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by DoDo Sat Mar 7th, 2015 at 04:27:04 PM EST

Back in December I told that I embarked on a quest to watch some movies I missed over the last few years. At some point this changed into a quest to view recent classics of Japanese cinema.

I present short critiques grouped into four comments. Which ones have you seen (especially of the Japanese ones)? What were your impressions? What relatively recent movies would you recommend? (I mean especially the not most recent which I can no longer capture in the cinema.)

  • The Last Battle (1983)
    Luc Besson's first feature film, a post-apocalyptic vision in which the few survivors lost the ability to speak. Gripping images and mesmerizing acting with almost zero special effects. Yes, before he became the pope of mass-produced B-movie action, Besson was a revolutionary. I thought the film was strongly misogynist, though, with the only two women as mere trophies for the men, without own initiative. Which is rather change when considering the prominence of strong female leads in Besson's later career.

  • Lucy (2014)
    In Besson's latest, Scarlett Johansson plays a party girl who slowly turns into a near-omnipotent and omniscient being due to a mind-boosting drug. The "X percent of brain capacity" pseudo-science is annoying, and there is mass-produced action, but the special effects are beautiful.

  • Days of Glory (2006)
    A film about the forgotten African soldiers of de Gaulle's Free French army in WWII (who actually made up two-thirds of the force). The first half-hour or so is slow, episodic, and slightly boring as in introduces the main cast. But in retrospect I thought this is actually effective later, when the denial of a front leave for the African soldiers becomes a main issue. The all-pervasiveness of racist discrimination slowly creeps into picture, peaking in the self-hating half-Arab officer. The Arab soldiers are portrayed as each believing the French Dream of liberté, égalité, fraternité, with more or less naivety. For the climax, I expected something sentimental, instead, I found it unremittingly cruel when the soldiers don't get the credit for their action (the scene with the weak clapping of the civilians stayed with me).

  • The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)
    A three-hour classic from Poland based on a book from the Napoleon-era (hat tip to melvin for the recommendation). It is notable for its frame story structure: a story within a story within a story etc., and the disparate stories begin to connect towards the end.  The stories themselves are not too deep, centred around the obsessions of a decadent aristocrat. In particular, we have a mix of early-1800s and 1960s erotic fantasies about Muslims, which are rather weird when seen from the present. But the most memorable scene for me was at the start when the enemy officers send away their underlings to jointly read a book they found.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Mar 7th, 2015 at 04:28:00 PM EST
Saragossa Manuscript is brilliant fun.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Mon Mar 9th, 2015 at 02:49:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
  • 12 Years A Slave (2013)
    I was afraid that this movie will give me nothing new, just rage at the injustice. But there was stuff that captured me: the slaves differentiating between themselves, the role of religion in the master–slave relationship, the emotional damage the masters suffered. Also, while the film includes invented scenes, some that got me wondering turned out to have been historical.

  • Memento (2000)
    Christopher Nolan's breakthrough film about a man with short-term memory loss. He really did the trick with telling a story backwards, but he chose such a cruel story with such unsympathetic characters that I omitted a second viewing, thank you.

  • Flags Of Our Fathers (2006)
    I saw the other in Clint Eastwood's pair of movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima, Letters From Iwo Jima, when it came out, and I found this story about the reality and the propaganda behind the most famous war photo from the Pacific pretty good, too. I must admit I never knew the tragic real story behind the name Ira Hayes. What's sad is that with American Sniper, Clint Eastwood now made a movie that interprets the sniper of an invasion/occupation army killing locals as a hero (no word about what the killing is all about, and no pictures of sniping at ambulances and civilians like in Fallujah), and I doubt Eastwood will ever make a pair to that movie from the Iraqi, even "insurgent" viewpoint.

  • Fair Game (2010)
    Sean Penn and Naomi Watts as Joseph C. Wilson and Valerie Plame. As a whole, I found this a weak film, be it due to the uninspired directing or because I already knew most of the story. However, it brought back the terror of the poisoned jingoism of the Dubya era: even with all the propaganda and web trolls today, IMHO it's not as bad in English-language areas as it was then. Also, the film's focus was on Wilson's obsessive quest to defeat the regime"'s character assassination with the truth brought the marriage to the brink, and the two lead actors managed to bring that across.

  • The Company You Keep (2013)
    Robert Redford's thriller/road movie about fugitive Weather Underground men and women getting into the FBI's sight. Lots of elder actors with lots of screen presence, but for me the concept was a too cowardly approach of a 'controversial' subject: we get a family drama with the more edgy political stuff (the ideology, the revolutionary delusion in its separation from public support, the justifications for political violence, the police state, the jingoism, the selective justice of the state) made into a sideshow to a family drama, and Cointelpro was omitted. The film also distorts history (no one was killed by active Weathermen and the FBI stopped going after them).

