2013 First-Time Viewings: November Week 3

Late SpringLate Spring

This 1949 film is my fourth experience with the work of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. At this point, I feel I’ve become accustomed to the director’s uniquely sparse filmmaking, yet with every viewing I come away marveling at the complexities that emerge from what initially seems like an incredibly simple approach. His films almost always concern themselves with the dynamics of family and the different outlooks on Japanese life between generations, but the specifics between each entry are given subtle changes, both in character and in tone. Occasionally, as in his most famous film Tokyo Story, he will touch on matters as big as life and death, but more often he focuses on smaller but no less compelling scenarios. Late Spring revolves around Shukichi (Chishu Ryu) and Noriko (Setsuko Hara), a father and daughter living a comfortable life together in the years directly after WWII. The wounds of that earlier time are beginning to heal, and it is decided by busybody aunt Masa (Haruko Sugimura) that a marriage should be arranged for Noriko. This doesn’t sit particularly well with the 27 year-old; despite the encouragement to marry by her divorced best friend Aya (Yumeji Tsukioka), Noriko expresses complete contentment with her current life. Shukichi seems equally content, but also understands that it probably wouldn’t be best for his daughter long-term if their current situation continued onward.

One could go on forever about the stylistic complexities of Ozu’s work in Late Spring, and indeed many detailed analyses have been written by people much more knowledgeable on the filmmaker than myself (hell, there have been spirited debates just on the focus given to an unassuming vase during one critical section late in the film). Even though with Ozu style and content very much inform each other, I’d like to put aside the former for now and just focus on the latter. While Ozu films from my experience tend to have a streak of wistfulness running through them, this is the most melancholy effort I’ve seen yet from the director. Never has the peeling of an orange been so heartbreaking. From how I see it, this is a story about two happy people forced to put aside their happiness for the traditions of the world. Marriage is  more than likely the most sensible decision, but that doesn’t stop both Noriko and Shukichi lamenting the dwindling bond between them. Maybe time will heal matters, but that doesn’t do much to make the present any less painful. Late Spring tells this story in such a quiet way that it comes as a surprise when the end rolls along and you realize your heart has been ripped apart. 10/10.

The HillThe Hill

It’s an interesting phenomenon how the passage of time can shape a filmmaker’s legacy. In the case of Sidney Lumet, a director with a very large and diverse body of work, there are the films everyone knows and remembers, films like 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon and Fail-Safe and Network. And then there are the films that, for one reason or another, haven’t achieved the same level of recognition over the years, but deserve reevaluation. This 1965 film is a prime example of the latter, a hidden gem that in retrospect I can’t believe I had never heard of before. As with much of the best Lumet work, The Hill takes place entirely in one setting, in this case the walls of a North African military rehabilitation camp during WWII, a place whose sole purpose is to dole out excessive punishment to ill-disciplined British soldiers for their various insubordinate behaviors. The camp is overseen by Sergeant Major Wilson (Harry Andrews), who views any criticism of his staff as a direct criticism of his own methods of operation. It’s an environment perfectly tailored to the power fantasies of sadistic officials, but events surrounding a new batch of incoming soldiers, among them the defiant Joe Roberts (Sean Connery), threaten to shake up the status quo.

The experience of watching The Hill is genuinely grueling, and I mean that in the best way possible. From the opening establishing shot to the anguishing conclusion, the viewer is really put through the wringer, but Lumet’s lean direction never provides an opportunity for attention to stray. This may seem like a bizarre comparison, but I was reminded of the Masaki Kobayashi samurai films Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion. Those films question the long-established samurai codes that value “honor” over the individual, and The Hill has a similar point to get across. The camp’s “purpose” is to whip soldiers into shape, to promote discipline and obedience and the idea that they are just one cog in a big machine. But after one fateful incident, Connery (in what might be his best performance) finally breaks and fights back against the establishment. Like the heroes of the aforementioned Kobayashi films, the path that Connery’s character heads down might not lead to the best destination, but the journey to get there is as compelling as anything. I had assumed I had seen the best that Sidney Lumet had to offer long ago, but after watching The Hill, I am glad to say I was mistaken. 9/10.

The Way Way BackThe Way Way Back

The coming-of-age story is a genre that I’m always going to be incredibly sympathetic towards. Even at their most fantastical, these types of films still have a solid chance of striking a potent chord, as I can’t help but flash back to my own experiences from the past. This 2013 entry from the writing/directing team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash looks to have all the right ingredients for something stellar, but it ends up being more of a lukewarm concoction, offering up just as many false moments as true ones. Importantly though, the film does nail the characterization of the lead coming-of-ager. As played by Liam James, the 14 year-old Duncan is the type of character to which I can instantly relate: socially inept around girls and large groups of people, gawky and awkward in his movements, and unable to listen to REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” without belting out the lyrics when he thinks nobody is around to hear him. I’d say he was pathetic if I wasn’t just like him at the same age, and still am today in more ways than I would probably like to admit. James handles with ease the transformation from awkward adolescent in the beginning to confident individual by the end. If only the rest of the film felt as sure-handed.

