Posts Tagged 'movies'

When I don’t love a movie

Some of you know that I’m trying to improve my film fluency, with the help of my local library. I’m 1/3 of the way through the Criterion Collection right now, and I hope to reach the halfway point before 2010. Just about every movie I’ve seen so far has something striking about it, but I’d be lying if I said they were all classics. This makes film-screening feel like an obligation at times.

So when I do have a reputed classic in my hands, I get pretty excited. Yesterday it was time for Ugetsu, Kenji Mizoguchi’s calling card to Western audiences. This film, which couches three intertwined allegories in medieval Japan, regularly lands on critic top ten lists. But I was disappointed.

The film features many breathtaking set-pieces: a river journey through fog, supernatural outbursts, and superbly blended dissolves. But it failed to bowl me over. Or maybe I should say I failed it.

Let’s assume I’m in the wrong*, because that’s the most logical explanation. But there are so many different ways I could be wrong! Let’s take a look at the possibilities.

*This is one of my Rules To Live By. Sadly, I can’t recommend it to anyone else, because I am, after all, In the Wrong.

1. I don’t know enough about Japan. This applies to both medieval Japan and the 1953 vintage. It’s undoubtedly true that I’m lacking some crucial pieces of information (here are just some of the Japanese things I know I don’t know: feudalism, traditional gender relations, the occupation experience post-WWII, ghost stories). The film would definitely be more colorful if I could discern these shades. But I’m pretty sure that the critics in Venice, who awarded the film a Silver Lion, probably lacked most of these contextual clues as well. What did they see that I can’t?

A similar problem might be my inability to understand Japanese language, body language, facial expressions, and acting styles–something that may inhibit my appreciation to a much larger degree than it does with films from Europe. Apparently the two leads in Ugetsu are putting in all-time great performances, but I couldn’t tell. But I like plenty of other Japanese films and performances, so I doubt this is the problem.

2. The film’s influence is so widespread that its innovations are impossible to recognize. I get the impression, from Phillip Lopate’s accompanying essay, that Mizoguchi could not possibly be more of an auteur–he convinced his crew to move a house in order to improve a shot’s composition. Again, I could see this being the case, but the things I recognize as commonplace in the film–intersecting plots, some of the spoilery details of the ghost story, some flamboyant shooting–seem to have been around in film much earlier.* And again, let me stress, I think several scenes are classic. But the whole doesn’t hang together very well for me.

*There’s always the possibility, given my incomplete knowledge of film history, that there’s some convergent evolution going on here–Japanese filmmakers coming up with the same innovations celebrated in European and American film, without the benefit of having seen those other films, but I would have to know a whole lot more about international distribution to be sure. My guess is that films got to Japan pretty early, but even if they didn’t, they certainly would be around by occupation. My second guess is that Japanese film didn’t really hit foreign shores until films like this. So some of the initial praise could be of the racist “we didn’t know they could do this” variety.

3. I haven’t learned yet how to get the most out of watching a film. Just like football statisticians and announcers, I bet professional movie watchers, critics and cinemaniacs, have developed perceptual strategies to help them mine a film for information. It often takes me several viewings to really understand a film. I have a hard time explaining why I love the films I do, which makes me a pretty muddled cineaste. It’s weird to say I don’t like this film yet because it’s too early for me to like it, but that may be the case.

Of course, if I accept this line of thinking, what keeps me from applying it to every movie I don’t love? Maybe I just need to give Gigli some more time, a few more viewings, and then it will seem like a genuine cinematic achievement!

4. There’s no accounting for taste, and mine just doesn’t mesh perfectly with the film canon. This has the air of Occam’s Razor about it. Without dipping into Kant, Bourdieu, or Carl Wilson, I have to believe that the effort of accounting for taste is important, even if it is Quixotic. The journey provides.

With some reservations, I’m going to have to choose option #3. I’m sure I’ll return to this issue in a later post. For now, though, I’d like to hear from you. What goes through your head when you find yourself on the opposite side of overwhelming critical opinion?

