail, while Itokawa becomes a prosecutor for the government. Yukie falls in love with and eventually marries Noge, but when the government learns of his involvement in a resistance, they’re both arrested. When Noge dies during interrogation, he’s branded as a traitor, and Yukie must visit his parents’ home and prove that their son was a good man.

No Regrets for Our Youth is one of Kurosawa’s only woman-centric films, and while the men perform admirably (particularly the push-pull dynamic of Fujita and Kōno), the film is nothing without the remarkable performance of Hara. The future muse of master filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, Hara’s expressive face takes us through the whirlwind of emotions Yukie goes through: cheerful naïveté as a young woman at the university, fear as the fascists take over, desire-from-afar for Noge, heartbreak following his death, and grim determination to pull his parents and herself out of despair. To some degree, the character is written broadly as a stand-in for the average Japanese woman, but Hara gives the character a specific sense of humanity and dignity for all of her struggles.

Kurosawa occasionally leans too hard on his interest in personal freedom (Yukie, to a group of women taken aback by her deviation from normal flower arrangement: “In flower arrangement, you should express yourself freely”, CLONK). But he makes great strides as a filmmaker, with a handful of remarkable near-wordless stretches  in the film: a handful of students playing a game, chasing Yukie through the woods in a moment before the university’s idyllic nature is interrupted; a montage of the students banding together to stop fascism as their efforts slowly fail; an Eisenstein-influenced stretch of social realism as Yukie tills the rice fields, willing to sweat and bleed to earn her in-laws’ respect; and an exquisite series of long takes showing Yukie outside Noge’s workplace, longing for him, debating entering from afar, until he finally comes to her.

One Wonderful Sunday: 61/B-

No Regrets for Our Youth had a bit of Capra and Ford influence alongside the social realism; his follow-up, One Wonderful Sunday, tips the balance in favor of Capra-esque uplift. Masako (Chieko Nakakita) and her fiancé Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) are a couple in postwar Japan. They meet for a date in Tokyo one Sunday, but they only have 35 yen between the two of them. They determine to make the most of their afternoon, but they keep running into grim reminders of how little they have.

One Wonderful Sunday has a bit in common with the Italian neorealist films that showed up around the same time: both have a slice-of-life structure, and both are focused on the hardships of ordinary people. Kurosawa’s isn’t paced as well, but its focus on poverty (a lousy apartment whose clerk begs the couple to avoid, Yuzo picking up a cigarette butt because he hasn’t smoked in days) and the little things of what people do to escape it (a tour of the zoo, Yuzo playing baseball with children) shows Kurosawa’s gift for detail.

The populist elements are a bit more uneven. One of Capra’s oft-underrated talents was how skillful he was at capturing the dispiriting lows of the average American before he reached the uplift. Kurosawa has plenty of moments here: Yuzo’s wounded pride at how little money he has to offer Masako feels like something straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life (hell, it even has a similar semi-ironic title), and there’s a devastating scene halfway through the film in which Yuzo and Masako arrive at a concert hall (where they had their first date) to listen to Schubert symphony, only for a ticket-scalper to buy up all the cheap seats to sell them at 5 yen more than they can afford.

But Kurosawa lays on certain bits a bit thick (“dreams won’t fill your belly”), and his gambit for the ending’s uplift doesn’t really pay off. Yuzo tries to lift up Masako’s spirits by pretending to be a concert conductor, but he gives up, saying that he can’t hear the music. Masako then turns to the camera, breaks the fourth wall, and asks for the audience to clap and bring his spirits up. It’s admirable to see Kurosawa go out on a limb here, but it feels forced.

Still, One Wonderful Sunday is mostly affecting, and the film is a fascinating precursor to Kurosawa’s more successful populist tale, Ikiru. By the time the couple parts ways until their next Sunday date, they’re not any richer, but their desire to make each other happy might just make their lives a little easier.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Monday, February 3, 2014

GodzillaMania #2: Godzilla Raids Again


Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Grade: 40/C

Stop me if this sounds familiar: studio greenlights a ridiculously expensive high concept movie. High concept movie turns into a massive hit. Studio then rushes to make a sequel to capitalize off of the original’s success, only to come up with a pale imitation of the original. That’s a pretty common model for franchises, and that’s what happened with the Godzilla series in 1955. Toho would make entertaining Godzilla sequels in the future, but Godzilla Raids Again is about as unexceptional as it gets, a tossed off programmer that’s never half as engaging as its predecessor.

