Friday, July 12, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: The Ballad of Narayama

The Ballad of Narayama

Another "Ballad" in the title, another great movie by the Criterion Collection. I wasn't expecting that much from The Ballad of Narayama based on the description but it blew me away. It's easily one of the most exciting experiments in film I've seen but it's also one of the most touching stories I've seen. For those of you keeping track, my list of favorite -I would love to see these again and again- Criterion Movies is:

ALAMBRISTA!

AN ANGEL AT MY TABLE

THE BAD SLEEP WELL

and now

THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA

The story is about the ancient Japanese practice of abandoning old people to die on mountains as a way to appease the gods. There's some question whether this was ever an actual practice or just a myth that grew up. Regardless The Ballad of Narayama uses this as the basis for a simple but powerful story. In an ancient village, an old woman has reached the age of 70, the age at which people are sent to the mountain to die. But her son truly loves his mother and is deeply conflicted about abandoning her.

The story is very powerful but it's not even the most striking feature of the movie. Except for the final scenes, the entire movie was shot on a sound stage. That's not unusual for 1958 but the film draws attention to the fact. The movie is presented almost as a kabuki drama complete with a singing narrator. Often there are very theatrical scene changes. The background screen will suddenly fall revealing a new set that the camera pushes into. Despite this very artificial appearance the acting is totally realistic. The viewer is sucked in to the plight of loving son who is asked to carry his mother to side of a mountain and then leave her there. The thought reduces this man to tears.

At first this movie wasn't appreciated for what it is. As noted, sound stage sets weren't that unusual in 1958. There was Forbidden Planet and Brigadoon which were also shot on sound stages. But now the picture can be appreciated for what it is, a bold attempt to combine the flamboyance of kabuki with raw human emotion.

The movie was by Keisuke Kinoshita who directed The Army and Apostasy. This is the movie that convinced me Kinoshita was a true master. This film is so ambitious and it works beautifully. Any questions I had about his poitn of view were wiped out with this picture. Here tradition is the true enemy. The man doesn't want to abandon his mother but society won't let make any other choice. There's even a scene that feels like J Horror. The old woman is embarrassed that she still has a full set of teeth at 70. So she knocks them out. The sequence is played as pure horror and she even shocks the other villagers. The final shots, the only ones not done on a sound stage, are of modern Japan. The place where old people were sent to die is now a ski resort. It's a bitter, final jab at the dead traditions. I can't help but feel that the man who created The Army felt deeply disappointed in his country's leaders after the war.

The film is a visual feast. There are so many incredible shots. The one haunting image is of the old woman sitting on the mountain as the snows slowly cover her. Her son yells his final goodbye as she sadly waves him away.

Obviously this would be a tricky film to use as a template but it would great for directors and writers to look at this film and use it as inspiration. This is a very sad story but the film it inspired is alive and exciting.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Ballad of a Soldier

Ballad of a Soldier

Now we're into a very good stretch. I don't what is with Ballads but the next three, all with Ballad in the title, were all great. One made it to my new favorites list, another might be on there - I'll have to think about it - and there's this one which didn't make it to my new favorites but I was still mightily impressed by it. Ballad of a Soldier was made in the USSR in 1959. It's not a propaganda film like The Army but the movie is clearly meant to generate good feelings and nostalgia for World War II. It's also basically the Soviet Union's answer to Titanic. It's romantic, it's a an incredible feel good movie, yet it has an ending that is a weapons grade tearjerker. And that's not a contradiction. You can't get the tears to flow with getting the audience engaged and keeping them entertained up until the ending.

The story takes place in World War II. The main character, 19 year old Alyosha knocks out two German tanks. As a reward he's given a six day furlough to go back to his village and spend a day or two with his mother. Alyosha sets off. It's not an easy trip as the Germans are still on the offensive. Along the way Alyosha meets a whole bunch of people. He's a good kid, a boy scout really, and tries to help where he can. He helps a wounded veteran make it back home to his wife. He delivers a present (two cakes of soap) to the wife of a soldier at the front. When he discovers the wife has shacked up with another man, he takes the soap to the soldier's sick father instead and makes up a few stories about a man he just barely met.

Alyosha finds a traveling companion in the young Shura, a girl who jumps into the train car he's riding in. Their first meeting is hilarious. Also a hoot is the guard whom they have to bribe to stay on the car. There's a hilarious joke with the guard and the lieutenant he calls, "a beast."