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District 9 Times That Same Song

District 9 is a mostly excellent pisstake on The Globalization Movie, a relatively recent film genre that examines the consequences of economic upheaval: extensive immigration, culture clashes, pollution, cities made of refuse. In the past ten years, we’ve seen globalization films such as City of God, Babel, and Children of Men garner considerable acclaim; Crash, the watered-down American version of these films, became a hit and won a Best Picture Oscar.

The Globalization Movie tells two kinds of stories. One is about how seemingly-disparate lives weave together. Through braided narrative strands, privileged and impoverished characters of all races slowly come to realize their  shared fate.  The other kind of story involves the good white man discovering The Truth about massive corporations (the iconic case being The Constant Gardener, in which Ralph Fiennes finds out that Big Pharma kills ). These movies do a bang-up job of sucking me in; their complicated plots give my brain something to work with, and I sympathize with their politics. But many of their tropes have already become cloying, so it’s refreshing to see District 9 skewer them.

And skewer it does. District 9 uses characterization, score, mise-en-scene, and special effects to replay the Globalization movie as a comedy. But not as a farce. The end result is not a rejection or repudiation of the politics of those other films–it’s a strange and disturbing kind of confirmation.

I’ll explain more, with spoilers, after the cut.

Continue reading ‘District 9 Times That Same Song’

Movie capsule reviews, 7/26

I’ve been watching movies!

A Night to Remember: My sister and I watched this film about the sinking of the Titanic as a black comedy. It worked! In near-real time, a series of mental lapses spelled the ship’s downfall. The chronicling of these domino-ing mistakes reminded me of The Wire. The script lays out the failure of the Modern World a little thickly, but the brisk second half and the still-impressive scenes of the tipped dining room made my viewing worthwhile.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno: I wasn’t expecting much from this, and I didn’t get much, but there are at least two noteworthy aspects of this film. The first is that the plot (let’s make a movie [in this case, a pornography] at my dead-end job) basically retells writer/director Kevin Smith’s own origin story. The second is that the soundtrack choices are superb. The Pixies’ “Hey” colors a scene of sexual jealousy, while Blondie’s “Dreaming” illustrates the imaginative pull of infatuation.

Samurai I–Musashi Miyamoto: my thoughts are of the “wait-and-see” variety with this one, as it’s the first of a trilogy and ends on a cliffhanger. Once again Toshiro Mifune electrifies as a wild fighter in feudal japan.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): I love the myth of crumbling ’70s New York as narrated in musical histories, that “Drop Dead” headline, and movies like this. The grime and deep colors really pop; take a look at Walter Matthau’s yellow tie, for instance. The film, about a hostage crisis on a subway car, puts its burning questions right out in the open: how do the criminals think they’re going to get away with this? which of the hostages is secretly an undercover cop? The pacing is watertight–it’s another movie that takes place in near-real time. Walter Matthau is wonderfully understated as the harried subway cop who realizes what’s going on just a little later than we’d expect him to.

Metropolitan: I sold this movie to my sister as Hal Ashby does Gossip Girl. We follow the man character as he infiltrates a coterie of young rich Manhattanites. As in Ashby movies, the characters each have inner lives that we’re forced to ferret out for much of the movie. And it doesn’t hurt that central character Tom Townsend resembles a young Bud Cort. There’s something about seeing young people act like adults that puts me on edge (I think it’s jealousy). The dialogue can sting at times, because like all young people, the characters say a lot of stupid things smartly. If you like Ashby, Wes Anderson, or Noah Baumbach this is right up your alley.

My favorite stuffs of 2008

These were my favorite things in the past year. You’ll notice a criminal lack of tv–I probably would’ve included the end of the Wire or Mad Men’s “The Jet Set” in a longer or separate list.

Continue reading ‘My favorite stuffs of 2008’


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