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Blogathon: The Ten Most Iconic Female Movie Characters

Posted by martinteller on August 28, 2014

Dan from Public Transportation Snob has handed me a list.  The list… is life.  No, wait.  Sorry.  The list is “The Ten Most Iconic Female Movie Characters”.  It was started by Dell on Movies and has passed through the hands of five other bloggers before falling in my lap.  The rules for handling this list are as follows:

 A list of 10 iconic female movie characters has been made. That list will be assigned to another blogger who can then change it by removing one character (describing why they think she should not be on the list) and replacing it with another one (also with motivation) and hand over the baton to another blogger. Once assigned, that blogger will have to put his/her post up within a week. If this is not the case the blogger who assigned it has to reassign it to another blogger.

Seems simple enough, right?  But how does one determine “iconic”?  I can’t just put my favorite performance (Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, thanks for asking).  It has to be iconic.  A character who endures the passage of time and lives on in our pop culture consciousness.  A character that others are measured against.  A character whose name instantly evokes an image, a persona.  We’re not messing around here.  This is the big leagues of movie characters.  Female ones, specifically.

These are the participants so far:

Dell on Movies (Dell)
My FilmViews (Nostra)
Time Well Spent (Jaina)
FlixChatter (Ruth)
The Warning Sign (Eric)
Public Transportation Snob (Dan)

And these are the iconic ladies, as the list currently stands:

Ellen Ripley in Aliens

Ellen Ripley

Princess Leia in Star Wars

Princess Leia

Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz

Dorothy Gale

Marge Gunderson in Fargo

Marge Gunderson

Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Sarah Connor

 
Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Holly Golightly

Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind

Scarlett O’Hara

Lisbeth Salander

Lisbeth Salander

The Bride in Kill Bill

The Bride

Jackie Brown

So the first order of business is to remove one of these women from the list.  My first instinct was to take out Scarlett or Holly, since I’m not a big fan of either of those films.  But those are certainly iconic characters, more so than others on the list.  I’m not sure Lisbeth meets the definition of “iconic” but since I’m very fond of her — and think she should be iconic — I’ll leave her alone too.  I’ve gotta go with The Bride.  I really like Kill Bill and I really like Uma Thurman’s performance, but she doesn’t strike me as an icon.  She’s strong, but she doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi… and she’s largely borrowed from The Bride Wore Black and Lady Snowblood anyway.  Besides, two Tarantino characters on the list is at least one too many.

sorry, Beatrix

Now.  I’ve gotta add one.  I thought removing was hard, but hoo boy, this is a nightmare.  The thing that first struck me is the sad lack of women of color in iconic roles.  Pam Grier was taken out (Foxy Brown) and added back in again (as Jackie Brown)… but who else fits the bill?  I absolutely adore Ruby Dee, but none of her roles could be called iconic (Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing comes closest).  Juanita Moore’s performance in Imitation of Life is another huge favorite, but again… I can’t justify it as iconic.  Research tells me that Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones might be a good choice, but I haven’t seen it (note to self: see Carmen Jones).  And where are the iconic Asian, Latina or Native American roles?  There are so few to choose from.  There are prominent non-Caucasian female characters in the films of other countries, but not many have infiltrated pop culture to the degree that they could be called iconic.  No matter how much I adore Madhabi Mukherjee in her work with Satyajit Ray or Setsuko Hara in her work with Yasujiro Ozu, it would be disingenuous of me to add any of their characters to this list.  Which is a shame.  In a perfect world, Charulata would be an icon.

But she isn’t, so who do I add?  It seems odd that Marilyn Monroe isn’t on this list… certainly an iconic actress, but which of her characters would one pick?  I’m not a big enough fan to make that choice (but come on, it’s gotta be Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, right?).  One of my favorites is Guilietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria, perhaps iconic as the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope.  How about Marlene Dietrich as “Shanghai Lily” in Shanghai Express?  Definitely worthy of consideration.  My fiancée had the brilliant idea of nominating a Divine role, for a gender-bending twist.  Dawn Davenport demanding her cha-cha heels in Female Trouble is pretty damn iconic, to me at least.  As a noir fanatic, I think of all the great femmes fatales, from Ann Savage’s venomous Vera in Detour to Rita Hayworth’s wild, sultry Gilda.  Norma friggin’ Desmond, anyone?  So many I want to name.  The list goes on and on and on.

