Capsule Movie Reviews Vol.2019.14
These are my notes to remember what I watched and kinda what I thought about it. I’ve recently transferred my reviews to IMDb and made the list of around 1400 ratings publicly available. I’ve included the individual ratings with my notes for each movie. These ratings are not absolutely comparable to each other—I rate the film on how well it suited me for the genre and my mood and. let’s be honest, level of intoxication. YMMV. Also, I make no attempt to avoid spoilers.
- The Congress (2013) — 8/10
Robin Wright stars as herself, an actress in her forties whose best days are behind her. Her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) gets her an opportunity to be scanned and sampled and preserved and to be an actress for all time, playing roles that she had, until now, either refused or been too flaky to play. Producer Jeff Green (Danny Huston) makes a brutal offer: he needs her past, not her present or her future.
She tells him to fuck off. He is not dismayed and leaves the offer open for 30 days. She returns to her family: a perky, sassy daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) and her chronically ill boy Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The boy’s addicted to flying kites and will not stop flying them over the airport.
So far, though, this movie has absolutely nothing to do with the The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem. That she will be scanned into a computer is perhaps a way that they will sidle crabwise into the virtualized (un-)reality in which the book mostly takes place, though, in the book’s case, it was layered hallucinogens in the water.
Al holds forth on how Robin never had a choice in her roles and, if she virtualizes herself, she’ll still have no choice, but it won’t be so much different than her whole life has already been. It’s a pretty brutal speech, especially considering he delivers it in front of her kids.
Paul Giamatti is Dr. Barker, the son’s physician, and he delivers a terrible verdict—that the boy has a degenerative disease that will rob him of his sight and hearing within decades, if not years.
Robin agrees to the scanning, agrees to doing sci-fi movies, but her lawyer gets her a clause that limits the studio’s use of her likeness to 20 years. They scan her immediately in a touching scene with Al, who tells stories to elicit all of the emotions from her that they need for the recording. This is the third big speech from Keitel, who is chewing up the scenery really well.
The story picks up 20 years later, as Wright drives to a party celebrating the release of her new film: a sci-fi movie called Rebel Robot Robin. She is at the party in an “animation-only” zone. The film is animated from 45 minutes onward, looking like an R. Crumb cartoon.
Wright passes out in her hotel room, in a hallucinogenic daze, dreaming that sings in a club and is arrested for working under her own name. She meets up with Jeff Green, the producer, in an office that looks like it came from the set of Brazil. He exhorts her to re-up for twenty more years, but this time not just selling her acting ability, but also licensing herself to be sold as food and drink so that you can become her. We do not see her sign. Nor do we see her refuse to do so.
Next, we see the keynote speech where the president of Miramount/Nagasaki studios announces these new formulas, to be other people. There is a shooter in the catwalks. He ices the president, escapes outside and signals an attack with a single flare. The rebel forces arrive to take over the Miramount Hotel. Is this real? Did the president really get killed? Was it a publicity stunt? Are the rebel forces real? All up in the air.
She meets animator Dylan Truliner (Jon Hamm), who was in charge of her career, post-contract. They get to know each other, but it’s mostly in the context of the hallucinatory animated world, which is beautiful, but largely meaningless (or meaningful to different people in different ways).
It’s fun to try to pick out the characters that people pose as, now that they can be whomever they want: Muhammed Ali, Clint Eastwood, Jesus, Venus on a Half Shell, Buddha, Jeanne d’Arc, the apple-faced guy from the Magritte painting, even Ron Jeremy.
The backdrops and details are lovely, organic and vaguely…female. That is, the world is filled with less recognizable but beautiful women and the backgrounds look like they’ve been designed by Georgia O’Keefe, but the main characters are male. Perhaps a fitting depiction of the world where the rich and powerful spend their time.
Time passes. Dylan is gone.
Jeff is back. He banishes her to icy wastes (for having dared to appear as herself on a stage, singing), where she meets her son, flying a kite. They escape to an ice shelf? She is diagnosed with being too far gone to save now and thus is cryofrozen. She is awakened 20 years later (rather than 70) and she meets first a Grace Jones–lookalike and then Dylan again. They saunter forth into the world to help her find her bearings and, maybe, Aaron. Instead, they find love in a completely fictitious world in her mind…their minds?
They discuss the “real” world, where their real bodies live, cared for by those who haven’t escaped into fantasy. This feels kind of like the Matrix. Dylan has a ampule that would take one of them there. It’s his compensation for 20 years of having animated her.
They are in love. She loves her son more. She wants the ampule. If she takes it, she has perhaps a hope of finding her son, although he will be nearly completely blind and deaf, if he’s even alive. If she takes it, she can never join Dylan again because their shared fantasy—guided by the pheromones that engender the animated world—would be forever out-of-sync. She wants it. She deserves it. A mother’s love trumps all. I thought Dylan had said that the animated world had erased all ego? She is the destroyer.
She takes the pheromone and slowly walks out of the animated world as it morphs back to squalid reality. It is a zombie world where no-one is really aware of their non-animated reality. The only remaining pockets of civilization are in airships. She quickly and easily ascends and then just as easily finds Dr. Barker (suggesting that she is still hallucinating). He says:“Don’t be so impressed that I’m still here. Being here, on this side of the truth, is not so brave. […] Nothing has really changed, has it? Once we just masked the truth with anti-depressants and drugs, concealed and lied. Now, we reinvent the truth. Not so much of a difference. The drugs have just gotten much, much better. The only difference is between waiting for death, here, in this filth of truth and hallucinating the same, out there. Maybe it’s better out there, dreaming.”
