I Was Born But… (1932)

800px-I_Was_Born,_But..._1932.jpg

What strikes me right away about Yasujiro Ozu’s silent classic is just how relatable it feels. Yes, this is a Japanese film and yes, it’s silent too but watching the scenarios play out on screen have an undoubted timelessness. This is decidedly fresh material that’s blessed with humor and grace like the best silent comedies.

It’s a narrative about two young boys who have moved with their family to the Tokyo suburbs. As is usually the case it’s brought on by their father’s work and the whole family must get used to it. For the boys specifically, that means a new school and getting to know the neighborhood kids with their carefully enacted social hierarchy. Simply put, the biggest kid rules the roost and the new kid on the block is always bound to get the worst of it.

So obviously we witness the ensuing verbal skirmishes and a few fistfights where the clogs come off and are brandished as built-in weaponry. That’s all part of the rite of passage where the brothers must prove themselves. If we learn anything from this comedy, again, it’s the fact that many things have not changed all that much. Boys haven’t changed that much. At least not in the core important things that still hold weight.

Certainly, this is a less organized and less done up exploration compared to Ozu’s later endeavors but that’s part of the charm. The comedy at times is so pure and simple it gives the sensation of some of the early kid comedies like Our Gang or Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). Watching the posse of boys scamper every which way necessitates no understanding of language or culture. Watch and you understand.

Sparrow’s eggs preclude the pumice stones in Ohayo (1959) decades later as the boy’s favorite keepsake. In this particular hierarchy, it buys them a coveted place at the house of the richest kid whose parents are showing off their home movies. It’s a novel thing for all the boys and they look on with baited breath.

As it turns out, the Yoshi boys’ father is a real cut up, a real funny man, and they couldn’t be more ashamed, from the self-deprecating performance he gives for the bosses camera. This is far more than a few images that garner a few laughs. This is an affront to their father’s character and subsequently their family honor. But this hardly ever feels like a Japanese cultural issue, this is an issue that arises in the hearts and minds of proud, naive boys.

It’s the colliding viewpoints of children and adults and rather surprisingly the film is willing to look at the perspective of the kids. If Ozu’s initial work shares any similarity with Ohayo many years later, it’s at this juncture. The boys decide to protest their father by keeping silent and not acknowledging his presence since he has wounded them so egregiously. They’ve mastered the scowl to perfection as they glower in the front yard eating their mother’s onigiri. It seems like they’ll never be able to face the other kids again and they’ll never forgive their father.

Those very themes alone make this universal storytelling and it’s easy to forget for even a moment that this is a film brought to us from 1930s Japan. Because there is something going on here that feels so real. Every young boy wants to think of their father as a big deal, the king of the hill, a big success, and when we are met with anything that seems to contradict that vision we have, it does hurt us.

Still, what the story does well is to find a resolution where the boys can still be content in who their father is, beginning to comprehend a little bit the situation he is in. Even as they get a little help from the local paperboy to vanquish the local bullies, they ultimately gain a small dose of sympathy for their dad. If they don’t quite understand why he has to say good morning to his boss every day and treat him with such deference, as they grow older they might start to appreciate him more.

However, it does seem like something is lost in the translation of this title for American audiences but the subtitle does suggest more meaning. This is an “Adult’s Picture Book View” so we are looking at a child’s world from an adult perspective and though it’s inherently funny we gain a greater respect for both children and parents.

4.5/5 Stars

After The Storm (2016)

after the storm 1.png

There is a phenomenon in Japan called hikikomori (pulling inward). It mostly applies to 20-somethings. But in 2017 an article came out in The New York Times to document a different and yet somehow similar occurrence.

Many older people risk the chance of dying alone if they have no family because many live without a network of community and neighbors while in such proximity might still leave them invariably isolated. I have lived there for an extended period of time, granted as a foreigner, and yet I could feel the weight of such an environment

Thus, the dutiful grown children worry about their parents, about being the good son or the good daughter. Ryota’s mother is a wonderful lady. She gives him a playful slug in the stomach, tells him to his face he’s a horrible liar but always in love. Quibbles ensue between siblings over taking advantage of their mother’s good graces since she lives only off her pension following the death of her husband years back.

And yet there is a certain relish in these core relationships because even if it’s not a perfect picture you get the sense that mother and son care deeply for each other. It’s the films most gratifying interaction watching Hiroshi Abe and Kiki Kirin play off each other. Menial events take on the utmost meaning because they manage to color the characters in honest ways and the film has many of these seemingly inconsequential moments. That’s a product of its pacing.

For people who haven’t lived in Tokyo, preconceived notions of it might come from the likes of Lost in Translation (2003). Personified by ultra-hip areas like Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Harajuku touted for their nightlife and shopping. But there are a lot of other places too as director Hirokazu Kore-eda suggests. The Tokyo made up of suburbs, apartment complexes, and more ordinary landscapes. The Nerimas and Kiyoses of the world.

Coppola’s film worked because it was going for the perspective of an outsider. I enjoyed After The Storm immensely because it has the attention to detail and the touches of a local — someone who has known this terrain intimately.  I distinctly remember the first time I ever came back to the states knowing I would soon be returning to Japan. And in that moment I no longer felt like a tourist but someone with a new sort of understanding. It’s crucial because it changes your entire outlook and what you deem important. The big moments aren’t as relevant as the day-to-day.