Finally I managed to get my shortlist boiled down to three candidates.  For the title character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Bette Davis conjured up a bizarre, hilarious, twisted, demented, tragic human being.  Talk about unforgettable characters.  Jeanne Moreau as Catherine in Jules et Jim is the ultimate “obscure object of desire”.  She makes no bones about who she is or what she wants, and you can’t take your eyes off of her.  And then there is the most iconic femme fatale in noir, Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.  Phyllis took us all for a ride, straight down the line.  We’re all rotten… only she’s a little more rotten.  How do I choose one of these three?  HOW?


Catherine

The one I kept coming back to was Catherine from Jules et Jim.  She’s open to the world yet enigmatic.  Mysterious and complex.  Irresistible.  Unpredictable.  “She’s a real woman.  It’s that woman you and I love, that all men desire.”  She’s a siren, promising freedom and fun and passion but discarding men on a whim, only to suck them back into her whirlpool again.  Her tourbillon….

I now hand the baton over to Anna at Film Grimoire, who I hope doesn’t agonize over this as much as I did.

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The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Posted by martinteller on August 26, 2014

Loosely based on the story of Anneliese Michel, a German woman who died at age 23 of malnutrition and dehydration after enduring exorcism rites for 10 months.  The two priests who conducted the exorcism were found guilty of manslaughter resulting from negligence, though their sentences were suspended.  The key word in this paragraph is “loosely” because many if not most of the major details are completely different in this film (without doing more research, I can only assume the minor details are equally fabricated).  So we won’t judge the movie as a representation of the truth, even though it has fictitious “epilogue” onscreen texts before the ending credits.  I consider this a form of deception, as that sort of text typically implies verisimilitude, especially when the film opens with “Based on a true story”.

But no matter.  I’ve let other movies get away with similar offenses (Fargo) without complaint, so I won’t hold it against Emily Rose.  The important question is: is it a good movie?  Sometimes.  I like the novelty of framing a horror film as a courtroom drama.  It’s an interesting way of letting the story be told.  However, the side effect is that it’s not quite as effective in either genre.  The scares are good, the horror is unsettling… but these moments are too few and far between.  A lot of the horror is front-loaded.  The courtroom drama aspect often gets mired in cliché.  What results is a hybrid that works in the sense that it builds tension and dread in an unusual way, but too often feels somewhat sleepy and plodding.  The visual style — misty and gray — lends to the spookiness, but also sucks some of the life out of the film.

Still, there are strong performances by Laura Linney and especially Tom Wilkinson.  And Jennifer Carpenter’s physical performance is shocking, bordering on miraculous in places.  She gives Linda Blair a run for her money.  The legal implications of the situation are intriguing, and the difficulty of Linney’s case is emphasized eloquently.  And when the horror hits home, it is genuinely scary.  I wish it all cohered into a more exciting and gripping whole, but there are some positive elements and noble efforts.  Just don’t go looking for a “true story” here.  Rating: Fair (67)

IMDb

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more quick shots

Posted by martinteller on August 25, 2014

By pure happenstance, I revisited two films from 1932 in the past couple of days, although they could hardly be more different.  The first was Dreyer’s Vampyr.  I still think the film is an absolute marvel when it comes to atmosphere, with such spooky and inventive camerawork by Rudolph Maté and a series of disorienting events.  However, I was slightly less enamored this time around.  While it’s not a movie that you enjoy for the narrative, there were occasional gaps in the plotting that were more confounding than enigmatic.  For example, the guys who run off to get the police are never heard from again.  Perhaps like all the other mysterious plot elements, it can be explained away as something supernatural, but at times it came off as sloppy.  Still, a terrific mood piece with glorious shots, a pinnacle of early horror.  Rating: Very Good (85)

