Noises Off… (1991): From Stage to Screen

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In the olden days, a stage production — or shall we say “the theater” — was blessed with a certain cultural cachet not extended to moving pictures. While this dichotomy hasn’t totally eroded, given the directions movies have gone, Noises Off…is buoyed by the stage for another reason.

Rarely have I witnessed something that totally blurs the line between performance and reality in such a self-reflexive manner. Noises Off… began as a highly successful play about a stage production going off the rails due to inadequate rehearsal times and the backstage histrionics of an amorous cast of characters. In other words, the original form fits the function.

Just by merit of the medium of film, it cannot be as intimate as the stage nor is it performance art in quite the same manner, though the director tries to stretch out sequences as long as they will contort to maintain the pace.

But the stage, because it is live, requires actors who are able to keep up with the utter mayhem of the material like trained athletes. Both the controlled and wildly chaotic nature interpolate into one storyline. So you obviously lose some of that instant spontaneity acquired by no other means.

If anyone knows that fact it’s Peter Bogdanovich, an avowed theater aficionado. He doesn’t let the story sag; it’s always zooming along, and it still manages something almost palpable. The trick is not fiddling too much with the concept nor trying to contort it in some grandiloquent way to fit the cinema.

The structure of the story itself is just as crucial in developing this cumulative impact. The Three Act Structure begins with the frantic rehearsal hours before they are set to perform. The long-suffering director (Michael Caine,) who might be on the edge of a nervous breakdown, is running out of time and dealing with temperamental actors asking for motivations or just absent-mindedly showing up late to set. He’s also romancing his leading lady (Nicolette Sheridan). The issues are there for comedic effect, but we have yet to reach impact — that requires a theater full of people.

Next, we follow the show from behind the curtain. The preparations are frantic, actors are missing, and the backstage crew, Julie Haggerty and Mark Linn-Baker, run around like two stage chickens with their heads cut off. It doesn’t change when the performance begins either because the whole story is based on timing — cues and a bustling scenario with slamming doors and traded props. It’s everything we’ve already seen, albeit from the inside out, ignited by male feuds (John Ritter gives Christopher Reeve a bloody nose) and private lover’s quarrels filled with bitter malice.

The show from the cheap seats is the worst (or best) of all as this mounting discontentment disrupts the foregone storyline with all kinds of private barbs and acts of pettiness played out on the stage. The key is how the fictional audience eats it all up because each absurd miscue feels like the next great flashpoint of brilliant comedy. It’s the height of farce.

One of my few reference points is Hellzapoppin’ even as the earlier film was often about the endless possibilities of nonsequiturs. What they have in common is this almost Vaudevillian sense of gags and payoffs — where each character has a shtick that can be called upon at any given moment. This isn’t method acting so objects don a different meaning as tokens to carry out gags, and Noises Off… brings them to a fever pitch. Sardines and telephones, flowers and bottles of bourbon. A pickaxe bandied about by all, each carrying varying attentions.

They effectively blend the space where two planes of existence bleed into one because these same tokens are exchanged and traded both on the stage and behind the stage. I joined the fictional audience in laughter even more heartily because, in many ways, we get to see the interworking of the beast in all its comedic underpinnings.

If we’re observant and stay with them, we see where the story has gone off the rails and the “unscripted” chaos that exerts itself on the storyline. The so-called “audience” snarks at each snafu because it’s a hilarious faux pas — the pratfalls are even better because they are “real.” And here you have the joy of Noises Off where it brings out these double-meanings or double realities and fictions.

We get the benefit of being both an audience member and a backstage observer. Because we know that all this world’s a stage and all these people merely players. Like Hamlet, it is only a play within a play, but it broaches into our space with startling verve and a raucous sense of precision.

I am reminded of the security guard; he sits in the wings watching all the madness quizzically with a raised eyebrow. What a crucial insert he proves to be because comedy is so much about the reactions to the stimuli. He reminds us how zany all this fracas is just in case we need a point of reference — a threshold to ground us back in reality.

Since they cannot help being in a cinematic space, the cast is tip-top including some faces I’m often quick to forget about and others who I miss dearly. John Ritter and Christopher Reeve are a joy even if this is hardly remembered compared to their greatest exploits. Carol Burnett is a comedic jewel. Bless her. Marilu Henner brings back all those fine memories of Taxi reruns. Denholm Elliot had such a long and illustrious career, but a doddering part such as this made me appreciate him even more.

The transition from stage to screen would not work as whole-heartedly without its cast, and I love them all in spite of their doltishness. In fact, it’s probably precisely because of this the movie works. Noises Off...would have been quite the sight to behold on stage, but it doesn’t lose all its merits in the hands of Bogdanovich, who makes it still a worthwhile and totally jocular experience. My primary barometer was my own personal reservoir of laughter. I couldn’t control it, and that speaks volumes enough for me.

3.5/5 Stars

Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1995): The Opposite of Loneliness

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Claude Sautet’s Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud positions itself as a certain type of film. There are no thrills about it. We come to notice the normal rhythms of shot-reverse-shot along the 180-degree line. This comes because the movie is so invested in conversation. Unlike his earlier Max and The Junkmen, there is no crime or bank robbery to spice up the narrative. It relies solely on the presence of its two titular stars.