Barker tells the ego-driven Robin that her son had crossed to the animated world six months before, after having waited for her for over 19 years. Devastation. She gave up her world with Dylan for her son, who had already given up on her. She cannot go back. She mourns for herself, though the world is in shambles around her—perhaps she does not think to rescue it because it is so seemingly completely irredeemable?
She takes an ampule from Barker and goes back, back to the animated world, back to fantasy, but a more realistic one, perhaps, where she imagines the continuation of her life now, where she imagines herself finding Aaron.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) — 8/10
This is an absolutely beautiful animated film. It looks like a graphic novel come to life, at times, with more than a bit of a Team Fortress aesthetic. This is the story of Miles Morales, a young man from an alternate continuum (although they keep calling it a “dimension” in the movie) where Peter Parker is blond and Wilson Fisk kills him. Miles’s mother is a latina nurse and his father is a black cop, so Marvel made sure to check all of the boxes with its foray into intersectionalism.
Morales acquires his power early in the movie—on a foray into a subway access tunnel with his cool uncle Aaron, who took him there to let him practice his graffiti chops—when a spider bites him just as they’re leaving. He discovers weird powers the next morning and returns to find the dead spider, but also to witness the original Spider-Man’s death in a nearby underground lab/reactor/accelerator.
The same experiment that Spider-Man (in that continuum) was trying to stop is the one that imported other spider-people from other continua: Spider-Woman (Gwen Stacey, voice by Hailee Stanfield), Spider-Man Noir (voiced by Nicholas Cage), Peni Parker (voiced by Kimiko Glenn and from the year 3189), and Spider-Ham (voiced by none other than John Mulaney).
Fisk has commissioned the multidimensional device in order to find his wife and son, who abandoned him during one of his violent fits of rage, in which he was trying to kill Spider-Man. Desperate to find them again, Fisk will fire up the machine again, threatening to swallow all of New York (in Miles’s continuum) in a black hole. The Spideys band together to thwart him and to help Miles train up his powers (which include some of Spidey’s traditional powers but also electro-shock hands and invisibility).
Miles’s Uncle Aaron—his hero—turns out to be the Prowler, the Kingpin’s #1 henchman, but he is killed by the Kingpin when he refuses to ice Miles (as Spider-Man). Miles eventually gets a handle on his powers, is able to send his Spidey friends back to their respective continua, defeat the Kingpin, reconcile with his father as both Miles and Spider-Man and also to get a bad-ass new costume and control of his powers and cement his reputation as the replacement Spider-Man.
The post-credits sequence shows the missing Spider-Man: Spider-Man 2099, who was the first alternate-universe Spider-Man in the comic books. He’ll probably show up in the inevitable sequel to this, the fourth reboot of the modern-era Spider-Man movies.
It’s a bit on the long side, with the final scene stretching a bit, spinning higher and higher into nigh-incomprehensible hallucinogenic animation—probably just because it was digital and they could afford it. It all looked lovely, but it wasn’t the kind of artistic film where you could sell a ten-minute hallucinogenic experience (as in, for example, 2001: A Space Odyssey). It didn’t detract, but it didn’t add, either.
It’s well-written, well-voiced, gloriously well-animated and has a kick-ass soundtrack and vibe. Seriously, I could watch it again just for animation. This is how they should have been making comic-book movies all along. It’s the kind of Spider-Man reboot I can really get behind.
- The Hunted (2003) — 4/10
This movie jumps right into it with a nearly interminable slaughter and battle somewhere in the former Yugoslavia. The Serbians are depicted as mercilessly slaughtering Albanians while worshiping posters of Milosevic. Not exactly subtle; am I watching the Zero Dark Thirty of the NATO Balkan intervention/slaughter?
Benecio del Toro is a super-soldier who takes out the Milosevic-worshiping Serbian with a knife and with absolutely no trouble at all. To cement him as a basically good guy who’s been led down a dark path by his training, we see him awaken in a darkened room somewhere back on home soil, haunted by visions of his feats in battle.
Next we see a brief shot of a bald eagle soaring over a forest (the subtlety continues) that we are shown to be in Canada as we see Tommy Lee Jones running after a white wolf on foot. He rescues it from the snare that it is trapped in, using something he chews to gum up its paw to prevent infection. He is revealed to be even more of a naturalist frontier hero when he takes the snare back to its owner and uses it to bash his head into a table.
We rejoin del Toro (we still have no names at all and, at this point, I refuse to learn them) in the deep woods where he baits and toys with two hunters looking for him. He takes them on John Rambo-style: his knife against their guns. Also his booby traps. Also, he wins handily, murdering and dismembering them both.
In classic fashion, one of his old friends roots Tommy Lee Jones out of his deep-woods nature job and brings him back for “one more hunt” to find the killer who’s ritually killing people. He investigates the scene of the crime, finds out a whole bunch of stuff that the entire FBI was completely incapable of discovering for themselves, reluctantly takes a walkie-talkie offered by the gorgeous and capable crime-scene lead (Connie Nielsen) and heads off into the woods on his own, telling them to assume he’s dead if he’s not back in two days.
He tracks for an indeterminate time and meets up with (a very young-looking) del Toro and fights him almost to a standstill, distracting him enough until the FBI tranquilizes him. It is not clear whether Jones knew that the FBI were following but, given his amazing tracking powers, we can only assume that he was aware.
