Monday, May 29, 2023
MOVIE REVIEWS #202: "WOMEN TALKING", "RRR", "THE FABELMANS", "LIVING", "GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY", "MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON", "FIRE OF LOVE" and "THE FIRE WITHIN: A REQUIEM FOR KATIA AND MAURICE KRAFFT"!
I'm debating how much I should or shouldn't say about some of the recent changes many of out favorite entertainment distributors have made in recent months. Part of me wants to bitch and complain about Netflix getting rid of DVDs, right as every other streaming service is starting to get rid of half their streaming content every so often whenever they seem to feel like it, and whatever show we lost in the last ten minutes from some streaming site that just changed it's name to something far stupider than it was before, but honestly, I've lost a lot of the will to fight this fight anymore. I'm warned and complained about stuff like this happening literally since the beginning of this blog well over a decade ago and people thought I was overreacting and nuts then. Well, I could say I told you all so, but I don't even want to give that out. This fight was lost long ago and I've long since adapted to accept changes and stuff like this. I mean, I'll still make fun of HBO or Max, as they've rebranded their streaming service again, mainly because of how stupid their whole thing has been for like the last year, but in terms of this trend towards streaming the monopolization of the material, eh, I'm not surprise and I don't know what you all expect me to add.
Other than to say that, not much is actually getting added that's new onto streaming at the moment anyway. The Writer's Strike is in full effect, and honestly I don't think this one's gonna end any time soon. I'm starting to get a little worried. A lot of the details of streaming especially, are what the writers are fighting for, and let's hope they get it all, 'cause if not, they're not gonna be the only ones fighting in the near future, and don't think that a lot of these recent moves by streaming services to gut a lot of their programming is unrelated. This is a tactic they surely will plan to use in the future and I don't think the Writers can control that ultimately, but while they are streaming the stuff they create, we do have to make sure that while those favorite movies and shows and content are streaming, that the writers of them eventually get paid.
Anyway, let's jus get to the reviews this time; we got a lot to get through.
WOMEN TALKING (2022) Director: Sarah Polley
Before I started writing movie reviews, I used to read movie reviews, a lot of movie reviews. By my estimate I don't think I ever watched a movie without reading, at least, three, minimum reviews of that movie, and usually it was closer to about eight or nine, especially for the bigger features. I know there's a sense nowadays among critics and fans that critical opinions and analyses is a secondary opinion to the film, by that I mean, first you see the movie and then you go and check the reviews of the film to see what the critical consensus is. I tend to disagree with that, entirely, I think the point of film criticism is that the critics job is to inform and possibly protect the public from wasting their valuable time and perhaps more importantly their money on sub-par entertainment. Also, I think good criticism is informative, not just on the quality of the film but whether or not it's a film that you might enjoy even if se critic doesn't and, it gives an idea on what the film is ultimately about so that the subject matter itself doesn't upend you entirely. I bring this up because in recent years, basically since I started this blog, I haven't done this; I felt for some reason that I should not look into a film before writing a review, and you know what, lately, especially with better movies, I feel like that might've been the incorrect approach to writing reviews. I don't think I necessarily should read as much critical reviews per movie I watch as I once did, but lately, I've been lazier than I should and haven't even particularly bothered looking at trailers, or even reading up on movies before I watch them, and-eh, yeah, uh, this is the movie that is going to be the tipping point of changing that strategy for me.
I clearly knew about "Women Talking", it was widely acclaimed, won Sarah Polley a writing Oscar, and got nominated for Best Picture, and I heard it was based on a novel, and it looked kinda like it took place in the same universe as M. Night Shaymalan's "The Village", which, for the record, is definitely where he started to go downhill. And the title, indicated to me that their would be, well, "Women Talking". But yeah, a few minutes into the film, I decided to check out the film's wikipedia page to get of what exactly this film is about that I'm watching, and-eh,
"Women Talking" is a 2022 drama film written and directed by Sarah Polley. Based on the 2018 Canadian novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, itself inspired by the-..." THE WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!?
...Based on the Canadian 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, itself inspired by the gas-facilitated rapes that occurred at the Manitoba Colony, a remote and isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia, the film follows a group of American Mennonite women who discuss their future, following their....
Yeah, this is a fact I wish I had known before starting this film, a review might have been a good informative tool for that! Yeah, I gotta get back to reading reviews, at least before I watch a movie.
So, I know about some Mennonite Communities in America and Canada, but I didn't realize that they were way more common throughout and that their were some that went all the way south to places like Bolivia. That colony also originated in Canada and Mexico and only recently moved down to Bolivia, which seems very sketchy to me to begin with, but apparently in this community, some men in the colony began a practice of constantly sedating and raping the females, for years, by sedating their entire household using a veterinarian anesthetic. Looking into it further...- actually you don't want to look into it further; it just gets more disturbing than you can imagine. Much more disturbing....
The movie, "Women Talking", thankfully, evades outright depicting these incidents explicitly, although they show enough of the effects. It instead, takes place, after the reveal of such events, after two young men were caught in the act and eventually several of the men have been arrested and sent away, however, a bail hearing is about to happen and the men of the community have left for a couple days in order to oversee it, and perhaps return the men to the community. With the women split on what to do now, "Women Talking" is about the more outspoken women in the community discussing what exactly they should do now. Some want to forgive the attackers, as their teachings have generally taught, others want to fight the leaders, some even insisting on fighting them and possibly somehow evoking an entirely new power structure to the community, full revolution in fact. Others are simply believing that they must leave the community and try their luck on the outside world. That idea might seem the most logical on the surface, but this is a Menonite community and the women aren't taught to read or write, only the men have that privilege, and one of the few men in the community that's remained, a schoolteacher named August (Ben Whishaw) is kept around to record the minutes for prosperity, is from an excommunicated family and is often noted as being a failed farmer before being noted as a teacher. Being the only person who can read or write, he also has a college degree and is therefore the only person with some knowledge of the outside world.
