Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Human Condition I: No Greater Love, The (1959)

Review #1,347

Director:  Masaki Kobayashi
Cast:  Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Chikage Awashima
Plot:  A Japanese pacifist, unable to face the dire consequences of conscientious objection, is transformed by his attempts to compromise with the demands of war-time Japan.

Genre:  Drama / War
Awards:  Won Pasinetti Award & San Giorgio Prize, Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice).
Runtime:  208min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some mature themes and intense scenes)
International Sales:  Shochiku

“Can't you see?  Force has meaning only when overcoming tyranny.”

We see a lot of Tatsuya Nakadai, the other legendary Japanese superstar actor besides Toshiro Mifune, here in The Human Condition, a mammoth 9.5-hour epic split into three parts.  The director is Masaki Kobayashi, never ever mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi, but has nevertheless strongly held his weight with such films as Harakiri (1962) and Kwaidan (1964). 

The Human Condition is no doubt his most admirable feat, and judging by the first film alone, any sense of how lengthy it would feel to tackle the trilogy is cast away by its page-turner style of storytelling.  No Greater Love, as it is titled, is the longest of the trio.  The complete epic is adapted from Junpei Gomikawa’s six-volume book of the same name, hence its novelistic nature. 

Nakadai embodies the character of Kaji, a man who if given a choice would lead everyone to peace.  But it is wartime, WWII precisely, and any logical or ethical notion of humanity is thrown away.  Set largely in a labour camp with Chinese workers toiling under the brutal hands of the Japanese, The Human Condition is an anti-war treatise and a chronicler of one man’s futile fight against a gargantuan, uncompromising system.

In order to escape being conscripted to fight in the war, Kaji is sent to the camp to improve production goals.  On the first day, he comes in with theoretical confidence in his method—treat all prisoners-of-war nicely, and they will work hard to produce the goods.  Kaji's radical ideas are put to the test with much controversy, not to mention creating a debilitating sense of mistrust by both the Japanese and the Chinese. 

All these make up the drama that powers the film for its length.  There are some incredibly potent scenes that unfold with heartbreaking intensity.  One of them involves a cattle train pulling up in the countryside (we learn that it brings a new batch of Chinese slaves), but when the doors open, it is a harrowing sight of countless malnourished and suffocated zombie-like men who seem to not have seen the light of day. 

Another involves an order to behead a group of Chinese men who were alleged to have tried to escape from the camp.  This is possibly the most riveting—in its helpless inevitability—part of the film, almost as emotionally destructive as the climax in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). 

In a nutshell, Kobayashi’s mammoth war epic remains to be a cornerstone in the history of Japanese cinema.  If you can complete the first film without a hitch, I’m sure you will be psyched up for the next two.

Verdict:  The first part of Kobayashi’s mammoth humanist war epic has its fair share of powerful moments, building up to a helpless inevitability.  


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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Rope (1948)

Review #1,346

Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
Cast:  James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger
Plot:  Two young men strangle their "inferior" classmate, hide his body in their apartment, and invite his friends and family to a dinner party as a means to challenge the "perfection" of their crime.

Genre:  Crime / Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  80min
Rating:  PG for mature themes
Distributor:  Universal Pictures

“You're quite a good chicken strangler as I recall.”

As far as movies set in a single space are concerned, Rope is one of its most famous early examples, a precursor to films from Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957), a dramatically intense treatise on prejudice, justice and humanism set in a stuffy juror room, to as contemporary as the conceptually bold Buried (2010), a movie set within the confines of a buried coffin. 

The setting of Rope, of course, is far less claustrophobic for any human being to be in—we are in someone’s apartment, with acquaintances of the two lead characters, Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger), turning up for a ‘farewell’ party.  Before all that, director Alfred Hitchcock has economically set the context: a friend of theirs has been strangled to death (to satisfy their intellectual desires) and his body put in a chest originally for books.

