Mamoru Hosoda’s 2009 follow-up to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time opens with an extended walkthrough of OZ, a social media network that has taken on an increasingly large role in the daily operations of the world. Kenji, a shy but good-natured high school student who is a wiz at math and working with computers, enjoys a low-level, part-time position managing operations in OZ. But his routine is shaken up with an offer from Natsuki, the most popular girl at school, for him to accompany her to the country for her grandmother’s birthday. Eager to spend some time in the company of Natsuki, Kenji agrees to tag along, but he soon discovers she expects him to pose as her boyfriend. Easier said than done, as the many members of Natsuki’s extended family are an extremely inquisitive bunch. So far, so relatively ordinary, but then Kenji receives a mysterious text in the middle of the night which sets in motion a chain of events that sees the virtual world of OZ taken over by a rogue entity, with the fate of the entire world at stake. It’s up to Kenji, with help from Natsuki and the various members of her family, to fight back and reclaim OZ for the people of the world.
Hosoda’s film certainly doesn’t lack for ambition, and in less skilled hands the disparate elements of the narrative could have come together in disastrous fashion. But here, against all odds, a nice balance is struck between the almost Ozu-esque dynamics of the family and the world-threatening cyber-thriller plotline. There is something quite appealing in the film’s combination of old-world and new-world ideas, of this great technological battle playing out on an estate that almost seems to exist out of time. Even though the main battle is being waged through a laptop, there is still the need for everyone to come together in the real world to gain the upper hand. Amidst all the craziness, Summer Wars has time to muse on the dangers that can arise when a society becomes too reliant on technology, while also recognizing the many virtues that can come from a connected world. It may be true that the film never quite hits the same emotional highs as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but it makes up for that absence through its infectious, energetic spirit. 8/10.
This portmanteau film from 2008, set in the eponymous Japanese city, features contributions from directors Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho, each focusing on themes of transformation, anarchy, and rebirth, respectively. Gondry’s segment opens with a young avant-garde filmmaker and his directionless girlfriend arriving in Tokyo. The filmmaker quickly assimilates himself into city life, but the girlfriend has a harder time, to the exasperation of all the people around her. It’s only in the segment’s final minutes that she finds her true place in life, with a little help from the director’s trademark whimsy. Carax’s segment follows the wild endeavors of a sewer-dwelling, flower-eating hermit (a character that would later resurface in Holy Motors). After discovering a cache of grenades in the sewers of Tokyo, the hermit goes on a horrifically violent rampage above ground, leading to his pursuit by the authorities and eventual incarceration. A trial is held, but because the hermit speaks his own unique language of grunts and hand gestures, a translator has to be flown in from France. Bong’s segment focuses on a hikikomori, a man who has willingly sealed himself off from the rest of humanity for over a decade. After an awkward encounter with a pizza delivery girl, the man decides to finally leave his home and venture out from his sheltered life, only to discover a world that has drastically changed since the last time he set foot outside.
Just once I’d like to see a portmanteau film where it felt like everyone involved put their best foot forward. But with Tokyo!, you don’t even get a standout segment that rises high above the others (although Bong’s contribution is definitely the best of the lot). You get the feeling the stories told in this collection were just half-formed ideas the directors had toyed around with briefly before setting aside to move on to better things. That feeling remains constant throughout because, even with the shorter time constraints, each segment feels padded out with extraneous material. Carax’s film in particular is tough to take after awhile; a character that worked brilliantly in a 15-minute appearance in Holy Motors has difficulty commanding attention for 45. But what struck me as more unfortunate about this whole experiment is the absence of Tokyo in any kind of significant role. With the exception of the Japanese-specific concept of the hikikomori, the characters and situations could have been found anywhere in the world. More than anything else, that refusal to fully take advantage of the central setting makes Tokyo! feel like a missed opportunity. 5/10.
There was a time when the only knowledge I had of the work of acclaimed Indian director Satyajit Ray was from the music selections in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. A shameful fact I admit, and one that was in due need of correcting. This 1964 film is the second of Ray’s films I’ve seen now, and the first of his that has struck me as truly great. Set in 1870s India, the film opens by establishing the basics of a marriage between the beautiful but lonely Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee), and her husband Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee), who spends most of his time running an independent political newspaper. Their marriage is not an unhappy one, but there seems to be a recognition between the two of them that their interests don’t align all too well. He concerns himself mostly with politics, she is drawn to poetry and more artistic subjects. Charulata’s routine-consumed life is given a jolt with the arrival of Bhupati’s cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), who she senses to be a kindred artistic spirit. Their relationship proves to be beneficial to their more creative impulses, with each of them spurring the other on to put their ideas down on paper, and eventually they come to recognize that a clear romantic connection has developed between them.
Ray considered Charulata (aka The Lonely Wife) to be his personal favorite of all the films he made, and it is indeed tremendous, a romantic drama about one woman’s artistic awakening that refuses easy labels and answers. A good example of this is the character of Bhupati, who in a more conventional film would be the villain of the piece, the type of man so clearly wrong for the heroine that the viewer would find themselves actively rooting against him. While Bhupati is clearly not perfectly compatible with his wife, he’s never presented as a bad man. In fact, one of the unanticipated results of Amal and Charulata’s relationship is Bhupati’s recognition of his wife’s talent for artistic expression. Along with this multi-dimensionality to people that could have simply been thin sketches, the film is also remarkable because of its camera movements and flourishes, which complements the action by expressing the blossoming life and energy of the characters (a shot that follows Charulata moving back and forth on a swing manages to be both dizzying and entrancing in a dreamy way). For anyone interested in an introduction to Satyajit Ray, Charulata would be a wonderful first choice; now that I’ve seen and loved the film, I feel much more compelled to explore the rest of his work. 10/10.
“On his neck he wore the brand of a killer. On his hip he wore vengeance.” I’m not traditionally one who puts much stock in film taglines, but this Elvis Presley vehicle from 1969 sure has a great one. Now for the important question: does the actual film live up to the promise of that tagline? Elvis plays a drifting outlaw who has abandoned his old gang in an attempt to go straight. But the past has a funny way of coming back into a person’s life, and before long Elvis has his neck branded by the gang and then left without a horse to wander the desert alone. When he does eventually make his way back to civilization, he finds himself enlisted as a temporary deputy to the local sheriff, who has been seriously wounded by the wild brother of the gang leader. At this point, the film settles down into a retelling of Rio Bravo, with the outlaw-turned-deputy taking a stand to defend the small town and bring his outlaw associates to justice.
Once you get past that great tagline, it’s tough to really work up much enthusiasm for Charro!. In the end, it’s a fairly workmanlike western with little distinguishing characteristics (Support Your Local Sheriff! has a similar narrative and came out in the same year, but that film distinguishes itself through its cheeky sense of humor). Still, there are a couple interesting points still worth mentioning. Most of the film was shot in and around the famous Old Tucson Studios, the home base for many classic westerns from the middle period of the last century, and there are some wonderful shots of the distinctly Arizonan landscape. There is also an appeal in watching Elvis attempt to branch out from the types of roles that had defined his film career. It’s the only film of his where he doesn’t sing in front of the camera (although he does sing the theme song that plays over the opening credits), and that absence puts more focus on his acting skills. Even though the persona of the stoic, bearded outlaw doesn’t exactly align perfectly with his strengths, Elvis still has a star charisma that trumps his limitations. Too bad his presence isn’t enough to elevate Charro! into a western worth remembering. 5/10.