There are some really strong performances here. Ironically, most of the awards for the acting, outside of Ensemble awards went to the one prominent male actor in the film, Ben Whishaw and he is good here, but I'd single out Jessie Buckley in particular. Rooney Mara and Claire Foy, the second and third best actors to portray Lisbeth Salander, are also really strong here. August Winter as the trans Melvin, who helps with the children, but because of his trans status is still ostracized from the meeting is also a pretty interesting performance here in a limited role, but honestly, I don't want to go too much into the details of the discussions and revelations that are revealed through the meetings. For one thing, the revelations are the movie essentially, this is a story that gets told through the discussions and those are best left secret, but also, The more interesting aspects of the meeting and discussion, isn't as much the literal as it is the metaphorical.
That's fairly obvious as well, but you could also look as the film not so much as a women deciding to leave a literal repressive community as it is a commentary on women's role in society at large and how honestly difficult and indecisive the struggles and choices made to progress actually are. History's often written with the broad strokes, but it's also reductive and a lot of times those broad strokes get written or told as though the events were inevitable, when in reality, not only were they usually not, but they were also heavily debated and argued about, even within the groups that are doing the progressive act. The obvious example that most Americans learn about is the American Revolution, even with as much as we have probably incorrectly idolized and deified our founding fathers, we still discuss and analyze just how much they disagreed and argued on almost every detail about the founding of our country, but similar frustrating arguments and disagreements happened throughout the advancements of all the major women's rights and feminism movements. And modern society, for all-intensive purposes is male-centric and male-dominant and there are people who do not like or accept the notion that it's a problem that should be alleviated.
I'll be blunt, if you look more into these Menonite societies, and some of the very disturbing events like the ones that happen in "Women Talking", especially the ones that have migrated over-the-years down to places like South America, it becomes more and more clear that these communities exist almost for the sole reason for the men to exert dominance and control over women, for whatever gains that involves. Keep them uneducated, keep them subservient, make them believe that men, males are the leaders and the holy ones who speak for God,... like, it's a practice that in the old days, it might've been actually beneficial but to then reject progressive technology, even modern languages, in order to keep that order, that's just exercising and keeping dominance and control. Frankly, I'm now skeptical of all of them after watching this movie and looking more into them with what little I can find; peoples who insist on hiding their lives from the rest of the world in such a way, definitely makes you wonder what ills they're actually hiding.
Perhaps that's why I'd prefer to read the film metaphorically; the movie is more interesting and inspirational when you take the synecdoche of the situation and look at it as, the struggle and ultimate victory of females breaking the walls of a society that has essentially just ostracized them. The movie is based on a novel from Canadian author Miriam Toews and she's written about her Menonite upbringing and past before, and some of her work's been adapted into features before. Sarah Polley started as an actress before switching over to directing but hasn't made a feature since her autobiographical documentary "Stories We Tell". I've liked all her features and while she's been politically active for years this is definitely her most political and darkest film by a mile. "Women Talking" is a movie that shows how and why sticking to the old constructs of society at a modern age is both foolhardy, horrifying and can become a breeding ground for all the worst of male actors to use their supposedly god-given preference over females. Breaking through the patriarchal pasts and traditions can be difficult and shouldn't be forgotten, and the struggles of coming to that realization are difficult no matter the circumstance and "Women Talking" shows that better than most. It shows both it's difficulties, but also how, it can indeed become a birth of a better future.
RRR (2022) Director: S.S. Rajamouli
I don't think I get "RRR". That's okay, and I wasn't expecting to fully get it. Indian cinema and history, is definitely my absolute biggest blind spot. Every time I watch an Indian film, I feel like I need like, half a degree in Indian History and Culture just to fully get it. In this case, I actually do need a partial history lesson, but then again maybe that's 'cause this film is actually one of the trickier literary genres to turn into a film, historical-fiction.
Historical-fiction is a strange genre. In my mind, I think of the genre as more of a narrative that takes place during and is about some famous historical events but it's usually from the perspective of fictional characters who are more often than not portrayed as minor players or even sidelines players to the more larger historical conflict. Which makes sense, if you're going for historical accuracy, we know certain things that did indeed happen and trying to stray too much from that can be daunting if not counterproductive. In my mind, at least with American literature, and relating to American history, the big examples I think of are "Johnny Tremain" about a teenager in the colonies during the early years of the Revolutionary War, and the novels of John Jakes, particularly his "North and South" series, which spreads over three books dealing with events before, during and after the Civil War. They're more straight-forward historical-fiction, and like most historical fiction, they work better in books than in movies.
There's exceptions though. Although, they're usually more cerebral. I had a professor who once made a short film that was just Charles Darwin having a conversation with Sigmund Freud. That's historical-fiction as well technically, and that's the kind of historical fiction I like to think of, but there has a been trend of taking that simple idea, and expanding it to, well, not essentially reinvent or reinterpret history, although, yeah, sometimes they do that, Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" are probably the most noteworthy examples, especially in film, but from what I understand "RRR" also fits in this mold.
Essentially "RRR" which stands for "Rise Roar Revolt", takes two important figures from India's revolutionary past, and imagines a scenario where they meet and eventually combine their skills and talents to fight off the British Raj and sustain India's Independence. I think. Okay, maybe not win all of independence, but they definitely won this battle. The first figure is, Komaram Bheem (NTR) lionized symbol of the Gond Rebellion, and revolutionary leader of the Hyderabad State of British India, and his actions and leadership eventually lead to Indian independence. He also coined the phrase, "Jal, Jangal, Zameen" which, translated from Telugu means, "Water, Forest, Land", which explains why parts of "RRR" are separated into similarly named sections. The second figure is Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan Teja), sannyasin to the Tribal Peoples of Madras, and leader of the Rampa Rebellion of 1922, where he raided several police stations to acquire firearms for the Rebellion, which lasted three years until he was killed during the battle.
Now, these two revolutionaries never met in real life, but "RRR" imagines a scenario where they do. So, I guess, this is kinda like...- honestly, I don't know what to compare this too in America; the nearest I can imagine is if they made a movie where Martin Luther King and Malcolm X came together to eliminate J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, but I doubt that's truly an apt comparison, but it's the closest I can think of. Not that it matters, 'cause while this movie also starts in historical-fantasy, it also doesn't pretend to exist in the real world.
