This long lock-down, shut-in has created some interesting situations, not all of them bad. Don't get me wrong, I hate this virus and I want it to go away forever, but that doesn't mean it hasn't forced upon us some things that are good. For example, I've reconnected with some old friends. I stayed in touch with my old college buddies longer than most. For years we regularly e-mailed, called each other, and had periodic get-togethers. But then, like so many old relationships, especially those in which the participants live miles apart, the connections became fewer and far between. I never completely lost touch, but those relationships really became a thing of the past rather than a current, living thing.
But with all of us having more free time on our hands and the inability to go anywhere, one of my pals reached out to see if I wanted to do a Zoom with the old gang. It was a bit awkward at first, especially since Zoom doesn't do a good job of letting you hear everyone clearly when there are multiple voices coming through, but it was really nice. Because we all have our own disparate lives now, we quickly struggled to find something to talk about. We are all film fans and so the conversation often turned itself to have you seen this movie or that one? At the end of our second conversation, I suggested we could do a regular movie chat. For the last month, we've chosen one movie to watch each week and then discussed it in our chats. It has been so much fun. I hope that when this virus finally does go away we will continue with these discussions.
I'll get to the movie we watched this past week in a minute, but first...
This One Summer
There have been a million books and movies and stories about the period of time in every person's life between childhood and adulthood. But very few of them are very good. I suppose the very fact that everyone goes through that aspect of life makes everyone think their story is both unique and universal. That is when we really start forming long-term memories, and the chemical changes in our bodies make everything seem so important, so hugely emotional. But it's hard to tell those types of stories without being too schmaltzy or preachy.
This One Summer, a graphic novel by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, gets it just right. It tells the story of Rose and Windy, two preteen girls who spend a summer vacation in a small beach town every summer. The summer of the story is when they first start noticing boys and the emotional lives of adults all around them. Rose's mother is depressed after a long history of fertility issues and a recent miscarriage. Her father is angry, distant, and doesn't understand why his wife is so sad. A local teenager becomes pregnant and her boyfriend doesn't know how to handle it. The cute boy who works at the video store lets them rent R-rated horror movies.
We catch snippets of these people's lives and see how the girls interpret them and try to understand both the adult world around them and how they are now entering into it. The coloring is all purples and blues giving it a moody, emotional feel. Even at 44, I'm a huge fan of these stories when they are done right and This One Summer is breathtaking.
The Hidden Fortress
My college buddies and I have now watched and discussed three movies: Key Largo, To Catch a Thief and The Hidden Fortress. Tonight, we'll be discussing Stanley Kubrick's film The Killing. We're fairly democratic about what movies we choose. We all throw out ideas, set up a little poll to narrow it down, and then we make final decisions. So far it has been super fun.
The Hidden Fortress was, I believe, the second Akira Kurosawa film I ever watched. I'm 99% sure I saw The Seven Samurai first, but I might be mixing them up. Whichever it was, I wasn't overly familiar with the director but I was liking what I'd seen. I have no doubt that I came to The Hidden Fortress because I'd heard it inspired George Lucas to write Star Wars.
In an interview included in the Criterion DVD release, Lucas downplays that inspiration a great deal saying that the only thing he took from the film was the idea of having the film's perspective coming from two lowly characters - in his case C-3PO and R2-D2. But watching the film, it is clear that once again George Lucas if full of crap.
Kurosawa's two lowly characters are peasants trying to survive a war between two clans in the Edo period of Japanese history. When they stumble upon gold hidden in some dried-up sticks, they inadvertently become part of a secret plan to escort the princess of the defeated clan back to her homeland. Toshiro Mifune is her trusted general. So not only are there two lower-class characters who give the film its perspective, but they also work as comic relief while escorting our heroes, including a princess to escape a larger evil empire. Oh, and since this takes place well into the past, our hero fights with a sword (not a laser sword mind you, but a sword nonetheless). Yeah, George, you sure didn't take any ideas of Kurosawa.
Seriously though, if you are a fan of Star Wars, or just great films in general give The Hidden Fortress a watch.
The Sword of Doom
I had been stumbling around for what to choose as my movie theme for May when I watched this film. It also stars Toshiro Mifune and darn if he doesn't seem like a guy whose films I want to watch. He plays a minor part in The Sword of Doom but a good one.