They know each other, with del Toro claiming that Lee Jones had trained him. Del Toro claims to be interested in the way humans treat nature, (in his police interview, he mentioned the number of chickens slaughtered per year, to Jones, he complains about inept hunters with magic scopes that let them kill above their pay grade) but he’s also interested in airing dirty laundry about covert operations he was on with Lee Jones. Jones shuts him up quickly once he starts talking with the FBI recording on.
Some of his former comrades (his black-ops group) show up to take him out of custody, but they want to kill him or silence him. They take him away, but he tips their transport truck, killing them all and escaping into the woods. He visits his ex and her daughter, exhorting them to leave the area before whoever is after him gets to them. The FBI shows up and is typically strong-arming, forcing their way into her house without a warrant. This is standard fare for American movies and TV these days: training people to kowtow to authority without asking any questions or making them adhere to procedure.
Del Toro is at the house, but can’t be captured, leading them all on a merry chase through the city and escaping into the tunnels of a building site. The FBI follows him down there and starts dropping like flies. Good old Tommy Lee is chasing del Toro (he’s obviously the only one who can track him, right?) but del Toro gets away, escaping back into the city, up through a manhole. Lee Jones can track him anywhere though: look! There’s a construction helmet on the ground! He went thataway! Look, there’s footsteps in the grass! It could only be one person out of millions! Tommy Lee is a superhuman tracker!
He tracks del Toro to a metro-rail, then chases him up a bridge structure while the FBI fires away, risking all of the bystanders with ricochets even though they have no chance of hitting anything. There is a sexy helicopter with a balaclavaed sniper riding Vietnam-style but even he can’t prevent del Toro from jumping into the river and (presumably) swimming away without trouble.
The FBI is super gung-ho but it’s OK because it’s a hot woman acting like a testosterone-crazed man this time. Tommy Lee Jones is pretty spry and has pretty good endurance for an older guy who hasn’t slept in days. Del Toro, too, doesn’t seem to be suffering any lingering injury or loss of mobility due to the horrific car wreck that he recently survived.
Del Toro is clearly more than capable of forging his own knife blade over a campfire that is somehow hot enough to smelt steel. Also, he builds a an Endor-like trap with giant logs all by himself. Tommy Lee Jones is also doing crafty things in the woods and still tracking like an all-seeing God while they both await the Hollywood showdown between “reluctant master who’s never had to kill before” and “renegade student driven mad by what he’s had to do for his country”.
Hollywood has trained me (as a viewer) so well that, despite Jones getting his artery punctured by a filthy wooden stake and then plummeting on a plain old (non-bungee) rope what looks like several hundred feet above a river, I don’t expect him to be injured in any debilitating way—or in any way that will affect his ability to fight the much younger and clearly more capable del Toro to a standstill and, eventually, to defeat him. Just the shock from dropping on a normal rope for 100 feet should have shattered Jones’s body, but I digress.
As expected, Jones manages to cut the rope and drops into a raging river with absolutely no ill effects and hitting no rocks. There is literally no sign of his previously expressed fear of heights. Del Toro finds him and, as expected, Lee Jones manages to somehow get an advantage despite all that’s happened to him and his advanced age. This is how these things are done. Now they are both injured animals and, WWE-like, Jones has turned the tables.
They’re both bleeding like stuck pigs from what seems like dozens of egregious wounds inflected by professional killers and they’re still as spry as two 20-year-old boxers. The FBI finds them just as Jones kills del Toro, proving… I don’t know what. This is ludicrous. Jones takes a minute at the death scene to mourn his former student and also, presumably, his reputation for having never taken a life.
The best thing about this is the credits music: Johnny Cash’s When a Man Comes Around. It is not at all clear why they chose it. I subtract two stars for not even trying to do something with del Toro. At least they didn’t make the hot FBI agent show up at Jones’s cabin, at the end.
- Parasite (2019) — 10/10
This is the story of a poor family somewhere in Seoul. They have no wi-fi and the whole family folds pizza boxes for a living—but not even well, so that their young manager docks part of their pay. The son has a good friend Min who’s been tutoring a high-school sophomore girl. Min has to leave for a while, so he asks his friend Kim Ki-woo (Kevin) to take over English lessons for her. On his first day, he is quite successful and convincing and gets wind that the girl’s mother thinks that her younger son is an art genius who needs tutelage, as well. Kim Ki-woo’s sister Jessica fills the bill perfectly (it was her art skills that forged his tutor papers in the first place).
Jessica takes up her job, very convincing as a hard-ass and nigh-inscrutable tutor. The whole family is used to scamming for a living. Jessica bluffs out a much higher rate, guessing that the boy is damaged goods (or that his mother believes that he is) and arranging for many sessions per week. The mother is a typical upper-middle-class fool who believes that her children shit gold and that money and tutoring will make them successful. It’s the same all over the world.
The next stage is to replace the driver with their father, Kim Ki-Taek (played by the always brilliant Kang-ho Song). Replacing the housekeeper with their mother will be a bigger challenge. The scammer family is easily up to it, preparing their speeches and tuning their words at home. They frame the housekeeper as having TB and get the mother signed up as having come from an exclusive agency “for rich people”. The son (Park Da-song) almost outs them—because they all smell the same, living in the same apartment and being from a poorer neighborhood.
The Kims are pleased with their progress—and reveal a bit about how Korean society is afflicted with a surfeit of education unmatched by accompanying jobs.“Anyway, aren’t we fortunate to be worrying about things like this? In an age like ours, when an opening for a security guard attracts 500 university graduates—our entire family got hired!”