You could go two ways with this. Either you find Emmanuelle Beart’s face deeply enigmatic or it’s empty, all but emotionless as she goes through the paces of life. Because it’s true her performance is defined by her expressions or lack thereof. Her pursed lips, unflinching doe-eyes, the self-assured posture.

Likewise, you could say it’s either crisp or bland in both content and manner. Each verdict is subjective, even preferential, and thus I am open to giving Beart and the picture the benefit of the doubt.

Opposite her is Michel Serrault playing a distinguished, older gentleman who has seen more of life yet bears his own share of hangups. The common denominator is not just loneliness in a foreign land like a Lost in Translation; I think it goes beyond that to a want of day-to-day companionship, even as a form of convenience for both parties.

Because one has to admit although we’ve seen these types of movies play out, it’s still an unlikely friendship, platonic though it maybe. They receive a reintroduction at a cafe through a mutual friend. We know they come from two different stations in life. He with his divorced wife and grown kids. She with a failing marriage to a couch potato of a husband.

Fortuitously, Sautet’s “drama” does not stoop to illicit levels in order to be novel. This would waste the premise. Instead, it readily courts digressions that more than suit the amicable characters and the subdued world they’ve been born out of.

Monsieur Arnaud offers to sign her a blank check, no strings attached, and he genuinely means it. She agrees to help him with his memoirs. Perhaps she’s partially repaying a debt yet there’s also a desire to be altruistic. She sees a bit of a need and also deeply admires what he represents. Computers scare him; “They have memory without memories” as he says.

Nelly comes to know the judge-turned-businessman through the dictations of his autobiography. Moment by moment, he waxes poetic or reminiscences about his wife. He notes how “one day he became a monster” and they divorced; he must have been in an acute stage of his normal misogyny at that time. It’s terrifying to note the utter banality of the admission.

Meanwhile, behind them, his vast study full of volumes and texts is deconstructed after he gives the okay. It’s as if he’s cleaning up his life; all those material possessions he has don’t serve much of a purpose anymore.

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These are our main players, but around them are a plethora of supporting characters, in fact, more than one might expect in a story like this. We meet Monsieur’s daughter on one occasion and get acclimated to the family life of their mutual acquaintance Jacqueline, who proved instrumental in introducing them. Nelly meets someone — Arnaud’s publisher — who very confidently asks her out to dinner, and she accepts. Her own spouse is seeing another woman, and they all seem very amicable about the arrangement.

Certainly, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud fails to cater to Hollywood expectations, and, therefore, it succeeds by capably taking on its own alternative outcomes. Because even I don’t feel privy to their lives. At first, it seems there’s no chemistry or at least nothing that endears them. The mundane building blocks that make up their interactions are precisely that. It’s relatively easy to lose interest and still, somehow it grabs hold of me just enough to leave an impression.

I’m not an adequate judge to discern whether this is solely a blatant generalization, but many of the most remembered actresses and actors on the European landscape in the last 25 years seem to play as the antithesis of the Hollywood elite. Yes, they share beauty and charisma, but they approach characters and acting in a different manner altogether.

It’s not full of hyper-action, histrionics, or emotional outpourings all the better for telegraphing a performance. Their work becomes focused instead around muted, toned-down reactionary micro-actions where aloof and often subtler approaches to scenes take precedence.

There is one individual scene in Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud where they do blow their tops in what feels highly uncharacteristic of both of them. It appears to be a turning point in their relationship. The beginning of the end, if you will. As she gets up from the computer and rushes out of the room toward the door, she turns back briefly. Her face is almost sheepish. He looks on rather glumly (wishing he could revoke the words that came out of his mouth, no doubt) as she says she can’t come the following day. “The day after?” she asks tentatively. He nods as she exits.

It’s so minimal, but to me, it articulates the essence of this film. We get this nugget of drama and normally we are told this is what we are building towards; this is what we are meant to be drawn to when, in reality, it’s the final act of mitigation that feels the most human. Because we are not usually hot and cold people. Our emotions are a continually fluctuating gradient of everything we think and say and express on a given day. The scene’s simplicity captures this rather well.

I had also briefly forgotten what Sautet’s earlier film was blessed with. The house party near the end reminds us. His earlier picture had color and joy. Although it can get overshadowed by all that is dour and melancholic, these moments prove integral. Music, and dancing, instances where people feel alive even for a minute. It gives them a momentary lightness of being to counteract any negativity. This only makes relationships more complex.

Nelly’s boyfriend is not content in maintaining the status quo like she is; he wants to move in together. The other option is the door and since she’s not ready for further commitment, she exits the restaurant dejectedly with one last furtive glance. Of course, she goes to Monsieur Arnaud, and he offers up his empty home. It’s slightly uncomfortable in the subsequent interlude as he watches her sleep peaceably. We edge into cringe-worthy territory…

Yet again we are reminded how much he cares about others opening up to him. He wants to be wanted by others so far that he’ll give them checks and bend over backward, even being “blackmailed” by an eccentric former work associate. Is it a sense of chivalry left over from earlier generations? Perhaps. It’s also a symptom of late-onset loneliness.

