Tempest (1982)

I got the this movie by accident. When I read Shakespeare’s The Tempest for my book club, I wanted to watch it performed. I got this film which is a loose version. I put this aside as I wanted Shakespeare’s language. This weekend I watched this 1982 version with John Cassavetes and Gina Rowlands. 

The story of a midlife crisis, in Tempest acclaimed architect Philip Dimitrius is dissatisfied with his work and his marriage to a lesser extent. His wife Antonia and daughter Miranda (Molly Ringwald) try to give him support and space, but he can’t find meaning with his life and gets more and more irascible. No red Ferrari is going to help this man though a good philosophy course could. He has nothing to give anyone though he does offer a bit of encouragement to his wife when she announces that she’s returning to the stage.

The film jumps back and forth between the New York Park Avenue and a desolate Greek isle inhabited by goats and a crazy guy named Kalabani (Raul Julia) where Philip and Miranda and Philip’s girlfriend Aretha (Susan Sarandon) wind up.

Philip’s search for meaning has him consulting his father, his client, an uber weathy business man. Nothing helps. He kvetches, gets drunk, embarrasses his wife and yells at Miranda. I had no sympathy for him whatsoever — until he sees his wife out with his client Mr. Big Bucks. When he confronts Antonia, she asks for a divorce. Off Philip goes to Greece with Miranda in tow. In Athens he meets a Aretha, a singer. Romance ensues. When Antonia and Mr. Big Bucks track him down, he takes Miranda and to a desolate island. 

The film has many parallels to the Shakespearean play. The deserted island, the betrayal is Philip and Antonia’s divorce (though Philip played a role too), rather than immersing himself in alchemy, in exile, Philip immerses himself in baseball statistics. Kalabani, like Calaban, shows the hero how to live on the island, and in turn the newcomer shares life off the island with him. 

For much of the film, the story jumps in time and from New York to Greece. Cassavetes, Rowland and Sarandon were dynamic and engaging, yet the story often drags and my attention waned particularly when I got to much of the noisy, neurotic, upper crust world. The complaints about marriage were very much like those in Woody Allen films and got tedious. 

The island was beautiful and the main characters were rather compelling, but I wouldn’t say this is a must-see film. At 2 hours 20 minutes, an edit would have improved the film.

Whisper of the Heart

From M’s famed Studio Ghilbli, Whisper of the Heart begins with the much loved John Denver tune, “Country Road.” The Japanese love “Country Road” and you’ll hear it in schools, businesses, hummed by people walking around. (The Carpenters and Beatles are also BIG.) 

Spunky, bookworm and middle schooler Shizuku wants to write some new “Country Road” lyrics for her junior high graduation, but this perfectionist can’t get it quite right. Her high school entrance exams, which are super important to the future of all Japanese students in determining their options in life, loom, but Shizuku has other priorities and shrugs off test prep. Her best friend Yūko Harada leans on Shizuku for advice in dealing with a love triangle, while also offering understanding.

While delivering her father’s lunch, Shizuku follows a fat cat (literally a cat that’s too well-fed) and discovers an intriguing antique shop where there’s a seemingly enchanted cat figurine called the Baron, who longs for his love. The shop owner is a wise old man, i.e. mentor, who helps Shizuku with her search for understanding and direction.

A patron of a library that still has a card catalog and check out cards where you can see the names of previous checkouts Shizuku notices a weird coincidence that a mysterious reader has borrowed exactly the same books she checks out. Who is this person? Shizuku imagines a paragon, but when she learns his identity is infuriated that it’s a boy who annoys her to no end. To make matters worse he loves her. 

Could things be more aggravating for this girl?

Whisper of the Heart shows so much of Japanese culture from the junior high where entrance exams hang over everyone’s head, teasing is rampant, yet kids do want the best for their classmates, in a way only kids who’ve known each other since kindergarten and belong to a culture that prioritizes group belonging can. 

I was struck by how upset Shizuku was because as a third year middle school student (probably 14 or 15 years old) she hadn’t yet figured out her career direction. I liked how assertive she was no matter whom she was dealing with and how reasonable the adults were. Parents, the teacher in the lunchroom, the antique shop owner, all had some wisdom and insight to share. There was a teacher who reprimanded students who weren’t studying or ready to answer a question, but isn’t that okay? Isn’t that his job? 