All these side trips plus the destruction of a bridge means that when Alyosha finally does arrive at the village he has to kiss his mother and then turn around right away. That's where the ending comes in. It's incredibly manipulative but it works. The audience is cheering for Alyosha and all the while dreading that he will have to turn around before he finds his mother. But he does find her and that one moment is incredible between them. We know from the opener that Alyosha will die during the war so this is the last his mother will see of him. My brother and I talk about some movies like the Toy Story series and compare them to the Marvel super villain Psycho-Man. Psycho-Man has this tablet like device that can make people feel a range of emotions. And some movies it's like the director has Psycho-Man's device and he keeps pushing the button that says "CRY!" And that's what the final scene is like. We've come to really like this kid. The moment between the two characters is so universal and so real that it feels like someone is hitting the CRY button over and over again.

This movie is very well directed and it has a top notch script. It may be due for rediscovery. It's well worth watching.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: The Bakery Girl of Monceau

The Bakery Girl of Monceau

Another short. This one by Eric Rohmer who did some writing on the Jean Luc Goddard's All the Boys Are Called Patrick. The Bakery Girl of Monceau was made in 1963 when the French New Wave was at its zenith.

The story is surprisingly complex but realistic. A student in Paris develops a crush on a girl he keeps bumping into. Finally he works up the courage to speak to her and they make a date. But when the day arrives the girl is no where to be found. The student looks for her everyday. For food he stops at a neighborhood bakery. There's a young girl who works there and they develop a bit of relationship. They move to flirting.

The student then begins to resent the Bakery Girl and he resolves to break her heart the way his own was broken. He asks her out. Finally she agrees. His plan is to stand her. But on the day he finally runs into his crush from earlier. She had a bad sprain and was off her feet for a few months. They meet and have dinner. The student stands up the bakery girl. He eventually marries his crush and he never sees the bakery girl again.

There's a lot that happens in this short that runs around 20 minutes. Eric Rohmer is known for his complex characters and this is a fine example. The student is obviously wrong. We're not meant to sympathize. But we're not meant to demonize either. This is story is made of small, even petty events and actions that can have lasting effects. The student may have done some bad things but fate plays a role in the story as well.

The photography is good. The best shots are of the bakery girl. As the student notices her she is framed and shot beautifully. The camera mimics the desires of the character.

This is a fine example of a short subject. It has excellent camerawork and a script that rewards analysis.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well

We come to Kurosawa, the master, the sensei, the legend. The Bad Sleep Well was a movie I'd heard about. I'd even seen a bit of it. But until I saw it now I hadn't appreciated it. Now I love it. It is one of my new, would love to see it again and again, favorites. For those keeping score that list is pretty short even though nearly every film I've seen in the Criterion Collection has been pretty good to really, really good. I only have two other films on that list at this stage, Alambrista! and An Angel at My Table. Now that list has to make room for The Bad Sleep Well.

This shouldn't be a surprise. Kurosawa is one of the godfathers cinematic cool. This man inspired Lucas to make Star Wars. That's how cool he is. Somewhere along the line he discovered how to make movies awesome. There's no other word for it. It's like umami, also a Japanese discovery. It had always existed but Kurosawa just isolated and refined it with his films.

The story isn't as Western friendly as Seven Samurai. Sure it's inspired, loosely by Hamlet, but it has some very Japanese traits. The movie opens with a mini masterpiece. A bevy of reporters gather at a wedding party because several of the guests are expected to be indicted on corruption. During this long scene we are introduced to all the main characters and the basic plot. This exposition is handled in a very realistic way. Why wouldn't reporters share info? The scene ends with an amazing shot. A cake, made into the replica of an office building is wheeled into the party. The building it replicates was the sight of an official's suicide. A red rose is placed on the window from where he jumped. The various guests show their surprise and discomfort. The hero, as yet unidentified has already sprung his trap.

That hero, played by Toshiro Mifune makes his presence known soon enough. He confronts another official about to commit suicide high atop a hill. The scene is as epic as anything in Seven Samurai. The fight against corruption in modern day Japan was one that needed a hero of that magnitude.

Now I've been very spoiler heavy with my reviews here. But really this is a film that is best if you go in knowing nothing. Do not read any further if you want to preserve the ending. It is a stunner.