The perfect capstone is a visit from his wife; her partner has recently died and now they are both alone. Although they are not completely patched up as a couple, they do agree on a spur of the moment excursion to see the world and the grandkids, gravitating toward each other under the circumstances. Again, it’s not romance, but it exemplifies how people need other people. Regardless, it catches not only Nelly but the audience off guard with the inherent abruptness of it all.

Those seeking out some obvious closure between our title characters will not find it because it proves to be a felicitous anti-Hollywood ending. Not because it’s a total downer but for the very fact there is no illusion of finality. The undetermined states of life are slightly unwonted and yet at the very same time, it fits Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud to a tee. I have only had a brief acquaintance with Claude Sautet to date. However, from the little I know of him, it seems like a fine picture for him to end his career on. It’s not for everyone but then again, what movie ever really is?

3.5/5 Stars

Whisper of The Heart (1995): Take Me Home Concrete Road

Whisper_of_the_Heart_(Movie_Poster).jpgWhisper of The Heart is wholeheartedly a Japanese anime and yet learning John Denver’s “Country Roads” holds a relatively substantial place in the plotline might catch some off guard. After all, as the metropolitan imagery establishes our setting, we hear a version of the song playing against the bevy of passersby, cars, and convenience stores.

Director Yoshifumi Kondō boasts animation both simple and clean yet ever so attractive for those very same reasons. It positively glows with nostalgic yellow hues and employs anime’s preoccupations with the most intricate details — moths drawn to a light being just one prime example.

When I lived in Japan, I became fascinated by foreign music and how it gained a foothold in the country. You only have to look to jazz, The Ventures, The Carpenters, or Mariah Carey to see how deep their imprint is on the collective culture. The same goes for John Denver who made tours of Japan on several occasions.

But whereas musicians often become icons, sometimes Japan cultivates an environment where nuggets of culture can take on a life of their own. This theme serves as a perfect breeding ground for Ghibli’s classic coming of age story.

Shizuku is, at her heart, a spunky and feisty heroine with the kinds of hope and aspirations that often seem buried in a very restrained culture like Japan. In her middle school existence, an unknown person named Amasawa becomes an almost mythic figure in her life as they have checked out all the books she’s so voraciously eaten up in her nascent but ambitious literary odyssey.

They look to be a kindred spirit. It takes a fortuitous meeting with a commuting cat on the JR line to sustain her adventure. The disaffected animal leads her to a Secret Garden of sorts. This one is not found in nature but in the home of a delightful old man.

Because Whisper of The Heart is full of the blushing love of adolescence in its many tangles found throughout the student body. It’s no different in Japan, at least on the emotional level, or for that matter, the utter denseness of the male sex.

But it’s also a very particular world where dwarves and fairies can coexist with the mundane elements of everyday life. Shizuku comes to realize this when she reaches the end of her adventure — the peculiar second-hand shop cluttered with clocks, violins, and shiny doodads of all shapes and sizes. It’s run by a genteel proprietor who also happens to relate to her not so fictitious phantom: Amasawa.

This looks to be the working of Hayao Miyazaki behind the scenes because no matter how mundane we might perceive the world to be, he’s always allowing for bits of magic to seep in and liven up our existences. Implicitly, he always seems to be suggesting we need the richness of our imagination girded around us to make the most out of life.

He also employs the most amicable cultural appropriation, turning Denver’s down-home “Country Roads” into a lively, bright-eyed violin jam session in a Tokyo back parlor. It’s the strangest incarnation of the song I could have ever imagined and yet somehow it manages to be apropos. I only need to remember pop instrumentals of “Daydream Believer” during my former days frequenting 7-Eleven’s in Tokyo. It fits the aesthetic.

But back to Shizuku. Her newfound companion dreams of being a Violin maker and going off to apprentice in Italy. Not to be outdone, she wants to write stories. She’s charged with empowerment and then the subsequent doubts ambushing anyone who’s ever endeavored for such a thing. I am reminded of the artistic encouragement churned up by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that blessed the world over with two of the most formidable fantasy worlds: Middle Earth and Narnia.

Because we need people who will gladly court our ideas, gives us encouragement, and supply even the brief inkling that our passing daydreams are not complete balderdash. If they provide enjoyment or engage with beauty or goodness for just one person, perhaps even this makes them entirely worthwhile.

The sagely old man charges Shizuku that craftsmanship of any kind is never perfect. But we must begin. We need to start somewhere. To pilfer the film’s own metaphor, we are all unburnished stones waiting to be polished to the point of perfection. There’s the necessity of time and effort to make it work. The diamond must be pulverized. The brass burnished. The grain sent through the thresher. 

Again, Miyazaki’s imprint is all over the picture because he is always and forever the spinner of benevolent fairy tales paired with creative inspiration. His avid imagination never ceases to mesmerize. Surely there are lots of magical beings, soaring through the air, lands full of castles and kings, and yet the seat of it all is found in the revelation these very things can exist in our everyday reality. They need not be distant. Far off lands can come to meet us, be it through books or writing, music, or people with memories that extend far beyond what we see and know.