Abe’s performance is so exquisitely rendered because while the picture is by no means a comedy his various ticks, expressions, even his lumbering figure are humorous without ever truly meaning to be. And they are organic moments that never feel forced. In other words, they are human and so despite his shortcomings, there’s something that resonates about him. When we look at his life we see a bit of his restlessness. He’s still not the man he wants to be. He realizes that.

His ex-wife is seeing another man. The rich new boyfriend feels like a universal trope that doesn’t need much explanation. Meanwhile, Ryota rarely gets to see his son, only on prearranged days were he pays child support. He’s notoriously bad on making their meetings on time. That and other reasons are hints to why his wife left him. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t hold onto some wistfulness, especially where his son is involved.

Though once an award-winning author most recently he’s taken on a job as a private investigator. He says it’s only temporary — research for his latest project — but it’s been going on far too long. He’s started getting used to it and so have his coworkers.

The film’s point of departure and ultimate revelation, if there is one, comes in the wake of a typhoon. Again, living in Japan you understand that this is a fairly common occurrence. But it’s the regular person’s side of Tokyo away from the bright lights.

Trying to field lost lottery tickets in the swirling downpour or shielding oneself inside a slide at a park watching the debris fly by is enough of a diversion because the intent is to consider not so much environmental changes but how our characters change.

Of course, implicit in the translated title is that there is something new (あたらしい) about life. And yet when we get on the other side of the storm it’s difficult to know. That would be the form of a typical film. To make the before and the after drastically different. Here the characters have changed — no doubt — but externally their behavior seems all but the same. The development is incremental and internalized.

I appreciate that. In life, there is rarely a megaphone to announce change for us. Sometimes it’s imperceptible to the eye. It’s even notoriously difficult to acknowledge some changes in ourselves. And yet we know they are there. Because to our last breath, we are indubitably a work in progress. We will never be perfect. That’s part of what makes life and this film thoroughly intriguing. What’s more is that it still glimmers with a certain hopefulness.

4/5 Stars

 

Densha Otoko (2005)

densha otoko.png

In English, it means Train Man and it finds its origins in a media franchise that now includes Manga, a book, a television show, and of course this movie. But the events of the story are purportedly based on real life when a young otaku (Japanese tech nerd) in Akihabara came to the defense of a woman on a train who was being accosted by a drunken businessman.

This isolated, geeky 22-year old male was her knight in shining armor and probably had never talked to a girl before in his life. Every syllable comes out of his mouth jumbled, rushed, and breathless. If they were American we would say that she’s out of his league — the head cheerleader or what have you.

But the film is blessed because it is set in Japan. Densha Otoko proves to be part dorky rom-com while also giving us a view into a unique subculture. While it deals in stereotypes somewhat, we see his constant communications taking place over online chat and although it’s dated by today’s standards the Akihabara vibe is unquestionable as is the integration of technology into modern day romance.

At the time we were on the cusp of where we’re at now and you see the signs of it. Flip phones and laptops on the train. People at their computers at work and home. Such luxuries have become increasingly more invasive and some might say they have come at the detriment of human relationship.

What this film does well is to consider both rather implicitly with online friends on one side acting as his constant peanut gallery offering conflicting pieces of advice, constant pep talks, and further considerations as they all analyze his prospects as a body.

Then, of course, we have this demure woman he stood up for on the train. She might be the Japanese iteration of a manic pixie dreamgirl — granted I’m not sure what that means exactly — no matter she’s considerate and sweet. Their interactions continue with a present sent as a Thank You, then a dinner where they split the bill, and several other affable encounters.

The film’s aesthetic might be off-putting to some as it reflects a world constantly interfacing with their screens. Further suggesting the interweb of relationships that are created where people only know each other online, denoted by a continuously split screen and yet their lives spill outside of that and we get a small taste of not just Densha Otoko but all of his fan club. These characters too could have used more definition but they serve their purpose.

Train Man pushes onward and enters territory that none of them could have ever dreamed of. And he does it by being as nervous and frantic and considerate as ever. He gets a haircut (thank goodness), buys some new duds, and tries a few other techniques. Researching dinner conversations and testing the food beforehand. It’s actually quite sweet if he weren’t so uncomfortable to watch. But then again, who am I to judge?

Still, what matters is the time they spend together. It’s pleasant and kind not interrupted by awkward kisses or embarrassing hijinks with best friends. It just the two of them and he tries to discern how to move forward with this girl on that ever perilous tightrope of male-female relationships. They’ll at least have men befuddled for eternity. I can’t speak for the ladies.

That’s not to say there aren’t throw away moments or wacky and slightly peculiar ones that we probably could have done without. I won’t bother listing them because most importantly the film remains in our good graces for what it’s mainly set out to do. Allowing a socially awkward underdog a chance to shine. Through all his tripping and falling, sniveling and awkwardness, he gets some amount of satisfaction.

Consolidate it down to its best themes and scenes and you have a rewarding picture of just that. Because after all, it’s fairly easy to forgive a heartfelt movie like this for its gaffs since even in those very things it’s staying true to its core hero: Densha Otoko.