The Parks go on a family camping trip, leaving their home to the Kim family, who enjoy themselves as if they live there. They are interrupted by the former housekeeper Moon-gwang, who asks entrance to “get something” from the basement. It turns out she’s been hiding her husband down there in the bunker where “you can hide in case North Korea attacks, or creditors break in”.
The Moons quickly cop that the Kims are a family and are scamming the Parks and try to turn the tables by threatening to send a video outing them. But the Kims are wily and they end up in a huge scuffle and retrieve the phone from Moon-gwang and her husbandj Geun-sae (played as a wonderfully mad man by Myeong-hoon Park).
However. The shitty weather has canceled the camping trip and the Parks are nearly home and want service from their staff. Their desperate preparation for the impending homecoming is genius. Moon-gwang refuses to go quietly—but Kim Chung-sook insists: with a foot to the chest and back down to the basement she goes.
The family scatters around the house while the mother comforts the wife (Park). They try to escape but Da-song (the boy) runs outside to set up his tepee and the parents end up sleeping in the living room while the Kims lie under the coffee table. Mr. and Mrs. Park are enflamed by the moment and start to fool around. They tucker themselves out and the Kims make their escape though not without incident. They escape into the rain, seemingly without having endangered their positions. The gutters are filling up. They are forced to walk all the way home to their half-basement, through a torrential, cold, uncaring and eerily warmly lit and beautiful Seoul.
The Kim’s half-basement apartment is flooding, a meter or more. The toilet is nearly exploding. Nearly nothing can be saved. The Moons are in the basement of the Parks—she has a concussion and her husband is tied up. Things have gone deeply south for all of them.
While half of Korea has seemingly drowned, Mrs. Park is refreshed and greets the new, sunny day ready to throw an impromptu birthday party for her little shitty kid. Jessica and Kevin are invited to join, of course. They have nothing better to do—that Mrs. Park could imagine, of course. Mrs. Park gives Mrs. Kim marching orders on how to arrange tables for the party—again, oblivious to everything except her needs. Bong Joon Ho is a master of irony here. He absolutely piles it on—it’s a wonder Mr. Kim doesn’t drive Mrs. Park and her insipid and tone-deaf nattering right off the road.
The desperation, mania and murderousness of the Kims and Moons contrasts with the oblivious ostentatiousness and narcissism of the Park’s stupid party. They live in different, parallel worlds. These worlds collide in spectacular fashion. Moon exacts revenge for his wife’s death on Kevin, Jessica and almost Mrs. Kim. Blood is everywhere. Park insults Kim for the last time. Stupid Da-Song passes out again because he thinks he saw a ghost. The poor boy was right, though: a ghost had been living with them the whole time.
The story picks up two months later, with Kevin and his mother on trial. Kevin is looking the worse for wear, with a traumatic brain injury. He can’t stop laughing. He heals and returns to spy on the house, seeing the lights blink in morse. His father is hiding in the basement, like Moon before him. Kevin resolves to make enough money to buy the house and rescue his father. The film ends on this … fantasy.
Director and writer Bong Joon Ho has really outdone himself—he’s one of my absolute favorite directors and writers (Memories of Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer, Okja and now Parasite).
The article Films From the Frontlines: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite by Eric Mann (CounterPunch) writes,“Parasite, in the brilliant web Bong weaves, shows capitalism as a system that implicates the members of every class and, in the absence of a revolutionary, counter-hegemonic movement, is loved or at least emulated by all. The poor are not angry at the rich. They are angry they are not rich and their only real anger is not at the system but those below them–what I call “upward mobility and downward hostility.””
They’re all parasites. The Kims, the Moons, the Parks. Capitalism engineers theirs behavior to be adversarial rather than supportive. There is no brotherhood or sisterhood, just alienation and cold calculation, with roles to play rather than people to be.“Joon casts actors to play the part of working people who in turn are actors in their own play impersonating other working people to hustle the ruling classes. So maybe we can act our way out of class subordination or at least to aspire to the next rung on the class ladder.”
It makes us stupid parasites—those that don’t even realize the are killing the host.
- Gone in Sixty Seconds (1974) — 5/10
This is the original movie about an organized gang of car thieves who somehow get an enormous contract from a foreign-sounding investor who has a hard deadline and a very specific list of 40 cars to steal. In this one, many of the targets are Rolls Royces instead of high-end sports cars (there weren’t that many of those at the time).
What they did have were giant hairdos (both men and women), mustaches, muttenchops, long leather coats and pimp hats. They had that shit in spades.
Unlike in the remake, they don’t bother giving a reason for why those cars are on that list or need to be delivered by that specific deadline. The stealing begins, with the first theft at night, which isn’t super cinema-friendly. The next few thefts are in daylight and go pretty easily.
One of the cars has a tiger in it. Another of the cars is being guarded by a cop. The thief poses as the tow-truck driver, but the cop and his dog are onto him. The thief drives the truck straight into the patrolman’s car…with nary a word from either of them. The cop is amazingly calm. He doesn’t pull his weapon. He just looks annoyed. He jumps in his car and gives chase. I can only imagine that this would all have seemed normal 45 years ago. The cop finally swears mildly when he crashes into a parked car and loses the truck.
Most of the rest of the thefts happen without incident, until they find dozens of kilos of heroin in one of the cars. The police show up just then and they try desperately to hide it. There’s a machine for destroying evidence that looks like a modified water-heater. One entire part of the garage wall was covered from top to bottom with soft-core pornography. The cop comes in and Jackson does his best to cover up the exploded bag of heroin on the floor of the garage.
