Saturday, January 31, 2009

Kurosawa Akira's Rhapsody in August (1991)

The thing is, I think this film is only tangentially about the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. I think it's really about families. About the way relatives can know each other and fail to know each other, about what can keep them ignorant of each other's deepest feelings, and what can allow them to understand one another.

Perhaps my favorite scene: The film essentially concerns four teenagers spending summer vacation with their grandmother in the countryside outside Nagasaki. The grandmother has been telling her grandchildren stories about her long-dead brothers and sisters. One of these stories concerned a brother who ran away with his boss's wife. They ended up living in a shack in the woods, because as they were fleeing through the woods they came across two cryptomerias growing close together like lovers, and both had been burned by a lightning strike. The woman says the trees look like they committed a lovers' double suicide.

It sounds like a fairy tale. It supposedly happened only about fifty or so years before the film takes place, but as far as grandkids are concerned it could have been centuries ago. So when the grandmother says the trees are still there, the kids can't believe it. The oldest two decide to go check it out.

The oldest two are cousins, a boy and a girl. We watch them tramp through the forest primeval, dubious until they actually find the trees. When they do, they're too spooked by the sight to do more than just sit on the ground and gaze at them from afar.

The cinematography and editing here is wonderful. This could easily have been overdone, with, you know, epiphany music and everything. Instead we get silence, forest sounds, and kids whispering.

We know it's a mysterious scene because of the way they react. We don't get close enough to the burned-out trees in question to really appreciate the sight, but we see how it affects the teenagers. They're struck silent. And we watch them watching. It's one of those impeccable Kurosawa compositions. We're close to the kids, looking at them from the side. He's sitting in the foreground, she's crouching in the background. The rest of the screen is mostly dark, with her orange t-shirt the only bright color in the shot. The curves of their backs perfectly echo each other. And Kurosawa holds this shot for a full forty seconds.

What makes the scene, though, is how it ends. We've got this perfectly poised moment, with both teenagers soaking in the romance and mystery, the awe, and we're thinking about the unexpected connections they're making with long-dead relatives, the persistence of legend in real life, whatever. Meanwhile, the boy is a teenager. So what does he do?

He turns to his cousin and tries to kiss her. She screams, of course - gross! She jumps up and runs away (that breaks the shot), and he runs after her desperately trying to explain that he just got carried away by the atmosphere. But by the time they get back to the farmhouse they're both laughing, and all is forgotten.

It's delicately handled, and manages to be poetic, ethereal, earthy, and funny all at the same time. This kind of thing is why I'm in awe of Kurosawa.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

James Bond review: Live And Let Die (1973)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Bond’s first identity crisis.

BOND, JAMES BOND: When Connery returned for Diamonds Are Forever, it was on a strictly one-time basis. They had to find a new James Bond, for real this time. That they’d settle on Moore was perhaps inevitable: his name had already come up several times, due to his playing a very Bondian character on TV. This pattern would be repeated with Pierce Brosnan, of course.

Moore was a wise choice. In the end he only comes in fourth in my ranking of the best Bonds, but the reasons for that are not applicable to this film. Here, Moore’s fine. In fact, he owns the role in a way George Lazenby, for all his strengths, couldn’t: no self-deprecating nods to the other guy here. Moore is the guy, plain and simple.

He’s a different kind of Bond, in some subtle and some not so subtle ways. He’s more classically handsome than Connery; he rivals Lazenby for sheer prettiness, but without George’s approachability. Moore in his first couple of films especially has a beauty that’s diamond-hard.

It fits his take on the character, which is one of utter confidence, even brashness. You can see this in – well, in the cigar. It’s a detail they give the character in this movie and the next one, and then quietly drop, which they shouldn’t have. Moore chomping on his cigar – after shaving, for example, or when piloting a hang glider – is Bond at his best. It’s phallic, of course: what they’re doing in these first couple of Moore Bonds is taking qualities that were implicit in earlier films and making them more obvious. The innuendo is a bit more outré, the jokes are a bit jokier, the car chases a bit longer. In the ‘60s Bond was daring; in the ‘70s he was downright decadent.

All of that is well and good. It’s nice to see Bond rising to the challenge of a new decade. The problem is that in the process the producers seem to have lost their nerve a bit; Live And Let Die is not just a new Bond, it’s an imitative Bond. They decide to cross Bond with the action movie trend of the day: blaxploitation. It’s Bond as Shaft.


What Makes Bond Bond: “You wouldn’t kill me. Not after what we’ve just done.” “Well, I certainly wouldn’t have killed you before.”

