Sunday, August 24, 2014

Get On Up

Grade: 33/C-

Even before they were so indelibly parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, musical biopics were usually shapeless affairs that reduced whole careers and personalities to troubled genius templates, bonus points if their problems could be explained by childhood trauma. But even if Ray or Walk the Line had facile explanations for what made Ray Charles and Johnny Cash who they were, at least they attempted to have some sort of narrative throughline. The same can’t be said for Tate Taylor’s James Brown biopic Get On Up, which doesn’t seem to have any idea of what it wants to say about Brown’s music, his ego or his personal life.

The film follows Brown (Chadwick Boseman) from his beginning as an impoverished kid and troubled teenager to an up-and-coming musician with the Famous Flames. Brown’s clearly the star, so King Records changes the band to “James Brown and His Famous Flames,” forcing all but the loyal Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) to quit. Brown continues to test the patience of his musicians with his egotism and his poor treatment of them, all while conquering the musical world and making great strides for African-Americans. His personal life is a mess, too, with his marriages crumbling and Brown sliding into drug abuse after the death of his son in a car accident.

Like The Help, director Tate Taylor’s deeply patronizing previous film, Get On Up isn’t a cohesive narrative so much as it’s a bunch of events strung together with no clear rhyme or reason. Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth start the film with Brown’s infamous incident where he fired a shotgun into the ceiling of his strip mall, only to go directly to Brown and his band traveling to and performing in Vietnam. They then cut to Brown playing before and upstaging The Rolling Stones at The T.A.M.I. Show, then to Brown meeting Byrd in prison, then forming The Famous Flames following advice from Little Richard, then back to his childhood where he’s inspired by a funky band to win a boy’s boxing match (seriously). Just when this needlessly achronological approach starts to feel really enervating, they switch to a chronological approach when Brown and co. and signed to King Records, which only makes the earlier approach feel more pointless and slapdash.

What’s bizarre is that the episodes are simultaneously disconnected narratively and monotonous. Brown behaves badly, only to be validated when he displays some sort of genius immediately afterwards. Here he is treating his musicians like shit, but it’s OK because he’s explaining why “Cold Sweat” needs to be off-beat to work. There he is being a jackass to them again and refusing to pay on time, but it’s OK because he and Byrd have more great music to make together. Rinse, repeat. It seems to be going for a “he was a complicated man” narrative, but it mostly works to undersell his difficulty. That’s a constant tonal problem, which gets more uncomfortable when Brown is actively abusive. Here he beating his wife, and now we’re going to have him strut out. There he is waving a shotgun around, but it’s played as broad comedy. Taylor’s choice to open the film on that note is particularly miscalculated, as it shows more interest in showing Brown the mess than Brown the musical genius. Its even more embarrassing whenever Taylor and the Butterworths try to play with race. You see, deep down, virulent racists just want to get funky.

Chadwick Boseman, whose intense focus and anger as Jackie Robinson somewhat undercut the piety of 42, is stuck here doing a James Brown impression. He never hits a wrong note, but he’s not given a character to play beyond a superficial caricature of Brown. Get On Up even fumbles its attempt to tie Brown’s complications to childhood trauma, never giving his reluctant mother (Viola Davis in fine form) the screen time to make their distance seem significant. Get On Up wouldn’t have been a good movie had this material been reworked – it’d be the same reductive move that Ray and Walk the Line take – but it’d at least have some pretense to insight about Brown’s character. Note: if you’re trying to make a movie about a historical figure, you should have something to say about him other than “Well, he did all of this stuff.”

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

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

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.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Wes Anderson Roundtable #6: Fantastic Mr. Fox

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: At the time, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited left some people feeling that Wes Anderson was getting too caught up in his style.  He did little to assuage those anxieties with his follow up:  a stop-motion film, a form that, quite literally, gives him control over every hair of his mise-en sene.