Two pilots, Shoichi Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Kōji Kobayashi (Minoru Chiaka), are hunting for tuna in Osaka when one of their planes malfunctions and they are forced to land on an uninhabited island. There, they see two giant monsters fighting: Godzilla and Anguirus, a giant irradiated Anklyosaurus, a dinosaur species that had an intense rivalry with Godzilla’s species millions of years ago. Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura, reprising his original role in a cameo) theorizes that they were created by a hydrogen bomb like the original Godzilla. As Dr. Serizawa took the knowledge of the Oxygen Destroyer that killed the original monster to his grave, Japan now has nothing to fight back with, and the monsters are getting closer to Osaka.

Let’s accept the answer that the hydrogen bomb could have created more monsters. It’s not the most exciting retcon (“there’s another”), but it can work well enough. The problem is that there’ s an exasperating lack of urgency to the film. The original Godzilla moved swiftly, establishing the presence of the monster and what likely created it quickly while also showing the growing danger in Tokyo. Here, the film wastes time in the opening to establish the monsters, then takes a loooong time to establish what created these things, why they can’t do what worked last time, and hey, why not show some footage from the original film to pad out the runtime and remind us why this thing is dangerous. The amount of time spent on exposition with very little else going on immediately shows how much less time was invested on a storytelling level in the sequel.

It doesn’t improve: too much of the military coming up with a plan (and a bad one – they’re going to use a light bomb to lure Godzilla and Anguirus away) and Tsukioka talking to his sweetheart feels like it’s killing time to get to the good stuff. What’s more, the reason behind the light bomb failing (rather than it just being a weak plan) is contrived: at the same time, a group of prisoners, whom we have not met before, escapes from a police car and starts a fire, which shines brighter than the light bomb and lures the monsters back. It’s a dubious plot point no matter what, but it’s made worse by the lack of interest in the prisoners except as a way to get Godzilla to smash mode.

Not that that’s particularly exciting, either. Godzilla Raids Again was made for $800,000 rather than the original’s $1 million, but it feels cheaper than that. The sets are less convincing,  the effects shots aren’t terribly impressive (this is the only film where Godzilla’s spine doesn’t light up when he spits radioactive flames), and htere's a shot of Godzilla trapped in ice that looks like a kid made it with his toys and a Super 8 camera. Director Motoyoshi Oda was known as a prolific studio director for Toho, and his touch feels rather inelegant and plain compared to Ishirō Honda’s Kurosawa-influenced style in the original.

Even the monster fight between Godzilla and Anguirus is weak. Part of this is because the filmmakers are clearly trying to figure out how to photograph monsters fighting: Eiji Tsuburaya, the effects director for the first six Godzilla films, originally planned to overcrank the camera to shoot the scenes in slow-motion, but accidentally undercranked it and made them fight in a slightly faster motion than usual. He liked the effect, but it doesn’t really work, as it makes it feel more like a couple of guys in monster suits fighting awkwardly rather than a carefully choreographed action scene (though Oda’s workmanlike direction doesn’t help things).

But a bigger problem is that there aren’t any real stakes to the fight: we know that Godzilla will defeat Anguirus, and furthermore, that it wouldn’t really matter who won, as it would just mean that the military would have to fight a different monster. What’s more, none of the people on screen are nearly as interesting the personalities of the original, with the love story and Kobayashi’s eventual sacrifice feeling more like mechanized plot points rather than an essential part of a story. The key to the original was that we cared what happened to the people on screen, and it was more than an entertaining monster movie (although it certainly was that). Godzilla Raids Again didn’t need to repeat the nuclear terror themes of the original, but it needed to do more than settle on being just another B-movie.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.