The other 1932 rewatch was One Way Passage, which is such a dreamily romantic film.  Some onscreen couples work and some don’t, but man, the pairing of William Powell and Kay Francis here works like gangbusters.  Usually I like my romances to be built on a little more substance, but these two together makes me swoon.  Some of the bits with Frank McHugh (“Skippy”, the drunk pickpocket) are dumb, but also some of them are pretty great.  I had forgotten what a beautifully odd and ambiguous ending this movie had.  A simple film, but one with deep pleasures.  Rating: Great (90)

My viewing of the 1993 version of The Three Musketeers was, I believe, my first actual experience with the entire story.  I was a bit tipsy at the time, which probably made it easier to get into the fun of it.  And it is fun, although in retrospect I found that Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen did nothing for me.  For me, it was all about Oliver Platt and Tim Curry and (to a slightly lesser degree) Chris O’Donnell.  They were all pretty fun.  Sutherland and Sheen… meh.  A few of the one-liners fell flat with me, too.  Still, I enjoyed my time with it.  Rating: Good (70)

There’s so kind way to put this: Ella Enchanted is a steaming pile of shit.  Incredibly stupid pop culture references (some of which don’t even make sense).  Bad special effects, even for 10 years ago.  Plot holes you could fly a jet through as the film makes little effort to cohere to its own internal logic.  And the worst part is, it’s not a bad premise.  It’s just completely wasted on such unfunny, uncharming, idiotic pap.  You keep watching only to see what dumb thing will happen next.  Rating: Crap (22)

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Like Someone in Love

Posted by martinteller on August 24, 2014

With Certified Copy, director Abbas Kiarostami left his home territory of Iran to venture to Italy, with dialogue in English and French.  Here he continues his globe-trotting, this time to Japan.  The story concerns a young woman named Akiko (Rin Takanishi), working her way through college as a prostitute.  Her fiancé Noriaki (Ryô Kase) doesn’t know about her work, but he’s overbearing and suspicious, constantly hounding her on the phone and questioning her whereabouts.  Akiko gets called to the home of Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno), a former sociology professor who is more interested in companionship — and someone to take care of — than physical intimacy.

And so forth.  Things develop, but as always, plot is not primary among Kiarostami’s concerns.  I know I’m in a small minority, but I didn’t care much for Certified Copy.  I felt it was too wrapped up in its own cleverness, and any thoughts it provoked were fairly shallow.  It certainly didn’t have the impact that Close-Up or The Wind Will Carry Us or the “Koker trilogy” had on me.  In this film, I was to see less attention paid to cleverness, although the film’s meanings are somewhat elusive.  But there are wonderfully intriguing elements.  Like A Taste of Cherry, the movie plays out in real time… for the most part.  There is a break in chronology halfway through to transition from night to the next morning, and a few seconds may be elided here and there.  The sense that things are unfolding as we watch adds to the unsettling tension the film elicits.

We have a feeling that things are not going to go well for Akiko.  The opening shot is a stunning bit of disorientation, as you see the interior of a busy nightclub and listen to an unknown speaker.  Your eyes study all the faces, trying to determine where the voice is coming from.  Soon it becomes clear you’re listening to one side of a conversation, and you start looking for someone on a phone.  It’s only after several minutes that the film cuts to a reverse shot, and we see Akiko.  She has been invisible, unseen among the Tokyo crowd.  Her identity is diminished not only by the defensive, submissive tone of her words, but by the camera itself.  And from that moment, we feel the camera invading privacy.  Cinema is always a voyeuristic act, but it’s keenly felt here, especially in a moment where we literally spy on Akiko through a neighbor’s window.  We are privy to what goes on in the protective cocoon of an automobile (as so often happens in Kiarostami pictures, much of the action occurs inside a car).