Max O’Connell: Some already thought his films were cartoons – A.O. Scott seemed to dance around that idea in his The Royal Tenenbaums review, whereas those arguments become more common around The Darjeeling Limited. So, he did what anyone might do to counteract those arguments: he made a literal cartoon! And yet it’s become one of his most embraced films, well reviewed even if it didn’t do well at the box office, and a lot of people saw it as a return to form after Darjeeling and Life Aquatic split a lot of people.

LG: What else is interesting about the film is that Anderson doubles down on the storybook aspect. Like many Anderson films, it starts out with a book (the original Roald Dahl book), with an illustration of Mr. Fox, or “Foxy,” (Clooney) only to cut into a glorious sunset as Foxy listens to “Davey Crockett,” a spectacular myth-making song. Yeah, we’re in a fable all right!

MO: And part of what makes it such a wonderful fable is that it’s dealing with an antiquated style. 2D animation is becoming less popular as 3D animation boomed, and stop-motion has been almost completely phased out. Not too many people other than Laika and Tim Burton still do it. Which is a shame because it fits people like Wes perfectly, because while it’s not as fluid as, say, Up, that’s kind of the point. It has this wonderful warmth, this handmade quality. It looks like something out of a storybook.

LG: They animated the frames a little slower than they normally would have so we see the seams, too. There’s a sense of the thingness of things: you can clearly see that all of the smoke, for example, is made of little cotton balls and it’s adorable! And he’s adapting his overtly whimsical style that he used for adult stories to carry over to children’s films, which he’ll do again in Moonrise Kingdom.

LG: I think while there’s still some darkness and edge to both films, but it’s no secret that he’s let up on tone a lot here, this is by far his lightest film.

MO: Part of why it’s so wonderful is that it does maintain a bit of an edge, which is important. It’s something both Anderson and Dahl understood: children’s movies without any real conflict or sense of danger are really dull. Here, we get some of the Dahl macabre jokes. Fox gets his tail shot off, and it’s worn as a necktie by the main villain, Bean (Michael Gambon).

LG: And the hero actually kills someone, a rat played by Willem Dafoe. There’s not a lot of modern kids movies that have a death scene at this point, the kind of old-fashioned fairytale thing that a lot of recent kids movies have moved away from.

Anderson also lifts from film history. One of the big influences that struck me on this viewing is Raising Arizona. H.I. McDonagh and Foxy are both characters who give up a life of crime so they can raise a family, only to regress for their own reasons. Their animal instincts or criminal natures are still there, and both films are about putting those impulses behind you for the sake of growing up.

MO: I can see it. I’d also connect the film to traditions by Dahl, though, where family life is never ideal. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they’re all good people, but they struggle in poverty. In Matilda, it’s an unloving home. In Fox, the father’s kind of a cad (as George Clooney characters tend to be), and he’s a classic Wes Anderson bad dad. He’s not Royal Tenenbaum, but he’s not always the best father to Ash (Jason Schwartzman).

LG: He likes to give people false options to validate himself. From the first scene, he’s constantly intimidating people into going his way as a way to make them like him. It doesn’t always work.

MO: In Wes Anderson’s films, characters try to have an impossible level of control over their lives. Fox does that in an interesting way by trying to inject more spontaneity in his life rather than letting himself be controlled. He’s a wild animal, and he doesn’t want to give up that. He doesn’t want to be stuck in the doldrums, he wants to “steal squabs on the side.”

LG: He positions himself in ways where he’s almost trying to get into trouble, trying to inject spontaneity into his life where it might mess him up, and that kind of fits with what Wes is trying to do with animation and with his own style. There’s a sense of spontaneity here that’s rare in animation and I think it has a lot to do with the way the dialogue was recorded. In most animated films, actors record their dialogue separately in closed off sound booths, which is no way to act. Anderson was novel, recording his actors together, in physical locations mirroring those in the film. There’s a trade off sometimes in the technical quality of the recordings, but at the same time the technique adds life to the performances that might not be there otherwise.

