Review: High and Low (1963)

highandlow1High and Low (or Heaven and Hell in the original Japanese) is a yin and yang film about the polarity of man in many ways. Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is an affluent executive in the National Shoe Company. He worked his way up the corporate ladder from the age 16, because of his determination and commitment to a quality product. Now his colleagues want his help in forcing the company’s czar out. They come to his modernistic hilltop abode to get his support. Instead, they receive his ire, splitting in a huff. What follows is a risky plan of action from Gondo that is both fearless and shrewd. He takes all his capital to buy stock in the company so he can take over, but his whole financial stability hangs in the balance. He knows exactly what it means, but he wasn’t suspecting certain unforeseen developments.

Then in a matter of moments, everything changes. Gondo gets a menacing phone call claiming that his young boy is kidnapped and an astronomical sum of money is expected in return. Gondo and then his wife are instantly horrified by the news only to be relieved when their boy winds up unharmed. The same’s not true for his chauffeur’s boy Shinichi. The mistake in identity is obvious, but it makes no difference to the perpetrator because he still has leverage. He wants to make Gondo sweat since this is more than an isolated incident. He wants to make the man suffer – bringing him down to the level of all the unfortunate souls who live in the wasteland down below.

highandlow2At this point, the police are called and they arrive incognito, ready to stake out the joint and do the best they can to get the boy back safe and sound. This section of the film almost in its entirety takes place within the confines of Gondo’s house and namely the front room overlooking the city. It’s the perfect set up for Akira Kurosawa to situate his actors. He uses full use of the widescreen and his fluid camera movements keep them perfectly arranged within the frame.

Although the number of bodies also increases the anxiety in the space with Gondo at the center of it all trying to figure out what to do. Moral issues begin bubbling up that no man would have to deal with and yet they end up right in his lap. His whole business empire that he’s given his heart and soul to hangs in the balance of this decision, but he must make it nonetheless. Make the difficult choice to pay the ransom and do what’s moral, or not pay it and maintain his financial stability. For once in his life, their’s a hesitancy.

It’s as if he’s getting pulled back and forth with his wife chiding him, “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity,” while his opportunistic right-hand man is chomping at the bit to get a move on. He’s not going to allow his superior to sink all their prospects at financial gain.

As things progress, we finally move from the living room to the train where Gondo prepares to make the drop, but his adversary has planned out everything and has a clean getaway. The money is gone and now the police double their efforts. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, his backers are prepared to push Gondo out, because of his inability to pay them. Public opinion soars for the selfless act, and we finally meet our protagonist’s unknown adversary.

Really this second leg of the film is mostly about the procedural aspect as they begin hitting the pavement canvassing and trying to close in on the culprit. This section intercuts the reports going on at headquarters with actual police work on the streets and it’s strangely engaging.

highandlow3Finally, with the help of Shinichi, they make a startling discovery that ties back to the kidnapper. And the boy’s drawings along with a colorful stream of smoke help them move in ever closer. What follows is an elaborate web of trails through the streets as they work to catch the culprit in his crime, to put him away for good. And it works.

highandlow5But High and Low cannot end there without a consideration of the consequences. Gondo has been brought low. He’s losing his mansion and must start a new job on the bottom of the food chain once more. His enemy requests a final meeting as he prepares for his imminent fate, and this is perhaps the most grippingly painful scene. Gondo’s face-to-face with the man who made him suffer so much. Toshiro Mifune’s violent acting style serves him well as he wrestles so intensely with his own conscience. And yet at this junction, he is past that. What is he to do but listen? In this way, it’s difficult to know who to feel sorrier for — the man who is resigned to a certain fate passively or the one who goes out proud and arrogantly against death. Both have entered some dark territory and it’s no longer about high or low or even heaven and hell. They’re stuck in some middle ground. An equally frightening purgatory.

Yes, this works as an indictment of the justice system and even the capitalistic framework of an industrialist post-war Japan, but it’s even more so an acknowledgment of man’s own morality and mortality. We are far from indestructible, unfaltering beings.