It’s easy for me to laud Whisper of The Heart for being timeless. Yes, we see word processors, a dearth of cell phones, more antiquated train services, and yet so much of the interactions, the yearnings, and the derivations are universal.

I must turn my attention only to the sound of cicadas, the warning bell near the train tracks, or the clink of a mailbox at the front door. They are so basic, so unextraordinary, and yet they sound so familiar. To my ears, they remain almost comforting. Because this movie is comfort food, whether you fancy udon or steak and potatoes.

Full of warmth. Love. Longing. Passion. Miyazaki and Ghibli have captivated the world over with such sensations. Yoshifumi Kondō more than proved himself capable of eliciting this same type of wonder. It’s only a shame he was not able to give us more films. But there only needs to be one solitary act of creation to leave an impression. Whisper of The Heart is an unassuming monument to his career.

4/5 Stars

Slacker (1991): Richard Linklater’s Ultimate Independent Film

Slackerposter.jpgKudos must be extended to Richard Linklater for actually being proactive and going out to shoot the movie countless of us have doubtlessly tossed around in our mind’s eye. Taking our town — the places we know intimately — and building a portmanteau out of it with a group of friends.

There’s nothing flashy or that original about this universal concept per se, but it always strikes one as more than just a straightforward story. There is a bit of artistry to its execution, while still functioning on the most shoestring of budgets.

Even one of my favorite bands in high school, Reliant K made their own rendition involving a soccer ball. But again, Linklater has time and history on his side, because he was the one who actually got it made. Few others would have the wherewithal to get it off the drawing board.

What’s more, Slacker actually has some genuine life to it by capturing a very specific subculture and locale like a time capsule of 1990s Austin, Texas. It takes pieces of the world he knows and promotes them to a wider audience, which is one of the cool perks of cinema. It’s able to take a localized image and globalize it, despite how humble the reach might have been, to begin with.

Better yet, the up-and-coming director dares to open the picture with his own monologue, musing about his dreams and alternate realities to his uninterested taxi driver. He teases a hypothetical scenario where he was invited into a beautiful girl’s hotel room just for standing at the bus stop. He matter-of-factly curses to himself that he should have stayed behind, before picking up his bags to go, effectively choosing a different fate.

From thenceforward, the camera is on the move as well. Because this isolated sequence is only one among a whole bunch of other asides helping to predict the conversing integral to The Before Trilogy or even a more communal vision like Dazed and Confused. Though the characters nor the dialogue builds that same type of rapport with the audience, one could easily argue they are not supposed to.

This is a near stream-of-consciousness exercise with the camera following its whims, roving around, and taking an almost bipolar interest in everything. You get the sense Linklater knew full-well what he wanted to capture; still, he makes it look organic. There’s this constant mixture of intellectualization and socializing going on.

A mother is run over by a car. A husker sings his tune on a street corner. People run into each other serendipitously. Handheld walk-and-talk scenarios make the action simple and fast.

Some of the characters are definitely “whack,” but that’s all part of the fun. The dialogue grabs hold of any weird quirk or a bit of oddness it can from conspiracy theories, aliens, television, the JFK assassination, anarchy, literally anything at all.

This one is an important landmark of indie filmmaking right up there with Cassavetes works or Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), paving the way for everything from Clerks to the wave of indies that came to fruition in the mid-90s and early 2000s.

While I don’t find it quite compelling in this given era, there’s no way to underplay what it means for movies. Many are indebted to Linklater, and the beauty is that the director is still churning out quality work, both personal and commercial.

In fact, I’m a little in awe of him, because it seems like he’s constantly managing to make the projects he wants. He will not give up on his own artistic aspirations. In the age of the blockbuster, those are admirable motivations.

3/5 Stars

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four_weddings_poster.jpgI’ve been of the certain age where it seems like every friend you have is getting married in the next year. It’s an exhilarating time albeit expensive and a bit taxing (if you’re even able to go to all of them). But most of us wouldn’t trade the joy of being a part of these experiences for anything.

Weddings in themselves have always been a marvelous enigma to me. Because the days before and after are full of preparation, stress, and a barrage of feelings. But the actual arrival of the ceremony is almost surreal. It’s a moment captured in the hinterlands where you’re suspended in this euphoric high that can either be magical or come crashing down thanks to some inexplicable faux pas. Emotions are heightened. Love and romance are on everyone’s minds.

That’s what makes the narrative conceit of Four Weddings and a Funeral such a smashing idea because we know already what weddings do to people and that makes the prospect interesting. Imagine you only really ever meet someone at these regal affairs. She has a fashionable hat. You’re dressed to the nines. Mutual friends are being wed. The bubbly is flowing. She’s an American. You’re British. Well, anyway that’s the preliminary outline of this story.

Charles (Hugh Grant) is perpetually running late to big day after big day. But each one is special and each one of them puts him face-to-face with a gorgeously remarkable woman named Carrie (Andie MacDowell).

First, they connect in the aftermath of a mutual friend’s wedding, getting to know each other rather well at their hotel. Then the next time they meet his heart goes flutter once more only for her to introduce a fiancee at least 30 years her senior. Charles is devastated. Still, only a little while later, they spend the night together again.