I realize this review isn’t very cohesive, but the film itself doesn’t dictate how you should react to it.  That includes the abrupt ending, which some object to but I found to be just the jolt that the film ought to close on.  What it says about these characters, their roles in each other’s lives, the society they live in… I don’t know yet.  I also don’t quite know what to make of the references to old show tunes and torch songs, like the music on the radio at Watanabe’s apartment, or his quotation of “Que Sera, Sera” or the title track that plays over the ending credits.  It is perhaps ironic contrast to the confused, complex relationships in the film… or maybe an expression of their inner desires.  It is perhaps just a bit of meaningless cleverness, but if so, it doesn’t come off that way.

I may need to let the movie sit with me a while longer… maybe even have a second viewing somewhere down the road.  For the moment, while I don’t rank it among Kiarostami’s best works, it is interesting enough to mull over for a while.  Rating: Good (75)

IMDb

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The World of Jacques Demy

Posted by martinteller on August 23, 2014

After Jacques Demy’s death in 1990, his wife Agnes Varda seems to have (understandably) fixated on him for a while.  In 1991, she created the lovely biographical portrait of his youth, Jacquot de Nantes.  In 1993, she celebrated the anniversary of one of his most popular films with The Young Girls Turn 25.  And in 1995, she put together this loose career overview.  I say “loose” because there’s no attention to chronology, but it is comprehensive.  I don’t think there’s a single Demy film that isn’t covered.  Which makes it a good resource for someone like me, looking to dig a little deeper into his work.  I lost interest in seeing The Pied Piper but surprisingly piqued my curiosity about A Slightly Pregnant Man.

As with her Rochefort doc, I wanted a little more of a personal touch, but it’s got some good anecdotes.  I didn’t know that Jim Morrison visited the set of Donkey Skin, or that Harrison Ford almost got the Gary Lockwood role in Model Shop (which Demy amusingly refers to as “Model Flop”).  The tone of the interviews (with Demy’s family, actors, associates, and fans) is loving without being overly fawning.  A nice tribute to the man’s work.  Rating: Very Good (80)

IMDb

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Une chambre en ville

Posted by martinteller on August 22, 2014

Nantes, 1955.  François Guilbaud (Richard Berry) is a metal worker, but he is part of an ongoing strike.  He boards with Mme. Langlois (Danielle Darrieux), a widow who is none too fond of him.  Langlois’s daughter Edith (Dominque Sanda) is recently married to Edmond Leroyer (Michel Piccoli), a television salesman.  But the marriage is already rocky, as Edmond is prone to wild mood swings, impotence and physical abuse.  François has a loving relationship with Violette (Fabienne Guyon), but when he encounters Edith on the street, they fall into bed together… and fall in love.  He doesn’t know yet that Violette is carrying his child.

This film uses the same gimmick as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg… every line of dialogue is sung.  I must say that, musically, I found it easier to get past the sung dialogue aspect here than I did with Umbrellas.  I think it’s because the music sounds more grounded and structured… it’s closer to what we think of as a traditional musical.  So maybe that’s just a thing I need if people are going to be singing.  The music is also, however, a bit dated.  80’s production values are so distinctive that when you hear a certain kind of drum or bass sound, it immediately puts you in that time… a problem when the setting is supposed to be 1955.  On the whole, though, I enjoyed the score more this time, even if wasn’t composed by the great Michael Legrand (on the other hand, just about any other Legrand score trumps this one, I just don’t care for the music in Umbrellas).

Still, I found it hard to gain entry to this film.  As it played, I felt more and more like I was watching it just to say I had done it rather than out of any interest.  It’s even more cynical than Model Shop, just a bummer of a movie with not enough to care about.  Michel Piccoli, looking like a deranged leprechaun, plays one of his most unsympathetic roles as an unhinged brute.  Dominique Sanda (who, of course, appears naked… that must be in her contract or something) is manipulative, self-centered and cold-hearted.  And Richard Berry is pretty much just a dick.  All Edith has to do is flash him and he hops into the sack with her, with no thought for his girlfriend.  I didn’t give a hoot about any of them, and what I really wanted was for Violette to get together with François’s nice friend Dambiel (Jean-François Stévenin).