4.5/5 Stars

Ugetsu (1953)

ugetsu1During my film odyssey, I first met Kurosawa, then Ozu, and finally Mizoguchi. Each with similarities and most importantly their own personal touches when it comes to the language of cinema. Kenji Mizoguchi seems especially at home with Japanese folk tales in the jidaigeki mode of Japanese period-dramas. Ugetsu finds its inspiration in such a fable from 18th-century author Ueda Akinari, and it also gathers some inspiration from scroll painting. As the narrative arc begins, it’s as if the story is slowly getting rolled out bit by bit with the camera slowly tracking with the action.

In this case, our subject is a group peasant villagers who live with their wives. Genjuro is a farmer with a penchant for pottery, who has a little boy together with his wife Miyagi. Then, there is the often buffoonish Tobei, who has fantasies of one day becoming a samurai. His wife Ohama often becomes annoyed with his obsession. When marauders come and uproot them from their homes and yet they remain together. However, with the progression of time, Genjuro has become more obsessive over his pottery as avarice overtakes him, and Tobei can no longer quell his desire for military honor. Miyagi particularly notices a change in her husband, because money has become his everything and he has put his heart and soul into that kiln of his. True, it seems to pay heavy dividends when he takes his wares to the marketplace and gets a pretty penny, while also meeting the ravishingly beautiful Lady Wakasa.

ugetsu3For our male protagonists, their wildest dreams begin to play out. Genjuro has begun a euphoric fling with his new mistress with little concern for his wife and child he left behind. Simultaneously Tobei in a stroke of good-fortune captures the severed head of a high ranking general. Although he’s a nobody, he gets in with the right crowd and his greatest wish is granted. He becomes a big shot samurai complete with weapons, armor, tassels, and an imposing entourage.

Meanwhile, unspeakable things are happening to the women in their lives, but the men seem to be lost in their dreams. When they finally are given a heavy dose of reality, it can be painful, even violently chaotic at times. And yet the reality check proves necessary because in a way it allows these men to shake off the ethereal and live in the present — allowing them to be more fully realized versions of themselves.

ugetsu2Mizoguchi rather like Fellini has a great interest in the supernatural or at least dream worlds. It’s far from nightmarish horror at least in the modern sense, but it is an everyday type of horror, where husbands act out on their darkest desires, family members die, and so on. Some would say this is far worst because it hits closer to home. The world of dreamscapes and ghosts overlap with reality.

The director is also constantly utilizing long takes, but they’re far from stagnant, very often panning to the left to accentuate the feel of a scroll being unfurled. Especially in the marketplace you get the sense that you could easily be lost in a sea of people, but Mizoguchi only goes to close-ups at the most opportune moments. Otherwise, he is best suited in pseudo outdoors settings — integrating architecture and nature in perfect cohesion. These facades are put up for people to interact with whether it’s a hut or an outdoor pool, but it never loses its naturalistic beauty.

It feels quintessentially different than his contemporaries, allowing for a thoroughly unique view of the human condition. Certain types of ghosts haunt all of us whether they are choices that we wish we could take back or the hand we are dealt when our lives began. Thus, Ugetsu is remarkably poignant even in its antiquity.

5/5 Stars

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl (2015)

Me_&_Earl_&_the_Dying_Girl_(film)_POSTERI can say unflinchingly, without a single waver in my voice, that this is the best new release I’ve seen this year. Truth be told, I have not seen a whole lot of new films this year, but even if I had, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl would be the best by far.

The title in itself exudes a quirkiness that continues in a steady stream throughout the film. The same quirks can be found in our main protagonist, the self-proclaimed awkward, pale, rodent-faced high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann). He’s gone through high school with the mission of ingratiating himself to all and befriending no one. At this point in his high school career, the closest thing he has to a friend is Earl, who he simply considers his “co-worker,” since they develop homage short films together (ie. A Box of ‘Lips Wow). That’s another thing. Greg is obsessed with film: He eats up anything from Werner Herzog or The Archers thanks to the influence of his father (Nick Offerman). His other “friend” is the chill history teacher Mr. McCarty with an office that is the lunchtime oasis for Greg. But that’s about it.