Likewise, I’m going to stick by my guns and enjoy this film perhaps more than I should have and yet in its innocence and jubilation, I found something that is so often lacking in American films trying to work within the same genre. Tighter editing would have been a major benefit but I’ll always hold that sincerity covers a multitude of faults. Call me an old softie if you will but maybe it’s the fact that I’m probably an otaku at heart. Whether he gets the girl or not, he has my sympathy.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

hiroshima mon amour 1

Like you I know what it is to forget and yet still be endowed with memory. These are only a couple fragments from this film stitched together but in many ways, they encapsulate the essence of its core themes.

I suppose such words ring true for all of us and Alain Resnais’ film is composed of a plethora of equally perplexing paradoxes that though never quite coming into full clarity nevertheless prove Hiroshima Mon Amour to be one of the most bewitching cinematic expressions born out of the French cinema. Without question, it is an undisputed touchstone of the forthcoming Nouvelle Vague that blew up the conventions of the 1960s.

The first time I ever saw Resnais’ romantic meditation there was something so arresting about it such that I will never forget the likes of Nevers and Hiroshima — the two entities that make up this film as not simply places of past tragedy but crucial to the very identities of the characters who come within the frame.

We never need to know the true names of this French actress (Emanuelle Riva in a riveting performance of immense grace) and the equally candid Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who fall into the throes of a passionate affair together. They are represented well enough by these monikers — symbolic torchbearers of these names — emblematic of the age they ascribed to.

Like L’Eclisse (1961) or Dr. Strangelove (1964), this film too is in the wake of the atomic bomb and any subsequent discussion thereof cinematically speaking must at least acknowledge such films. Part of the necessity in this specific case is how the film takes a particular event and then extends it and intertwines it with so much more in such a way that it not only a monument to Hiroshima but a testament to human history.

We are people so quick to forget. We lose sight of the past. We bury our hurts deep inside. We are doomed to repeat many of our past mistakes. But still, more so we are capable of passions, emotions, and love that carry us through times of tribulation, pain, and suffering. It’s something to be immensely thankful for.

Resnais film is one of the great visual marvels of the 20th century with its graceful fade-outs and flashbacks — delicate camera zooms connecting memories and realities. Stylistically there’s a continuous poetic cadence of image and dialogue, repetitions with recollections. A solemnity exists in its very purposeful pacing that ties everything together with the utmost elegance which, far from being a muddled hodgepodge, forms a perplexing experience never to be fully elucidated.

It has very few equals and remains so as an achievement that can hardly be defined as a typical love story or any such blase categorization. It’s what we might conceive when we think of Film as art worthy of any sphere of discussion.

There’s hardly a meter to begin measuring how it makes us feel or the emotions it elicits.  Somehow connected to fate — two lovers crossing paths — these two individuals seemingly meant to be together and tied together not only by their romantic passion but their own histories. The striking flashback structure subsequently creates tiny microcosms of emotional resonance that flood with abandon.

Recollections of past scars unearthed over the course of the love affair. Both historical and personal. We have the depiction of the devastation in the aftermath of the bomb with images that are all but scorched into our mind’s eye with an unfettered pointedness. We are meant to see these images and take into account how they came into being.

But there’s also the personal trauma brought to the fore and exhumed with a kind of transfixing equanimity that’s hard to fully comprehend but nevertheless leaves us with something to ruminate over. Equally telling is the passage of time as memories begin to fade and minds begin to slowly forget. Again, that is the curse of our beings that we must fight to remember what has come before.

It’s no small coincidence that the cafe that our two lovers rendezvous at is none other than the Casablanca. The yearning and the melancholy are right there in the lyric of “As Time Goes By.” If you’ve never consciously thought about their meaning before then Resnais film might make you hear them anew and be moved.  Love, memory, and heartbreak are often so closely tied together. This is a film that dwells on each and finds some amount of catharsis.

The diversity of the crew is another glimmering bright spot of this joint partnership between nations with an abundance of involvement from both French and Japanese staff taking the shoot on-location to both countries. It’s a lovely marriage and a bond is formed by the picture just as the romance signals a tight-knit cross-cultural relationship on screen.

For some, individuals somewhat attuned to diverse backgrounds, Hiroshima Mon Amour is utterly groundbreaking in this realm. Though its cast is small, it’s a mighty statement having a French woman playing opposite a Japanese man. 50 years on it remains as an image that we do not see all that often, despite the changing of the tides.

Their closeness is palpable. Hands clasping tenderly. Eyes gazing with the deepest longing. The intimacy that they share speaks volumes. Even as it’s undercut by the morose strains of infidelity and wistfulness; this is a love story like few others.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

 

Ohayo (1959)

Good_morning_dvdIf Yasujiro Ozu can be considered foremost among Japan’s preeminent directors then there’s no doubt that Ohayo (Good Morning in English) is one of his most delightfully silly films. But that’s only on the surface level.

Young boys are unified in their affection for watching sumo on television and passing gas as a great gag to pull on their friends. Nosy housewives gossip incessantly whether it be the next door neighbor’s new washing machine or the mysterious disappearance of dues for the local women’s association. Meanwhile, most of the men go to work and spend their evenings knocking a few back at the bar noting how much the world is changing around them. Then they go home oftentimes a little drunk.

Ohayo is actually a reimagining of one of Ozu’s most remembered early pictures during his silent days I Was Born But… (1932) and yet he skillfully reworks the storyline into an everyday comedy of family and neighborhood drama that’s full of humor and his brand of quietly observant social commentary.