The fleet of stolen cars looks magnificent: it must have been even more impressive in 1974, when those cars meant real money. Still, $400,000 for 48 stolen luxury cars still seems a bit light. It’s amazing how those numbers have changed—nowadays, they’d be talking about dozens of millions.
As in the remake: they get all but one of the cars with hours to spare. It’s only “Eleanor” left. Technically, they already have the cars they need, but “Eleanor” turns out to be uninsured—and they’re in the business of ripping insurance companies off, not people. They linger on this scene of Maindrian walking down a line of cars for what seems like ten minutes, switching back to hif fiancé Pumpkin Chase (that’s seriously her name) in her office, looking alternately bored, anxious and pensive. Maindrian jumps into Eleanor, returns it, and knows where to find another.
But this is all just a so-so movie with no-name actors that’s leading up to what is supposed to be one of the classic, all-time great car chases in cinema history. Maindrian steals Eleanor (a mustard-yellow Ford Mustang where the remake had a lovely Ford Shelby GT500), leaves the garage and triggers the alarm. He gets out, stops the alarm and squares off with a pair of cops in a patrol car who are onto him.
Maindrian is not nearly as worried about the paint job as Memphis Raines in the sequel was. Cars are getting destroyed right and left, but Maindrian is still going. This reminds me a bit of GTA, Driver or the finale of Blues Brothers. It’s not as varied, with a lot of driving out in the desert, as Maindrian shakes one cop after another. Maindrian hits a light pole at 85MPH and is none the worse for wear—and the car’s fine, too. Doubly amazing, considering seatbelts weren’t really a thing at the time (we did see him buckle up when he started, though).
We continue: windshield has gunshot holes in it, the front end is ruined, the whole side is scraped up. The hoods all wavy and folded up. Maindrian crashes into more cars, more roadblocks—glancing blows all—until he gets cornered in a parking lot/garage and must finally slow down. The cops have him surrounded and they’re still not shooting. He slips away. Again. His car is a shambles.
Unbeknownst to him, he’s headed for the scene of an unrelated accident. He ends up jumping off one of the cars like a ramp and the movie shows in gloriously detailed slow motion what really happens to a car when you jump it. He keeps going, somehow. He stops at a car wash, where he spots another mustard-yellow Mustang. He swipes that one, switches out the plates, and is on his way with a clean, non-destroyed ride.
The police are actually nice in this! One stops to help a woman get out of the road before she gets hit by the chase. The chase is a bit staid by today’s standards, but it’s real—instead of cars jumping from building to building in Dubai (I’m scowling at you, Vin Diesel). To be honest, I think the James Bond chases of the time were better, but they also had a lot more money to spend.
I don’t have to describe the soundtrack during the chase, do I? I didn’t think so.
None of the actors or actresses would go on to make a name for themselves, unsurprisingly. I’m sure they had fun making the movie, though. An extra point for all the really nice-looking vintage 70s cars pretty much all over this movie.
- Yojimbo (1961) — 8/10
Toshirô Mifune is the Samurai Sanjuro who’s come to a town split into two factions, represented by rival gangs. The constable is useless. Sanjuro sees a way to enrich himself in this situation—and also to free the town.
He allies himself first with one side Seibê, but he overhears himself being double-crossed and abandons the fight that they start, giving their money back. He approaches the other side Ushitora and offers his services. He is refused.
The first big battle takes place without his sword; instead, he climbs to a high perch and observes from above, laughing, as the cowards all pretend to want to fight each other, but no-one makes the first move. It’s broad daylight.
The supposed fight (that was going nowhere) is interrupted by an inspector from Edo. Sanjuro schemes further as he observes the two gang leaders interacting with the inspector. Seibê and his wife squabble further over how to honor Sanjuro as he smirks. Sanjuro visits the casket-maker—the only one doing any business in town since the gangs started fighting. The silk business is dead; the brothel business, too.
It is raining. Torrentially. Just how Kurosawa likes it. It is very cold. You can see everyone’s breath.
The inspector leaves, taking the rain with him. The brother of Ushitora blows into town. He kind of looks like a samurai, but is actually a gunslinger and a poseur. The machinations continue. Each side takes hostages; they meet at 02:00 to trade. They are at a stalemate again.
They arrange another trade, again in full daylight. The son of one of the hostages is there to spoil the exchange. Her husband is there, too, and we learn later that he lost his wife and his house at cards and that the poor sap built a hut next to his former house and watches his wife be ravaged by the victor (Tokuemon) every night.
Sanjuro tells Ushitora that he will go with his other brother Ino (serious unibrow) to make sure that Tokuemon and the captured wife are safe. He tells Ino that all six guards have been killed and to get help. Then he slays all six of the guards himself and rescues the wife, returning her to her husband.
He throws the family the money he’d been paid thus far by Ushitora and urges them to flee. He tears apart Tokuemon’s house more, slashing the ceilings to let out the seeds used as insulation. He comes back out to find the foolish family still there—worshipping him and thanking him for saving them. He is angry with them—they should leave, lest it all be for naught.
Ushitura accepts Sanjuro’s story and takes revenge on Seibê by setting one of his silk shops on fire, demanding the woman back. Unosoke grins maniacally, his stupid gun poking from his robes.
The next morning, we see Ushitura stumbling through runnels of sake pouring from his slashed casks; Seibë has exacted revenge. It’s quite an incredible scene.