  • The last three Harry Potter movies (2009–2011)
    The one thing that captivated me in the earlier instalments of this franchise was Alan Rickman's character. So I was rather pleased to find that it became a tragic central character fit for an opera, and there was a reason Rowling asked Rickman for the part. Other than that, I thought the films also managed to 'grow up' with the main characters, but not enough, and some scenes could have been much more with better directing.

  • Pacific Ring (2013)
    Giant robot fights giant monster appearing from the sea: Godzilla redux? Well that's the first few minutes. Then fast forward a few years when the robots are worn and losing the battle. An interesting twist, but unfortunately the end of the storyline is more traditional.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Mar 7th, 2015 at 04:29:53 PM EST
I remember you critiqued Frozen a while back. I think it is interesting why it has became so big. Obviously, this is a childrens movie and for a childrens movie to make it big it needs to appeal both to the kids and to their parents who has the money.

Now Frozen has a lot of things going for it, music, snow, princesses, monsters, trolls and of course (this being Disney) somewhat funny side-kicks. But I think the reason it strikes a cord with the adults is the two themes of sibling relations and depression. I would say that one would hardly be able to make such an up-beat story about depression without the childlike imagery.

If Elsa did not conjure up an ice-castle to shut the world out, but instead sat in a basement ranting about how much the world sucks on the internet or found a solitary hobby to mentally close herself into, it would not really be the same thing. Also, the intervention by her sister where love makes all the mental health problems go away would be really cheesy.

This being a depressive era, I think it is in retrospect logical that this movie has struck a cord.

One final take-away is not to trust mental health issues to unlicensed practioners who kidnap children, marry people on a whim and live isolated, obeying the great leader. If they are known as trolls, maybe you should get a second opinion before heeding their advice.

by fjallstrom on Thu Mar 12th, 2015 at 04:44:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is much to admire about 12 Years a Slave; above all, it sent me to the original text. Widely available for free, at Project Gutenberg for instance, it is more immediate and gripping than you might expect of a memoir from 1853.

The Company You Keep was a major disappointment, not to mention a soporific. And from Redford and Sarandon? Hard to understand.

Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other. -- Dr Johnson

by melvin (melvingladys at or near yahoo.com) on Wed Mar 25th, 2015 at 10:59:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
On the other hand, TCYK was worth it just to see Julie Christie again.

Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other. -- Dr Johnson
by melvin (melvingladys at or near yahoo.com) on Wed Mar 25th, 2015 at 11:03:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
  • Message From Space (1976)
    I saw this on TV one Saturday afternoon when I was about 7 or 8, and tried to find it for a very long time. A space opera, the story is absolutely mindless, but it has landmark special effects. This film is called the "Japanese answer to Star Wars, but the weird thing is that some of the most similar stuff are pre-dates the American movies: the chase across an asteroid belt in The Empire Strikes Back or the flight through the inside of a giant spaceship from The Return Of The Jedi.

  • The Funeral (1984)
    A family gathering for the funeral of the grandfather, with family members revealing all kinds of hypocrisies. What the film achieved is a blend of subdued comedy and serious drama/character study. It was the directional début and first major success of Juzo Itami, a dominant figure in Japanese film in the 1980s.

  • Tampopo (1985)
    Itami's next, and most well-known, work is a hilarious comedy about a widow running a ramen [Japanese noodles soup] shop who gathers a strange team of advisers for improving the shop. The main story is broken by various stories about food with other characters, with a bit of Monthy Python feeling. (The film had several re-runs on public TVs I can access but I always missed the start and even snippets convinced me I should watch from the start.)

  • A Taxing Woman (1987)
    Itami's third film is about a tax investigator going after a real estate shark. It is labelled a comedy, but IMHO it is much more of a serious drama, and pretty good at that. I found it a defining portrait of a Japan now long gone: the thoroughly corrupt Japan of the 1980s real estate bubble. (The film also has an IMHO very much inferior sequel, A Taxing Woman's Return, but that film was at least daring in attacking religious sects, years before Aum Shinrikyo gave occasion to public criticisms of religious groups.)

  • The Anti-Extortion Woman (1992)
    This is not your usual yakuza movie. In this Itami comedy, while the gangsters are scary and violent like in other movies, the story doesn't bother much with their honour code, and shows them as basically stupid and uncouth tricksters. The film is also a how-to manual for businesses on how to get rid of the yakuza (on the example of a hotel). The real yakuza were furious and Itami got subjected to a severe beating. He was undeterred and was about to film another yakuza-themed movie when he died in an apparent suicide jump. A few years later a yakuza told a journalist that the suicide was staged by his gang.