Wedding three belongs to Carrie and you can already feel the dissonance going on as she slept with Charles but is willfully marrying another man. However, they both take it in stride as do their many friends. Until one of the more boisterous members of their crowd, Gareth, dies from a heart attack.

So in the final stretch, we have Charles looking to tie the knot with one of the various girlfriends we’ve met at the subsequent gatherings, Henrietta. That is until the news hits about Carrie’s marital status when they cross paths quite by chance. She’s no longer married. The Pandora’s box of doubt has been busted open right on the eve of his wedding day and he’s stricken by indecision as he teeters on the edge of this monumental event.

What Alan Curtis’s script captures exquisitely is the vast network of people and relationships that link and interconnect over the years when you share a friend group and it slowly begins to grow and expand with the passing years. It provides the perfect cultivation ground for myriad characters, budding couples, best friends, priests, parents, and the crotchety elderly. All mainstays of the wedding circuit.

However, the final conclusion arrived at in this romantic comedy feels, in one sense, outmoded and by other estimations, rather selfish and unrealistic. Maybe they are one in the same.

The lovely, whimsical idea of finding “the one” remains intact to the very end but at what cost? Surely it doesn’t matter that another woman has been left at the altar and a whole wedding has been canceled because of what we might pragmatically term one man’s indiscretion or closer yet, his selfishness.

That ethereal feeling of the quintessential movie romance is unfortunately sullied. Perhaps I’m perceiving too much of reality and not enough of the lens of fairytale magic that might be afforded such a narrative, but I cannot help it.

Like I already mentioned, I’ve been in those moments where people you know and love were getting married. I’ve seen the affection in their eyes and on their faces. There was not an ounce of visible apprehension there. Everyone in the room, the chapel, or the banquet hall, knew it full well. These were people who were in it for the long haul. This was not a flippant decision, a momentary fling, or a mere consolation prize.

This was the joining of two people through thick and through thin. Maybe it is soppy but to me, it proves far more fulfilling than its alternative. In my naivete, I’d like to believe that there are still people out there who are committed to marriage and they’ll willingly dig in together for better or for worse. My assertions might fly in the face of this film but I’m okay with that.

Four Weddings and a Funeral has its moments of delight, however, in the end, it cannot do complete justice to the utter jubilation when you’re with your friends or family celebrating the union of two people you dearly love. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Each wedding is personal and unique all to its own.

3.5/5 Stars

Only Yesterday (1991)

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Only Yesterday’s opening images resonate with me because of their sheer familiarity. The reflections of urban life in a skyscraper. Office buildings with desks, computers, copy machines. All those necessities of the modern working world.  This is the personification of the status quo that many of us are used to, not simply in a place like Tokyo in the 1980s, but all over the world even right now. Many of us know that life intimately. It’s the first of innumerable moments where Only Yesterday will provide instances of immediate recognition.

From what I gather, Only Yesterday redefined what anime was capable of and really what was considered appropriate subject matter for the medium. This is not only a children’s film though it looks back at adolescence. It’s equally a film for adults and a female audience with its narrative fluidly cycling between childhood memories and current recollections; the point of view belongs to a single independent working woman named Taeko.

These are the two distinct time frames that Isao Takahata’s film works within. In 1966 Taeko was just a girl. And it’s true that all those remembrances of childhood only exist as wisps of their former clarity. Visually the flashbacks are composed of minimalist watercolor backgrounds that manage to capture the transient nature and washed out qualities of our memories. Often recalled fondly but never captured with the same vibrancy that we had in the moment.

And the mystery of the mind is that it can so quickly recall a moment based on a time, a place, a person, a thing, or for no particular reason at all. It could be a vacation floating in the baths of Atami. The novelty and the ultimate letdown of a pineapple not yet ripe. But there are cultural recollections too like the Beatles exploding at Budokan or your older sisters sporting miniskirts as members of the emerging pop culture generation.

Meanwhile, school life is full of your typical scenarios including landmark decisions about hall monitors chasing offenders through the hallways. Young romance is awkward and innocent, blooming around a baseball diamond.

After a single injudicious conversation, talk of periods blows up all across school with the subject becoming the boys’ new favorite point of humor. Taeko also shows off her talents as “Village Child A” in the school play, finding ways to extend her performance and make something out of nothing. She simultaneously looks to commit death by fractions. I must say that I relate. I never did like fractions.

Further still, there are sisterly tiffs over enamel hand bags and altercations with fathers who are normally calm and distant but in a single moment lash out in anger. They are the type of incidences that remain emblazoned on your mind. Meanwhile, mothers scold and chide their children.

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But the true fascination in these events come in the very fact that once more they are tied to the present and lay the foundation for who Taeko is. The same can be said for each and every one of us. However, in 1982 she is now a young working professional. Still, unmarried and quite content with that aspect of her existence even as she bonds with her distant cousin Toshio.

Her aspirations are to spend more time in the countryside — a  countryside blessed with tranquility and gorgeous panoramas — situated in sharp contrast to her life in Tokyo. Because it is in the said countryside where she begins to find a life that somehow feels far more fulfilling. The work and the living are simple but the people are kind and it somehow feels more purposeful. It’s also a prime environment to gather yourself and reflect on life.

