When a Woman Ascends the Stairs

When A Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) movie poster

(1960) dir. Mikio Naruse
viewed: 05/30/07

I have a friend who is a passionate afficianado of Mikio Naruse after having seen a series of his films played locally at the Pacific Film Archives and has been particuarly rapturous in her love for his films.  Naurse is obscure in the West, particularly in the US, where other Japanese filmmakers of his period have been distributed and screened, but for some reason, his work never was given much access.  When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is one of his few films to have seen release here, apparantly via Janus films, and assumingly, with the re-release on Criterion of major Janus films, celebrating their 50th anniversary, is why this film is now available on DVD.

So, unsurprisingly, it’s the first of Naruse’s films that I have seen, and with my friend’s description and what I have read, is all I had to really go on as far as knowledge and expectation.  Naruse is noted for working in the “working-class drama” genre, which is definitely different from their closest American peer, the family melodrama, but at the same time seems to have some parallels.  His films are often compared to Yasujiro Ozu (Early Spring (1956)), who also worked within this similar cultural landscape, but maybe that is just because Ozu is better known here.  I do not claim to know.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is an urban story, that of a bar hostess, a job that for a Western audience needs definition (a woman’s profession of entertaining men at specific bars, having patrons, but typcially are non-sexual, neither geishas or prostitutes) because it’s not something widely known about here, but is apparantly still a staple of Japanese culture.  The film is critical of a woman’s chances and opportunities, not so much of the role of a bar hostess itself, but of the fact that there are not many other options for an intelligent, single woman to do to earn a living in the Tokyo of the time, in the paternalistic culture of Japan.  As far as social criticism goes, it’s poignant, though sometimes a bit obvious.

There is a beauty about the film, both in the cinematography and in the style of the performances.  I liked very much seeing a glimpse of 1960 Tokyo, literally, with the several location shots of the city.  Hideko Takamine is lovely in her role as the “good” bar hostess, above most of the petty shortcomings of her peers and also chaste.  The film does seek and achieve a realism that is both literal and emotional.

I am again drawn to the comparison between the American melodrama and the “working-class drama” of Japan.  I am thinking of several films that I saw in a class that I had that spent some time focusing on this period in American film.  There are distinct differences, for sure, but seem like there are many interesting comparison points, especially in their social critiques and pessimism, hidden beneath a surface of simple emotional drama and storytelling.

I’d hardly judge Naruse by a single film, but this was different than I had anticipated.  I certainly hope for the opportunity to see others of his films and hope that I don’t have to wait for another PFA exhibit to get such an opportunity.

The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Michael Haneke
viewed: 05/27/07

I’ve sort of backed into realizing that director Michael Haneke is one of the most interesting directors making films today.  I’d read about The Piano Teacher when it came out and have had it in my queue for a couple of years probably.  I’d seen The Time of the Wolf (2003) during the period that I wasn’t updating this diary, but it wasn’t until I ended up seeing Caché (2005) last year that it really struck me.  I don’t usually watch extras on DVD’s that much anymore unless something sparks me.  An interview with Haneke on the Caché disc was illuminating and he struck me as intelligent and had a sense of complexity that many directors fail to earn.  But after speaking with a friend about The Piano Teacher, I decided to push it to the top and watch it.

It’s indeed a very effective film, building quiet tension in the life of the titular protagonist, brilliantly played by the absolutely amazing Isabelle Huppert (I now totally get why people rave about her — she is incredible in this film — how often do I even mention actors’ performances?).  The tensions, the chaos, the intensely Freudian world of psychosis that she embodies create the space for the film’s moments of shocking action and events.

To tell the basics of the story, a repressed piano teacher winds up in a sexual relationship with a student, breaking through her tough, controlled, and harsh manner into her kinky fantasies and ultimately, revealing her deep, dark recesses and desire for love.  It’s really hard to evoke how effective Haneke is in building this world, giving this view into this woman and her mental and emotional world.  I am at a loss to really go into it more deeply, but Haneke seems to have a strong interest in repression and the return of the repressed, all highly Freudian concepts.  It’s brutal in many ways, shocking at moments.  Fascinating.  And Isabelle Huppert…totally amazing.