But movies aren’t always what we want them to be.  This is a dark story, not a feelgood one.  But I felt like Demy wanted me to buy into this intense passion between François and Edith, wanted me to believe that theirs is a tragic love even though they’re both kinda jerks.  I didn’t buy it.  They weren’t flawed people, they were bad people (François more so… at least we can understand Edith given her crappy marriage).  And then there’s the backdrop of the workers’ strike, attempting to lend the film some sort of vague sociopolitical message, but one that carries no weight.  All it does is provide a narrative reason for the film’s climax.

The movie does have lovely visuals, again awash with vibrant colors.  And my initial boredom eventually gave way as the tale became more twisted and high-strung.  But the overall experience was generally either underwhelming or just unpleasant.  I would give Umbrellas a third chance.  I don’t know if I’d give this one a second.  Rating: Fair (64)

IMDb

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Yearly Roundup – 1985

Posted by martinteller on August 21, 2014

The Cream of the Crop

Nothing from my top 100 this year, but Ran used to be on the list, and still resides in the top 250.  It’s a film I go back and forth on a lot… sometimes I’m absolutely carried away by it, other times I’m a little bit bored in places.  Knowing me, next time I watch it, I’ll fall in love with it again and will have to start rearranging my lists.  It is certainly a beautifully composed film with complex drama, perfectly transporting Shakespeare’s story to another place and culture.

*

Slightly Less Creamy, But Still Tasty

Shoah is a movie I’ve seen only once… not just because it’s so long, but because it’s so affecting.  I’ve seen an awful lot of Holocaust documentaries, and this one (along with Night and Fog) still stands at the top.  One day, perhaps, I will muster up the strength to give it a second look.  A movie I’ve seen a number of times is Brazil, which for me is easily Terry Gilliam’s crowning achievement.  Fantastic production design, dark humor, and a story that is Orwellian and Kafkaesque in the best way.  A Zed and Two Noughts is one of Peter Greenaway’s most cohesive works… his work can feel self-indulgent but here all the Greenaway-isms come together very nicely.  It took a second viewing to really click with me, and now I look forward to a third.

*

Also Love

To Live and Die in L.A.
Lost in America
Vagabond

*

Varying Degrees of Like

Angry Harvest
Back to the Future
Better Off Dead
The Black Cauldron
Calamari Union
¿Cómo ves?
Fletch
Ladyhawke
Liberation of Auschwitz 1945
Louie Bluie
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Mask
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
My Life as a Dog
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
Phenomena
Police Story
The Purple Rose of Cairo
A Room With a View
The Sure Thing
Tampopo
When Father Was Away on Business
Witness

*

Varying Degrees of Hate

Clue
D.A.R.Y.L.
European Vacation
Explorers
The Goonies
Gymkata
Just One of the Guys
Moving Violations
Police Academy 2
A View to a Kill

*

In The Middle

28 Up
Almanac of Fall
Angel’s Egg
The Breakfast Club
Brewster’s Millions
Cocoon
The Color Purple
Come and See
Creator
The Dark Glow of the Mountains
Day of the Dead
The Emerald Forest
Enemy Mine
The Falcon and the Snowman
Fandango
Hail Mary
Insignificance
Into the Night
Mala Noche
No End
Out of Africa
The Quiet Earth
Real Genius
Rocky IV
Runaway Train
The Time to Live and the Time to Die
Vampire Hunter D
Weird Science

*

Uncharted Territory

Agnes of God, The Burmese Harp (remake), Commando, Demons, Fire Festival, Jagged Edge, The Jewel of the Nile, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Last Dragon, Legend, Lust in the Dust, The Man with One Red Shoe, My Beautiful Laundrette, Pale Rider, The Peanut Butter Solution, Prizzi’s Honor, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rendez-vous, The Return of the Living Dead, Return to Oz, Silverado, Spies Like Us, St. Elmo’s Fire, Subway, Taipei Story, Teen Wolf, Tokyo-Ga, The Trip to Bountiful, Vision Quest, Volunteers, Year of the Dragon, Young Sherlock Holmes