As morbid as it sounds, Rope’s lighthearted nonchalance helps bring levity to the scenario.  But there’s an undercurrent of tension of being discovered, while the murderers toy with the victim’s father and girlfriend, whom are both present at the gathering.  James Stewart, my favourite actor from the Classical Hollywood period, also shows up, whose character grows more suspicious as time drags on. 

Much of the dialogue almost always gravitate toward death, creating a layer of awkwardness amid perversity.  To experience how it all plays out is as fascinating as unraveling the enigma of the mysterious woman in Vertigo (1958), or finding out the truth about a suspected murder in the opposite apartment block in Rear Window (1954). 

One of the most suspenseful moments in Hitchcock’s canon has to be the scene where the housekeeper—a shot that stays static for a good few minutes—clears the food and utensils on top of that particular chest in hopes of returning the books to their original position. 

Because Rope is already audacious enough to be shot in a few long takes spliced together to assume a much longer faux long take (a technique that has continued to inspire countless filmmakers to push the technical boundaries of cinema, in particular Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006)), this tense scene is made even more nerve-wrecking as time literally stretches. 

This early Hitchcock film may be slight (in runs no more than 80 minutes), and often talked about, albeit unfairly, because of its long takes, but dig deeper you will find a sharp and intelligent film that camouflages its inherent implicit homosexuality between Brandon and Philip, who regard themselves as superior beings with the legitimacy to eradicate inferior beings.  Smart ploy to evade the censors!

Verdict: No matter how many times you see it, it still holds up well as one of Hitchcock’s most morbid and suspenseful works.


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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Gate of Hell (1953)

Review #1,345

Director:  Teinosuke Kinugasa
Cast:   Machiko Kyo, Kazuo Hasegawa, Isao Yamagata
Plot:  A samurai pursues a married lady-in-waiting.

Genre:  Drama/Romance
Awards:  Won Palme d'Or (Cannes). Won 2 Oscars - Best Foreign Language Film, Best Costume Design.
Runtime:  86min
Rating:  Not rated (likely PG13 for some mature themes)
International Sales:  Kadokawa Pictures

“Today is the first day of a life of sacrifice.”

Unless you are really into Japanese cinema, the name Teinosuke Kinugasa may not ring any bells.  To be fair, the incredibly prolific filmmaker was best known for only two films: the 1926 silent avant-garde classic, A Page of Madness, and this Cannes Palme d'Or (at that time called the Grand Prize of the Festival) winner. 

Gate of Hell stands as one of the finest restoration efforts by the Criterion Collection.  Its recapture of the vibrant colours used in the original film negative is especially stunning, to the extent that they seem to pop out of the screen.  Kinugasa's vision was nearly lost forever, with colours fading out from existing badly-damaged prints.  Thankfully, enough prints were duplicated in black-and-white with the full range of colour data stored, enabling the restoration process. 

The narrator opens the film with a historical recount of a rebellion, occurred almost a millennium ago, even pre-dating many of the jidai geki chambara (swordfighting period dramas) movies that we are familiar with, for example, from Kurosawa.  The narration is accompanied by picture scrolls, and interestingly, they segue into filmed sequences of battle that mimic the qualities of these scrolls—frenetic, chaotic and lateral moving. 

After the heat of war has dissipated, Gate of Hell evolves into a drama with careful plotting.  We are acquainted with a loyal soldier who after saving a (married) woman of royalty becomes enamoured with her.  She refuses her advances, leading him to continue to pursue her at all costs. 

This story of romance is an excellent treatise on fierce loyalties and unrequited desires.  The film’s unhurried pacing works in a two-prong manner: it brings us deeper into the psychology of the characters, while also giving each picturesque or intricately-designed shot a longer moment than usual to mesmerize us. 

A winner of two Oscars, including for Best Costume Design, Gate of Hell is significant as one of the first few Japanese films to be shot in colour, and released internationally.  If there’s no other reason to see this film, at least see it for its wild use of colours.  It also contains one of the most exciting horse races in cinema. 