That is until his doting mother (Connie Britton) forces him to go visit a girl who has been diagnosed with Leukemia. It’s a very forced scenario and both Greg and Rachel know it right from the get go. They haven’t even hardly talked since kindergarten. But, despite that, the two of them hit it off and Greg begins this doomed relationship with this dying girl.

The next 209 odd days or so Greg navigates this friendship and all that goes with it, while also developing a film for Rachel on the urging of the classmate that he is infatuated with. But do not get me wrong, this film does not fall into some contrived love triangle or sordid high school drama. It has a far broader more mature scope than that.

Yes, this is a high school teen film. Yes, it is a coming-of-age story, but it boasts so much more. It’s a film about films, a film about friendship, a film about regret, and most importantly a film about what it means to be alive. And yet, all the while, it tries to sidestep the normal tropes we expect.

Greg and Rachel have two very different perspectives. Two very different lots in life, but somewhere in between all of that, amidst the fear, laughter, and even anger, they find some special connections.

There is so much to appreciate about the film and for me, it starts with the character of Greg, because in some ways he was analogous to me in high school. I too was a nomad who traveled from group to group never being fully known. I found a passion for film and slowly began to learn about Kurosawa and Bergman among others. It was not until senior year where I finally began to feel comfortable in my own shoes and that was the perfect time for a new adventure in college. Thus, I resonate with Greg, because although he is certainly not me, he’s the most relevant high school character I have seen in a long while.

As for Connie Britton and Nick Offerman, both of them have some nice scenes that add a lot to this story. One as the over-involved mom who generally cares and the other as a free spirit of a dad who likes exotic food, bohemian garb, and art-house, not to mention the family feline Cat Stevens.

With great films, it is always difficult to pin them down, and the same can be said for this one. It has an awareness of film history that is unequivocally refreshing and unheard of for a genre potentially aimed at teenagers during the summer months. It has its own heartfelt crescendo that in some respects reminded me of Cinema Paradiso. In all other facets, it works beautifully as a teen dramedy and it does a better job in that niche than most. Miraculously, it couples humor and quirks with touching notes that are relevant to the here and now, while somehow still being universal. Also, do not get me started on the music, which is absolutely fantastic.

I look forward to seeing it again sometime soon!

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Star Wars (1977)

ccbff-starwars1Star Wars has such a giant mythology and full-blown culture surrounding it that it becomes nearly impossible to separate the entire galaxy from the film franchise. It is so much more than just a movie with a plot and some characters going on an adventure. Sure, George Lucas let his boyhood imagination run wild taking pages out of numerous playbooks from John Ford’s westerns, Kurosawa’s samurai, and the serialized sci-fi adventures of Buck Rogers.

However, when I look at this classic that I grew up with for so many years now, it is nearly impossible to shed the role of a pure fan and take on the role of a film critic. One prime example would be Sir Alec Guinness. All my knowledge of film history tells me he is one of the greatest English actors of all time and for good reason. However, there is also this innate conflict that says he’s Obi Wan Kenobi since that’s what I knew him for originally. That’s what I identify him with, and I probably always will. Because, as I said before, Star Wars: A New Hope (As it was later titled) means so much to so many people like me on a personal level.

But let me hold off on that for a moment and focus on Star Wars the film. First and foremost, you would be hard-pressed to find a more colorful array of characters. C3PO and R2D2 are the films jesters and the story is told from point of view, to begin with. You have the hapless farmboy, the wise old man, a spunky princess, a dashing tough guy, and his ever faithful fuzzy sidekick. Not to mention the greatest, most imposing villain every developed for the silver screen. It took some developing with three different actors, a mask, a cape, and SCUBA sounds all joined to create his persona.

That aside, the world Lucas created is so astounding and inventive that it has become second nature to true Star War fans. Jawas on Tatooine, the Cantina in Mos Eisley, and Storm Troopers on the Death Star are simply a no brainer. They are part of our lexicon just as many of these quotes easily roll off our tongue. “May the force be with you,” “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” You get the idea.