MO: Yeah, the cast is wonderful. I’ve been on the record as being a semi-contrarian on Streep, in the sense that I think she’s frequently praised for performances that are well below par for her (*cough*Doubt*cough cough*The Iron Lady). Here’s a performance that’s actually underrated: she’s as warm and empathetic here in a way that she doesn’t always get to be, a companion character to Anjelica Huston’s mother figure in The Royal Tenenbaums.

LG: It helps that she’s picking better material and working with a great director for a change, instead of the auteur of Mamma Mia!

MO: But while we’re talking about that new spontaneity, we shouldn’t undervalue how his films always the offbeat little character bits that stand out amidst the tight control over everything. What’s one of your favorite bits of side-whimsy here? Mine’s “Petey’s Song,” that wonderful Jarvis Cocker, playing the villain’s assistant, Petey, makes up a song that brings us up to speed but uses made-up words that displease the villain.

LG: “You can’t just make up words! That’s bad songwriting! Bad job, Petey!” The look on Petey’s face makes me feel that that this putdown is almost as big an act of villainy as Bean shooting off Foxy’s tail.

MO: Him making up a song on the fly infuriates a villain who’s one of Wes’s classic control freaks. Or maybe I’d go with the choice to have the characters say “cuss” instead of cursing, which hits its peak in that great little scene where Foxy and Badger (Bill Murray), his accountant, getting into a loud, wild animal argument.

LG: Yeah, there’s an interesting tension there, where they’re both anthropomorphized and animalistic at the same time. For me, I love Whack-Bat, with the ridiculously complex rules that remind me of Fizzbin from Star Trek. There’s this whole thing where Ash really wants to be the best Whack-Bat player like his dad, but he’s not an athlete. He’s trying to be his dad in a lot of ways, the mischief side especially, but he can’t really live up to it, so he’s inevitably going to go through sulky teenager phases. That’s only made worse by the arrival by his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, Wes’s brother), who’s very athletic and gains Foxy’s approval over his own son.

MO: This movie, like no Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore recognizes that kids can be cruel, too. It’s telling that Ash is played by Max Fischer himself. He doesn’t treat his cousin very well. Kristofferson is almost impossibly unassuming, even with all of his talent. He’s just a nice, calm kid trying to make the best of a situation where his father is deathly ill and he has to live with a bunch of relatives that he’s never met. Foxy takes to him right away, but Ash is needlessly cruel to him.

LG: We understand where that frustration comes: he’s jealous because of how his father takes to Kristofferson. But he can be cruel, yes. There’s a nice moment where Kristofferson wants to sleep in a less cramped position than under Ash’s bed, and Ash refuses. Kristofferson starts to cry, and Ash reluctantly realizes he’s being a dick and turns on his train set. There’s a moment of brief connection before more rivalry.

MO: “More rivalry” emphasized. He’s still awful to Kristofferson, even after he stands up for Ash when he’s being bullied.

LG: Every kid goes through a period where they’re dicks. It doesn’t help that he’s seen as “different.” It’s never mentioned that he’s dressed as a superhero with a little white cape and bandit hat. He’s that kid who’s a super-nerd and doesn’t understand why people don’t like him.

MO: He’s a strange little guy who’s trying to blend in and be something he’s not, much like Max Fischer. He wants to be an athlete and push down everything that’s unique about him, just like Max wanted to hide his working class roots.

LG: Though I’d stress that the pain isn’t as deeply felt here as it is in Anderson’s previous films, or even in another great children’s film from that year, Where the Wild Things Are, which has a similar theme running through it (and which we both love far more than the rest of the world).