What Makes Roger Moore Roger Moore: When he gets off the hang glider, he simply reverses his coat and voila, he’s in an impeccably tailored brown suit. When he surfaces in New Orleans the first thing he does is get fitted for a new suit and pick out some ties. When he arrives in Harlem he looks as white as humanly possible.

BAD GUYS: Yaphet Kotto plays Kananga, head of a fictional Caribbean island nation, and his alter ego the Harlem kingpin Mr. Big. Yes, they call him Mr. Big. They’re not even trying.

And this is the problem with the movie. Kananga’s an interesting character, an almost sharply drawn portrait of a proud leader of a small non-aligned nation, balancing a First World education with Third World traditions; the character’s a bit underwritten, but Kotto compensates well.

As Mr. Big, however, the character’s flat. Like, there’s nothing there, just a shadow of an impression of something somebody thought they saw in Super Fly. And combined, it’s a volatile mix, threatening to invoke white fears of black people, like when Bond drives into Harlem and suddenly everybody on every street corner’s connected to Mr. Big’s gang. Or when we realize that Harlem, New Orleans, and the Caribbean – i.e., every black population center in the movie – are all controlled by Kananga/Mr. Big. They’re all in it together.

Am I saying the movie is racist? No. That’s too simple a diagnosis, for one thing. I think what we have here is a combination of an early-‘70s mainstream movie level of racial sensitivity (i.e., still a little lagging), combined with a facile adoption of blaxploitation clichés (themselves verging on stereotype), all of that dropped somewhat thoughtlessly into the Bond universe, where conspiracies, not to mention cultural unsubtleties, are the natural order of things. It’s a confused movie, is what it is.

Back to Kananga, though. He is, we should note, the first post-SPECTRE villain, and the first non-SPECTRE baddie since Goldfinger. He’s okay. He has a lot of henchmen: Whisper, Tee Hee, and Baron Samedi. Only the Baron – a sort of voodoo figure come to life – is really memorable. Not because he’s particularly scary, but because he’s got the voice.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Sean Connery’s Bond is introduced at the baccarrat table. George Lazenby’s Bond is introduced in a speeding car, on his way to save the girl. Roger Moore’s Bond is introduced in the sack with a sexy Italian lady agent. So there you go.

Miss Caruso is just a prelude. The real Bond Girls this time out are Gloria Hendry as Rosie and Jane Seymour as Solitaire. Rosie is the first black Bond girl – a landmark of sorts, as Bond proves himself an equal opportunity womanizer. Physically, the winsome Rosie also ushers us into the era of the slender, “natural look” Bond girls that would prevail for the rest of the decade. More kittenish than va-va-voom.

Jane Seymour’s Solitaire fits into that trend as well. She’s also notable as the first virgin Bond has slept with in the series. It’s an interesting detail, convincingly couched in the mythology of the voodoo priestess, but still conspicuous in a series that has up to now usually provided Bond with sexual partners as cosmopolitan, or nearly so, as he is.

Which makes for a GS of 3 – not bad to start out with.

AND VIOLENCE: This film also ushers in the era of car-chase Bonds. 007 movies have always had chase scenes in them, but starting here the chases would take up a lot more space within each film. Again, it was a ‘70s thing; this was the era of the big car chase.

Here it’s not so much cars as speedboats, on the Louisiana waterways. There are about five minutes worth of good stunts and chase ideas here; unfortunately the sequence goes on much longer. It’s also here that they deposit the worst thing about the movie, the Sheriff Pepper character, a crude stereotype of a racist Southern cop taken straight out of In the Heat of the Night. Here they play it for laughs. It gets none. A colossal lapse of taste; these would become disturbingly frequent in the Moore years.

BOYS WITH TOYS: No Q this time. The official excuse was that Desmond Llewellyn was tied up with a television series at the time, but that could have been worked around. Were they debating eliminating the character? They certainly downplay the gadgets this time around. All Bond gets is a nifty watch that can do things like unzip a dress.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: New York, New Orleans, and a fictional Caribbean nation. Two out of the three locations are in the U.S., and they prove my rule about Bond going to the States. Not that individual elements aren’t good – I defy any music-lover not to swing a little bit to the jazz funeral in New Orleans. But what does this have to do with James Bond? Remember KFC in Goldfinger? The same goes for places with names like “Fillet of Soul.” Shiver.