In the next scene, the town is in shambles, half burned, bodies in the street. Even the casketmaker’s business is in ruins. Uno and Ino confront Sanjuro about the escaped woman. They find proof, because the dipshits had to write a thank-you note. Sanjuro knew they were fools. Sanjuro is repaid for his kindness to them with a horrific beating by Ino and Uno and Kannuki the giant (who looks kind of a like a Japanese Jaws/Richard Kiehl).
He manages to escape, eventually sneaking out of town in a coffin (TIL old-timey Japanese coffins look more like barrels). On the way out of town, his friend Gonji (the tavern keeper) and the casket-maker stop and witness the slaughter as Ushitura’s men smoke out and kill Seibê’s men and his entire brothel. In the meantime, the casket-maker runs away and they must enlist stupid Ino’s help in carrying Sanjuro out of town, to a small temple to recover.
Gonji has been kidnapped and Sanjuro is ready to take on Ushitura’s gang, once and for all.
It’s wonderfully filmed, seeming to really have taken place in 1860s feudal Japan. Except there are no regular townspeople: the town has only sake and whores and gangs. It’s not ever clear where food comes from. Mifune has all sorts of mannerisms that are hard to tell (for me) if they are signs of that time or his own invention. He strokes a non-existent beard all the time. He is constantly pulling his arms in and out of his billowing sleeves.
The film is black and white and uses a lot of side-wipes to change scenes (George Lucas would use those a lot, as well). It’s always incredibly windy in that town. The Samurai look mixes very nicely with the classic Western aesthetic. I can see a thousand graphic novels being born from any one of these scenes.
- You Were Never Really Here (2017) — 8/10
There is almost no dialogue in this film. What there is, is washed out and difficult to understand. Background noise like televisions or conversations from other booths and tables in restaurants tends to drown it out. It doesn’t matter because the story is told visually.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a haggard man with a medical problem of some sort, almost certainly PTSD. He was in one of America’s foreign wars. He was in customs or perhaps ICE. We see flashbacks of him discovering immigrants piled up in a container. He lives alone with his mother, who seems a bit off, either with natural age-related dementia or with the repercussions of beatings she’d gotten from his father, an obviously brutal man from whom Joe got certain mannerisms. He’s certainly inherited his weapon of choice from his father—the hammer.
He is brutal, efficient and violent in his job, rescuing girls from human trafficking. He is hired to discreetly rescue a Senator’s daughter from a high-end child brothel. He does so with neither pomp nor circumstance, taking her back to his motel room. Before he can return her to her father, she is re-abducted by police officers (or men dressed as such), one of whom absconds with her and the other who is killed by Joe.
Joe returns to his handler to find him dead, slaughtered, with his hands brutally mutilated. Fearing the worst, Joe rushes home to find his mother has been killed by two men still in his home. He kills one and gut-shoots the other, who reveals to him that State Governor Williams has had Nina re-abducted, as she was his favorite.
Joe buries his mother in a local lake, filling his pockets with stones to join her in her watery grave. An obligation to Nina changes his mind and he strides away, with a modicum of purpose. With the same lack of care to planning and strategy or tactics, Joe enters Williams’s palatial country home, dispatching a few henchmen only to find Williams in the girl’s room, with his throat slit. Joe is in bits. He finds Nina in the dining room, eating with bloody hands and a straight razor next to her plate.
He takes her to a diner, where they both recover somewhat. As she goes to the bathroom, he has a violent fantasy of ending his life. She wakes him from his reverie and tells him that “it’s a beautiful day”.
The film is lean, without extra bits, told mostly visually, with a fitting soundtrack and understated performances. Phoenix oozes angst. Interesting and unique.
- Bonnie and Clyde (1967) — 8/10
We meet Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) lying undressed in her upstairs room where she lives in West Dallas in Texas, obviously hating her life as a waitress. She hears a noise outside and catches Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) trying to steal her mother’s car—and then pretending not to. They talk and hit it off immediately; she’s not averse to his larcenous lifestyle and he sees something special in her.
They rob their first store and she’s all over him—but he demurs, telling her that it’s not his style. She is nonplussed, unsure of her role. Their minor crime spree continues with a car here, a car there, an empty bank, a general store where he was just trying to buy supplies with the two dollars they had.
They pick up a third wheel in the form of a clever mechanic C.W. Moss. In their next bank robbery, Clyde kills a man and they barely get away because the driver is too cautious—he parallel-parked the car. Clyde makes a final offer to Bonnie to let her get out scot-free, but she refuses. They try to make love, but Clyde is…not a loverboy.
They head to Clyde’s family home, where they meet his ludicrously enthusiastic and hillbilly brother Buck (Gene Hackman). His wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons) is less than thrilled with the three of them. They all move into a house in the country together. While Blanche is happier being more settled down, Bonnie is restless and unhappy with the domestic arrangements.
They’re discovered and forced to hit the road again. They hit more banks, with the police giving chase, and many being killed by what Buck terms the “Barrow Gang”. Tensions continue to rise as Blanche insists on a cut, even though she doesn’t do anything but sit in the car. They’re forced to steal another car, taking Eugene Grizzard’s car (Gene Wilder).
Grizzard and his fiancé Velma give chase, but give up. To their chagrin, the gang turns around and gives them chase, forcing them to a stop. They pick them up and now there are seven people in the car, driving God knows where, picking up takeout burgers and fries (was that a thing in 1931?). When he tells them he’s an undertaker, Bonnie insists they be dumped immediately, in a cornfield in Oklahoma in the middle of the night.