MO: It makes sense that it is lighter, because he is making a children’s film. My minor complaints on this front is less that he’s treading lightly and more that there are times where I feel he spells something out a bit too much for kids or parents, as if he’s trusting them less. There’s a moment where Foxy says aloud to Felicity, “I need everyone to feel I’m the greatest.” We know his problems. We don’t need it restated. More notably is right after the rat, in his dying breath, gives them some information to help find Kristofferson, they say aloud something to the effect of, “He redeemed himself.” It’s already demonstrated beautifully in the scene before, so we don’t really need to be told, and I don’t think the kids need to be told either. Kids are smart. They’ll get it.

LG: Yeah, though I do love the line about him being “just another rat found in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.” It was a problem in The Darjeeling Limited too, what with the “you’ve still got some healing left” moment.

MO: Yeah, clonk. These aren’t as bad as that, they’re minor things.

LG: I can see Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach feeling out to what degree they can be themselves in this film in certain scenes, but at its best it’s wonderfully idiosyncratic in the best Wes Anderson-y way. In the opening scene, Felicity and Foxy break the chicken roost in a large simulated tracking shot set to “Heroes and Villains.” That’s just such a joyful moment.

MO: It is. We talk about Anderson’s great use of music in all of his films, and this is no exception. You mentioned “Heroes and Villains,” I’ll mention the other Beach Boys song used, their version of “Old Man River,” which is so gentle compared to the more raucous song they use earlier.

LG: The only bit of music that doesn’t quite work for me is the use of “Street Fighting Man.” It’s in a great sequence, but I don’t think the song quite fits.

MO: I’m on the edge for that one as well, maybe just because I want him to use another left-of-center choice like “I Am Waiting” or “She Smiled Sweetly” or “Play With Fire” instead of a big hit. But I agree, thematically it doesn’t fit.

LG: Then again, I don’t know how “Heroes and Villains” fits thematically, but it’s perfect for the feeling. It’s his first film with Alexandre Desplat doing the score, as well, which gives it a wonderful rustic feel that separates it from his Mark Mothersbaugh collaborations.

MO: Desplat does his best work with Anderson. It’s not just a wonderful, whimsical nursery rhyme thing to it, but it also reminds me of the kind of stuff that Georges Delarue would have done for Truffaut in the 60s and 70s (Wes does use a Delarue song at a key point in the film), a bit like the jaunty score for “A Gorgeous Kid Like Me,” which Baumbach later used himself in Frances Ha.

LG: They both have this warm, loving, inviting style, which is something I love about what Anderson takes from Truffaut. They both love playing with film history in a warm, affectionate way, rather than the playful but cold way Godard does.

MO: Some of the references are a real delight. There’s a scene where Boggis, Bunch and Bean meet up and Bean is framed in the dark almost like Vito Corleone, plotting the death of another man (er, animal). And Bean’s freak out tearing apart a room is a nice, funny reference to Citizen Kane, where he’s reimaging a life-crushing moment from that film as a petty moment in Bean’s life.

LG: That scene in the dark reminded me of Once Upon a Time in the West where Harmonica’s waiting out in the dark, being shot at.

MO: That’s an interesting comparison, too, because there are more overt Leone throwbacks, as in some of the eye-framing standoff moments. It’s a much smaller scaled film, but he’s trying to give it that same kind of epic conflict. There’s also the bit of the score where Foxy confronts a wolf and the score plays like Ennio Morricone. Though, honestly, I never really got why that scene was there.

LG: Well, it’s his pure animal nature physically embodied. It’s completely without borders. It’s dangerous. It goes back to the Raising Arizona comparison I made, with the wolf in the place of the biker. It’s also a bit of a Jeremiah Johnson reference, where Redford sees his opposite in the distance and they acknowledge the power they have over each other before passing.

MO: That makes a bit more sense, though I still wish they played with it a bit more. Then again, I complained about him being too on-the-nose earlier, so maybe I just don’t know what the hell I’m looking for.