Ozu always took great care in analyzing family units and matrimonial bonds that affected relationships. Although we have a bit of a fleeting young romance in the works, this film’s greatest concern are two young boys from the Hayashi family who are giving their parents the silent treatment until they are allowed to have a television. Their parents are holding out and it begins a rather humorous ordeal as the brothers Minoru and the ridiculously comical Isamu (constantly exclaiming “I Love You”) try to make it through dinner, school, and so many other daily activities without a word.

As he would dissect many times over, Ozu focuses on the generational divide that was emerging and becoming increasingly prevalent in the post-war years as reflected by technological advancements like television and other such devices slowly turning present Japan into a land of a million idiots. At least that’s what the older generations feel.

Still, it’s just as equally occupied with the moral customs that have long ruled the nation where wives can speak so kindly to their neighbors up front only to slander them behind their backs a moment later. Saving face and personal honor is often cared about far more deeply than anything else — even in some circumstances when it happens to be at the expense of another family member.

Perhaps the most troubling thing is the very Japanese predilection to talk about nothing in particular, filling conversations with salutations, pleasantries, and comments on the current weather patterns. It hardly ever gets to anything of substance and that comes in numerous forms. Sometimes it means a young man never gets around to sharing his feelings with a girl or adults never being particularly candid with neighbors or spouses. There’s very little of that kind of transparency to be had. Few of the words passed along between people in conversation mean all that much.

The irony of the whole situation is that, in one such instance, it’s a young son who calls them out on it and he proceeds to get a heavy scolding from his father (Chishu Ryu) who bluntly tells him that he talks too much. Meanwhile, although Izamu can be constantly chiming “I Love You” in English, there’s an uneasy sense that his parents and most certainly his father, might have never said the words to him.

In these very simple ways Ozu rather delicately and still humorously tackles many of the issues that have long plagued an honor-based culture such as Japan’s but he does it with an adroitness that uses touches of humor and his own understanding of human nature to craft yet another universal tale that’s ultimately sympathetic in its portrayals.

It unsurprisingly feels like it could be a Japanese episode of Leave it to Beaver except for the father never has much of a talking to with his sons and the mother may be as put together as June Cleaver but hardly feels ever as affectionately maternal.

Equally spectacular is Ozu’s mise-en-scene which as per usual is meticulously staged and gorgeous in scene after scene. He offers up each individual image in a flat two-dimensional way that can best be described as taking cues from not only the theater but Japanese woodblock paintings with wonderful symmetry and compositions boosted by color.

He uses the clique of adjoining homes as the perfect set to send his characters in and out of with the hint of comedic forethought. While watching characters walking by on the hillside up above the homes — their figures slowly moving in and out of the frame past the houses — this provides some of Ohayo’s most visually stimulating images pleasing the eye incessantly.

There’s always a visual fearlessness that you see in very few others because he not only has color at his disposal but the staging is on point as is his disregard of the 180-degree rule of perspective. It just works. What is more, he also continues to use what could best be called establishing shots by western audiences. Except they hardly ever need to establish anything. It’s as if he simply put them there because they are vivid depictions of the reality he is painting — adding yet another distinct contour to the world he is working with — going beyond the figures that he places within the frame.

There’s no doubt that this is Ozu but not all that surprisingly this might be my personal favorite in his oeuvre for the aforementioned reasons. It feels like Ozu operating at his most playful while nevertheless maintaining his peak form as a filmmaker.

4.5/5 Stars

 

My Sassy Girl (2001)

my sassy girl 1.png

We meet a college-aged Korean guy (Cha Tae-hyun) as he relates his first encounter with the girl (Jun ji-hyun) who would ultimately become his girlfriend. In the throes of a drunken stupor, she flails perilously near the railway as an incoming train comes on so he steps in to pull her back to safety. They board minutes later — he’s still watching her warily — only for her to puke all over a commuter.

Assuming he is the boyfriend, Gyeon-woo is chastized to do something about his girlfriend and so reluctantly he takes her still intoxicated by piggyback to the nearest hotel. This whole complicated scenario happens to him twice and it lands him in jail.  It doesn’t sound like the pitch-perfect moment to start off a romance but then again My Sassy Girl never has perfect pitch and that’s where it succeeds.

The film opens with these exaggerated comically cringe-worthy interactions and yet it settles into something far more fulfilling than its attention-grabbing gross-out antics. While Gyeon-woo gets all but pulled into the scenario you realize that there was a single decision. He cared enough to intervene on this girl’s behalf. Maybe he regretted it but it’s doubtful.

What was his life beforehand? Fairly inane and nondescript. He hangs out with his buddies as they grunt about inconsequential things. His face is prone to glazed over expressions. He’s constantly whining to his mother over the phone after forgetting to visit his Aunt — the Aunt who always pinches his cheeks and tries to set him up with an eligible girl. When he’s not getting swatted at by his mother at home, his father gives him a going over for not getting better grades. He’s a rudderless young man with no true conviction or sense of purpose. He’s in need of some kind of shakeup.

my sassy girl 3.png

The Girl (who is never given a name) is actually the one who dictates the sheer unpredictability and consequently, the hilarity of the picture. Jun Ji-hyun pulls off a remarkable part that brims with a feistiness, playful whimsy, and utter solemnity as it cycles between scenes. She smacks him around and bosses him to do this and that based on a momentary fancy. Also, her facial expressions are on point.There’s so much sassafras as we used to say in high school. She willingly calls out people for their behavior in public places as well as their wardrobe choices. The filter is all but lacking. She’s a creature of caprice.