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Short Term 12

Posted by martinteller on August 20, 2014

There’s a lot of good stuff about this movie.  You have fantastic performances by Brie Larson (Grace), Kaitlyn Dever (Jayden) and Keith Stanfield (Marcus).  In some ways these are difficult roles that could all easily dip into cliché or movie-of-the-week mawkishness.  These three young actors (and most of the supporting cast as well) pull it off gracefully… no pun intended.  In my review of I Wish yesterday, I mentioned that children in movies often come off as too grown-up.  In this case, these kids have good reason to have grown up quickly.

And there are some incredibly moving scenes.  The story about the octopus is something that shouldn’t work.  It’s such a Blatant Metaphor.  But my lord, it works beautifully… my lady and I were both wiping away tears (and really, the whole point of the scene is that it’s supposed to be a Blatant Metaphor).  The film works wonders when it deals in these small, private, revealing moments.  There is a touching sense of empathy, and a value placed on trust and communication.  There are scenes that are simply divine in their authenticity and humanity.

Unfortunately, the third act of the film piles on drama with a one-two-three punch.  It starts to feel contrived and overreaching.  It’s far less effective than when the story is operating on a smaller scale, taking one thing at a time, letting us sit with a moment.  A scene that’s supposed to be cathartic isn’t… instead it just yells “catharsis!!” at us.  Other negatives include a score that’s sometimes a bit too prodding in a tinkly way, and a mediocre performance by John Gallagher, Jr. (Mason).

However, the first hour is absolutely wonderful, and the last half hour is good enough, despite some flaws.  Some very moving and powerful stuff.  It shows great promise for writer/director Destin Cretton.  Rating: Very Good (80)

IMDb

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Leviathan

Posted by martinteller on August 20, 2014

Imagine that Frederick Wiseman, Stan Brakhage and Gaspar Noé teamed up to make a movie.  And perhaps they watched Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts for inspiration.  You might get something like this unique film from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel.  Filmed on a commercial fishing trawler with miniature digital “GoPro” cameras mounted everywhere, it’s a “documentary” with no narration, no explanation, no context.  It does not seek to edify or enlighten or proselytize.  It is purely experiential.

Forget any pre-conceived images of crusty, colorful old salts swapping stories on a quaint little fishing boat.  Forget also any notion you might have (as I did) that modern commercial fishing is a high-tech operation, finely tuned, clean and precise and utilizing the latest state-of-the-art equipment.  This is not a well-oiled machine.  It is a poorly-oiled machine, creaking and groaning and squealing and banging.  The cacophony is ever-present.  Chains need to be unraveled, nets are battered around until they give up their catch, coils of cable so old and worn they look like worms need to be cranked onto spools while men make sure they don’t cross and get tangled.  Workers do their jobs swiftly and with surprisingly little attention, as quantity over quality appears to be the rule.  A man sorts through a hold full of clams, rapidly chucking the good ones into a bucket and sweeping the broken ones back out to sea with his boot.

The boat is a floating abattoir.  The boat is Death.  Not that the film appears to be giving any sort of anti-fishing (or anti-fish-eating) message, but the images are often morbid and gory: guts being hurled around, blood dripping from railings, a pile of heads lingering in a corner… apparently forgotten by everyone except the gulls that hover like vultures.  You get to witness the bloody carnage from the perspective of a fisherman, a fish, a bird, the ship… and maybe God.

I had heard that the film was notable for its visuals.  I expected perhaps gorgeous Malickian meditations, sun-dappled waves and so forth.  No no, not so.  The images are harsh and rough, frequently marked by abstraction that leaves you wondering what you’re looking at.  It’s impossible to avoid using the word “disorienting”.  Cameras are positioned at angles that sometimes feel impossible.  One scene has you watching stingrays fly overhead before you dive into the water to see the birds swimming under the surface.  Deep, inky blacks are punctuated by vague geometric shapes in sharp, vibrant colors… shapes that suggest actual objects without actually depicting them.  The tiny cameras are pushed beyond their limits, resulting in odd visuals such as static that resembles droplets of mist cascading through the air.