LG: I really love the ending of the film. You complained that the action sequences in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou were clumsy, but he does a pretty wonderful job here. It helps that he can control everything in the frame. The go-for-broke rescue scene is wonderful. They have to race through town, hiding behind crates as they’re being shot at, and Anderson really uses the stillness of stop-motion to his advantage to emphasize motion. The ending, though, after they’ve lost everything, they find a way to live outside of their nature and find a way to survive by taking from this supermarket. They’ve found a civilized world to be a part of, even if the lighting is fluorescent and awful and the linoleum floor doesn’t feel great on their feet, but they have each other to get through it. Of all the Wes Anderson films, this film more than any other stresses community.

MO: I wouldn’t say more than any other, since Moonrise Kingdom expands upon that, but it does more than any other Anderson film before it. We have all of these wonderful side characters (Murray’s Badger, Wally Wolodarsky’s spiral-eyed opossum Kylie) that Fox constantly talks over. There are two important toasts in the film: in the first, Fox interrupts Badger’s toast and makes it about himself. In the second, it’s more about everyone. It’s about sticking together and surviving, about creating a giant family and being about more than just yourself. It’s another cautiously optimistic ending, as it was in Rushmore, because it’s not going to be easy for them, but they can get through it together.

LG: Everything that happens is Fox’s fault, and it’s about him learning to get over his own selfishness. We love Clooney, as he’s a wonderful rascal, but watching him grow is all the more satisfying. And then we get that last song, Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance.” It’s a song about infidelity and breakup, but it’s such an upbeat song. It’s like “Ooh La La” in Rushmore. There’s a sly attention to a mix between happiness and sadness that makes the ending work.

Loren’s Grade: B+

Max’s Grade: A-

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

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

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.


Grade: 88/A-

It’s not a new idea to watch a character or group of characters age on screen. François Truffaut did it in his Antoine Doinel series, the Up documentaries follow a group of Londoners over the course of 45 years and 8 features, and Boyhood director Richard Linklater himself has traced a relationship from college age to middle-age in the Before trilogy. But it’s remarkable to see the youth and adolescence of a boy over the course of one fictional film, which Linklater shot over the course of 12 years little by little, incorporating what was going on in actor Ellar Coltrane’s life to fit the film.  The conception of Boyhood is so remarkable that it’s hard not to focus more on the gimmick and overarching structure over the film’s smaller (yet greater) virtues.

Coltrane stars as Mason Evans, Jr., who lives with divorced mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Loralei) and sees father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) every other week. He witnesses his mother’s two additional failed marriages (including to an abusive alcoholic played by Marco Perella) and her transformation from back-to-school mother to college psychology professor. He experiences first love and first breakup, experiments with drugs and alcohol, and goes from quiet boy to talented teenage photographer and an amateur philosopher ready to join Linklater’s bull session films Slacker or Waking Life.

There’s an inherent fascination in watching Coltrane (and young Loralei Linklater, who could just as easily carry her own film, Girlhood) grow from a hesitant to a confident presence, both as a boy and as an actor. In Boyhood’s early sections, the key to his performance is its apparent lack of performance, of innocent mischief (an early comment about breaking a pencil sharpener by trying to sharpen rocks into arrowheads, pretending to know more about sex as an eighth grader than he does) and of a kid trying to process his parents’ divorce or his stepdad’s strictness and alcoholism.

As a teenager, however, Coltrane starts to form a more distinct personality, someone more willing to voice his frustration and confusion at what his place in the world is. Dazed and Confused fans might recognize traces of Wiley Wiggins’s dorky freshman, right up to the point where Mason hits his junior and senior years, stops faking confidence and starts (sometimes – appropriately – infuriatingly) actually developing it.

The genius of Linklater’s film is in how it’s somehow rooted in the perspectives of both the kids and the parents. Early scenes embody childhood confusion at the big, scary, complicated arguments world of the grown-ups, whether Mason hears mom’s boyfriend complaining that she can’t devote more time to them or, perhaps more distressingly, Mason and Samantha can see but can’t hear their parents yelling at each other outside for reasons that we can guess but can’t know; a later scene, in which Mason Sr. sells the car he promised his son for his 16th birthday without thinking of or remembering his promise, captures teenage disappointment and frustration as well as any scene in recent memory.