Anything that Geon-woo does to her disapproval prompts her threatening catchphrase, “Wanna Die?” Partially as a veiled threat and partially as a rhetorical assertion. It works in many circumstances. Most importantly she has fun because that is her antidote to try and forget something — to get past some prior hurt — and to reclaim her life as her own.

Like the Japanese film Shall We Dance (1996), My Sassy Girl also garnered an American remake due to its popularity. But the remakes in both accounts cannot measure up to the originals for a very simple reason. These stories are meant for the cultures they came out of or at least they are given greater import in their respective countries of origin. The first film was about freedom of expression in a society that values a certain amount of conformity. My Sassy Girl highlights a character who all but goes against the norms of how people are supposed to act as she carries herself with a certain amount of unpredictable vigor.

There are some clunky seemingly superfluous scenes but our leads have a disarming even unorthodox chemistry about them that weathers it all. One scene, in particular, stops up the film’s middle where they sneak into the theme park on The Girl’s birthday only to be held hostage by an AWOL soldier. It’s ultimately another expression of romantic sentiment but it disrupts the hilarity for an extended period of time. Because those are the moments when the story is at its best.

The direction can also be a bit distracting as the camera swirls around and does this and that with POV shots inserted and lines of voiceover narration but we can attribute that merely to the film’s jarring intentions. They help personify this volatile, idiosyncratic character at its core.

The original slap bet is born on the Subway. Squash games inevitably wind up with the ball nailing Geon-woo in the face. He’s also inept at swordplay and he can’t swim. Meanwhile, she holds aspirations for writing screenplays and forces him to read her work. He notes there’s always a hero coming from the future infused with action-packed terminator or samurai vibes.

All of this movie’s finest moments of romantic hilarity can be summed up in the list of 10 points Gyeon-woo recites by heart relaying how to treat his girl:

  • First, don’t ask her to be feminine.
  • Second, don’t let her drink over three glasses, she’ll beat someone.
  • At a cafe, drink coffee instead of coke or juice.
  • If she hits you, act like it hurts. If it hurts, act like it doesn’t.
  • On your 100th day together, give her a rose during her class. She’ll like it a lot.
  • Make sure you learn fencing and squash.
  • Also, be prepared to go to prison sometimes.
  • If she says she’ll kill you, don’t take it lightly. You’ll feel better.
  • If her feet hurt, exchange shoes with her.
  • Finally, she likes to write. Encourage her.

The latter half dips more deeply into the well of sincerity and though it might seem difficult to buy this sentimental side of the characters, we’ll gladly make allowances because we’ve been through so much with them. It turns out The Sassy Girl has more to her as we always suspected.

In an excursion to one of her favorite spots that is shaded by a solitary tree, they bury a time capsule with letters written to each other. On her behest, they will come back in two years to read them but for now, she must go away and figure things out. It seems a dismal and confusing point of departure for Geon-woo and the audience. But he resigns himself to it and moves forward.

However, the film very much wants to drill into our heads that fate means building a bridge of chance for your love. It gives romance this edge of grand design where all things fall into place for those who are truly meant to be together. Fittingly, circumstance brings them back full circle. Surely, some will need to take this with a grain of salt but no matter, when it’s all said and done, there’s no question that My Sassy Girl is a satisfying rom-com moment after moment. The leads are just too memorable to pass up.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Jules and Jim (1962)

jules et jim 1.png

Jules and Jim breaks out of the gates with a frantic burst of energy giving off the effect of a comedic circus act or a whirling carousel and at times it functions as both. Champion of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut, at 29 years of age injects the film with this kind of frantic lifeblood tearing through the material and time with almost reckless abandon. If Breathless (1960) was not the title taken by one of its contemporaries, this picture could have just as easily taken the name.

You see, Truffaut takes Henri-Pierre’s Roche’s autobiographical novel, the work of an old man, and transforms it into a period piece shot by a young man. The distinctions reveal themselves in full force.

It’s a cinema of attraction with whips, tracks, freezes, jumps, and flies constituting a fluid adventure that’s given free reign to go in so many directions thanks to the versatile camerawork of Godard regular Raoul Coutard as well as connecting voice-over narration (provided by Michel Subor) and a score courtesy of George Delerue.

Still, as Truffaut lets us sink into his story things come more clearly into focus but never so they reach a point of complete clarity. He never dwells too long on a moment or an idea. Instead, choosing to move through the lives of his protagonists touching on so many moments and relationships and ideas. Thus, in one sense Jules and Jim never slogs but it also still functions as a fairly compelling work of historical drama covering a lot of terrain in a condensed amount of time. Some may find that off-putting others will welcome it as a refreshing permutation of the Hollywood status quo.

The year is 1912. An Austrian named Jules (Oskar Werner) and a Frenchman named Jim strike up a friendship that feels like the perfect representation of the deep lasting bond that can form between two individuals. They are young men with a great many of the same interests and a comparable outlook on life.

They’re always benevolent toward one another, they never fight, and they share a mutual satisfaction in the arts while diverting their time at the gymnasium, playing dominoes, and of course, in the company of women. From there one of the great cinematic friendships is forged for life. Though tested, not even a woman can tear their bond asunder…completely. At least not in the way we might expect.

