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Yae no sakura (2013)
Classic Tiaga drama
The Meiji Restoration was an extraordinary era in Japanese history, when the country shook off its feudal past to embrace an uncertain future. YAE NO SAKURA dramatizes the story of Nijima Yae, a tomboy who grows into a beautiful young woman - and becomes something of an expert in gunnery in the process. At the same time, her home clan - the Aizu - is asked to protect the Shogun and his court from rebels from Choshu.
YAE NO SAKURA won an international Emmy award in 2014 for best drama series, and it's easy to tell why. Production values and special effects are frequently outstanding, and the story itself has a dramatic intensity that recalls the U.S. Civil war; both wars occurred in the same decade.
The Jidaeki series stars the affable and beautiful Haruka Ayase in the leading role. She's a good choice. This year-long series offers insight into a time in Japanese history that was embroiled in controversy; after several hundred years of relative peace under the ruling Toyotomi clan, a change in power left much of the country in a political limbo.
YAE NO SAKURA is a real treat.
Modestly enjoyable love story
Yeoung-Min (Jung-suk Jo) isn't thirty yet, but is already having doubts about his relationship with his opinionated wife, Mi-yeong (Min-a Shin). MY LOVE, MY BRIDE captures a series of episodes in their lives when temptation, compromise, and selfishness seem to be eroding their young relationship.
The "plot" hinges on everyday small dramas that threaten to become uncontrollable - until love and common sense put their lives in proper perspective. Yeong-Min works in public welfare, but hopes to be a writer; Mi-yeong feels he's being taken for granted.
Min-a Shin is especially appealing as the young, under-appreciated wife who's only known one love, but you wish the film could have had more payoff during the individual episodes. The Yeoung-Min segments in particular would have been more appealing if the characters had more detailed characterizations.
Das merkwürdige Kätzchen (2013)
Offbeat, deadpan comedy
With THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT, it's not a matter of reducing your expectations; it's more trying to change your expectations.
Over the course of a day in a cramped Berlin apartment, a busy family deals with the usual mundane details: eating breakfast, fixing a washing machine, watching unwashed plates pile up, watching a hacky-sack fly through the window. Some characters tell in-jokes that almost seem surreal at times. And there's also a dog and cat, who watch the activity with curiosity.
THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT not a documentary, but an almost verite family comedy. The whole film is shot at about kitchen counter level - the level where the film's "strange" cat wanders through the rooms. Once you get into the rhythm of the film, it's engrossing and frequently funny; it suggests that everyday life, as trivial as it might seem, has great value and interest, even when you might be tempted to think otherwise.
Majo no takkyûbin (2014)
Not as great as the original...but still strong
The original, animated version of Kiki's Delivery Service is so pitch-perfect that it doesn't seem possible that they'd dare come out with a live-action version.
Only rarely does a live-action version of an anime equal the original. With live-action, it's almost like trying to translate from one language to another; some of the actors are good (and others ordinary), and the story conveys only some of the wide- eyed wonder of the original. Fuka Koshiba has a petulant optimism (and a little brattiness) the fills out the title character; JiJi, the talking black cat could have played a bigger part of the movie. Fans of Japanese film will notice a few interesting casting choices - like Asano Tadanobu and Rie Miyazawa.
Ultimately, changing this to a live-action film makes it seem more suited for children (as opposed to the anime version, which is ageless).
That said, I enjoyed much of the film. It's a minor miracle that it's as good as it is.
Garbo: El espía (2009)
Great story, less than great documentary
This story is one of the more memorable footnotes to World War II - the tale of Joan Pujol Garcia, a man who ends up being a double-agent during a pivotal moment in history. And his appearance on the world stage couldn't be more important: his counterintelligence was designed to undermine the D-Day invasion.
It's obviously not a big-budget documentary, but uses a variety of talkies and newsreel footage to round out the story. The cast of interviewees is relatively small; and the inclusion of inappropriate (or confusing) sound effects and garbled film editing makes for a less than compelling story. The story itself was the most memorable segment in Ben Macintre's Operation Zigzag, and the film's running length of 88 minutes suggests that the filmmaker had run out of material. If only he'd read Macintire's book first.