The actions sequences in this movie,- well, the only way I can describe them is that they seem like they're from a video game. The opening scene show Raju, working as a pseudo-sorta double-agent for the Crown, is able to single-handedly able to hold off an entire rebellion on the Crown, which in this film is most represented by Governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his wife Catherine (Alison Doody). Catherine, while travelling through the forest, kidnaps/buys a child from a local tribe, and has her mother killed. Bheem, acting as the Tribe's guardian, is the one lead to the search and army to retrieve the girl and bring her back to their Tribe. He also, has video game like action powers, although he also is slightly more romantic as he's able to get into the Crown through wooing Scott's niece, Jenny (Olivia Morris).
Raju and Bheem meet during a revolutionary meeting, Raja is undercover, but they come together to save a child from a train, disaster I think...- Honestly, most of the action sequence I really kinda just tuned out on. I know this style is popular in Indian cinema, and particularly with this director, S.S. Rajamouli. I have heard of him, his "Baahubali" films have been stuck on my Netflix DVD queue, which is probably gonna turn into my GameFly DVD queue in a few months.... (Ahem, NETFLIX! [Double middle finger] You better at least start doubling and tripling your streaming options, and soon!) and, yeah, he seems to love these large, massive, action period epics. He reminds me of Cecil B. DeMille in his exuberance and bombast, but his action style is, just a little over-the-top too often for me. I enjoy it enough though. I liked how during the climatic battle sequence at the end, one of their tactics was to shoot bow-and-arrows with triggered hand grenades on them; I have no idea whether that's an accurate tactic or not, but I thought that was cool and clever.
I still feel like I'm missing a lot of the context though. You see, the point of historical-fiction like this, is to take a piece of history and recontextualize it. That's why "Inglorious Basterds" works so well, it's playing against dozens of other similar true stories and fictional tales about World War II and the history of what happens to the Nazi leaders and regime; Tarantino's breaking of that history is a personalization of the narrative as much as a recapturing of it. I don't know if this film is recapturing a narrative or breaking with a history though. From what I can tell and read, I feel like, this movie is like a fun adventure video game where two of the main characters happen to be these important figures in the Indian Revolution. It's almost like that example of MLK and Malcolm X I gave earlier, but they're also both superheroes, and you probably know already on how much I'm not big on superheroes coming together.... That said, this isn't that atrocious. This isn't a terrible movie; it's a long and inconsistent epic, but honestly that's most of the most popular Indian films from what I can tell. This isn't a Bollywood movie, since it's based in the Tulugu Province, it's actually a Tollywood film, but you can definitely see the inspiration of the traditional Bollywood narratives all over it. I did like the musical numbers, especially that Oscar-winning "Naatu Naatu"; that damn song is catchy. And, I don't think the songs stopped that action like other Bollywood songs can do, but I do think the action sequences were the least interesting part and did stop a lot of the forward momentum.
I also just, don't know what exactly I'm supposed to take out of it. It's clearly not for me, and not just because the British villain characters are stunningly one-note and mind-numbingly vicious to the point of exaggeration, although I do appreciate how the bullet motif eventually comes around. I don't think that portrayal is entirely inaccurate, but it does make this film just seem simple. Everything about this seems simple in fact. Children are the MaGuffin and what brings these characters together, The Crown are just violent, pompous colonialist overthrowers, and the Indian character heroes are just better at kicking ass than everyone else, so they win. After looking up a few interviews with Rajamouli, I'm wondering if I want to fully understand the meanings and purposes of this film, I suspect that not all the symbolism is as well-meaning and intended as it may seem on the surface. Wouldn't you think though that, bringing together two important figures in the Indian Revolution like this, from different areas and regions and whatnot, would lead to, some-, maybe not as deep as say, what we get in a movie like Regina King's "One Night in Miami...", but something a little more nuanced, philosophical, depthful....? I feel like bringing characters like these figures together, would make the conversations between them the most interesting parts of the movie, not the parts that are the most glossed over and simplified.
Still though, as entertainment it's harmless enough. I enjoyed it for what I got out of it, and I suspect that's what most people are getting out of it. I can appreciate the craft and skill it clearly took to make this film. I doubt it's power, but it's fine.
THE FABELMANS (2022) Director: Steven Spielberg
(Imitating the late, great James Lipton)
And once again, we have come to the predominant theme of our series, family dysfunction, and parental separation.
Actually that's something that we probably don't give Steven Spielberg nearly enough credit for. It's a bit of a running gag now through his films, but how often did we actually have stories, in any media really, and especially film, where parental separation was a major theme, prior to him? I'm sure it'd come up occasionally for a film here-or-there, but in terms of it being something of a common theme of the filmmaker, the only filmmaker before him that comes to my mind that's somewhat regularly analyzed through the lens of parental separation is Walt Disney, and even then I'd be stretching it; Disney talked about parental separation, mostly through death, and even then, it was stories painted in the lights and colors of a fairy tale the majority of the time. Of course, divorce wasn't nearly as common as it is now, or even frankly back in Spielberg's youth, and the fact that he became such an established filmmaker at such a young age, meant that not only was it fresh on his mind, but he was unusually talented technically and acute enough mentally to actually dive into it, accurately. He really was the filmmaker who brought out these ideas of having to be an emotional and literal witness to seeing your family falling apart, and still having to go out and struggle to live your own life, and he did a lot of this, right at the time when many kids and families were themselves starting to go through divorces. Perhaps it's less of a coincidence that Spielberg's peaks of stories like "The Sugarland Express", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", "E.T....", and others, was also the peak of all those damn after-school special programs that almost all seemed to be about the struggle of kids going through a divorce.
BTW, out of curiosity, after watching "The Fabelmans", Spielberg's most personal and autobiographical, apparently, story to date, I actually did go back and watch his episode of "Inside the Actors' Studio"; it was difficult to find, so I won't say how I found a copy, (And somebody ought to find a way to make more episodes of that series available everywhere, btw, we're really missing a huge treasure trove of material, and even then, I could only find half the episode) but I actually didn't realize until now, just how coy he was on the exact details of his parents' divorce. I guess most people aren't specific-specific in interview situations like those, especially ones taped for two-hour TV broadcasts and all, but I guess since it has become such a huge part of Spielberg's mythos over the decade, it's actually kinda surprising how little he's actually gone into exact details about it, at least until now. So, in that sense, this movie was inevitable.