In Japan high school is optional, though well over 90% of students do go to high school, thus this was why Shizuku and Amasawa consider foregoing high school. I was impressed with Amasawa’s dedication to crafting top quality violins and actually working towards that end. That’s another very Japanese quality of the film — dedicating long hours to excelling in a field. 

I loved the details in the animation, which includes rust on stoplight poles, lace curtains, dingy concrete walls and a myriad of perfect details. 

I highly recommend this charming film which will transport you to Tokyo and introduce you to a delightful girl. 

Omega Man (1971)

Starring Charlton Heston, Omega Man takes place in a post-apocalypse Los Angeles. It’s 1977 and a bizarre pandemic has left the city deserted except for Dr. Robert Neville (Heston) who right before the mysterious virus took hold, he vaccinated himself with the vaccine he developed. It’s weird and cool to see L.A. so dusty and barren. Neville keeps himself sane by talking to imagined car dealers and clerks and to his bust of Cæsar.

Loneliness isn’t Neville’s biggest problem. Like a 1970s Cinderella, he must be home in his fortified flat by sundown when the zombies led by a former newscaster named Mathias come for him. These zombies were stricken with the virus and have become albino’s who can’t take the light. They want him dead and they want to destroy the art and culture he’s preserved.

Mathias’ crew nearly gets Neville, but he’s rescued by Lisa and Dutch, whom are living out in the countryside with a handful of children who’ve also escaped the virus — for the time being. Neville welcomes the community and accepts the mission of curing Lisa’s brother who’s one step away from zombiehood. He figures he can make a serum from his blood to cure the boy. Lisa accompanies Neville and her brother back to the city. Romance ensues in scenes when the zombies aren’t attacking.

Some of the action scenes weren’t all that plausible, like the way Mathias’ right hand man falls from a balcony. There’s some deus ex machina contrivances in spots, but I let myself get caught up in the novelty and Neville’s wit.

Omega Man can be over the top and the heroics and action are over the top, but it feels good to see a good guy keep his head and fight against evil. The end isn’t what I expected as recent movies would end differently. It seems studios think they must satisfy their audiences with a certain ending. Pfiffle. I’m open to what makes sense and applaud the daring. 

Ida

Set in Poland in 1962, Ida is a stunning, quiet film about an orphan who grew up in a convent is about  to take her vows. Her superior tells her she should meet her one living relative, an aunt before she takes her vows. The taciturn, obedient Ida agrees. 

Aunt Wanda turns out to be a judge whose personality is diametrically opposed to Ida’s. When Ida gets to Wanda’s apartment, Wanda’s lover leaves. Atheist Wanda smokes and drinks too much. Aunt Wanda tells Ida that her parents were Jewish and both were killed by the Germans in WWII along with Wanda’s infant son. They embark on a search through rural Poland for their graves. 

This journey changes both women, but not in predictable ways. it’s greatest strength is it’s cinematography. The black and white scenes are framed simply and elegantly. The story is minimal and the tension between aunt and niece is compelling. There were a few incidents that seemed implausible, but on the whole the film is well worth a watch.

Stalker (1979)

If you give it a chance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker mesmerizes and baffles. Made in the USSR in 1979, the Stalker takes place in a decaying, post-apocalyptic world that’s both repulsive and dripping in sludge yet hypnotic. 

Plot: In a dystopian city, two men, the Writer and the Professor, pay the Stalker to lead them into the forbidden Zone. If they can make it into the Zone into the inner sanctum, the Room the Stalker tells them their deepest desire will be fulfilled. Don’t worry the Writer is sharp enough to call the Stalker into question.

Every step of the way, they face danger. Violence? Imprisonment? It’s unspecified and you never see the who or what is the actual foe, which makes the tension all the higher. 

Thoughts:The dialog is poetic and philosophical. Throughout the story the men bicker, cheat and challenge each other. I did admire them for at least trying for more, for betterment despite being surrounded by the ugly and hopeless.

Writer (left), Stalker, Professor

Drenched, oily, dark, craggy the setting is incredible. Even in the Zone, the paradise they aimed for, the verdant fields are overgrown and look like Chernobyl 20 years after the nuclear disaster. There isn’t one inch of space that’s clean or inviting. And this atmosphere will haunt me and intrigue me.

I doubt this film could be remade by any other nationality. Every aspect is just so modern Russian. It visualizes what an oppressive, corrupt kleptocracy is: toxic, neglected, fetid, bleak.  