The Barrows have a family reunion of sorts, with Bonnie’s mother and a passel of children of, quite frankly, unknown origin. Soon after, the gang is attacked at night by many, many police and barely escape with their lives. Buck is shot in the face and severely incapacitated. The noose of law enforcement is closing. They are set upon again, with the law killing Buck and taking Blanche into custody.
In the shootout, Bonnie and Clyde are wounded and C.W. takes them to his father’s house. They get patched up a bit and get back on the road a few days later, where they finally manage to consummate their relationship. This reluctance is all the more humorous because Warren Beatty was such a Casanova in real life. Papa Moss is hell-bent on getting his son out of trouble—and makes a deal with local police to give up Bonnie and Clyde. He traps them when they stop to help him fix a flat tire; the police do the rest.
The movie is a bit more accurate than press accounts at the time (the movie mentions this), but still doesn’t address nearly the severity of Bonnie’s injuries, near the end (one of her legs was nearly destroyed, with visible bone sticking out of a wound that refused to heal). See Bonnie and Clyde (Wikipedia) for much more information.
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988) — 8/10
The nearly unbearably guileless and adorable opening credits set the mood for this Studio Ghibli film. Everything is hand-drawn, hand-made, comfortable, warm, cozy. The landscapes are beautiful. This is not a slick U.S. animated film.
It starts with a father driving to the countryside with his two daughters (Satsuki, who’s about ten, and Mei, who’s about four or five). They open up the semi-dilapidated house together, investigating the yard and the bathhouse and so on. The older girl enters the house on her inverted knees, shoes held up in the air so that they don’t touch the floor.
They finish cleaning up the house, with the help of caretaker Nanny and her grandson Kanta, who’s afraid of the “haunted” house. They’ve moved there to be near the girls’ mother, who’s in the hospital. They all visit the mother and hope for her rapid recovery and return. The next morning, Satsuki takes care of breakfast because their father overslept and isn’t ready to handle the household yet. They have sushi and rice for breakfast and Satsuki heads off to school. Mei dresses up to go “out” in the garden. Tatsuo gets to work in his office.
Mei plays in the garden and that’s when Totoro’s minions come chugging out of the deep grass, looking like someone crossed a rabbit with a penguin. They’re cute, but Mei is nearly unbearably adorable. She follows them down a rabbit hole to Totoro’s lair, falling asleep with him for the whole day.
Satsuki comes home from school and finds Mei asleep in the garden, but just under some bushes. There’s no sign of Totoro. They also can’t find the path to the big tree that Mei followed before. Tatsuo and Satsuki laugh at her silliness, but Tatsuo tells her that she was lucky to have met the “king of the forest”.
The movie deals with the small gods that accompany regular people throughout the day. The “dust bunnies” that make the house dirty, the gods of the forest, and so on. The girls stop at a shrine on the way home, during a rainstorm, asking for leave of the god who lives there to stay under the roof until the rain passes. Later, in the forest, near a bus stop, Mei discovers a shrine behind a tree, with a dog god of some kind.
As they wait for their father, Totoro shows up to the bus stop. Satsuki loans the creature her father’s umbrella and it takes off with it. It gives her a gift of seeds in exchange. Its bus comes first and is different—it’s a Cheshire Cat with glowing eyes for headlights. Satsuki is over the moon because now she’s met Totoro, as well.
The girls plant the seeds and wait. A few nights later, Totoro shows up—with his umbrella—to make them sprout. And sprout they do—into a majestic tree. This is all in their dream, though. (Or is it?) The next morning, the seeds have sprouted, but much more modestly.
The same day, the girls get news that their mother isn’t well enough to come home, yet. Mei runs away to the hospital—the whole town is looking for her, fearing the worst. Satsuki runs all over the damned place; everyone communicates exclusively by shouting. The townspeople think they’ve found Mei’s shoe—but it’s not hers.
Satsuki calls on Totoro for help, who obliges by calling the cat-bus, which carries Satsuki first to Mei and then both of them to the hospital, where they see that their father is with their mother—and that she’s OK. They leave an ear of corn on the windowsill, proving that they were really there.
The end credits are possibly even cuter than the opening ones. The song’s terrible, though.
- A Dangerous Method (2011) — 8/10
This is a David Cronenberg film starting in 1904 and dealing with the birth of psychoanalysis and its two main midwives Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. The opening scene sees Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein being carted to the Burghölzli Psychiatric Hospital overlooking Zürich.
Sabina becomes a patient of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and is soon not just in therapy with him, but also working for him as his assistant. While she’s in therapy, Jung sits behind her. Cronenberg here chooses to focus Sabina so that half of her face is out-of-focus, suggesting her unsettledness.
In a therapy session, she admits that she becomes excited by the thought of her own beating or humiliation. She diagnoses herself as a vile creature who should never leave the hospital.
Two years later, Jung travels to Austria with his wife, to meet Freud (Viggo Mortenson). They dine together and Freud lightly admonishes Jung when he couches his professional talk too guardedly,“And by the way, please don’t feel you have to restrain yourself here. My family are all veterans of the most unsuitable manner of mealtime conversation.”
The two men collaborate; we learn that Freud is absolutely fixated on a sexual interpretation of every facet of human behavior. We learn that he is poorer than Jung, whose wife is quite wealthy. They spar, but Freud is not to swayed on any point. Jung confides later in Sabina.