What really impresses me about this film is that Kurosawa had the guts to kill his hero. And he does it off screen. The saddest deaths are the ones like Robb Stark's, when the hero seems close to fulfilling his goals. This is the case with Mifune's character. He's on the verge of winning and sending his enemies to jail. A few scenes later he's been done away with. This is the coldest ending since The Great Silence a spaghetti western that deserves its own Criterion release.

The only thing Western audiences may struggle with is the culture of corruption depicted here. Here subordinates are willing to commit suicide in order to protect their bosses. It's not something people in America have had to deal with.

If you're a director you need to see this film. The wedding scene alone is a scene that should inspire and excite young filmmakers. The writing is top notch. The cat and mouse game between the hero and the villains is intense and of course the ending is one of the bravest I've ever seen.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Babo 73

Babo 73

And now for something completely different. This entry answers a question I never thought to ask. I love Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man but who is Robert Downey Senior? Turns out, a pretty funny guy. Babo 73 is a very short underground comedy shot a micro budget.

It's about the President Sandy Studsbury, his advisers Chester Kitty-Liter and Lawrence Silver-Sky and his secretary Phillipe Green. There's no plot to speak of. There are hardly any sets. When the cast isn't running around the real Washington DC he and the other characters are either at the beach or a rambling wreck of an old house. The jokes come one after the other. For starters Studsbury is president of the United Status. In the first scene they murder the ambassador of Luxemborg who threatens to "drain their gold." It doesn't make a whole lot of sense and the jokes are specific to the 1960s. There's the threat of nuclear war and the fight to desegregate schools. Studsbury isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer either. One adviser is rabidly right wing the other a weak and ineffectual liberal. There are a few F bombs which are rare for the 1960s.

There area few jokes that are really memorable. Phillipe Green is constantly shouting and later declares he's having a nervous breakdown. The interview with a white man who tried to enroll in a black college is unforgettable. The finale is something I laughed at despite myself. This looks just like a student film. The cameras were handheld and the stock was fast. The sound looks like it's non synch.

There's not much else to say. It has no plot. Honestly it starts to run out of steam pretty quickly. This would have been awesome as a short. Twenty minutes or less the energy and humor would have been outstanding. It runs a little less than an hour but honestly I found that to be too long.

If a director wants to see how things used to be done, on old 16mm fast stock, this a fun film to check out. Writers may find some of the jokes funny. But a lot of them are dated and the movie runs way too long. The important lesson here is don't overstay your welcome.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Babette's Feast

Babette's Feast

And here's the foodie portion of the Criterion Collection. I mean that sincerely. Babette's Feast came out just as our obsession with food was taking off. It was the first of the foodie classics. The others being Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman and Like Water for Chocolate. The Food Network would start just a few years afterward.

I'd seen Big Night and Eat Drink Man Woman before so I was pretty excited to see this one. I have to admit I wasn't as into it in the first half though. Maybe that's because I was anticipating the feast too much. The story is very simple. In a remote Danish village, two elderly sisters continue the work of their father, a strict Calvinist minister. Their only companion is a French woman named Babette who escaped political violence in her home country. One day Babette wins the French lottery. The sisters think they are losing their companion so they grant her one request, that she prepare a fancy French feast to celebrate the birthday of their deceased father. The sisters agree but being strict Calvinists they are appalled at the idea of indulging in anything, especially food.

The beginning does set up some important background. Both sisters had suitors who play a part in the story. One is a young army officer who is madly in love with one sister. But he leaves when he realizes she will never marry him. Years later the man returns to partake in the feast. Having served in the Royal court he is, at first, the only one who truly appreciates the culinary treasure before him. The second suitor is a French opera star who discovers one sister has a voice like an angel. He gives her lessons but later returns home also disillusioned. But years later it's because of him that Babette becomes their maid and companion.

While the first half may have been a little slow the ending more than makes up for it. The feast lives up to its reputation. Maybe food porn existed before this movie but this raised the bar. But more than that the sequence is hilarious. The sisters, upon seeing the ingredients, sea turtle, cow's head, chicken feet, utterly panic. And most people today would freak out too. We haven't changed that much. They warn their friends in the village, also strict Calvinists that they can't be sure what they'll be forced to eat.

