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Marusa no onna 2 (1988)
Bigger Quarry, Bigger Stakes
Inspector Ryoko Itakura from 'Marusa no Onna' is back, but we don't get to see her or her colleagues from the Tokyo Tax Inspection office for almost half an hour. The first scene shows us a body floating in Tokyo Bay, and we segue quickly into the middle of a very elaborate real estate scheme involving one of the New Religions and that old sinner, Senator Urushibara. Ryoko has continued her meteoric rise, and it is she who gets to break in their newest inspector. He is also their future boss, since he is a golden-boy graduate of Tokyo University (think Harvard Business School). He turns out to be bright, hard-working, and sincere (a quality much prized in Japan, in theory). Neither Ryoko's ingenuity nor her willingness to bend the rules have flagged, and the case comes down to another high stakes big raid. Given the amount of money in play, there is a sniper and a well-armed burglar. This is definitely one of those movies for movie lovers. Itami continues his signature visual citations of Japanese, British and American classics. There is a slightly more realistic tone this time, so the movie ends with a sigh of relief rather than a cheer.
Don Juan (1998)
Molière's Don Juan Precisely Depicted
Admirers of Molière will love this movie. Those interested in a young, virile seducer with little substance should instead see Heath Ledger in 'Casanova.'
Director Jacques Weber's decision to cast actor Jacques Weber as the great seducer is a bit unsettling, but having a leading man with a soft belly and gray hair was a problem quite familiar to M. Molière. The story, as Molière tells it, is not at all about sex, and only superficially about seduction. The subject is hypocrisy, as explained by Don Juan in a speech that starts "Hypocrisy is a fashionable vice..." which begins the last act.
Up to that point, the dramatic tension has been focused on the question of whether Don Juan is capable of the self reform to which he is repeatedly urged by his spurned lover Doña Elvira and by his virtuous but pliable servant Sganarelle. By the time Don Juan has finished his lengthy depiction of the advantages of hypocrisy, it is clear that he has not the slightest intention of amending his life in any way. There is nothing left for him but to keep his appointment with the fatal statue.
At this point, if you have been in sympathy with the story Molière/Weber have been telling, you may feel as I did, that M. Weber is much better equipped to portray the flinty perversity of a life long lived with utter disdain for the consequences of his actions than a younger actor could have been (though I suspect Robert Downey, Jr, might be up to it).
The only Zatoichi movie I like
In the first shot, you think the blind masseur has gone grey, until the camera moves and you see it is blond. This is an important signal that this is going to be a revisionist version of the series concept. The next signal is the fight choreography and camera work. Instead of the tired old scene, where the protagonist is surrounded by a circle of opponent who stay 20 away until called on to die, almost all the fighting takes place at arms' length. The standard treatment strains credulity even with a sighted hero, and I was never able to suspend my disbelief during any of the older Zatoichi pictures, which may account for my watching only one to the end. In the climactic sequence, we are teased by the possibility that the masseur is not actually blind, but after the final come-uppances, the film shifts into a nicely-done recapitulation of a traditional Japanese rural festival, right up to the notorious moment when they start tap dancing. I loved the references to Kurosawa movies (although some may recognize them from Leone pictures). I found this an affectionate and occasionally impudent celebration of the genre. Best of all, given Takeshi's eclectic interests, it is unlikely to become a series and end up stretching believability to impossible lengths.
Ned Kelly (2003)
Thirty Million Dollars and It Looks Like This?
By all accounts, this version of the story of Edward Kelly, outlaw, reflects the latest historical consensus on the facts and background of his case. Heath Ledger is quite eloquent, using a fine script, but he's lost in the darkness of a badly photographed picture, to judge by the DVD, which should offer the best possible images. Unless they were acting at the express command of the producer or the director, the Lighting Director and the Director of Photography should be tasked to swim for Tasmania. Over 80 per cent of the film is so dark you cannot tell who is on the screen or what they are doing. Many of the rest are so extremely backlit that Ledger could be wearing a clown nose and no one would know. As a result, we never see the whites of the eyes of the actors except in the biggest setpieces. A pretty good movie could have been made from this script. This, however, is a mediocre audiobook.