It's so inevitable and the Spielberg narrative and mythos is so infamous, that part of me is trying desperately to not point out all the obvious details that I've known for years and/or to discuss or debunk some of the stories and their accuracies. Interestingly, probably the most infamous origin story of Spielberg that's still constantly debated is whether or not young 19-year-old Spielberg actually did jump off a Universal tour bus, talked his way into getting a 3-day pass, and then kept showing up on Day 4 onward without the pass, and took an empty office and just acted like he worked there and had a job as he kept himself around the lot until he got actual work. I've spent film classes where we actually debated over whether or not it actually happened or could've happened back in those days. If anybody's ever seen the Dutch documentary, "Climbing Spielberg", you'll see an experiment of a few people trying to do this now, and obviously failing as security details and technology make attempting such an act on Universal's lots impossible now. I do like the story he instead replaces with it, another true story that happened to him when he was 15, where he got to meet John Ford (I'm not revealing who played him, but it's genius casting). This story gets shifted up to when he's nineteen, as the horizon line falls pushes downframe. It's a cool ending.
The rest of the movie, is also, just great. I don't know quite how great it is within Spielberg's filmography; I mean, everything he makes is at least competently made and almost all of it is watchable, even his worst film "Ready Player One", is about a good a film as anybody could've made out of that material. And it's hard to even discuss it within his oeuvre, 'cause on some level, it feels like a lot of his greatest hits. Go down the list of the things you expect in a Spielberg movie and you'll find almost all of them here except for maybe aliens. And actually even then, you can argue a few of the side characters do indeed feel like aliens. Judd Hirsch got an Oscar nomination for Uncle Boris, in what's essentially a cameo, but like Spielberg's real uncle, who he only met twice in his life, he was this bull of a man who toured with Ringling Brothers as a lion tamer. He was the black sheep of the family, and seems like a complete stop to the movie, but must've also been like a strange diversion to a young Steven as well, like someone coming from another world. Or, the first girlfriend character, Monica (Chloe Webb) in the film, a Catholic at his California high school, where he is the only Jewish kid, and apparently is infatuated with Steven, Jews and Jesus, not in that order, but also, weirdly together.... There's a lot weird with this that,- I've tweeted and discussed it on FB a bit, already with others, but it's probably better to just see it for yourself, and the only other thing I'll add is that, the relationship occurs when he's in the middle of his parents, divorce.
I really shouldn't be using Steven's name so much, even though "Fabelmans" is basically another word for "Spielberg", and I mean literally, Spielberg means "Play Mountain", play as in speech, performance, storyteller, oddly enough, also just play, but yeah, "Story Mountain" or "Story Man", while it's definitely an adaptation of his life, it's not hiding it's inspiration. The film also marks the first time he got an Oscar nomination as a screenwriter along with his friend and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, which is one of those weird Spielberg facts that both makes sense and yet still sounds wrong. (Like, I know he doesn't usually write but like, how did he not get nominated for writing "Close Encounters..." at least?) But yeah, "The Fabelmans" is technically the story of Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) and about him growing up and getting swept up in the world of moviemaking, and as a happy youth, and then getting swept down to Earth after his parents, Burt and Mitzi (Paul Dano and Oscar-nominee Michelle Williams) marriage begins and continues to devolve. Steven does talk about a critical year and a half of his life where he struggled to make movies in high school after moving to California, but even before then, he realized that his father's best friend and co-worker Benny (Seth Rogen) and his friend were a little closer than they should've been. If you know that's coming up, which, honestly I wouldn't have if it wasn't spoiled for me (Not because I didn't know this about Spielberg's background, but mainly because I forgot about it; like I said, he's not always talked explicitly about the details of this period of his life), than you'll start seeing the clues a mile away. Of course, I'm not a kid, or somebody in denial, or both.
Other than that, what I'm basically grading this film on is how good a telling of someone's own life is told by them. I mean, what am I gonna say, somehow wish Spielberg's childhood and experiences were different than mine? I could dwell on just how lucky his upbringing was, a son of an eccentric artistic concert pianist who once bought a monkey and a groundbreaking computer electronics engineer who patented and influenced top-of-the-line technology for decades who naturally happened to be able to get ahold of an 8mm camera and get him a state-of-the-art Lionel train set. No, that'd be dumb. And it'd just be as dumb to dismiss the film as a therapy movie from him, on that basis, like half his films could be some kind of therapy movies for him since he's never been subtle with his themes and motifs and his upbringing has always been apart of his motifs. So, yeah, how good is Spielberg telling his own life story? Well, it's Spielberg, so he gets an A+. Spielberg could tell the life story of an amoeba and get an Oscar nomination for Best Director for it, and he would be deserving of it. It's by far, from here on in, gonna be listed now as his most personal film; now where's it gonna rank or get placed within his oeuvre, how's it ultimately gonna rank among his films...? That, I have no idea. I almost wonder if the movie's gonna get separated out from his works, like the way "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" is generally separated out as nobody can figure out if it fits better in Spielberg's works or if it's an extension of Kubrick's message from the beyond. "The Fabelmans" feels that different, just in the, too personal direction. I almost feel bad trying to catalog it; hell, it makes me feel bad for trying to catalog and compartmentalize any of Spielberg's works. How do you determine that something like, separate the more action/sci-fi stuff with the more emotional personal stuff, with the more historical and often Jewish background stuff,...- all this tells us is that Spielberg's been around long enough and made enough movies, and great movies at that, that we are able to make so many distinguishes between them. "The Fabelmans" biggest legacy is probably as a reminder that so many different eye-opening ideas and visions can indeed come from the same source and this film is just, him showing us why and how. Of course, while doing so, baring his soul, which he's really always done, but probably never as much as with this film.
LIVING (2022) Director: Oliver Hermanus
I'm honestly surprised that this hasn't been done before. I'm also surprised that it works this well, although honestly that shouldn't surprise me. "Living" startled me at first, just with it's opening sequence. It's hard to fully explain but it feels like an opening out of some older movie, like one from the forties or fifties, but I can't pinpoint exactly what film that reminds me of. Although I certainly know the movie that it's based on.