Verdict: Lovingly-restored in rich, vibrant colour, this is one of Kinugasa’s best-known works and an excellent treatise on fierce loyalties and unrequited desires.


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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sully (2016)

Review #1,344

Director:  Clint Eastwood
Cast:  Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Plot:  The story of Chesley Sullenberger, who became a hero after gliding his plane along the water in the Hudson River, saving all of the flight's 155 crew and passengers.

Genre:  Biography / Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  96min
Rating:  PG13 for some peril and brief strong language.
Distributor:  Warner Brothers
Singapore Distributor:  Golden Village Pictures

“Everything is unprecedented until it happens for the first time.”

As we marvel at how old Clint Eastwood is—he's 86 and has directed an astonishing 14 films since the turn of the century—we also recognize a filmmaker perfectly at ease with himself and has nothing to prove to anyone anymore.  He is a quiet storyteller, never a flamboyant visionary, yet as his economical and sensitive filmmaking style has proven since Mystic River (2003), Eastwood takes very American stories and gives the world a slice of what it means to be American, no matter when, no matter where.

Sully comes at a time when American screen heroes are clad in capes and colourful costumes.  Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (played by the always reliable Tom Hanks), is a reminder that real heroes come dressed in well-ironed uniforms and have no special powers.  They save the day with smart and quick thinking, and sheer resolve and grit. 

The ‘Miracle on the Hudson' incident was one of the most life-affirming events at the tail end of the 2000s—Sullenberger landed a passenger plane on the Hudson River after all of its engines had failed due to an unexpected encounter with birds.  There were no fatalities that day. 

Eastwood takes the story and gives it the big screen treatment.  However, this is no epic, nor is it meant to be a spectacle, even if it appears to be marketed as one.  Instead, Sully is a low-key dramatization of the incident, married to an investigative inquiry that tries to prove, albeit ludicrously, that Sullenberger made the wrong decision.

The result is an oddly-structured film with flashbacks, re-enactments and nightmares.  It is also one of Eastwood's shortest films.  The pacing is not always consistent, and there’s a feeling that the movie could have soared higher, or asked more of its subject matter. 

Perhaps the most interesting and all-too-obvious subtext comes from Eastwood’s insertion of scenes of planes crashing into buildings, images that haunt Hanks' character (what if that day ended in tragedy?), yet also incur the collective trauma of 9/11.  I am sure it was a conscious decision by the iconic director, and with humble intent to exorcise the ghosts of 2001, however difficult that may be. 

Sully’s story is a timely reminder to Americans to remain focused on humanity and the spirit of togetherness, even when their politics seem to chart dangerous paths. 

Verdict:  Not a great film by any measure, this oddly-structured dramatization and investigative inquiry into the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ incident is a mildly-affirming work by Clint Eastwood.


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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Review #1,343

Director:  Travis Knight
Cast:  Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara
Plot:  A young boy named Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father in order to defeat a vengeful spirit from the past.

Genre:  Animation / Adventure
Awards:  -
Runtime:  101min
Rating:  PG13 for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril.
Distributor:  United International Pictures 

“If you must blink, do it now.”

Kubo and the Two Strings might just nab the Best Animated Feature Oscar come February next year.  Directed by Travis Knight, the boss of Laika, the company behind such superb animated works as Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012), Kubo is possibly the most beautiful animated film that you will see this year, done in painstaking stop-motion (the end credits reveal the incredible scale of the filmmakers' gargantuan efforts), with a story that brings out the technique to the fullest. 

Very much sincerely immersed in its Japanese culture and setting, and in my opinion, currently functioning as the most outstanding animated example of a positive East Asian cultural appropriation by the West, Kubo puts substantial weight unto a popular culture trend marked by such mainstream successes as the ‘Kung Fu Panda’ franchise (2008, 2011 and 2016) and Big Hero 6 (2014).  This is not to say that Laika's latest endeavour is not mass appeal enough, but that (hopefully) the audience’s affirmation at the box-office may chart a less blatant marketing path for future studios to embrace. 