Only Yesterday exhibits truly breathtaking imagery that captures both the minutiae and the exquisite scenery of Japan with this fascinating mode of realism. It is only improved upon by the fact that it is a drawn world capable of gravity-defying feats that nevertheless personify authentic emotions. And yet it fits the film on the whole because this is a story that seems to find a rooted contentment in what we would term the mundane. As this is a film that evokes memory, it’s fitting that such a thing would be so.

One of the great mysteries of the world even today is that it’s these very things that are most meaningful to us as human beings. Sure, we remember the big life events but oftentimes equally important are the other times. Because what is life if not a series of small incremental events connected together through experience, jubilation, sadness, wistfulness, pain, and contentment? Each of us carves out a road for ourselves that cuts through the past to the present to a future that we have yet to discover.

The original Japanese title translated is “memories come tumbling down” and somehow that resonates with me far more, being the nostalgic person that I am. It’s true. Certain memories will always be attached to a distinct time and place. Some good, some bad, but all a single element in this patchwork of life. Here is a film that deftly navigates the past and the present through various fragments, assembling the shards into a story that derives satisfaction in all its diversions. Taeko is able to get nearer to the life that she longs for. In that respect, Only Yesterday is in one sense an enchanting film but also a sincerely fulfilling exploration of humanity.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

A Few Good Men (1992)

A_Few_Good_Men_posterUpon watching A Few Good Men for the first time, it was hard not to draw parallels with An Officer and a Gentlemen for some reason and it went beyond some cursory elements such as both films involving branches of the military. Perhaps more so than that is the intensity that manages to surge through the plot despite the potentially stagnant battleground like Cadet Schools, Courtrooms, and the like. And that can in both cases is a testament to the stellar performances in front of the camera.

Instead of a seething Richard Gere, we get the smart aleck wunderkind Tom Cruise as Daniel Kaffee. The full-throttle turn by Lou Gossett Jr. is matched in this film by another sneering tour de force from none other than Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessup. Most refreshingly of all we trade out the heartfelt yet admittedly schmaltzy romance of Gere and Debra Winger for the professional tension that underlies Kaffee’s relationship with his colleague Joanne Galloway. Demi Moore, surprise, surprise, is more than a love interest even if Cruise is in the driver’s seat and that is a commendable creative decision by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Because their characters have two feet to stand on without having to dive headlong into a full-fledged romance. There’s already enough at stake without having to enter any further into melodramatic territory.

The men involved are two young U.S. Marines stationed in Guatamano Bay who are charged with the murder of one of their compatriots, one William Santiago. Galloway is eager to play point on the case, only to get passed over for Daniel Kaffee a plea bargain king who nevertheless has little courtroom experience or passion for his work. His stint in the navy seems only to be in respect to his late father, who was one of the preeminent judges of his day. Daniel will forever live in his shadow and instead of taking his work seriously, he devotes his efforts to the company baseball team.

Still, joined by Joanne and the veteran support of Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak), he begins to realize that there is more at stake in this case even if he doesn’t want to deal with it. As the young marines constantly beat into his skull this isn’t about getting the cushiest deal, it’s about their very honor, the code that they live by as united states Marines.

While hesitant Kaffee agrees to bring the case into the courts realizing what is at stake but it’s also in these precise moments that he realizes the need to man up instead of taken the path of least resistance as has always been his M.O. But of course, doing such a brazen thing has consequences for the young Lieutenant bringing him up against people much bigger than he is, namely the aforementioned Colonel Jessup. Because there is something running down the line of command that simply does not add up going from Jessup, to his Lt. Colonel Markinson (J.T. Walsh), one Lt. Kendrick (Keifer Sutherland), down to one of the accused Lance Corporal Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison). Kaffee takes a chance on the truth and that’s where the film blows up.

In our sound byte culture “You can’t handle the truth” has been perfect fodder for parody and the like. But doing so we take it out of context and as a culture we seem to be very adept at doing that. Misconstruing information and ultimately succeeding in draining words of all their impact. But when Colonel Jessup lets the words fly under tense interrogation from Lt. Daniel Kaffee there’s so much rooted in those words.

The film probably does not dig into this issue enough but it does imply something. As Americans who take pride in our freedoms, in our very Americanism, are we so naïve as to believe that it does not come without a cost? Not simply of human life but of perhaps darker realities that are kept under wraps for the good of the people, for the betterment of society. It’s a cliché saying, but the old adage goes that you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs and I know that’s a rather callous statement, how far from the truth is that actually?

I’ve heard a quote attributed to Winston Churchill something to the affect that Truth is so precious she should be protected with a bodyguard of lies. And if this film is any indication, not only truth but our very freedoms or the things we use to define freedoms like honor and codes are indubitably hidden away and swept under the rug.

So A Few Good Men ends on a poignant note because at the very basic, ground level it is an underdog story played out in a courtroom. It has Tom Cruise playing the young Tom Cruise character we know (and maybe love). And that brings me to the final general parallel I found with Officer and a Gentlemen. Both films are invariably predictable and they play to our sensibilities as an audience, yet despite those very things, they manage to be moving and strangely compelling human dramas.