Perhaps that was to it's detriment though. "Living" is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's film "Ikiru", and for the most part, if you've seen the original film, than the beats of the movie won't be surprising to you. Also, if you've seen the film, you know how much of a large and difficult shadow that is to overcome. "Ikiru", which translates to "To Live" is a goddamn masterpiece, arguably the Japanese master's best film; recently when I decided to publish what would've been my picks for the Ten Best Films ever, in accordance with "Sight & Sound"'s recent poll, "Ikiru" made my list. I didn't talk much about it then, but I later posted a Canon of Film blog on "Ikiru" earlier, but to paraphrase, it's just this beautiful, haunting poetic film about dealing with one's inevitable and upcoming mortality. Anyway, the point I'm making is that, this movie will inevitably get compared to "Ikiru", and frankly, well,- well, while I'm surprised there hasn't been too many western remakes, I kinda get why there haven't been; it's just one of those movies that's just too good to remake. It's too sad, beautiful, perfect. I can't think of it without crying. I doubted whether I would cry for this film.
Well, eventually I did. Bill Nighy, in an Oscar-nominated role, shockingly, his first, plays a sly, drab Public Works employee who mostly pushes paper around and sends them off from one department to another as oppose to helping to get things done. Then, he finds out that he's dying, and only has a few months to live. At first, he tries to tell his son Michael (Barney Fishwick) but he's busy with his life with his wife Fiona (Patsy Ferran) and realizes he's become more of a burden on them than anything else. One change is that, we get to see occasional flashbacks and glimpses from the Williams's (Nighy) past. Like, how he hears a call for him from his son, and gets up startled, not realizing he's just being asked to lock the door for them.
He also considers suicide, even buying sleeping pills and pulling out much of his life savings, which isn't in the original. He ends up going against that idea, but realizing how little of life's more exuberances he's had, he does take up an amnesiac writer's, Mr. Sutherland (Tom Burke) offer on spending a night on the town with him. It at first seems awkward for him, but he appreciates it ultimately.
He does end up connecting with a much younger woman, in this case a former employee of his, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), who left working at the Public Works to take a supposedly promising waitressing job. They spend some time together, and while their relationship is nowhere near romantic, sometimes it does take the inspiration of youth to realize and inspire a next move.
Eventually, he comes around to getting that playground request through, although it's sorta indicated early on that he must've felt somewhat inspired in that respect beforehand, as per this film's version that famous montage of the women going from department-to-department all through the government, he insists on a newcomer to the office, Mr. Wakeling (Alex Sharp) accompany them through the process until it ends up back in front of his desk, to eventually put to the side. That's a new addition, but it might actually be an improvement. Without giving too much away, it's Wakeling who is eventually inspired, somewhat from Williams's inevitable passing, and is ultimately the one who pieces together the secret of his changes in his last few months, but also finds out about Williams's own path of discovery and happiness, ending with, yes, that final image of a story of our late hero, singing joyously late at night, swinging in the snow, staring up into the stars.
That's when "Living" really got me. It's hard to be shocked by a story so heartbreakingly sad that it's made even the most harshest of filmgoers cry their eyes out for 70 years, but I'll be damn, at the end, I was indeed tearing up. Don't think it's just the fact that this is a remake of a universal tale, it's a damn great interpretation, filled with first-class acting, especially by Nighy, and gorgeous, period filmmaking. "Living" takes place in an older time period, but it also aims to feel like an older film, one that's been around as long as the original has, and yet, seems just as unique to the United Kingdom and the Western world as "Ikiru" feels to Japan and the East.
The film was directed by Oliver Hermanus, who made a powerful gay romance feature, "Moffie" about two apartheid-era white South African soldiers who discover their feelings for each other in probably the worst time and place they could. That movie kinda got buried in the pandemic, even after it got loads of acclaim on the indy circuits, but it definitely shows how capable he is of telling interesting emotionally-complex tales with complex characters struggling to handle their feelings. "Living" fits right in his alley, and the Japanese-born British Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro is a perfect choice to make this wonderful adaptation. He's the writer behind such works as "The Remains of the Day", which he wrote the screenplay for the wonderful and severely underrated Merchant-Ivory film. He was familiar with the original, and clearly had the instincts of Kurosawa, but he used his sensibilities to make the movie quintessentially low-key and British in it's approach. Most western adaptations of Eastern cinemas try to play everything up, it's almost like he knew how to play everything down, but kept in the emotional subtle details that give the story power.
It's hard for me to put "Living" right up their next to the film it was inspired by in terms of greatness, but it achieves it's own kind of splendid greatness. It knew not to try to mimic the beauty of the original so much as to find it's own kind of beauty and lean into that. It's makes the story almost feel more awe-inspiring in that way. It's easy to get those to remember you who are most devoted to you, but "Living" ends with a note of how Williams was inspiring to one who wasn't inherently devoted to him and his work, and that's arguably a preferable ending in my mind. Hell, that's just art really, getting those to feel for that which has no direct personal connection to them? Is that all that we want to leave the Earth on, knowing that something we create and exist, will inevitably be remembered for their contribution to it? No wonder he's singing at the end.
GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) Director: Rian Johnson
Oh, I don't normally look forward to sequels, but I was looking forward to this one. "Knives Out" made my Ten Best List when it came out and frankly it's the most fun movie I've seen in recent years; I fucking loved it. Not just because I love a great murder mystery story and "Knives Out" licked the scenery which so much absurd, audachuberance that I couldn't help but just sink my teeth into it, but also because I finally felt like I was back to getting Rian Johnson in the genre that he loved.