ETC.: One of the great title sequences, fire and bones and hot chicks. And Sir Paul does the theme song. It’s one of the all-time best Bond themes, not least because it represents revenge for Goldfinger’s little dis of the Beatles. The rest of the score is by George Martin, and it’s quite nice. He only glancingly uses the “James Bond Theme,” and even there it’s more of a playful suggestion of the theme than an out-and-out quotation of it… Add a double-decker bus, a hang glider, and a private plane to the list of things Bond drives… Given the glaring problems in this film I’m probably being a little generous with the rating. After all, in imitating other genres of action film and in spending too much time in America it breaks two of my cardinal rules. But what works here really works.

RATING: 005.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Kurosawa Akira's Madadayo (1993)

The way this is titled in English is one of those odd bits of Orientalism you get in the importation of Japanese movies. As Wikipedia notes, the correct romanization of the first element of the title isn't "mada" but "mâda" or "maada;" furthermore, it's not all one word. It ought to be "mâda da yo." But why romanize it at all? Why not just call the movie Not Yet! That's what the phrase means, however you romanize it: it's not some inscrutable Oriental formula. Anyway.

The mood of the whole film is like that of the final segment of Dreams: a combination of elegy and idyll. What’s being here idyllized and elegized is purity of sentiment (you could argue the same is true of the final segment of Dreams). This is a world of absolutely no conflict, not even – or especially – internal conflict. At the Maadakai you have forty or so grown men, former students of Uchida’s, gathered in complete unanimity of love and gratitude for him: the bond between sensei and student here is fairy-tale pure and strong. Utterly unbelievable, but it’s not trying to be realistic; in fact there are very subtle touches of surrealism (such as the moment when everybody in the room suddenly tries to pour a drink for him) to let us know we’re not supposed to see it realistically. It’s a portrait of a certain sentiment.

And like a well-painted portrait behind glass and a velvet rope at a museum, this film’s picture of sentiment doesn’t allow you in, really. It demonstrates some fairly endearing qualities in Uchida, but only halfway through the movie does he finally (I think) earn the audience’s love; but we have the students, and the movie, slathering him with this love from the first scene. We watch from a distance, wondering how all of these characters can be so pure and united in their feelings. And this alienation carries over to our view of Uchida himself, whose childlike purity and intensity of emotion are meant to be inspiring but who never seems quite as endearing to the viewer as he does to his students.

The upshot is that this film is a bit cloying. It’s also quite stately in its pacing, meaning you have a lot of time to think about things like why you’re not responding to Uchida the way his students are, and why Kurosawa’s not interested in giving anybody besides Uchida a personality (this from the director of Seven Samurai, a model of subtle revelation of character). A lot of time to contemplate the visuals.

Which are, typically, fabulous. Right up to his death Kurosawa was the master of framing, of depth-of-field manipulation, of shot choice, of absolutely every aspect of putting stuff on the screen. The film is filled with delightful little touches like the way, when Uchida’s talking on the phone to someone who thinks they’ve found his cat, the camera zooms in on his head, then follows it up and down as bows to the person on the other end of the line. Like the shot of his shack in winter, with Uchida and his wife in the doorway looking out, one wrapped in a black comforter and one in a white, one kneeling and one standing, so they’re framed by the doorway in a perfect vertical composition. Like the final dream scene, the kid scampering around through haystacks under a mystical autumn sky (painted by Kurosawa himself).

Certainly not my favorite of his films, but a very appropriate way to go out.

Eastern Promises and yakuza movies

Watched David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. Great film. That didn't surprise me, as I loved A History Of Violence, too.

What surprised me - took me unsuspecting-like - was how much it seemed to draw from yakuza movies. F'rinstance: the big fight scene in the steam bath looks like an homage to the public-bath brawl at the beginning of Fukasaku Kinji's Gendai yakuza - hitokiri yota (Street Mobster). It's a great scene in the original, and a great scene in Cronenberg's film too. The target's nakedness allows the creepy beauty of the tattoos to work its magic, while adding an almost unbearable awareness of physical vulnerability to the scene, as the softness of flesh is juxtaposed with the hardness of tiles and the sharpness of blades; the key is that the attackers, in both films, are wielding knives, not guns.

Even aside from that specific scene, the movie plays like a yakuza flick; not one of Fukasaku's revisionist, nihilist works but one of the classic Takakura Ken ninkyo films. The fetishizing of the tattoo and therefore the body of the gangster, the emphasis on an explicit outlaw code, and the focus on a central character whose essential decency creates problems for him in the life he's chosen: all of this could have come straight out of Shôwa zankyôden.