Le Petit lieutenant

Le Petit lieutenant (2005) movie poster

(2005) Xavier Beauvois
viewed: 05/26/07

I don’t know that I have a lot to say about this decent, though not amazing French film about a rookie cop.  It got a good buzz in the San Francisco Chronicle (not the best arbiter of quality, but as I have mentioned, it’s the paper I read so it tends to be the source I have for reviews), but frankly, it’s nothing spectacular.  It’s certainly not bad.

Actually, it crossed my mind that the film actually felt like the depth of a television show or something.  I think I know what I mean by that but others might dispute that statement.  Highly average.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) movie poster

(1988) dir. Robert Zemeckis
viewed: 05/26/07

Friday night is movie night for my kids and most of the time they watch any array of video garbage.  I started with them trying to only expose them to the stuff that I considered worthy, and to my credit along these lines, I have a moderate collection of Betty Boop, Bullwinkle and Rocky, and Hayao Miyazaki films and videos.  I was actually given a copy of Who Framed Roger Rabbit several years back, and I’ve had it on my shelf just waiting for a day like this.

Really, it’s a bit adult for them.  It’s got a complex storyline that is hard to explain.  I think my son enjoyed it pretty well.  My daughter’s interest came in small waves.

My own interest in the film is fairly strong.  I saw it when it first came out in 1988, and I was pretty into it then.  Later “readings” of the film or however you want to call it when you are looking at them from a film criticism/theory perspective, added a lot of analytical weight, but still pretty fun.

I parsed out the opening scene for a class, going from the opening credits to a faux-classical style animation short featuring Roger and Baby Herman, that gets broken up when a director calls “Cut!” due to Roger producing tweeting birds above his head instead of the called-for stars.  This is the movie’s premise and main device, that cartoons in the heyday of Hollywood were as real as the human stars and acted on sets just the same way.  But the funny part about how the film opens is that it uses that break to introduce the concept in a funny way, but it’s also breaking the illusion of the original narrative and revealing some of the filmic mechanism, though in a completely false way.

Anyways, that was a long time ago that I thought along those lines and was probably a tad better articulated at the time.  The other storyline that I found interesting is the basic storyline of the film, that of this evil cartoon, Judge Doom, has bought up the streetcars in Los Angeles and wants to destroy Toon Town and all this stuff that made Hollywood “great” to build highways, strip malls, fast food restaurants, and the like.  The poignant irony in the ‘toons winning out in this film is that basically, the oil and automobile industries did just that (though not so much at the expense of animation and its prime period) but at the expense of LA, California, the United States…  There is a commentary, largely ironic and comical, whose criticism is foretext, not subtext.

This, for me, is Robert Zemeckis’s own “acme”.  Though I don’t know that he can ever be forgiven for Forrest Gump (1994), he has remained on the verging lines of being semi-interesting while residing the dead center of American popular cinema.  I guess, having a strong appreciation for the era of American animation that is being given homage here, I guess I have a soft spot for this film.  While it’s not a work of genius and it’s not a masterpiece, I still find it fun, clever, and amusing, no matter what my kids think.

28 Weeks Later

28 Weeks Later (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
viewed: 05/21/07 at AMC Loews Kips Bay 15, NY, NY

Being the sequel to 28 Days Later… (2002), the movie that reinvented the speed at which zombies can run, and having been directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, whose 2001 film Intacto I found to be quite a good flick, I held some hopes for 28 Weeks Later, but I had heard that it was not too great.  I would go further than that, as I am willing to say that it is highly substandard and almost downright boring.  It’s the first film in a long time that I seriously considered walking out on, not in protest to its badness, but just because it was dull and I thought I could find something better to do.

One of its biggest problems is “shaky camera syndrome”.  I thought we had passed this short, bad age in which shaking the camera and cutting like you’re trying to induce epileptic seizures to establish “realism” or energy.  Apparently no one has told Fresnadillo.  I might drop him a line.  This effect was so off-putting, it shut me out of the action to a point that I could hardly tell what was happening.

The only thing that I thought was kind of interesting, but wholly unexplored, was the re-population of England by Americans.  28 weeks after the “rage” virus has struck the British Isles, everyone is dead.  And so, the Americans are re-immigrating, re-colonizing an England without English people.

But in this case, the Americans are soldiers, straight out of stock-character 101, and it’s just a militaryish thing that we’ve seen in these types of films over and over again.