Then, it goes without saying that John Williams propelled this film from being good to great. Because without his iconic scoring, Star Wars is just not the same. It lacks the same energy and epic vibrancy that pulses through every scene. One prime example is the final scene in the Throne Room on Yavin IV. That could have been the longest most awkward award ceremony in history.  When you think about it, no one is talking, they just stare at each other as the medals get bestowed. But with Williams score, it develops a grand crescendo that caps the film on the highest notes as the credits role.

I am also convinced that Ben Burtt is a genius because he breathed still more life into the Star Wars world through his sound design. He gave us blaster noises, RD-D2’s “voice,” Chewie’s distinctive growls, and of course the hum of lightsabers and Darth Vader’s iconic breathing. A personal favorite of mine is the ever present Wilhelm Scream, but I digress.

Thus, what we witnessed the first time we saw Star Wars (followed by countless more times) was not just a film, but a revolution, and I’m not just talking about the rebel alliance blowing up the Death Star.

As I suggested before, Star Wars is so affecting because it is not simply a movie we watch. In many respects, it brings up flashbulb memories in our lives. I remember birthday parties, childhood afternoons playing Legos, or being a Jedi with my very own lightsaber. Star Wars infected my entire adolescence and so when I watch this film it causes all the many great memories to flood back.

It is a joy to watch it again because I almost feel like a kid once more, experiencing the same excitement all over again as if it’s the first time around. My taste in films may continue to mature and evolve, but I dearly hope I never lose my affinity for Star Wars. In many, it would be like losing some of my memories and even a little bit of my humanity.

Not to worry, though, because based on this most recent viewing I will not be dismissing Star Wars any time soon. As some wise man once  said, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I forgot how much I missed “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” It was great seeing an old friend.

5/5 Stars

High and Low (1963)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune, the film opens with a wealthy shoe company executive as he tries to struggle for control of the company. He makes a big gamble, waging everything he has to try and succeed. However, things take a bad turn when he believes his son has been kidnapped and the culprit wants an enormous payoff. It turns out that the son of Mr. Gondo’s chauffeur was taken but that makes no difference to the kidnapper. Mr. Gondo finally resolves to make the payoff and then the police who have been advising him take it from there. They work diligently to gather all the evidence they can and the net slowly begins to close  The police finally find the culprit, catch him in the act, and recover most of the money. However, in a meeting with Mr. Gondo the man who is about to die wants no pity at all. Despite the relatively long length of this film, it held my interest. All I had seen of Kurosawa before this were samurai films and so this gave me a different look at his work.

4.5/5 Stars

Seven Samurai (1954)

fde86-seven_samurai_movie_posterDirected by Akira Kurosawa, this is often considered one of the greatest films of all time. The story begins in a small Japanese village that is constantly being tormented by marauders. The bandits are about to strike again but decide to return after the harvest. The village elder advises the people to find some samurai in the time they have. Although they have no money, several men go to a town to look for help. There they witness the skill of an experienced samurai. He agrees to help them and also gathers five other skilled men who have no allegiance. They are followed by a seventh, wild samurai. The rest of the film follows the difficult relations between the anxious villagers and their protectors. The samurai fortify the village and also train the farmers for combat. Three samurai make a raid on the enemy and then later the bandits attack. They are hindered by the fortifications but still wreak havoc. The following day the climatic battle takes place. After the showdown, the village is safe but only 3 of the 7 are still alive.

4.5/5 Stars

Ikiru (1953)

4b946-426px-ikiru_posterDirected by Akira Kurosawa and starring Takashi Shimura, this drama is loaded full of irony. As the film opens, right away we learn the protagonist has stomach cancer, except he has yet to find out. He has spent 30 years of his life working at a monotonous job as a bureaucrat. Only after he discovers that he barely has 6 months left does Watanabe-san actually begin to live his life again. He tries the night life of Japan and it does not satisfy. Then he starts spending time with a lively, young worker that he used to know. All the while he thinks about telling his son about his condition but he cannot bring himself to do it. However, Watanabe-san finally finds a way to leave his mark on this life. And yet 5 months later he is dead and his fellow bureaucrats seemingly dismiss his accomplishment  Through a series of flashbacks they ultimately realize what he really did. I found this film to be powerful because this idea is so powerful. It makes me question if I am really living my life to the fullest extent.

5/5 Stars