Bon voyage (2003)
The more you know about French cinema, the more you will love this film
Director and auteur Jean-Pierre Rappenau was 8 years old during the spring of 1940 as France's Third Republic disintegrated in a matter of a few weeks. It was a time, he says, when "all the adults were a little bit insane." He and the production staff have lovingly and meticulously recreated that world in a film where all the characters are essentially fictional. The structure, a classic farce, is ideal for the period as multiple plot lines zip and intersect only to come together in a logical, satisfying conclusion. The peg for this plot is Frederic, played by brilliant newcomer Gregory Derangere, who is fully up to playing opposite Adjani, Depardieu and Ledoyen. The real strength of the film is in its supporting performances. M. Rappeneau has cast the film exquisitely with actors who volunteered ideas for both action and dialogue and who know and prove that it is possible to fully realize a character with just two short sentences of dialogue. Though not yet as widely influential as Renoir's 'Rules of the Game,' 'Bon Voyage' richly deserves to be a companion piece to that classic. Though it demands a lot of the audience, it gives much back. One of its demands is tolerance for a certain coyness and misdirection as to the exact genre we are watching: a crime melodrama, no, a spy thriller, ah, a romantic comedy. Recommend it to cinemaphile friends. Just be sure to let them discover for themselves that it is a romantic comedy.
Yagyû ichizoku no inbô (1978)
Ahistorical, but Rousing Thriller
Kinji Fukusaku's conspiracy thriller is a rousing entertainment, but its entire premise is a piece of fiction. The second Tokugawa Shogun, Hidetada, retired in 1623 in favor of his second son Iemitsu. Hidetada lived 9 more years in peaceful retirement, following a precedent set centuries earlier by Emporers (back in the days when Emperors, not Generals, ruled the country). Iemitsu's brother Tadanaga was briefly a rival for the position of Shogun, during 1633, but Iemitsu was very far from being a transient, inconsequential placeholder. He ruled until 1651, and took three steps which largely defined public policy for the rest of the Tokugawa era. He violently suppressed Catholicism, using mass crucifixions in his suppression of the Shimabara Rebelion. He closed the country in 1641 to all foreign influence and trade except for a small Dutch trading station in Nagasaki. Finally, he required each of his major vassals (the daimyo)to spend alternate periods of six months in Edo and six months in their home provinces. Beyond the opportunity for surveillance, this system forced the daimyo into ruinous conspicuous consumption and prevented effective challenges to the Shogun for 200 years. This film comes from an age when female warriors had become a commonplace, but well before spurting blood was acceptable. From his tame cameo appearance, you would hardly guess that Toshiro Mifune had more than 50 films ahead of him. The juicy action roles go to Sonny Chiba and Tetsuro Tamba as rival champions of closely related schools of swordsmanship.
Lucky in Intrigue, Unlucky in Love
Though I'm still shaking my head in disbelief, I must report that Elizabeth McGovern, of all people, almost sinks this film. The dramatic action is a good or better than any other version of the Pimpernel I've seen, but McGovern gives a tepid performance, with an accent which is neither British nor French, and she has no chemistry with Richard E. Grant who is superb as Sir Percy. Indeed, apart from McGovern, the rest of the cast performs with enthusiasm and artistry. Quel chagrin! Spoiler warning: Since Marguerite dies in childhood, the rest of the series is not belabored by a damp squib of a romance. Yes, series. There are (at least) three other films with this cast and producers: "Ennui," "Enemies and Friends," and "A Good Name." If you were satisfied with this film, you will love the sequels.
The Girl Under the Waves (2001)
For lovers of improvisational performance, only
Savannah, a young woman from San Francisco, arrives to crash at the New York apartment of a stage magician, David, she met in San Francisco. There she encounters Johnathan, an acquaintance of David's who also has a set of keys to the apartment, a fugitive from the fumes of painting going on in his own apartment. David has apparently forgotten the competing offers of his apartment. There is a certain attraction between Savannah and Johnathan, and he, a charming raconteur, is soon sharing a rather intimate version of his part with her. David returns, strangely antagonistic toward Johnathan, who reciprocates. The atmosphere deteriorates, temporarily interrupted by the arrival of Isabel, a married friend of Johnathan, who has forgotten that he has invited her over to David's place. The film is shot on a more or less continuous take (except for a change of cassette in the camera). The director breaks in frequently with directions to the actors, addresses a running commentary to the audience, and uses title cards, like a silent movie, although sometimes to convey unexpressed thoughts of the characters. The film will hold the interest of those fascinated by improvisational acting, quite impressive here. For others, the all-too-visible clockworks will be merely annoying.. Most of the suspense in the plot, as opposed to the performances, comes, rather awkwardly, from a revelation about Johnathan's past given to the audience by the director five minutes in.