While the story is oblique and the characters, while sympathetic, are unlikeable, Stalker intrigued me so much that I’m sure I’ll watch it again and again. The visuals get inside your head, but not in a bad way.

Stalker is a challenging film. It often moves slowly, but the camera work of these slow scenes is tremendous. The frame of the story, particularly with Stalker’s mutant daughter who may have paranormal powers, mystifies rather than enlightens, but Tarkovsky makes it work. Few could.

Free and Easy

Free and Easy with Buster Keaton is a talkie with lots of physical humor. Keaton plan Elmer Butts, a nerdy sap, escorts local beauty queen winner Elvira and her overbearing mother to Hollywood. Of course, everything goes awry from the moment they start their journey. Every mix up is blamed on Elmer, some rightly so. 

On the train to California, while Elmer is stuck at the back of the train, Elvira and her mother meet a dashing movie star. Elvira is smitten with this flirtatious actor. 

A series of mishaps befall Elmer. He just doesn’t fit into the Hollywood scene and he knows it. However, he has a chance to play the hero, when he’s mistakenly given a chauffeur uniform and a car and sees Larry canoodling in the back of the car as he took innocent Elvira back to his mansion without a chaperone, he springs into action.

I watched this film almost accidentally. I’d checked out a three film DVD set from the library. The DVD I wanted to watch didn’t work, but the one with Free and Easy did. It’s a comic film and has Keaton’s famed pratfalls and his woebegone demeanor, but it was awfully hokey for a talkie. The story and characters were rather thin. It wasn’t awful, but unless you wind up with a disc that doesn’t work and one that does, I don’t see the need to see this film.

I’ll add that there’s a special feature, So Funny it Hurts, in which an old friend of Keaton’s explains Keaton’s troubled relationship with MGM. 

Cold War (2018)

Set in the 1950s and 60s Paweł Pawlikowski’s, Cold War tells a tumultuous love story. When Wiktor tours the countryside scouting proletarian folk singers for a touring company he’s captivated by Zula, a young woman with a history. Though she’s rather sneaky in getting chosen, she becomes part of the group and becomes Wiktor’s lover. Things go fairly well till Zula tells Wiktor that she’s snitching on him to the Communist Party leaders. Wiktor must leave and Zula winds up abandoning him. 

The film follows the couple as they reunite, betray each other, marry other people, live in other countries and reunite again. Like many passionate characters their emotions are rarely even keeled. I was surprised to learn that Pawlikowski’s based the film on a calmer version of his parents’ love. 

Folk, jazz, Italian and French music enhances the film. I never thought I’d enjoy Soviet era Polish folk music, but it’s energy and fresh feel were easy to like. On top of that the young, innocent girls dancing in their full skirts entertained. Dialogue is minimal so the music fills a void. 

The use of black and white film with few grays portrayed the bleak era, where surveillance was ubiquitous and the secret police would track an exile down across Europe. 

The only quibble I had with the film was that it seemed rather odd that every now and then Wiktor would refer to Zula as the love of his life. I just don’t think people tell train conductors or people you have no lasting relationship with that sort of thing. People would say, “I’m looking for my girlfriend” or something. I was even more incredulous when Wiktor’s in bed with his French girlfriend and she asks him where he was. He replies that he’s been with the love of his life. The French woman doesn’t flinch. But it’s a minor problem in the scheme of things. For some reasons, though the two main characters are not lovable to me as people, the film does work.

I urge you to get the DVD from the library as I did so you can watch the extras. The Criterion Collection DVD includes the Cannes Film Festival panel interview, a short documentary on making the film and an interview with Pawiklowski, who wrote and directed Cold War. 

The Bride Wore Black

The Bride Wore Black is not my favorite Truffaut film. A mysterious woman stalks Mr. Bliss, a playboy who’s flattered to have a secret admirer. She finds him at a party and intrigues him and entices him out to a balcony where she pushes him off and he falls to his death. Bam.

Next the woman goes after a friend of Bliss’ and poisons him, before going after another man on her list of victims. Julie, the film’s mystery woman, is out for revenge and half way through the film we find out why. Truffaut was a Hitchcock fan and in part the film’s a nod to Hitch. I found it interesting and wanted to find out Julie’s motivation and how she’d complete her mission. 