But we also see both Samantha and Mason act like, well, inconsiderate teenagers around their parents, with the former blowing off picking up her brother when her mother counted on her, then treating her mother’s complaints as an unfair annoyance. Some of Mason’s youthful tendencies are even simpler, like having to be chided to wash a dish to make his mother’s life that much easier, or coming home after curfew, or treating a school assignment to shoot a football game as an excuse to get arty with his photography. None of these moments feel like a head-shaking “kids these days” sentiment, nor do Mason’s experimentations with booze and pot feel sensationalistic. It’s all matter-of-fact, with Mason’s limited perspective sometimes clashing with the older, wiser view of his parents (and of Linklater). Part of growing up is not realizing how hard it is for parents to raise you.

That story is just as matter-of-fact, and with few exceptions, Olivia’s story never feels needlessly heavy. Arquette has the most difficult role in the film, as she’s required to be warm, scolding, frustrated and empathetic, often switching back-and-forth between modes in one scene. So much of what’s great about her performance is simply watching her become a more exhausted person as the film goes on, someone who had big dreams, reinvented herself, and gave her kids a better life but still hasn’t found the place she wants to be.

The film’s only real missteps are big ones, involving the men Arquette marries and divorces. With the first, there’s an immediate feeling of tiresome inevitability as soon as he’s introduced, of “how is this going to blow up,” and, when his alcoholism becomes a factor, “how long before he hits mom?” While the individual scenes are well-played, they feel programmatic compared to the free-flowing and adaptable nature of the rest of the film, as if there was need for Capital-D Drama somewhere in the story, and the stepfather goes from stern but empathetic to little more than a device, a heavy. And while the apparent rationale behind having Arquette marry another (thankfully not physically abusive) controlling alcoholic is sound (we often repeat ourselves in life), it can’t help but have the same mechanistic feeling where as soon as the character is introduced we know exactly what his function is.

The film’s better emotional scenes are less showy. Many will cite Arquette’s breakdown as Mason, her second and youngest child, leaves for college as a moving moment. It is, but an even smaller and greater moment comes earlier, as a character she helped earlier in the film approaches her to thank her for what she did for him; she’s in the middle of admonishing her kids to please just do what she said, and her switch from irritated mother to someone moved she could make a difference, especially when her life has been so disappointing to her.

So much of what’s great in Boyhood is about small observations and changes, like watching Hawke (in one of his most likable and empathetic performances) change from the good-time Hawke of Before Sunrise to the more sentimental Hawke of Before Midnight, or hearing the pop culture that matters to Mason and Samantha at any given point (Mason is astonished that the girl he likes could dislike The Dark Knight, Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express), or watching Hawke tell his kids all about supporting Obama or “anyone but Bush” without giving them a real idea of why they should actually care or what any of it means.

It’s watching how much and how little changes in children and parents over the years and between generations (admittedly something older and future generations will be able to speak to with more acuity, given my own close-ish proximity in age to Coltrane). It’s about becoming an individual and still searching for meaning in life, about dad’s awkward but truthful metaphors (“life doesn’t give you bumpers”) or mom’s mix of relief and sadness in her last kid leaving for college.

Through it all, Linklater maintains the same unshowy but assured touch, whether he’s giving the kids a limited POV shot during an argument or letting Coltrane and his girlfriend’s relationship play out in carefully-selected two shots and close-ups, drawing them closer to each other, and then, in the film’s final year, framing them in a wide shot far apart from each other after they’ve broken up. With each selection and each observed moment, Boyhood’s modus operandi is one of supreme empathy. It’s not a great movie because it’s relatable (a term that flaunts limited perspective and assumed universality). It’s a great movie because whether it’s seen from the perspective of the boy, the sister, the parents, a teenager, a twentysomething or older, it’s understandable.