Again, don’t go looking to this film for any sort of knowledge or story or characters.  It’s an experience.  One can find precedents for the individual aspects of this movie, but I feel like Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have put the elements together in a way that feels fresh.  I will admit there were a few parts that tried my patience, that weren’t as entrancing as others.  But there is something exciting and visceral (in more ways than one) about it.  Rating: Very Good (81)

IMDb

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I Wish

Posted by martinteller on August 19, 2014

12-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda) lives with his mother (Nene Ohtsuka) and grandparents (Isao Hashizume, Kirin Kiki) in the town of Kagoshima.  Kagoshima exists in the shadows of a volcano that is continually spewing ash, although no one but Koichi seems particularly concerned about it.  Koichi’s younger brother Ryu (Ohshirô Maeda) lives with their father (Jô Odagiri), a struggling rock musician, far away in Fukuoka.  Koichi dreams of bringing his family back together again.  Then he hears about a new bullet train.  It is rumored that when it passes another bullet train for the first time, it creates a magical field that would grant a wish to anyone who witnesses it.  He arranges to meet Ryu at the spot where this is scheduled to occur.  Koichi’s wish?  That the volcano will erupt, forcing everyone to leave and driving his mother back into his father’s arms.

Hirokazu Kore-eda is fixated on fractured families the way Alfred Hitchcock was fixated on murder.  The way Ritwik Ghatak was fixated on the partition of India.  The way Wes Anderson is fixated on… well, also fractured families.  It is a theme that appears to one degree or another in most of the films I’ve seen by him.  And more power to him, it’s a subject he handles with great insight and sensitivity, without pummeling the viewer with trumped-up drama.  Even when dealing with heavy subject matter, as in Nobody Knows, he always has a light touch.  This is one of the lighter ones, though I don’t mean that as a strike against it.  Indeed, it’s one of the movie’s best assets.

The movie has a leisurely but not slow pace.  The story is always winding towards the meeting of the trains, but it doesn’t rush there.  Rather, it skips there, taking hops along the way to peek into the lives of these characters.  And it’s not solely concerned with Koichi and Ryu.  The grandfather is trying to perfect a recipe for a traditional cake.  Ryu’s friend Megumi (Kyara Uchida) wants to be an actress, but watches a more ambitious classmate steal the limelight… and the jobs.  Koichi’s friend Makoto (Seinosuke Nagayoshi) cares for his elderly dog (as someone who recently lost a canine companion, this subplot moved me quite a bit).  We see the children talk about their problems, plan their journey, and run (and run and run… I remember having that much energy once) around.  There is a fantastic attention to detail, picking out the moments that resonate.  Many of these details return in one of the finest montages I’ve seen in a long time.

Kore-eda’s direction of the children is magnificent.  Not just the two kids in the leads (real-life brothers), but also the gaggle of friends they associate with.  Their performances are so natural and genuine that I imagine they were given a lot of room to improvise.  Children in most movies (not just American movies, though it does seem especially endemic here) often come off as smaller versions of ourselves, having adult reactions to things and making adult statements beyond their wisdom.  It’s always a treat to see children be children, not precocious delusions of what we imagined ourselves to be at that age.  Most of the time, these kids sound like real kids.  In the rare moments when they don’t, it’s both earned and poignant.

It’s also a very funny movie, with wonderful bits of light humor.  The soundtrack by Quruli is upbeat but unobtrusive, aiding in the breezy feel of the film.  It’s a gentle hug of a movie, with a lot of sweetness and just enough melancholy reality to make it hit home.  Like most of Kore-eda’s pictures, it hovers around the 2-hour mark, but I could have easily spent another hour with these characters, and this simple but endearing look into their lives.  It’s a very lovely and touching piece of work.  This currently stands as my favorite by Kore-eda, but that may just be indicative of a need to go back and revisit his other films.  I certainly do like his style.  Rating: Very Good (87)

IMDb

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