Rob Reiner might not be called an auteur and we unfortunately, are still waiting for his next great picture but his string of modern classics during the 80s and 90s are a joy for the very qualities mentioned above. Everyone can enjoy them and A Few Good Men is yet another example of that.

4/5 Stars

 

Thelma & Louise (1991)

thelma__louiseposterThemla & Louise hardly feels like typical Ridley Scott fare but then again, neither is this a typical movie. It pulls from numerous genres that have been depicted countless times before from buddy movies to caper comedies, road films, and the like. But perhaps the intrigue begins with the two leads.

It’s not simply the fact that they are two women sharing conversations together although that is often not a common enough occurrence in a world where the Beschel Test is often a stumbling block, but it is the fact that the two women are played so exquisitely by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

They start out as two people stuck in a deadend world and they feel like the heirs to some of Altman’s heroines in films like Nashville and 3 Women. In fact, it’s a rather ironic development that screenwriter Callie Khouri went onto another project called Nashville. Still, when we look at their lives one is a small town waitress with a gruff boyfriend (Michael Madsen) the other a bit of a bubble-headed subservient housewife married to a grade A jerk. It’s easy to pity them and to want something better for them–at least some kind of escape from their everyday monotony. In one sense, that’s what the entire length of the film gives them and much more.

A single weekend away in a single irrevocable moment of decision evolves into not simply a gripping film but a rather astonishing adventure where they get to step out in ways that they never knew possible. True, there is murder and armed robbery involved but what makes the movie work at all is the very fact that we still care a great deal for these individuals. They tiptoe across boundaries but it never feels brazen. It’s accidental, brought on by necessity, fear, and the like. Even to the end,  it’s as if Thelma & Louise naively believe that they are a notorious pair of outlaws but they don’t quite know how dark a place the world can actually be. It’s neither Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands. For good reason, they are simply Thelma & Louise.

One of the most memorable sequences involves Davis robbing a gas station register just as nice as you please using the pithy monologue she learned from the charismatic charmer J.D. (Brad Pitt in a key role early in his career) who always sports a cowboy hat and also ran off with all their dough. She feels completely out of place committing such an act, waving her gun around as the attendant empties the cash register into her waiting bag. But still, she does it and it epitomizes the inhibitions the two women begin to cast off.

But it’s also the same rascal J.D. who rats on them as they look to make their way to Mexico away from the authorities they believe are hot on their tail. Louise is paranoid of such things and Thelma is still just looking for fun but they’re together and that’s the important thing. Except the authorities on the other end of the line, digging around for answers, are actually led by a cop with integrity (Harvey Keitel) who seems generally worried about their well-being. He sees so clearly that their situation is atypical. They are not criminals even if they want to be.

Importantly Thelma & Louise remain friends to the end, even going so far as to visit the grand canyon together one final time. And that brings us to the film’s conclusion. While not wanting to sound too cryptic and simultaneously not wanting to spoil the experience for others, I can only say I wish Ridley Scott would have chosen a more brazen denouement or otherwise done away with his conclusion altogether. What he comes to is a compromise of an ending that lacks any satisfaction. But then again, maybe it reflects Thelma & Louise. They thought they had so much–that they were such big, bad people–except what did they end up with? Nothing at all aside from a polaroid picture to forever immortalize the craziest of road trips.

4/5 Stars

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

saving-private-ryan-1There’s something remarkably moving about the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. I’ve only felt it a few times in my own lifetime whether it was family members recognizing names on the Vietnam Memorial tears in their eyes or walking over the sunken remains of the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor.  It’s these types of memories that don’t leave us — even as outsiders — people who cannot understand these historical moments firsthand.

And that’s why Saving Private Ryan is a truly breathtaking, at times horrifying, and wholly visceral experience. Words cannot actually describe the visuals on the beaches of  Normandy at Omaha. The utter chaos, death, and tumult engulfing the scene — above and below the surface of the water.

The cast includes a number of memorable players including Tom Hanks, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Paul Giamatti, Matt Damon, and even Nathan Fillion. And yet it’s not about any one man or even a singular act of valor. Even Private Ryan is only a starting point of a far more universal tale.

It’s also easy to say that this is a film cheapens life in the number of bodies that are blown to bits and slaughtered seemingly needlessly on screen. However, it’s even more difficult to acknowledge that in one sense life is cheap — transient to the extent that our bodies are not indestructible. We are fallible beings and breath so easily leaves our lungs and no time is this more evident than in the wake of war.

One sequence that springs to mind involves two surrendering men who, on first inspection, look German and sound German. The men under Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) command gun them down and they do it with smiles on their faces. This, after all, is the enemy, pure and simple. Except they were not “Nazis.” They weren’t even Germans, but Czechs (based on what they say). Men who historically had been captured by the Nazis and press-ganged into military service. And in the end, they get shot by Americans. Even the undertones of this scene point to the fact that their lives were so easily snuffed out, without even a second thought.

So, yes, life seems cheap in this film in the physical sense, even from just one example. But it is granted a great deal of depth and richness in many other ways. Families and brothers. Comrades and compatriots. Personal convictions and disillusionment in war revealed through the many characters we come to know. All of that bleeds out of this film along with the blood from the bodies.