It all begins when they become enamored with a statue, an opaque figure with a pleasant smiling face that captures them so much so that they must go and see it for themselves. But far more striking is the woman they meet back in France who embodies that same bewitching quality.

They meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) as they have met many other women in the past for tea or an afternoon of trivialities and conversation. Except Catherine is one of the few that stays with them. Of course, she is personified by none other than Jeanne Moreau that monumental beauty and one of the undisputed queens of the Nouvelle Vague alongside Anna Karina in Godard’s early works.

There’s a frisky and lithe vivacity that carries her through the film’s earliest scenes as she dons her disguise as Thomas frolicking through Paris in one of the most iconic and enduring sequences of the cinema. An overwhelmingly attractive abandon radiates out of her. Truffaut has set Moreau up as such with his narrative and she does the rest.

However, still, as the story continues to progress and she marries Jules and they make a life together with a daughter named Sabine, there are other qualities that come to the fore. Namely, her maturity with a hint of sophistication that still leaves space for that same carefree vigor continually coursing through her and garnering the undivided attention of the camera.

In the complete inverse of the film’s title, you find its true attraction and the figure who makes the whole story what it is.  Jules so aptly puts it that she’s “a force of nature that manifests itself in cataclysms.” She’s so very uninhibited.

Thus, Jules will love her for a lifetime and Jim will count her among his very closest companions but still, she is a complicated creature and perhaps Truffaut is playing out his own mesmerization and subsequent befuddlement with women. Catherine is an epitome of that. She has other lovers. She openly cavorts with Jim who wants to love her even as he wants to stay true to his best friend. She constantly does what is least expected but that goes with the territory of Truffaut’s invention.

As such, it is less of a conventional love triangle and more precisely a menage a trois as the French might say. This is not so much about dramatic conflict as it is tragically sad in the end. Because this is a film about friendship as much as it is love and it’s a dream friendship as much as it is a romantic fantasy. Maybe it’s possible for both to exist partially in the forms projected onscreen and yet Truffaut fills both with so much that we easily yearn for.

There’s the song “Le Tourbillon” that Moreau sings and it quite remarkably ties into this film. The words come from her lips gayly, describing a woman who could very much represent Catherine and then a lover who are both “Each blown their way by the whirlpool of days.” There’s not a better way describing the course of this film.

It’s consumed with so many interludes and subsequent shifts that are almost matter-of-fact from the breakout of the Great War to its ultimate resolution or the marriage of Jules to Catherine and her eventual affectionate advances toward Jim.

Within these segments, it occurs to me that the film hardly comes off like a drama. Still, there are moments of comedy and undoubted tinges of bitter tragedy. But what we’re left with is what Truffaut best described himself — a bit of a knowing paradox of tones.

“When humor can be made to alternate with melancholy, one has a success, but when the same things are funny and melancholic at the same time, it’s just wonderful.”

It is another of the great tragicomedies of cinema like a Citizen Kane (1941) or 8 1/2 (1963) but there’s no doubt that this is Truffaut’s own rendition and it remains the heart & soul of the Nouvelle Vague for its defining visuals that have ingrained themselves in the cultural landscape the world over.

4.5/5 Stars

Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Tokyo Sonata 1.png

I can’t even begin to comprehend what it’s like to get laid off in Tokyo. In any city, any place, any circumstance it’s one of the feelings which would instigate the formation of a lump in your throat. But Tokyo is swarming with so many people and so much competition; it seems like you would be practically swallowed up. I’m surprised there are any available jobs at all.

That’s what makes it especially demeaning for Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) to go to the unemployment office. He’s long held an administrative job in a prestigious company but when he is suddenly let go, Mr. Sasaki finds that he is overqualified for any amount of work offered him at the agency. Surely, beggars can’t be choosers but no matter how many times you’ve had that phrase shoved down your throat, it doesn’t make such a reality any easier. A janitor is a far cry from a cushy desk job.

By an act of serendipitous chance, he happens upon an old school chum who has been stricken by the same fate and yet being three months in he’s seasoned at the lifestyle of keeping up appearances even as he attends the food line with the homeless. He still dresses in his suit, carries his briefcase, and feigns taking business calls. It’s an unnerving dichotomy that Ryuhei soon readily adopts as well.

But behind every man, there is usually an entire family and Tokyo Sonata is very much a dissection of the Japanese familial unit after a stressor is applied. All parties are affected. But we see the cracks even before the news breaks.

Kenji, the youngest child is caught in class with an erotic manga which he vehemently denies owning. But as an act of retaliation, he calls out his teacher in front of the class for reading similar material on the train. He purportedly saw him and the man has no defense. They meet later in a quieter exchange and his teacher simply states, “Let’s stop poking each other’s wounds and ignore them.”

It’s a morose response to deep issues of loneliness and isolation and while this particular instance pertains to love and sexual intimacy we can take this very same outlook and apply it to many of the film’s dynamics. If we keep things hidden and disregard them things might still work out.

On a whim, Kenji wants to play the piano and yet it’s for a very understandable reason. It’s because of a girl. He has a crush. Well, actually it turns out to be the woman teacher and she’s twice his age and recently divorced but that doesn’t stop him from using his month’s lunch allowance to pay for lessons without his parent’s knowledge. Again, the family operates in secret deceptions. Little white lies and overall detachment.