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

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

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.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.7: Akira Kurosawa's The Idiot

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: 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.

Grade: 45/C

Kurosawa’s influences are as many as they are varied – John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, Frank Capra, William Shakespeare – but perhaps the most important is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The great Russian writer’s interests in morality and human nature shaped Kurosawa’s own obsessions, and with films like Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and Rashomon he came closer to capturing Dostoyevsky’s philosophical inquisitiveness. Kurosawa finally got the chance to adapt his favorite writer’s work in 1951 with The Idiot, which reset the novel of the same name in Japan.

The film originally ran in two parts at 265 minutes, which would have made it the longest film of Kurosawa’s career by some margin (even Seven Samurai is "only" 207). But when an early screening was poorly received, the studio, Shochiku, demanded extensive cuts. The next cut was 166 minutes, which the studio still said was too long (Kurosawa bitterly remarked then that it "should be cut lengthwise instead"), but released it anyway to negative reviews. Kurosawa would try to find the lost footage while shooting 1991’s Rhapsody in August, but to no avail. It’s easy, then, to lament The Idiot as a lost masterpiece. That possibility exists, but the truth is likely closer to "lost folly."

Masayuki Mori (the samurai in Rashomon) stars as Kinji Kameda, a man whose being falsely accused of war crimes caused a series of seizures that have since rendered him mentally ill. On his voyage home, he befriends the wealthy Akama (Toshiro Mifune), who’s in love with Taeko (frequent Ozu muse Setsuko Hara), the former mistress of another man. Kameda falls for both Taeko and another woman, Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga, another Ozu regular). He’s torn between the two women just as Taeko is torn between the passionate but violent Akama and the simple and sweet Akama.

The Idiot works best in isolated moments – a festival set to "Night on Bald Mountain," a series of close-ups in a party where everyone’s too nervous to say anything about Taeko’s ill-repute, the introduction of a snowy and melancholy Hokkaido – than in full scenes. Much of that has to do with the extensive damage done to the film, particularly in the first half. Too often Kurosawa is forced to cut to an intertitle to fill in the gaps of what’s missing, both in terms of character, plot, and even original intention (example: "Dostoyevsky wanted to portray a good man and the destruction of a good soul in a faithless world"). Even when he reaches a point where this is no longer required, it still feels like characters have been simplified or we’re missing information that would make performances more coherent. Hara in particular is impressive mostly on a scene-to-scene basis rather than as a full performance.

But even had Kurosawa’s full version seen the light of day, it’s hard to imagine The Idiot being a particularly successful film. Like most great novels, the works of Dostoyevsky are difficult to translate to film because most of what’s great about them is in the prose and the thoughts of the characters rather than in the story. Removing that from the equation feels fundamentally misguided. And while Masayuki Mori was a talented actor, he can’t quite overcome his character’s function as the embodiment of human goodness and innocence, something that feels better suited to the page than the screen in this case.

Worse, Kurosawa is so reverent to the text that his imagination and usually immaculate sense of pacing have disappeared. Individual scenes drag on forever, while others repeat the same points made earlier in the film (if you didn’t get that Kameda is innocent and honest and wonderful the first time, you’ll get a reminder soon, possibly in the next scene). The Idiot has fewer memorable or evocative shots than nearly any other Kurosawa film, as if asserting his own personality would sully the work. Even scenes that feature strong work from the actors are frequently weakened by Kurosawa laying on a heavenly choir to underline Kameda’s saintliness. The great director would have far greater success years later by setting Shakespeare in Japan with Throne of Blood and Ran, but those works forced him to actually reimagine Shakespeare’s text and story for the setting and medium. This is mostly stenography in light, a film that captures Dostoyevsky’s text without preserving its pulse.

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

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

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.