In that sense, it’s all difficult to watch and Spielberg never intended this to be easy going.  I cannot speak for others but within the intense moments of bloodshed, the lulls in the action, and unrest within the ranks, there’s a solemnity developed.

War is at times the everyday. It’s indescribable and inscrutable. But Saving Private Ryan’s suggests that there are certain things that we hold onto. High and lofty things such as liberty and freedom that are often so easy to discount. They seem easily besmirched, dragged through the mud by all of our human inadequacies and evil. But perhaps that makes them even more important to hang on to, because just like life, these ideals are worth the fight, though they might so easily be lost. It doesn’t make the wrong right or cover up all the pain, even found within this film, but it latches on a tiny bit of good within a whole lot of messiness.

It goes back to the basic implications of the film’s main conceit — the task of saving one man — Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). It’s  representative of not only the entire war but each and every one of us as we traverse roads of tribulation. Every story, whether wartime or our own, deserves an ending with some type of salvation. Because Saving Private Ryan is imbued with so much more meaning. Our human experience is wrapped up in it. There is no greater love than a man giving his life for his friends. But imagine if you are dying for the freedom of others or even the preservation of someone who you hardly know? That’s what happens in this story.

That’s why when elderly James Ryan comes back to Normandy so many years later, there’s a gravity to the situation. This is by no means a corny piece of Hollywood drama. It’s the ultimate act of love that he has received and he can hardly comprehend it, just as we as an audience must grapple with it too. In that way, Saving Private Ryan is indubitably affecting not simply as a war drama but an epic human narrative. It pertains to all of us.

The profound and terrifying thing about this gift that he has received through the sacrifice of so many others is that he cannot “earn it.” Because, in this sense, life proves to be far from cheap. There is no way to earn that back. There is no way for us to live a wholly “good” life or be completely “good” people. The whole entirety of the film tells us otherwise. Still, we can live our life with a sense of freedom knowing that cannot be expected of us. A life of purpose is all that can be asked of us. It’s that kind of purpose that makes Saving Private Ryan continuously compelling.

5/5 Stars

Close-Up (1990)

close up 1I’ve heard people like director Jean-Pierre Gorin say that there is little to no distinction between documentary and fiction. At first, it strikes us as a curiously false statement. But after giving it a moment of thought it actually makes sense, because no matter the intention behind it, the medium of film is always subjective. It’s always a created reality that’s inherently false and even in its attempts at realism — that realism is still constructed.

So you see, this is the start of an interesting idea. Film is about what you decide to put within the frame and what you keep out. Directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, and editors among others all play a part in this process. They all formulate what we see on the screen — the reality that we perceive.

It occurs to me that Abbas Kiarostami’s film Close-Up stands at the crossroads of the documentary and classical fiction filmmaking with the two lineages blurring together like very few undertakings have ever been able to do, at least to my knowledge.

The story feels simple. It follows the real-life trial of a man who impersonated popular Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to gain the confidence of a family of film enthusiasts. He wanted to make a movie and they were to be his actors. Abbas obviously took interest in the story that he read of in a magazine because of its relation to film. Here was a seemingly ordinary man who loved movies so much, that he was willing to masquerade as a film director. The irony is that this cinephile Hossain Sabzian also became an actor in the process, donning this role for the family. The family who accused him consider him a confidence man, even a burglar but that’s not how he sees himself. In fact, in a way, this film reminds us that we’re all actors. It all depends on your definition and the circumstances at hand. In some way, shape or form at a given point in time, we’re playing someone who is supposed to be us.

close up 2The beauty of Close-Up that not only does it feature the real individuals involved in this whole ordeal: There’s Sabzian playing himself, the Ahankhah family who brought the case to court, and Kiarostami appearing as well. But it blends the actual footage from the trial with reenacted scenes set up by the director as if they are happening for the first time.

One of the few things to tip us off that some of these moments are reenactments is that we see the same sequence twice, just from different perspectives. Thus, the whole docudrama becomes this blend of reality and falsity. Documentary paired with purposeful re-creation, utilizing a kind of cinema verite filmmaking. I almost don’t want to know what is real and what is fake and in some respects, I don’t care. And that’s what’s fascinating about Close-Up. The story is not altogether extraordinary but, again it’s this dichotomy between reality and fiction. The dividing line proves to be paper thin.

Since much of the film is made of a close-up on Sabzian’s face, it does bring up some questions about the defining factors of identity. Is this man in front of us really what he says he is? Is how he is acting genuine and real. Is it all a facade? Was this whole sequence contrived by a director for the benefit of the viewer? You could go on and on with such assertions and with such questions I think you start getting at the profound aspects of Kiarostami’s film and film as an artistic, expressive construction.

If you’re ready to actually consider what you are being fed, what you are viewing and how you can react to it, this is a film worth your time. I have never known a film to be more engrossed in the dilemma of reality versus fiction.  It took me long enough to see a film by this late great of Iranian film, but now that I have been opened up to his oeuvre, I look forward to more on my horizon from Abbas Kiarostami.

4/5 Stars