For me, the biggest shortcoming with The Way Way Back is the over-reliance on one-dimensional caricatures and clichéd situations, especially in the scenes depicting the interactions between Duncan and his “family” unit. Some of the actors manage to elevate the material they’re given, while others seem merely content to paint with the broadest strokes. Steve Carell successfully suppresses his usual likeable screen persona, but he is never anything more than the obnoxious boyfriend character. Likewise, Allison Janney is consistently grating as an overly-nosy neighbor. On the plus side, Toni Collette makes the most out of her frustrated mother role, while AnnaSophia Robb is an appealing screen presence, even if her character is nothing more than the token love interest. It’s always a relief when the film steps away from all of the family drama and moves to other areas, mainly the water park that serves as the grounds for Duncan’s happiest moments. The water park is also where Sam Rockwell gets to come onscreen and steal the show; it’s a familiar type of role for him, but he fills it so well it’s tough to complain too much. Most of the “big” moments throughout the film come across as overplayed, and by the end I found myself most fondly remembering the smaller moments. Like when Duncan recognizes his mother’s struggles and quietly cleans the kitchen after dinner without needing to say anything. Or the final closing note, a simple gesture that hints at a more positive future. Those kind of moments redeem some of the film’s more overbearing qualities, but not enough for it to enter the pantheon of the great coming-of-age stories. 6/10.

No Regrets For Our YouthNo Regrets For Our Youth

The first film in Criterion’s Eclipse collection Postwar Kurosawa, a set of five films the acclaimed Japanese filmmaker made in the years directly after WWII.  Released in 1946, No Regrets For Our Youth traces the personal development of one woman, from conservative bourgeoisie daughter and object of affection to submissive housewife and eventually independent firebrand, over the course of a decade that would see the country of Japan irrevocably changed by war. At this point in time, Akira Kurosawa was still at a relatively early stage of his career, and consequently the complete command of material evidenced in his later works is less apparent here. You can sense the director was still learning on the job and searching around for his greatest interests, and so with this film you get a little bit of everything. It starts out as a sort of student protest drama that gradually introduces a love triangle element, before shifting briefly into a domestic drama. Then, there are hints of a crime thriller and courtroom drama, but those hints fall to the wayside in favor of an almost “Bressonian” cleansing of body and soul. That last section is the film’s most striking, a mostly silent sequence that contrasts sharply with everything that has come before.

What the film lacks in polish it makes up for in passion. Kurosawa clearly had his own strong views on Japan’s wartime decisions and mentality, and the film is not afraid to express criticisms towards some of the ideas and attitudes of Japanese society of the time. But really more than anything else, the film is a showcase for Setsuko Hara. Probably best known for her performances in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, Hara is given a very different kind of role here, one that allows her to fully showcase her versatility. In this type of film, you need a performer who can subtly convey complete transformations of character, and Hara is up to that task. And in that aforementioned “Bressonian” sequence, she projects an altogether different type of screen presence, one that recalls some of the most memorable faces of silent cinema. Her character Yukie holds the distinction of being Kurosawa’s only female main protagonist, and that alone makes No Regrets For Our Youth unique among the director’s catalogue and worth taking the time to see. 7/10.

TwixtTwixt

If I hadn’t known anything about this going in and somebody had told me it was a film from a debut filmmaker, I would have seen no reason for believing that wasn’t the case. The fact that the man responsible for Twixt is the veteran director Francis Ford Coppola makes the film’s amateur nature endlessly fascinating. Now granted, it’s been quite a long time since Coppola has been responsible for anything worthwhile apart from a modestly respectable Californian wine. But you would expect to see some glimmer of the filmmaker he once was, and here there is no evidence the man behind the camera is the same person who gave us The Godfather, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. After a brief opening narrated by the one and only Tom Waits, the film begins properly by introducing the character of Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer, aging very badly). A hack writer of witch-related horror novels, Baltimore has traveled to a small town for a book signing. Nobody seems to care about Baltimore’s latest work, and he is about ready to leave when he finds himself drawn to the stories of the town’s sordid past. Things start to get weird when Baltimore falls asleep at night. In his dreams he meets the ghostly teenage girl V (Elle Fanning) and Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin), who acts as a sort of guide through the dark, imaginary landscape.

Inexplicable is probably the only word that can adequately describe what’s going on with Twixt. It’s inexplicable how little atmosphere is present in what is supposed to be a Gothic horror film. It’s inexplicable how tepid the scenes in the real world are, even with the always-watchable Bruce Dern doing his best to liven things up as the town’s slightly mad sheriff. It’s inexplicable how much of the film is taken up by Kilmer having conversations with Joanne Whalley and David Paymer through Skype (insert obligatory joke about them literally phoning in their performances). But most inexplicable of all is the film’s visual representation of the dream world. Presumably the intent was to recreate the kind of digital environment Robert Rodriguez nailed with Sin City, but it ends up looking like one of those mid-’90s PC games that would integrate live actors into the proceedings (most memorably the 1996 “classic” of gaming Goosebumps: Escape From Horrorland, which featured cameos from Jeff Goldblum as Dracula and Isabella Rossellini as a character named Lady Cadaver). It all adds up to a film that is, you guessed it, inexplicable, but it’s really not the type of film you get upset about. Instead, it’s the type of film you simply marvel at while struggling and failing to rationalize its existence. To borrow a sentiment expressed by Mark Kermode: Francis, go back to the wine. 3/10.

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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