Whenever I hear Rian Johnson's name brought up these days, most everybody seemed to associate him with the fact that he made a "Star Wars" movie. I've seen stuff like that happen to a lot of good and great directors recently, as though you're only judged by the big franchise blockbuster you made as oppose to everything else they made. But I remember when Rian Johnson first broke out and he didn't break out with a "Star Wars" movie. He broke out with a film noir mystery, a little independent film called "Brick". It took place and surrounded a world of high school kids, but it was a cool little film noir, was one of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's first big leading roles before he really started to break out. And he followed up with a couple other movies that were essentially homages to older-style classic genres. "The Brothers Bloom" never impressed me much, but it was a classic con movie. Even "Looper" was a clever sci-fi film that felt more like a sci-fi film from decades earlier, and they were smart movies too; they weren't just films full of idiots playing out the conventions of the genre. Clearly though, I thought he loved the film noir mystery aesthetic the best, and he's been proving that recently.
"Knives Out" felt like, he wasn't just going back to his roots, but that he had enough clout and money to make the film he really wanted to make and go all out with it. The best murder mysteries are never about who the killer(s) are anyway, they're always about the process and journey through the worlds the characters have to go through to get to the solution.
So, now we have a sequel to "Knives Out",- well, not so much a "sequel" per se, it's just another Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) mystery. Blanc was the wonderful detective in the first film, and now, him, and a strangely eclectic bunch of, well, they call themselves "Disrupters" are invited to the Mediterranean island home of crypto tech billionaire influencer Miles Bron (Edward Norton, in a role that I have to imagine had to be a little inspired by Elon Musk). His island home which is guarded by Banksy statues at low tide, run on Hydrogen energy and has a giant mansion filled with a giant "Glass Onion" structure in the middle. Why a "Glass Onion"? Well, it was the name of the bar that he and the group of disruptors used to meet at before they all made in big in their respective fields. Each of them has arrived by invitation from Bron for an elaborate murder-mystery plot.
I don't care how stupid it is or how it's always stupid, I love the murder-mystery game night actually turning into a murder-mystery plotline. And yes, eccentric island filled with the absurdly rich and elite that's blocked off from society and no one outside can reach it for hours, all it's missing is an Agatha Christie detective. (Well, there is a cameo from the late great Angela Lansbury, so I guess that could do. Steven Sondheim is there in both their in their last films. Actually, there's a lot of subtle great cameos in this film.)
I don't think most people understand how genuinely hard it is to write these kinds of murder-mysteries; I'd tried to do this genre a few times, and you really have to write it out ahead of time and get everything prepared. I think modern audiences have mostly been spoiled with such an abundance of cops and detective shows that have littered the television airways for decades. Hell, I just saw a trailer for a new "Matlock" lawyer series that weirdly makes note of how little it actually has to do with "Matlock" other than it being a show with lawyers and having the same name as the old show.... (Sidenote: As somebody who actually has seen and knows everything about the original "Matlock", I am fascinated and utterly confused by that trailer and that series) That said, this is not an easy genre to write, and this one is by far, one of the absolute best and genuinely one of the dumbest ones I've ever seen; I love it all!
It's even weird enough to take place during the pandemic and pulls that off brilliantly. I love that the dimwitted Kate Hudson, a trust-fund baby fashion model who's remade her career making a killing on sweatpants, character wears one of those masks that's made of mesh so people can see her face, that she only wears outside and not inside during her party. Hudson and Norton are great, so is Kathryn Hahn as a rebellious Connecticut Governor running for Senate. Dave Bautista's got a nice role here as a Twitch streamer who's trying to morph into a Men's Rights activist as well. The real standout and I won't give away why is Janelle Monae and a former partner of Miles who's sudden appearance on the island stuns everybody as she normally doesn't go on these regular Bron retreats of his. I'll admit, for about the half the movie I was wondering why everybody was giving her so much credit for her work in the film, but kinda just like how unassuming Ana De Armas's role in "Knives Out" only becomes more fulfilling as the movie continues on, Monae's work gets better the more the mystery gets revealed.
I also have to say, I like how Johnson reveals these stories. There's a few different ways that these kinda murder-mysteries can be told, although usually the best and most simplest way to tell them is to have the detective summation of the killer at the end, but in both these films, Johnson has found ways of both subverting that trend and also completely twisting the storytelling; these films are not linear, but they're not linear storytelling for a reason. We don't get all the information to solve the case ourselves at first, we get the information at the best moment it matters for us to have that information revealed to us, and it often means that we're often way more out of the loop than we are for even the best and most normal whodunit mysteries. I like how that keeps you us on our toes, and it often allows us to buy into, some of the more outlandish developments. Like how, and I won't give it away, a hot sauce owned by Jeremy Renner becomes a key factor in helping to solve the mystery.
"Glass Onion..." is probably not technically as good as "Knives Out", but it's still just too much fun to dismiss. I love these twists and turns, acerbic wit and details. I think sometimes even the best detective stories in recent years, forget just how much fun they can be and how the genre is often so much better when it is fun. I think we forget that, and I'm glad Rian Johnson doesn't. Definitely the two most fun movie experiences I've had in the last years, are the two Benoit Blanc movies.
MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON (2022) Director: Dean Fleischer-Camp
(Startled look on dumb face)
What in the hell, am I watching?
Okay, I don't know what I expected with a film called "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On", but-eh,... um...-
I'm kinda at a lost for words here. Normally I like it when I see things onscreen or in movies that, I haven't seen before and are really new and original, but this is-eh,- wow, this might be a little too out there for me. At least, me personally, I'll analyze the film itself in a minute.
Actually, real talk right now, it's not just the, no pun intended, the eye-opening nature of the film, the-eh, story's kinda getting to me a bit at the moment, 'cause frankly, it's-eh,... well, I hate to say that a movie about a talking, um, shell, is literally hitting a little too close to home for me but it actually is, so part of me just, doesn't even want to review this film because I fear diving into certain raw feelings and emotions that this film triggers in me. Then again, it's a movie about a talking shell, that, is-, like, it's definitely an animated film, but the way it's mixing media is striking. Like, clearly this is stop-motion but even most stop-motion movies exist an a world that also is clearly animated, and "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" exists,- like, seemingly in a contemporary modern world. Honestly, that's kinda more frightening; this might be one time where I'm wishing that the movie created more of a fantasy world for this character to exist in. Actually, what is this character,- I need to google search this.
Huh, from 2014...? Alright Ellen, help me out.