The eldest son, Takashi, by some peculiar circumstance, is signing up for the American military as a non-citizen for deployment in The Middle East. Of course, he too has moved forward with the plan without consulting his parents. He ambushes his mother with the news quite suddenly because he needs her written approval. He knows that she is the easier touch and doesn’t even bother telling his father at first because he knows full well the response that will come.

Their home life as represented by the dinner table feels like such a sterile environment and that’s in a scenario where none of the chinks are showing. No one says anything in fact. I feel sorry for the woman of the house. As both wife and mother, Megumi (Kyōko Koizumi ) is dutiful and maternal. She’s not necessarily aloof but the world around her feels so unloving and unfeeling. It’s hard to make a contented life for yourself when the entire atmosphere is dictated by the man of the house based on cultural precedence alone.

When the deep-rooted concept of saving face goes so far it means lying to your family I think there’s a problem. Because the lie can’t be kept forever. And even when the people close to you (or not close to you)  don’t let on, eventually they know. It’s devastating to watch since it lacks any of the normal benchmarks we use to measure devastation. It reveals just how matter-of-fact something like this can be. The response is a non-response.

I know full-well that these types of circumstances play out; I’m not sure if I buy every last bit of execution in Tokyo Sonata. It feels a little too contrived. And yet even in the things that feel too perfectly planned there’s no doubt some truth. How everyone in their own way is trying to pull something off behind everyone else’s back. There is distrust in every corner of the house. If even things that aren’t altogether bad are hidden, what about the ones that are catastrophic like losing your job or little dirty secrets like reading racy manga? Multiply that across an entire society and you can readily predict the unnerving implications.

It is a picture where everyone wants to wake up and find out that it is all a bad dream and it very well could be. This is Tokyo Sonata’s true departure from any pretense of the real world and in these moments while the film loses some integrity as a true-to-life drama it undoubtedly gains some inscrutability from visions of hallucinatory nightmares. At these crossroads, we see the clearest articulation of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s background in J-Horror.

But in the end, the darker mood gives way to the most subdued of crescendos born out of an unassuming performance of “Claire de Lune.” It’s one of the few moments of palpable warmth in the film and it embodies the incomparable magnetism that music has. I can’t think of a better way to salvage Tokyo Sonata. It’s a purposeful statement of not feeling the need to say anything directly. Impeccable for a culture such as this. Maybe it serves to only exacerbate the problem. But change is incremental. It will not happen overnight. This just might be a baby step toward a more personable future.

3.5/5 Stars

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Clouds_of_Sils_Maria_film_posterIt’s my prerogative to respect films that dare to leave me questioning their ambitions and their outcomes. Clouds of Sils Maria is such a film. At times it gets so caught up in its own meta-narrative perhaps too much so.

Still, this is a story about a middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) called upon to return to the script that made her famous but this time in the much more unglamorous role. Her stardom is such that she can pick and choose her work still but that doesn’t make growing older and life in general any easier. She must navigate press junkets, paparazzi, divorce proceedings, and on top of it all the death of a good friend — the man who helped make her famous.

The person keeping Maria sane through every bit of drama and every tiresome ordeal is her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). She is also the one who cajoles her client to take the role. My gut further suggests that there are the inklings of All About Eve echoed in Olivier Assayas story between a mature actress and a rising star who is a prima donna scandal maker of the social media age (played by Chloe Grace Moretz).

But still that dynamic proves to be less fruitul and ultimately less interesting than the relationship that is examined between Maria and Valentine. It is their scenes together that are tirelessly engaging because their interactions run the gamut of emotions. How do you begin to define them?

The dividing line between this play that they are bouncing off each other and their actual lives at times feel perilously close as they jump in and out. Somehow in some unknowable way, it seems to reflect real truths about their relationship.

The meta moments are innumerable including those that suggest Binoche’s earlier film Rendez-vous, Chloe Grace Moretz forays into superhero blockbusters, even a passing coincidental remark Stewart makes about a film featuring werewolves. There’s a Harrison Ford film directed by Sydney Pollack (a lah Sabrina) maybe lightly poking fun at how Juliette Binoche and Julia Ormond could easily be confused.

But if nothing else these feel like only slight nods if not pastiche that do not necessarily aid the aspirations of the film. They mean very little. The far more fascinating suggestion is just how closely the characters of Maria and Valentine read to the figures in the script while they practice the lines in the mountains. But it’s not just that. It’s how their conversation organically reveals bits and pieces of their personal philosophies.

So to clarify it’s not reality intersecting with fiction but the fiction within the fiction that creates a greater depth that complicates matters. That’s what makes the film at times beautiful and perplexing. The fact that Valentine evaporates is tantamount to Michelangelo Antioni losing his main character in L’Avventura. Likewise, Valentine disappears into the clouds never to be seen again and that’s far more interesting than any amount of commentary that could have been crammed into the storyline about Stewart’s actual career.

And in truth, this has to be without question the greatest performance of Stewart’s career thus far because there’s something streetwise, nuanced, and clever about her. There’s a strange sense through her wardrobe and demeanor that this is part of Stewart that we are actually seeing, although I’m not sure how true that is. It feels the very essence of “un-acting” if we can coin that phrase.