Director Hitoshi Matsumoto (best noted for his bizarrely funny debut, BIG MAN JAPAN) has a filmmaking approach strongly influenced by Japanese television; if film relates to his output, it's primarily through TV skits and parody. It's to our benefit that we can enjoy a film like SCABBARD SAMURAI - the story of a buffoon with coke-bottle glasses on the lam from the clan. He's forced to endure a strange punishment: he will win clemency from a local lord - if he can make his forlorn son smile.
The set-up is far-fetched, spiced up with stock characters from familiar Japanese genre films. The remainder of the film, and the scabbard samurai's life, is spent trying to come up with increasingly elaborate gags, which capture the imagination of the populace. The gags are funny in a desperate, straight faced sort of way - not unlike a Japanese Buster Keaton - making for classic physical comedy.
Matsumoto doesn't act in SCABBARD SAMURAI; instead, he relies on visual narrative and an appealing cast of supporting actors to tell its story. Some might prefer BIG MAN JAPAN with its insane special effects, but SCABBARD SAMURAI captures Matsumoto's comic talents in a plot that's engrossing and genuinely amusing.
A beginner's guide to Satantango
Goaded on by curiosity, I saw SATANTANGO at the Pacific Film Archive several years ago. Critics gushed that SATANTANGO was without parallel - but two hours into the movie, I was less than impressed. Very little plot. Black and gray photography. Segments that went on seemingly forever, with no clear point. Much of the audience filed out early, and I left early, too. Was the director, Bela Tarr, trying to make the film an endurance contest?
More recently, I consulted the Internet Movie Database to see what was written about SATANTANGO. The cumulative rating of 8.5 of 10 was impressive, as were the write-ups. "A stunning experience," says one viewer. "Biggest cinematic experience in history," says another. The kudos go on and on. But if you scroll down the database, you'll also find the negative reviews. "Self- indulgent, annoying," one writer says. One of the more measured responses is, "I do not regret that I saw this movie, but I certainly to not think it was a day well-spent" - after giving the film a 1 of 10 rating.
So, I decided to see the film again - this time on DVD - to determine if my initial dismissal at the PFA was warranted. And I learned how to appreciate a different kind of movie - and even come to enjoy it. My hints to a naive viewer:
- Calibrate your attention span. The individual takes of SATANTANGO are unusually long; the first scene, set outside a pen for steers and chickens, lasts over eight minutes, with no cuts. Just a single tracking shot. This happens through the entire film; in fact, the long takes and slow tracking shots give the film its rhythm and style. If you go into SATANTANGO expecting a film paced to contemporary standards, you'll be disappointed. If you can, take a few breaks between segments - and ask questions.
- Learn about recent European history. It's possible to enjoy SATANTANGO on its own merits, but understanding recent history helps greatly. The film dramatizes the economic depression that gripped the break-up of the Soviet blok, and things gone very bad, indeed. There's crumbling infrastructure everywhere. People struggle to get by, just barely, by depending on agricultural collectives (like the one depicted in SATANTANGO). This gray, depressing worldview would eventually engulf the region.
- Structure, structure, structure. The key to appreciating SATANTANGO lies in understanding the film's structure. Another reviewer here aptly mentioned Akira Kurosawa's RASHOMON, wherein the film's narrative is defined by a single event - told in entirely different ways by the main characters. SATANTANGO uses a similar technique; several characters experience the same segment of time from different points of view. The eight-minute "preface" introduces us to the collective itself - where the barebones infrastructure is shown. From here, each segment of the film is separated by an inter-title; when a new segment starts, we see the same action - from a new character's POV. But nearly every segment involves leaving this wet, cold, impoverished piece of hell - or try to exploit it.
- Dance "the Satantango." The musical segments can open the way to appreciating and even enjoying SATANTANGO. Music is important for Tarr, and the repeating figures of dance are a metaphor. The tango is a repeating dance that abides by the rule, "one step forward, two steps back." It's reflected in the lives of the characters, who take one step forward in their lives, but always end up two steps back. The "chapters" of the film don't move forward like a typical narrative work; it repeats the same segment of time, over and over again. If you're frustrated by the fact that the movie seems static - that's the point. SATANTANGO is a story that can't move forward; it repeats the same familiar song, over and over - until a development determines a new course of action for the characters.