Oh, I think I do remember hearing about this before, but I don't think I watched any of those shorts. That's probably why this is so surreal to me. Having now gone back to watch them, they're kinda cute. And I definitely get that feeling, of, just seeming so small; I like that thought thought and trying to survive in that world. I don't think I ever thought of myself as a tiny shell, but- y'know what, maybe I have, metaphorically. Something that covers you up to protect you, that does feel like something I would've done. Still, these feel like, very small, quaint little shorts; I could easily imagine Marcel, as like, some kind of character you'd find in like a commercial for some kind of insurance company or something.
A feature-length film though, that's a trickier proposition. Marcel, (Jenny Slate, who created the character) is a shell, with shoes on. Not in a shell world, in our world, and living in a house that turns out to be a big AirBnB house, means that, on top of some of the regular struggles of, just surviving as a one-inch shell in a world full of full-grown humans, they also have to survive in a world where they don't have humans around, and are all alone.
Well, when I say "They", it's mostly Marcel, although he does have his grandma, Connie (Isabella Rossellini), an old shell that Marcel helps take care of in her old age. There used to be more of them, but right now it's just Marcel and Connie.
And Dean (Dean Fleishcer-Camp, the film's director and Slate's real-life husband) who, I guess, discovered Marcel while staying at the AirBnB house and decided to pull out his camera and make Marcel the subject of his videos.
Yeah, "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" is that rare mixed media mockumentary feature. I honestly can't think of too many other films that fit this description. As to the story the film tells, well, I guess I enjoy it, but I kinda think it was a little inevitable, which I ultimately find disappointing. I mean, there's only so much you can do with a tale of a lonely shell. I didn't think Lesley Stahl would come into play, but other than that, it was told about what you'd expect, and that for me, made it difficult to watch. I want to be clear, it's not because of the execution, the movie does this as well as it could, it's the way that, I found, hard-to-deal with and frankly that's more of a personal thing than an issue with the film itself.
Other than that, I do like using animation like this, to see the worlds of people, or in this case, shells, and how different they are from us, and I like that contrast between the two worlds and to the film's credit, they do find a lot of good ways to examine that as much as they could. I'm not entirely crazy about it all, because some of it's just irksome to me, but Marcel does make a lot of the cringy parts more tolerable. Also, I'm a sucker for a great use of an Eagles song, and there's a wonderfully sad moment where Marcel sings "Peaceful Easy Feeling" at the end. Yeah, I can't help it, this movie works. It's quirky and weird, and I think I prefer the shorts for this character, but yeah, I still like how I get taken in by "Marcel...". Can't help it; I know what it's like to feel small and alone sometimes, whether you're actually alone or you're surrounded by your loving community of shells.
FIRE OF LOVE (2022) Director: Sara Dosa
"Fire of Love" is a meditative journey through the lives of the volcanologist couple Maurice, Katia and Maurice Krafft. They were freelance volcanologists who traveled the world studying the most active volcanoes they could, and tended to fund their studies through filmmaking, often grabbing some of the most shocking and harrowing images of volcanic imagery. They funded their studies through their films and Maurice's books and speaking tours in particular. The movie focuses mainly on their love story, although it does go into some details of their adventures, like how Maurice was annoyed at missing Mt. St. Helen's implosion, but also how they constantly campaigned in Columbia to evacuate the area surrounding the Nevada Del Ruiz explosion, and how when they didn't, it lead to one of the most catastrophic death tolls a volcano's ever produced. Katia barely survived that one.
Now, my initial instincts watching this film is that, it's okay, but it's basically a Werner Herzog documentary. In fact, the film I was most thinking of watching this film was "Grizzly Man", the great Herzog documentary about Timothy Treadwell activist who went on to live amongst the grizzly bears until he and his girlfriend were killed by them. This movie isn't so fascinated with the man vs. nature fascination and dynamics, but yeah, essentially this film is just a Herzog film; even Miranda July, her narrating is basically doing her best Herzog impression. It kinda makes sense, July and Herzog are actually kinda similar kinds of weirdos. Still, I'm a little surprised Herzog didn't make a movie first.
Except he did....
Huh... Is this film streaming anywhere....
Okay, you know what, change-of-plans, this is gonna be a double review. I don't think I've done one of these in a while, and usually it's because I have to suddenly have to watch a movie before I watch some sequel that got huge, but why not do it this way, let's compare these films.
THE FIRE WITHIN: A REQUIEM FOR KATIA AND MAURICE KRAFFT (2022) Director: Werner Herzog
Herzog's film's better.
Well, I could end both reviews here honestly, but it's not like I think either film is great per se, but I personally just found Herzog's telling of the story more compelling. It focuses much more on, what you would expect, the power and destructiveness of the volcanoes they "researched". That's the thing that's kinda alluded to in "Fire of Love", but not entirely explicit but at a certain point, they basically weren't scientists anymore, they were just filmmakers. Herzog even makes the obvious comparison to Jacques Cousteau, which is what Maurice thought of himself as. Both Herzog and "Fire of Love"'s director Sara Dosa had rights to the Kraffts' footage, although apparently she had more, although some footage is used in both, and I do like how both of them used it. Dosa's a little better in some respects here, 'cause she actually does shows some of the more obviously contrived and arbitrary footage of the Kraffts basically just shooting home movie stuff that happens to be around a volcano. Even their official stuff is kinda odd.
Werner makes a proper declaration about how ridiculous some of the "protective" outfits that they wore were. I also like how his narration is more able to emphasize and add to the footage in ways that July's more-or-less, floats over most of the footage. It's a preference thing, July's tone is slightly more cerebral and elegiac, I guess if you prefer that than "Fire of Love" might be more preferable. Personally, I like Herzog's film better. It feels like Herzog gets the full scope of the Kraffts and their accomplishments and legacy while "Fire of Love" struggles to bring them up to some higher plain, and frankly I just don't think they rise to that level. I get why they're fascinating to both of these filmmakers, especially for Herzog whose whole career is seeing the constant fight between man and nature, and I kinda get Sosa's desire to take a Herzog-like subject and style and try to tell a different kind of tale. Again, I'm not either of these are great, but I definitely liked one more than the other.