Next we meet Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), an unstable acolyte of Freud. He becomes Jung’s little devil on his shoulder, exhorting him to take Sabina, as she so clearly wants to be taken. Gross escapes from the institution, but not before ravishing a field worker. Jung goes through his soft-core pornographic effects and finds a letter addressed to himself. The advice is unchanged. Jung becomes more and more deeply conflicted about his personal vow of monogamy—and more and more swayed by Gross’s arguments.
He finally gives in and begins sleeping with Sabina. When he tries to end the affair, she psychoanalyzes him, asking how his lovemaking is with his wife—and then telling him how it will be different with her: “With me, I want you to be ferocious. I want you to punish me.” They agree to continue the affair.
Freud visits Jung in Zürich; he is still an arrogant egotist, but he’s not wrong when he admonishes Jung for wasting time with “telepathy” or “catalytic exteriorized phenomena” (which is where Jung said his gut starting burning the second before a bookcase cracked).
During this time, Jung is often shown in the sailboat his wife gave him, but never in any significant wind. He takes his wife’s gift regularly to visit his mistress. Matters come to a head and Jung shows himself to be the absolute king of terrible breakups. Sabina attacks him, then accepts his breakup because he’s a giant jackass. Sabina writes to Freud (all writing is in German), asking for his assistance.
Sabina confronts Jung again, begging him to confess to Freud all that’s done with her. She wants Freud to take her on as a patient. While Sabina will summer in Berlin with her parents, Jung and Freud plan to travel to America. They are on the same ocean-liner, but Jung is in first class, with his wife, whereas Freud mst travel in a lower class. That chaps his hide something fierce.
Sabina is in Küsnacht, visiting Jung at his new practice. He notes that he was worried about whether he’d be able to find enough patients at the new location, but it hasn’t been a problem. Obviously not: Küsnacht is at most 10km from his previous hospital (and probably closer). He agrees to take her on as her thesis advisor. The affair begins anew. This time she breaks it off, moving to Vienna, where she meets with Freud. She presents her idea, to which he responds,“I fought against the idea for some time, but I suppose there must be indissoluble some link between sex and death. I don’t feel the relationship between the two is quite the way you’ve portrayed it, but I’m most grateful to you for animating the subject in such a stimulating way.”
The rift between Jung and Freud grows, eventually exploding in a flame war executed via post. It’s based on Freud’s insistence that therapists should not play god, that all a therapist can do is diagnose, but never cure. Whereas Jung wants to be able to help the patient work around the disease, to reinvent themselves. This is a difficult tightrope to walk: how to cure without shaping, without instilling structure from without? How to avoid playing God? It’s an interesting dispute and I’m not even sure I know where I land, to be honest.
Mortenson, Fassbender and Knightley are all quite excellent. Her accent is a bit odd, but I honestly can’t judge what it should sound like as a Russian emigré fluent in German, living in Switzerland in the early 1900s and being portrayed in English. I give the movie an extra point for nicely written dialogue, though I can’t help but think how much better it would have been in German.
A confession: I was wondering to myself why Studio Ghibli always made characters who looked more European than Japanese. I finally bothered to look up the answer and it’s quite eye-opening (no pun intended). The accepted answer by Dimitri mx (StackExchange) is that the characters do look Japanese to the Japanese.
The characters only look European to Europeans because we think people look like us; the Japanese think the same. They are more right, though, in this case. Once you have this mental model, watch anime again. You’ll see that the characters are smaller people, with small noses, they are usually portrayed as slimmer and more delicate and are largely hairless.
Also, they are incredibly culturally Japanese. Just in this film: they speak Japanese, there are Japanese texts lying everywhere, they write in columns from right-to-left. they take off their shoes to enter houses, they have rice-paper walls, they eat sushi and rice for breakfast, they sleep on a tatami on the floor, they wear very uncomfortable-looking wooden sandals. Also, Tatsuo just works all day without noticing that his kid has been playing unsupervised in the garden for the whole day. That’s not very American.
With eyes open, you wonder how you ever saw the characters as anything other than Japanese. They’re just stylized people.
In anime, there’s no mistaking characters who are actually European. They are drawn more like Dan Eagleman (just as an example) and the difference is then very noticeable.
Is the hair color not natural? Are the eyes too big? Big eyes are expressive—and that’s why they’re too big in Western cartoons, as well.
There is an excellent article Why Do The Japanese Draw Themselves As White? by Lisa Wade (Archive.Org) that starts with the example of Marge Simpson, who has yellow skin and blue hair, but who Americans have always accepted as a white lady.
The article includes a great example of how cultural perspective shapes what we see: the stick figure.
“If I draw a stick figure, most Americans will assume that it is a white man. Because to them that is the Default Human Being. For them to think it is a woman I have to add a dress or long hair [or boobs]; for Asian, I have to add slanted eyes; for black, I add kinky hair or brown skin. Etc.
“The Other has to be marked. If there are no stereotyped markings of otherness, then white is assumed.
“Americans apply this thinking to Japanese drawings. But to the Japanese the Default Human Being is Japanese! So they feel no need to make their characters “look Asian”. They just have to make them look like people and everyone in Japan will assume they are Japanese – no matter how improbable their physical appearance. (Emphasis added.)”
Lesson learned. Eyes opened.↩
I’d originally written “him” but, in light of the discussion in the end-note above, there’s no reason to think that Totoro is male. It has no identifying male organs nor has it done anything male. It is a magical creature. It’s not a cat; it’s not a rabbit.
Our default worldview colors everything.↩