I didn't enjoy SATANTANGO when I saw it the first time, but I've since become a fan. The investment of time may seem extreme to some, but it's more than worthwhile.
Le Havre (2011)
An accomplished Kaurismaki story
In 1992, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki directed LA VIE DE BOHEME, where he transplanted to Paris for a story of impoverished, failed artists on the cusp of society. A funny, sad film about art, love, and loss. Nearly twenty years later, Kaurismaki returns to France in LE HAVRE; while some of the humor remains, its story of the impoverished and dispossessed is even more affecting.
LA VIE... showed a painterly visual sense, all the more amazing that it was filmed in black and white. LE HAVRE boasts an equally striking visual sense, with scenes that seem to glow. That said, other elements of the production are less convincing - and at times. almost embarrassing. (For example, a group of black refugees are locked in a container crate for almost a week; when it's opened, no one's hungry or even concerned, and several are freshly shaved.)
LE HAVRE sets up the camera in a stationary spot - much like an old silent - giving the film a real resonance. But this affection for older filmmaking will be familiar for Kaurismaki fans; his silent, black and white JUHA uses the same minimalistic approach, with good results.
If you're willing to forgive certain production details and the dependence on melodrama, LE HAVRE is a feel-good story of how those of modest means can help those in desperate straits. (LE HAVRE itself was directed under low budget.) The film's humanism is its saving grace. While the filmmaking is occasionally awkward, there's still a lot to be admired here.
Children's fantasy in old Japan
A boy dreams repeatedly of a beautiful woman by a lake in a Japan of the remote past; but after falling asleep under a legendary oak tree, he finds himself in the Tengoku period. He meets woman from his dreams, Princess Ren (Yui Aragaki), and a loyal samurai and childhood friend (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) - and find themselves party to a battle so common in the period of warring states. What results is a story of love, war, and courage set spanning two time periods.
The tale is quite engaging, even if the time-shifting plot isn't particularly credible. But remember, this is a children's story - though there's enough acceptable period detail to appeal on the level of a parable. It's not particularly funny, aside from an unaffected humor, nor is it as thrilling as you might expect (despite some battle scenes). BALLAD has an appealing visual sense, with attractive photography and neat but rustic set decoration; the film has an unusually effective use of light and shadow. And once you're willing to forgive the inconsistencies of the time-shifting plot, the simple story is captivating enough. I was not as forgiving about the plot's time problems, as the boy goes from modern time to ancient Japan by conveniently falling asleep.
Cure - a great movie, but with qualification
I saw CURE at the San Francisco Film Festival in around 1998, and like many, I found the concept and craftsmanship arresting. A number of audience members stayed around afterwards to discuss it - it's a psychologically complex tale of hypnotism and the seductions of altered consciousness. Koji Yakusho (DORA HEITA, 13 ASSSASSINS, etc.) is at his acting peak as a detective who tries to solve a series of murders that don't seem to relate to common logic.
Recently, I saw the DVD version of the film - and it's clear that the film had been cut severely. Most viewers have only seen the US DVD version, so they're not even aware of the problem. A few of the more graphic sequences were cut, important portions of the narrative set in an old sanatorium were excised, and the violent finish was excised entirely. (The US DVD concludes with the suggestion of a further killing; the theatrical Japanese version is more powerful and unambiguous.) In some cases, a later, recut version may be better than the original; however, that's not the case here.
There's scant online text relating to the differences between the two versions.
It speaks well for director Kiyoshi Kurosawa that he took a low-budget police procedural and made an innovative thriller out of it. Most of the scenes are under-edited and shot at a distance, to extract the most from the hypnotic storyline; the longer, hypnotic sequences are several minutes long, with no edits. Because the film uses medium-distance shots to give a sense of hypnotic disassociation, viewers with larger screens will gain an advantage.
I strongly recommend seeing it - but would suggest you seek out the original, uncut theatrical print if you can. The differences are striking. I'd rate the original print as 10/10; the cut/domestic DVD is maybe 7/10. This film would profit from a Criterion reissue, but that doesn't seem to be in the works.