  • Outrage (2010)
    Takeshi Kitano (of Hana-bi fame) returned to the yakuza genre with this film about a gang war. IMHO Kitano focused too much on explicit violence, to the extent that it takes away from the film's otherwise interesting themes: the sacred honour code is hollow in the eyes of scheming bosses (it is feigned to trick opponents or demanded to force people onto a suicidal path), and an apparently powerless and corrupt police can rein in the mob with a little manipulation.

  • Beyond Outrage (2012)
    The sequel to Outrage is like its anti-thesis: gone is the explicit violence, and a yakuza following the honour code defeats the victorious boss of the previous film, as well as the scheming police officer.

  • Sumo Do, Sumo Don't (1992)
    A story about a university sumo club with a pretty standard sports genre script (misfits pull themselves together and achieve victory). The characters and situation comedy are especially hilarious, however.

  • Shall We Dance? (1996)
    A bored salaryman joins a Western dance course, initially to get near a teacher, but then dancing changes his life as it does that of his classmates. That's a short summary for a long but strong sentimental film made special by the fact that couples dancing together was against traditional Japanese customs. (There is a re-make starring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez which I shall avoid.)

  • Departures (2008)
    This is an absolutely stunning film. It is about a failed cellist ending up in the profession of an "encoffiner", someone who, in the place and in front of the family of the deceased, conducts the preparing and placing of corpses into a coffin as a ritual ceremony (one not widely known and practised even across Japan). The idea is that the ritual gives dignity to the dead and solace to the bereaved. The film was the brainchild of the main actor, and he and the actor playing his mentor (incidentally, the male lead in Tampopo) have a big part in both getting that across and making a film about the dead watch-able.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Mar 7th, 2015 at 04:32:29 PM EST
My impressions are not too differentiating.

When away from Japan, I was cheezy even with juvenile "Aiki".

For logical game theory geeks, "Liar game" is enjoyable.

For a gothic experience, "Death Note" is fun. Though there are other classics on that, including original "Hunger Games".

by das monde on Sun Mar 8th, 2015 at 11:16:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I saw the anime version of Death Note (it's not a movie but a TV series), which has a pretty dazzling animation and complex story, compared to which the few clips of the live-action version seemed sub-par. Thus, although I read positive reviews of the latter, I was disinclined to check it out. As for the anime version, although overall I rate it quite highly, by the end I had three major problems with it:
  1. Although the morality of executing murder convicts features prominently, the authors completely omitted the question of judicial error (as if none of the thousands executed by the anti-hero were falsely charged and convicted).
  2. [SPOILER] It's bold to kill off the hero, but I found the substitute hero less interesting. (Kind of unavoidable when you manage to create such a captivating hero.)
  3. There was a streak of misogyny throughout, especially the detective woman who was in effect punished by the authors for being a career woman, and the pop star female main character who was so brainless it hurt. (This misogyny also re-surfaced early in the authors' next work, Bakuman.)

As for Battle Royale, I fear my reaction would be similar as in the case of Outrage: the gore wouldn't appeal to me and would take away from the social critique.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Mar 9th, 2015 at 03:31:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The animated series would be enough indeed. The misogyny is more than obvious in the second half (or the sequel film).
by das monde on Tue Mar 10th, 2015 at 12:44:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW, have you seen the movie version of 20th Century Boys? If yes, is it any good?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Mar 9th, 2015 at 03:35:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Watching it now. Ma...
by das monde on Sun Mar 15th, 2015 at 06:03:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the only Japanese films I remember seeing are Spirited Away and The Audition (1999).  Gruesome in parts but a really chilling horror. I'm glad I watched it with a friend and not on my own.

A wonderful film I saw in the cinema was Ilo Ilo, made in Singapore and set during the Asian financial crisis in 1997. I think I posted here about it after I watched it.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Fri Mar 27th, 2015 at 03:42:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I couldn't find an earlier post of yours on it. Thanks for the recommend, I liked it. All four leads did a good job, and I liked that the director avoided any drastic turn in the story (it was enough to let us feel how precarious their situation is).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Mar 31st, 2015 at 04:02:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
  • Grave Of The Fireflies (1987)
    Japanese anime is not restricted to films for children and families, and this tragic story about war orphans surviving the fire-bombing of Kobe but eventually dying of malnourishment is rather adult material. It is also one of, if not the best anime, and I can't find fault with any of the praise I read heaped on it before I finally saw it.

  • My Neighbour Totoro (1987)
    A story with not much of a story about two sisters who move into the countryside and befriend a nature god dwelling on the neighbouring hill. At least half of any proper top ten list of best anime should be works of Hayao Miyazaki, and critics usually name this one as his best. (Personally I am still partial to Spirited Away.)

  • Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
    Miyazaki's next film was, like most of his work, magical steampunk: a young witch from the countryside moves into a big city with cars and airships and finds work doing deliveries. The setting was modelled on Swedish cities. From Japanese films, anime and manga, it is my impression that, in spite of the much stronger historical ties, Europe had a greater cultural impact on Japan than the USA, and a fascination with the diversity of historical European architecture has a great part in that.