Binoche, of course, has a lauded spot as one of the eminent stars of European cinema for very good reason with a career that has been held in regard for well nigh 30 years. Somehow she feels like oil and water mixed with the likes of Stewart and Moretz, products of Hollywood blockbusters, but that’s what makes this film an interesting marriage of backgrounds.

Far from being conflicting, the pairing of Binoche and Stewart is ripe with interesting qualities because their differences make the interactions pop. They can be so diametrically opposed. Their age, backgrounds, and at the very core how they view these central characters of Sigrid and Helena in the film within the film. Yet at the same time, they’re so closely tied together and interconnected — their relationship of a star with her personal assistant that proves to be even closer still to that between friends and confidantes.

When Stewart disappears from the story much of what was interesting vanished from the picture but then again because she vanished it made the picture’s denouement more interesting.

By the end, as an audience, it feels as if we have little stake in the trajectory of Maria’s career. It’s hard to care too much about her at this point because she’s been a star, she is a star and she probably still will be one unless her own temperamental nature gets in the way. It doesn’t leave us with the same empathy that comes with All About Eve because our heroine still has a career fully intact.

Clouds of Sils Maria’s immaculate classical music played over elegant tracking shots, matched by soft fade outs between sequences is pleasant if not a tad pretentious. But its ambitions thematically, by the time the curtain falls, feel noticeably more nuanced than its predecessor. It leaves us with something mystifying to ruminate over and that is nearly enough if not wholly satisfying.

4/5 Stars

A Christmas Tale (2008)

achristmastaleposterThe initial inclination for seeing Arnaud Desplechin’s sprawling family drama was the presence of the estimable Catherine Deneuve. And she’s truly wonderful giving a shining, nuanced performance that makes the audience respect her, sympathize with her, and even dislike her a little bit. But the same goes for her entire family. The best word to describe them is messy. Dysfunctional is too sterile. Messy fits what they are. If you think your family is bad around the holidays, the Vuillards have a lot of their own issues to cull through.

The inciting incident sends a shock wave through their already crumbling family unit. Their matriarch has been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and must make the difficult decision of whether or not to risk treatment or go without. But Deneuve carries herself with that same quietly assured beauty that she’s had even since the days of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In this capacity, she makes A Christmas Tale, far from a tearful, sobfest. She’s strong, distant, and you might even venture to say fearless.

And because of her strength, this story is not only about her own plight – it’s easy to downplay it because she is so resilient – but it frames the rest of the interconnecting relationships. It began when her first son passed away. The children who followed included Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny) who became the oldest and grew up to be a successful playwright. Junon’s middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric) can best be described as the black sheep while the youngest, Ivan, was caught in the midst of the familial turmoil.

Because the issues go back at least five years before Junon gets her life-altering news. It was five years ago that Elizabeth paid Henri’s way out of an extended prison sentence (for a reason that is never explained) with the stipulation that she never has to see her brother again. Not at family gatherings, not for anything. And she gets her way for a time.

But with Junon’s news she and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) realize this is a crucial time to get their family back together because, above all, their matriarch needs a donor and due to her unique genetic makeup, a family member is her best bet.

Underlying these overt issues are numerous tensions that go beyond sibling grudges and sickness. Elizabeth’s own relationships have been fraught with unhappiness and her son Paul has been struggling through a bout of depression. Ivan and his wife (Chiarra Mastroianni) are seemingly happy with two young boys of her own. But old secrets about unrequited love get dredged up and Sylvia is looking for answers of her own. Although it’s a side note, it’s striking that Chiarra Mastroianni is Deneuve’s real-life daughter and in her eyes, I see the spitting image of her father, the icon, Marcello Mastroianni.

There’s also a lot of truth and honesty buried within A Christma Tale and in most competitions, it would win for the most melancholy of yuletide offerings. However, it’s important to note that its darkness is balanced out with romance, comedy, and a decent dose of apathy as well.

Still, the most troubling thing about A Christmas Tale is not the fact that it is extremely transparent, but the reality that the themes of Christmas have no bearing on its plot. We leave these characters different than they were before but whether they are better for it is up for debate.

The sentimentality of a It’s Wonderful Life crescendo would be overdone and fake in this context but some sort of reevaluation still seems necessary. Because without faith in anything — faith in their family is ludicrous — their world looks utterly hopeless. The two little grandsons wait in front of the nativity staying up to get a glimpse at Jesus (perhaps mistaken for Santa Claus) and their father calmly states they should go to bed because he’s never existed anyways. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with holding such beliefs.

Even the fact that Junon and her grown son Henri attend midnight mass is an interesting development. But during this season emblematic of hope and joy, it seems like the Vuillard’s can have very little of either one. Henri can be his mother’s savior for a time by extending her life for 1.7 years or whatever the probabilities suggest. But then what?

It’s this reason and not the family drama that ultimately makes A Christmas Tale a downer holiday story. Its denouement feels rather like a dead end more than fresh beginnings. Because Nietzche and coin flips are not the most satisfying ways to decipher the incomprehensibility of life – especially with death looming large during the holidays.

But that’s only one man’s opinion. That’s not to downplay all that is candid about this film in any way. If you are intrigued by the interpersonal relationships and entanglements of a family  — may be a lot like yours and mine — this film is an elightening exposé.

3.5/5 Stars