The film follows an amoral samurai (played to perfection by Tatsuya Nakadai). Early in the film, a woman comes to him to beg for him to lose an upcoming sword fight with her husband. She says the loss would mean nothing to him but if her husband loses, then it could mean his reputation and his job. He agrees but only if she'll sleep with him. She does and he wins the fight anyway, killing her husband in the process. He then takes her as his mistress as she has no other means of survival. That's the type of character he is, and the type of movie this is.
Slowly over the course of the film, he goes mad. This becomes especially noticeable when he watches another master swordsman (Mifune) cut down a large group of samurai in a fierce battle. Then the lady tries to kill him and suddenly, all his confidence is gone. It is a fascinating film in that it is the only samurai film I've seen in which the main character is so completely evil and going insane. Nakadai's performance is pitch-perfect and Mifune is as excellent as ever.
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant
Before I settled on Toshira Mifune for this month's theme, I toyed with the idea of doing German cinema or maybe just the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I've watched several of his films over the last year or so and have come to respect him very much as a filmmaker. Though he only lived some 37 years, he made over 40 films and wrote and staged numerous plays. His films ranged from comedy to satire to horror and the avant-garde but he is mostly known for his dramas.
This film tells the story of the titular Petra Von Kant, a successful fashion designer, and her relationship with two women. It takes place entirely inside her apartment and for the most part, all of the action resides inside her bedroom. Though she's apparently very successful, we never see her do any work. Instead, her assistant slaves away in every scene sewing and hanging fashions upon the many mannequins that fill the room. There is clearly some kind of sadomasochism thing going on between the two.
The main focus is upon a young model whom Petra befriends then turns her into her lover. Time shifts forward several times and we see them go from the beginning of a relationship where Petra can help the girl's career to a point where Petra is deeply in love but the girl has found success and thus no longer needs her.
Honestly, the story didn't appeal to me all that much, but Fassbinder fills each scene with such beauty and emotion I was entranced. Though set in just the one apartment, he still manages to create interesting images over and over that give us fascinating indications as to where each person fits into the relationship at any given time.
Eyes of Laura Mars
I have to officially admit that I love the sleazy movies from the 1970s and '80s. I mean, I've always admitted to liking bad horror films and b-movies, but recently I've come to love a particular brand of sleaze - trashy movies made by real film directors that sometimes include A-list stars. The '70s found cultural morals changing and film censorship letting up alongside it. Porn was chic and a whole new brand group of filmmakers were ready to push the boundaries. The '80s only expanded this more, especially once home video took off, allowing more money to be made by movies that might only get a limited release in movie theaters.
Great directors like Paul Schrader and Brian De Palma were making violent, voyeuristic films that pushed the boundaries of sexuality and kink while still maintaining an artistic bent. As someone who has along love affair with low budget films (that often push those same boundaries), it is a joy to watch aritsts who know what they are doing play in that same sandbox.
Enter Irvin Kershner. Yep, the same guy who directed The Empire Strikes Back. Eyes of Laura Mars is a movie about a fashion photographer who periodically is able to psychically see through the eyes of a serial killer (naturally, this only happens when he's about to kill someone). Her photographs tend to involve scantily clad women as they murder some well-dressed man. Imagine Playboy producing a slasher flick and you get the idea. The killer's victims tend to be models. This gives the film ample opportunity to give us glamorous, soft-focus shots of naked women and blood-soaked violence which Kershner seems to relish.
The woman is played by Faye Dunaway and the cop who tries to help her is a young Tommy Lee Jones. The script was co-written by John Carpenter and David Zelag Goodman. Brad Dourif, René Auberjonois, and Raul Julia all have juicy roles as well. Which is to say this is not some low-budget, thrown-together sleazy flick but a well thought-out, impeccably shot sleazy affair.
It isn't great by any means; most of these films aren't, but it sure is fun. Shoutouts should also be given to the costume designer and whoever did the guy's hair.
I Know This Much is True
Mark Ruffalo plays dual roles as twin brothers in this adaptation of Wally Lamb's novel in this limited series from HBO. One brother was emotionally abused as a child, the other has paranoid schizophrenia. When the latter is put inside an institution after a serious altercation, the other must do everything he can to get him out. Early reviews haven't been great. Ruffalo is getting raves for his performance but the story is apparently unrelentingly grim. But I love me some Mark Ruffalo and it also stars Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, Kathryn Hahn, and (surprisingly) Rosie O'Donnell. So I'm all in.