  • Porco Rosso (1992)
    Another Miyazaki magical steampunk: at the time of the rise of fascism but in a world dominated by hydroplanes, we get a story of chivalric pilots in the Adriatic Sea. I thought the setting will be Italy, but most of the story actually takes place along the Croatian coast, with maps showing place-names all familiar to me (though re-juggled). I read the darker rise of fascism setting was brought in due to the Yugoslaw Wars. It's also notable that Miyazaki managed to capture the light-hearted spirit of 1950s Italian films.

  • Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
    After Chihiro, Miyazaki made yet another magical steampunk movie with a European-inspired setting (this time the Alsace) about a wizard trying to sabotage a WWI-style war fought with outlandish flapping aeroplanes. It's as ambitious as any other Miyazaki work, but I saw a lot of elements resembling those of his earlier works.

  • Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honnêamise (1988)
    This landmark non-magical steampunk tells an alternative story of man's first flight into space: there is no space race, just one project in one country that is stagnating at the start and then turns serious, but there are competing militaristic great powers resembling WWI-time Europe, and the governments are only interested in the possible military aspects of the project. Yet, the first spaceflight still manages to transpire all that. This is another anime for adults, and a stunning amount of creativity went into it. The weird part is the prominent role given to an invented religion modelled on pacifist versions of Christianity.

  • 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)
    A film about separating from loved ones: three episodes in the life of a boy who kept dreaming of his childhood sweetheart. The animation is absolutely stunning and hyper-detailed, and captures beauty in real settings. (I checked some locations on Google Street View.) This film could have been made as a live-action film but I guess it would have been too difficult to capture all the right lights.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Mar 7th, 2015 at 04:34:16 PM EST
Children's cartoons show more death than films for adults: study
Children's cartoons depict death more often than films for adults, and their main characters are more than twice as likely to be killed off, according to research released Tuesday.

The study found the main characters in children's cartoons are two and a half times more likely to die than protagonists in films for adults, and are almost three times more likely to be murdered -- often in violent ways.

by das monde on Sun Mar 8th, 2015 at 11:24:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah, but My Neighbour Tortoro is simply magical, but then again so is most Miyazaki. I often find that the first time I watch it I get something in my eye for long periods.

I think the most amazing thing is how he creates evocative mythologies that you think you know but are based on nothing except his own exquisite imagination. What is the significance of holding an umbrella ? It is used as a signifier in many of his films, usually for silent characters. Yet what does it mean?

The Catbus? An instant childhood classic idea, yet what created it? In spirited Away the flooded land is a signifier of something and you can see it is a recurrent theme : Again; it is clearly a touchstone within ourselves because it is so evocative, the sight of it pulls at us (or me and I presume others or he would not use it).

We will miss him, he was more important than Disney in creating a language of childhood

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Mar 11th, 2015 at 06:02:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How I agree on Miyazaki. And there are some early films listed here that I haven't seen yet. Good moments in perspective!
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Mar 12th, 2015 at 02:40:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Kurosawa is my favorite Japanese - if not global - director/writer. I like to watch Seven Samurai every few years.

I'm drawn to the Miyamoto series. That for me is all that I need of the superhero genre. Rashomon, Sanjuro, Yojimbo are some others that I like to re-view occasionally. Dreams had several vignettes with superbly executed surprise twists.

There were several films with post-war settings that caught me, too. One of them - though I'm not sure that it was a Kurosawa film - was about a local bureaucracy where the head of a department tries to rediscover his humanity before he dies by standing up for building of a small park that the local citizens requested. He dies, and the other members of his department get drunk at his wake and promise to follow his example. Then the following workday they are back to reviewing documents and passing them to the next bureaucrat around the staff table, never accomplishing anything. Rather pessimistic, but the park does get built.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (paulgspencer@gmail.com) on Sat Mar 7th, 2015 at 07:13:24 PM EST
The film you are thinking about but can't name is Ikiru with the great Takashi Shimura directed by Kurosawa.  One of the greatest classics of Japanese and world cinema.

Solar IS Civil Defense
by gmoke on Sun Mar 8th, 2015 at 06:32:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I love this sort of diary, from someone with sensibilities so similar to mine, because it constitutes a lazy man's guide to the cinema. Lots of stuff to check out. Thanks Dodo.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Tue Mar 10th, 2015 at 06:50:34 AM EST
Thanks to the internet and an injury, I saw a lot of movies in the last few months, including all the Oscar contenders. I could recommend Predestination and many others, but the best movie of the year was Virunga.

Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other. -- Dr Johnson
by melvin (melvingladys at or near yahoo.com) on Wed Mar 25th, 2015 at 11:09:21 PM EST

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