Laika's strength is in their intricate and authentic production design, from the costumes to the set decor and their use of warm, earthy colours.  The shamisen, the stringed instrument used so prominently as a plot device, also provides light aural accompaniment to Dario Marianelli’s modern orchestral score.  In the most obvious nod to the cultural richness of the East-West symbiosis, the shamisen becomes the guitar in George Harrison's ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps', played poignantly in the end credits. 

A story about a boy overcoming the odds to defend the memory and honour of his family against a cold, dastardly supernatural world devoid of humanity, Kubo and the Two Strings is magical, unexpectedly funny, and an adventure that is epic in its breathtaking canvas of alternate worlds, myths and make-believe (i.e. imagination), yet it is the film’s introspection and emotional trajectories—death and memory are recurrent themes—that bring rather uncommon maturity to the medium. 

Verdict:  One of the strongest and most beautiful animated films of the year, in stop-motion mind you, this is a major Oscar contender. 


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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Dragon Arrives!, A (2016)

Review #1,342

Director:  Mani Haghighi
Cast:   Amir Jadidi, Ehsan Goodarzi, Homayoun Ghanizadeh
Plot:  An orange Chevrolet Impala drives across a cemetery towards an abandoned shipwreck in the middle of a desert landscape.  It is the 22nd of January, 1965.  The day before, the Iranian prime minister was shot dead in front of the parliament building.

Genre:  Adventure / Mystery 
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin)
Runtime:  105min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be NC16)
International Sales:  The Match Factory

You haven’t quite seen how Iranian cinema can be mutated until you have seen A Dragon Arrives!.  In competition for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, the film is unclassifiable and difficult to explain.  It is one of those head-scratchers that is puzzling not just in its content, but in its form and very existence.  So let me try to articulate what you can expect from the film, without revealing anything substantial. 

A Dragon Arrives! is a political mystery wrapped in some kind of meta-structure that privileges a fusion of genres and realities.  There’s so much going on that it is easy to be confused, not to mention that the film has no qualms in torturing you in that way.  The rewards are not exactly enlightening, but it is a stylish and one-of-a-kind journey worth taking. 

It starts off with an interrogation sequence, presumably the aftermath of a political assassination that allegedly sparked a suicide from a prisoner.  As the film unravels, director Mani Haghighi gives us a surreal flashback trip to a huge, rusty ship stuck in the middle of the desert.  The film also intercuts with documentary footage of Haghighi speaking about how his grandfather's film—The Brick and the Mirror (1965), a landmark Iranian work by Ebrahim Golestan—is linked to aforementioned events. 

The blend of fiction and reality, reenactments of the past, and the constant probing for truth and closure do echo such Iranian films as Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990), but A Dragon Arrives! plunges headfirst into unchartered territory with its playful, even subversive treatise on genre. 

In particular, Haghighi's picture is a rare Iranian film that references elements of the Western (the desert landscape is no less harsher or spectacular than Monument Valley), while doubling up as a pseudo-detective movie (a character wears a hat and suit like a hardboiled investigator in an American noir).  Perhaps most prominently, the central characters travel in a bright orange Chevrolet Impala. 

If all these aren’t symbolic of the film's conscious embracement of Westernized aesthetics, and a complete overturn of the social realist ideologies and raw aesthetics that have grounded what we have come to know as Iranian cinema, then its all-too-obvious contextual irony would have been lost.

Backed by thumping, energetic, almost heavy-metal-ish music, A Dragon Arrives! will leave you fascinated and perplexed in equal measure.  This is no doubt a sheer oddity of contemporary Iranian cinema.

Verdict:  There’s so much going on in this stylish fusion of genres and narrative styles that you will be left fascinated and perplexed in equal measure—what a sheer oddity of contemporary Iranian cinema.  


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