At first the sisters and their guests timidly poke at their dishes. But the magic of Babette's cooking can't be denied. The guests enjoy themselves in spite of it all. More than that they begin to experience joy. In a critical scene prior to the feast the community was shown as bitter and riven with feuds. But during the feast the old slights are forgotten. Everyone is too happy to mad with each other any more. And that's when the film really works. It captures that moment that Tony Shaloub talks about in Big Night. He says (paraphrasing) that to cook a great meal is to come a little bit closer to God. And at the end of this meal that's how these people feel.

I liked this one but not as much as I thought I would. I should have gotten to it earlier. There are are other foodie movies now and more are coming. But this one set the table for what was to come. The directing is solid. The writing is good. It's a fine template to study. If you haven't seen this one, Big Night or Eat Drink Man Woman, see this one first.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Autumn Afternoon

Autumn Afternoon

So last time I didn't have much to say about Au Revoir Les Enfants, one of the best known foreign/art house films. Much to my own surprise I find I have plenty to say about Autumn Afternoon by Yasujiro Ozu. I first learned about Ozu in college. His style of film making is very particular. He has famously restricted himself to domestic dramas that revolve around traditional Japanese themes. His stories are made up of little things with almost no dramatic outbursts. I saw one of his movies, I can't remember the name right now, and I found it at the time a little hard to sit through. The story was very small and the characters often seemed to be talking directly to the camera.

So I went into Autumn Afternoon not expecting much. And was I shocked to discover how much I loved this film at the end. It just misses out on being a new favorite. A professor at NYU once told me that you shouldn't see Ozu until you were old. I'm older than I was but I'm certainly not old. I think part of the reason I love this film is that since my college days Sophia Coppola has come onto the scene. She's not exactly an American Ozu but she does specialize in smaller more intimate stories. Lost in Translation is one of my favorite movies. But more than that I got what Ozu was driving at with Autumn Afternoon. I'll get to that in a little bit.

The story is one of Ozu's typical domestic dramas. It's about a past middle age father whose daughter still lives with him. His friends urge him to marry her off but he's content. His daughter has become the mother of the house for both him and his youngest son. But a visit with his old school teacher has a profound effect on him. The teacher's daughter also stayed with him and now they are miserable together. The father then succeeds in finding a husband for his daughter. But that gives him no comfort. He realizes his youngest son will soon also be gone and then he'll be alone.

What first struck me is the photography. The opening shots of a 1960s era factory is gorgeous. I don't think a smog belching plant has ever looked more beautiful. Ozu does the same with crowded apartments and streets in this picture. They aren't necessarily glamorized but these scenes are alive. And I can relate. I lived seven years in a one bedroom apartment in Van Nuys, definitely not the garden spot of LA. But even there you could find beauty.

The setting may be realistic but the staging is incredibly formal. Any one shot of an Ozu film is like a carefully composed portrait. The characters still look straight ahead during some of the dialogue. Here it wasn't as distracting as I remember. That may be because I saw it on a tablet. But most importantly the heart came through. There was a lot of humor in this story. The person that stole the show was the wife of elder brother. She is a hoot in every scene she's in.

The humor made the pathos stand out. The scene where the daughter cries when she finds out the man she likes is already engaged is very moving. The final scenes with the father are incredible. He doesn't tear his hair or roar at the heavens. Yet somehow that makes it even sadder. He has no choice but to accept the lot fate has dealt him. And that's when I really got what Ozu was driving at. It wasn't just this one man who will die someday. It's his entire world. He and his generation are holding on to a way of life that will be swept away soon by the new Japan.

In a way this film has the same spirit as Sam Peckinpagh's work. Both are obsessed with the passing of an age. Whereas Peckinpagh's Wild Bunch rages against that end, the father in Autumn Afternoon decides to fade quietly. Yes I just compared Peckinpagh to Ozu.

Which brings me to the reason I love this film but can't put it in there with my new favorites. It's because this film also demonstrates that the world Ozu is mourning is deeply flawed. In the story, soon after the father finds out that the daughter's preferred suitor is off the market he goes ahead with a traditional arranged marriage. The eventual husband is never shown. Apparently no one in 1960s Japan had heard of the term "rebound." So while this film made me understand what Ozu was driving at. It's also the film that made me realize I can't share his sorrow. Somethings fade away for good reason.

This is a difficult film. I think students should see it. I don't buy that you have to be an AARP member in order to appreciate Ozu. That's not what he's about. And appreciating a story this small, and a craft this particular is a huge part in growing as an artist.