Little surprised so many people have drifted more towards Sosa's film though; granted the Academy has always kinda dismissed Herzog, but I don't know how they thought enough of this film to nominate it for Documentary Feature. Honestly, the one other film I thought a bit about watching "Fire of Love" was Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive" a romance about vampire lovers who struggle to keep their identity hidden and romance together through centuries. I've seen some people list that film as one of the most romantic of all-time; I don't know if I agree with that analysis either, but I think that same instinct is what propelled people to enjoy "Fire of Love" more. I didn't really get that instinct in "Only Lovers Left Alive" though, and I don't really get it here.
Posted by David Baruffi at 12:16 PM
Tuesday, May 9, 2023
Screenplay:Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni
Screenplay:Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni
An old man, Watanabe-san (Takashi Shimura), we are informed will die soon, unaware at the time, he has stomach cancer. He works as the Chief of Public Affairs at City Hall. His job is to stamp paper, and inform the public who comes to the department with a complaint, which department to go see about their complaint. In one amazing sequence, we see one such complaint go through dozens of sections of the government until it ends up back at the Public Affairs desk, which naturally sends the complaint over again. Eventually, to the surprise of everybody, especially his co-workers, he’s not in work one day. He’s in the hospital and he finds out about his illness and that he has less than a year to live. (Not from the Doctor curiously enough, which was actually customary in Japan not to inform people of terminal illnesses.)
I've been thinking a lot about "Ikiru" lately. It's probably the Kurosawa movie that I think about the most in fact. Recently, when Sight & Sound completed their decennial Top Ten Poll of the Best Films of All-time, I decided to re-publish my own personal list, and I put "Ikiru" on it. I didn't give much of an explanation as to why, only that I thought I needed a Kurosawa and that "Rashomon" and "Ikiru" were tied for his best and I decided to switch them up this year. And that's true, they both hit different parts of my brain, when I'm more cerebral and intellectual in my thoughts, I tend to like "Rashomon" more, but I don't know, lately the emotional side has been much more dominant in my thoughts. Personally, death has been on my mind, or how fleeting and limited life is if I should be more specific. I'm not the only one though, it was remade recently into the British film "Living," from director Oliver Hermanus. That movie is incredibly powerful in it's own right and got two Oscar nominations, and personally I'm kinda surprised the film hasn't been remade more often. I think most people just would rather leave it be, not because it couldn't be translated to other cultures easily, in fact, it's an incredibly universal story, but they just don't want to think about the implications in the film. About how fleeting life is and how sudden it could end, and how suddenly you can be face-to-face with one's own end, what would we actually do if faced with that situation.
“Ikiru,” translates in Japanese to “To Live”. Watanabe-san hasn’t lived, and now he’s about to die. He tries to tell his son about his illness, but he’s too concerned about the father’s upcoming pension which he wants to use to get him and his wife a place of their own. He doesn’t tell them. He doesn’t tell his family, his co-workers, except for one, and the only other person he tells is a drunk novelist. (Yunosuke Ito) He has wasted his life pushing around paperwork and hasn’t done anything substantial with his life. The novelist, finding the notion romantic, decides to take the old man everywhere on the town that he can. Pachinko parlors, dance halls, even a strip club. Has he now lived? Does it make much difference? He still has the cancer, and he will still die, and the night doesn’t seem to have affected him much.
Yet it has. So has the few nights out he spends with Toyo (Miki Odagiri) a young former co-worker for a few nights out, and he takes her to some of the same places, surprising the hell out of her, who has nicknamed the old man “The Mummy”. She nicknamed all his co-workers at the Public Affairs Department. There’s a lot of symbolism in the movie retaining the post-war Japanese culture, and everything from Tchaikovsky references to Buddhism, but most of that I only learned after listening to the DVD commentary. Not sure how I would’ve learned it any other way. Kurosawa’s films are probably the most western of all the older great Japanese filmmakers. Many of his Samurai films were remade as American Westerns, most notable “Seven Samurai,” which became “The Magnificent Seven”. His films range of influence range from Shakespeare (“Ran,” “Throne of Blood”) to American mystery/film noir. (“High and Low.”) Probably his best film is “Rashomon,” which is famous now for being the first film to have and be about multiple perspectives of the same event.
That said, I consider “Ikiru,” my favorite film of his. It’s not simply a movie about death and living, but of a single man, who’s faced with death and finally decides to live. This isn’t a melodramatic feel-good “Bucket List,” type movie that pretends it’s about the things “Ikiru,” is actually about, those people in those films are just, doing things, Watanabe-san is striving, making the decision to actually live life in the face of his mortality. When he returns to work, Watanabe picks up a complaint about mothers wanting a park in a dangerous area and begins putting in actual motion the park's approval.
Curiously, the movie suddenly jumps to his funeral. It’s months later and we’re at a wake with a bunch of bureaucrats drinking around a photo of Watanabe. A park has been built, and the public thinks Watanabe, who apparently died in the park on a snowy night, hasn’t gotten credit for building it. The parks department designed it, the deputy mayor approved it, at first it seemed unfathomable to them to simply give him credit, they curmudgeon, and it’s true, a bunch of people were involved.
It is in this long sequence that takes up the rest of the movie through recall and flashback does it suddenly become clear what Kurosawa, and Watanabe was doing.
I always thought that this was simply the best way to tell the rest of the story, to have it told back in flashback, with all their bureaucrats not realizing how insignificant their contributions are to the project they took so much credit for and love basking in the glow of their accomplishments, but it's not just that though. Once Watanabe-san decides to make the decision to build the park, his arc has ended, he has changed. He's made the decision to live life, and there's no need to keep seeing him pursue that in real time. It's better to see this through the eyes and mind of the bureaucrats’ selective memories beginning to fall apart, as they slowly realize several simple truths about their co-worker. Not only, that it was indeed him that got the park made, but also why he suddenly had such a change-of-heart and change-of-action, and his suddenly ballsy and changed behavior and dedication could be only be explained one way. That change of action is the key; the decision to live, and movie shows disturbingly, just how difficult that decision actually is to make. How we secretly wish more people would make that decision. How we wish we would make that decision.
Posted by David Baruffi at 9:01 PM