SPOILER 

Continue reading “The Bride Wore Black”

Ikiru (1952)

In Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru dedicated life long bureaucrat Watanabe-san gets stomach cancer, which spurs him to review his life. He soon realizes his dedication to his job has cost him his relationship with his son and marriage. Watanabe-san worked. He didn’t eat, drink and make merry. He didn’t form life-giving friends. He was more of a civil servant robot than anything else. 

What can a heart filled with despair grab on to?

“Ikiru.” Akiro Kurosawa

As was the custom in Japan, the doctor didn’t directly tell Watanabe that he’s going to die, but he could read between the lines and the news profoundly saddens him. He knows his son and daughter-in-law are money-grubbing and can’t wait to 

A group of mothers faces the heartlessness, dare I say low-level evil, of bureaucracy, when they come to Watanabe’s office asking their government to take care of a neighborhood cesspool that’s causing illness and to turn it into a small playground. They’re pushed from department to department as the officials dodge actual work and responsibility. These mothers no doubt represent all the people who visit the office looking for help. 

Kurosawa’s depiction of the inert, soul-sucking system is portrayed with genius in the dark, run down offices with piles of paper towering over the dour workers. The only sign of life is a young office lady who jokes, laughs and brims with life. Of course, her only hope is to succeed in exiting from this choking, albeit safe career.

Watanabe-san knows he’s lost and seeks pleasure in a journey led by a writer he meets at a bar. The writer sees his plight and promises to show him real life in Tokyo’s red light district and dance halls. Watanabe realizes that his real hope to discover life is through the young lady who’s now left the government and works at a toy company, which is monotonous but also allows her to make things that bring people joy. Watanabe becomes like an uncle to her taking her out at night and living vicariously through her. Soon enough she tires of the attention and questions what’s really going on. It’s getting rather creepy. Watanabe explains. She’s the only person who knows the whole truth.

Although the young lady refuses to go out on the town with Watanabe, she does cause him to find a new purpose, which gives him the joy he sought.

The film moves into its second act, with a novel division. We go from Watanabe’s life with cancer to his funeral. Half the film takes place with his colleagues toasting him as his son and daughter-in-law watching on. Puzzled by Watanabe’s dramatic change in his last days, they try to figure out why he pushed himself body and soul into seeing that the cesspool became a park. To see half a 2 hour 23 minutes film told in flashback is likely not to work, but with a genius like Kurosawa it absolutely does. 

Though the theme of death may put some people off, this film, though certainly sad, is very powerful and positive. From the masterful acting to the powerful use of music and scenery, Ikiru is a must-see classic. 

The Criterion Collection DVD I had included a documentary on Kurosawa, which focused on the different aspects (e.g. music, script, storyboard, directing) of his filmmaking. It was full of information on what made him unique and much of it was Kurosawa describing his work and commenting on filmmaking at large. I learned things like Kurosawa would edit each day’s rushes that night so that the actors and crew could see how the film was taking form. This gave them a stronger sense of the film and meant that when shooting wrapped, there was only one day more to edit. I didn’t know that Kurosawa didn’t go to university and was selected from a very large pool of candidates from elite schools to enter Toho Studio’s training program for assistant directors. This program took 5 people the year he started and the other 4 were all from top colleges. Kurosawa also mused that today (

La Dolce Vita

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita follows the decadent Odyssey of Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni). A gossip columnist, Marcello is steeped in the playboy, celebrity culture. He’s got a suicidal fiancée and a couple lovers. All are beautiful; none are happy. The film follows Marcello as he seeks out scandals to write about and outrageous parties. 

Marcello is looking for meaning, half-heartedly, but he is looking. He’s offended when people point out that he’s sold out by writing sensational stories for tabloids, but he doesn’t exert any effort to change. He’s full of excuses and charm, which serves him well enough.

Fellini offers beautiful people in beautiful scenes, but none has any sort of world view, philosophy or religion that guides them. Their lives are like one long series of college Saturday nights where kids wander about aimlessly looking for the pleasure they thought college nightlife offered. Instead they see emotional break downs, pleas for attention, and melodrama. 

Released in 1960, this film was fresh as it didn’t have the usual plot structure or protagonist who overcomes the typical obstacles. La Dolce Vita was more psychological and existential. It’s worth seeing for its artistic merit, but though I admire it, La Dolce Vita it’s not a film I’d call a favorite I want to see again and again.