You go from semi-reinventing the genre to making a totally lame, uninspired sequel in a mere 28 weeks, I guess.

Shrek the Third

Shrek the Third (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Chris Miller, Raman Hui
viewed: 05/19/07 at Century San Francisco Centre, SF, CA

I’ve actually always been a bit disdainful of the whole Shrek film series.  The whole thing is a pastiche of a multitude of characteristics, culture, humor, and style with a pop music soundtrack and a deep attempt to hit home with some emotional “truths”.  To me, it lacks genuine character, and though the “character” of Shrek, is a big part of what the film trades on, he’s a pretty lame and boring figure.

The two best characters in the film are the Eddie Murphy Donkey and the Antonio Banderas Puss in Boots.  But those are the sidekicks.  This movie, the “Third”, tries to carry home some messages that were way lame back in after school specials three or four decades ago.  “Be yourself”, “Just because other people are mean to you, doesn’t mean that you are a bad person”, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.  Let’s just say that I think you could actually find most of these euphemisms or like ones right there in the script.  It’s hard to imagine anyone writing this crap or reciting this crap, much less the guess that this is “quality” animation.

One of the funniest things that I’ve read, and I haven’t read it in depth, is some of the schizophrenic marketing that they do for Shrek, having him speak out about childhood obesity (he’s fat) all while marketing McDonald’s.  It’s soulless in the Hollywood world of creating marketing entertainment like this.  And the whole “appealing to the adults, as well as the kids” with humor that the kids won’t get is old and wrong.  If you make a good movie, people will like it, get it.  When you pander incessantly, you show just what a crock this whole business is.

So why did I go see it?  Why did I take my kids to it?  It’s been a very dry couple of months without a film that I could take them to.  And overall, I think that the experience of going to movies, of seeing various things, is fun and worthwhile.  That said, my next thought was to take my son to the “Bad Bugs Bunny” series of films that will be shown with the “Hole in the Head” film festival, that features animations that have become obscure because of their racist stereotypes or other things that aren’t kosher in the contemporary world.  I guess I’m just a hell of a father.

Anyways, this film sort of underscores my feelings about this whole series of films.  Highly over-rated.  Pretty goddam bad, if you ask me.

Deliver Us From Evil

Deliver Us From Evil (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Amy Berg
viewed: 05/18/07

This movie should outrage and effect anyone who sees it.  It’s the story of a Catholic priest, Oliver O’Grady, who operated as an increasingly brazen child molester, preying on the children that he was regularly given privileged access to due to his role as priest in these communities in Northern Central California.  He operated thusly starting in the mid-1970’s and continued, moving from parish to parish within a fairly small radius, with full knowledge of his actions and behavior by his superiors, until finally getting a serious legal case against him that got him 14 years in prison (only 7 served) before being sent back to Ireland.

The film builds well, starting with O’Grady talking of making amends for his actions, talking to try to do some reparation and one of the families effected discussing how they brought him into their lives, community, and family.  As the narrative unfolds, the increasingly horrible actions O’Grady takes, including abusing (literally raping) a girl only 9 months old.  I don’t know that you go from sympathizing with him to despising him, but you do get a more full sense of his character from this portrayal.  Also, by the end, you see the hypocrisy and lack of real guilt that he continues to have, living free and untracked in Ireland.  The sickness (and I recognize that this is my personal reaction) that O’Grady displays and the vileness of the people whose lives he has damaged and scarred is tremendous.

And the film changes as it gets stronger, into a real indictment of the archdiocese of Northern California, particularly two of the direct heads above O’Grady who seek to continue to advance their careers within the church rather than protect children from an absolute predator.  And they deserve the damnation thrown at them, don’t get me wrong.  It’s disgusting and horrific that these men have escaped jail time.  They clearly lack any form of conscience.  The film takes it further still, following up the chain to the current Pope, who oversaw a major group in the Catholic church to protect children from abuse.  It’s totally valid.  These people are frighteningly self-satisfied, leading with their false piety while allowing great pain, victimization, and suffering that there are few people in the world that would argue is absolutely wrong.

I think the film falters a bit, though, in this area.  Though the film uses the erudite and intelligent Catholic church critic, Catholic father Tom Doyle, who has spoken out for years on the church’s attitude and approach to these issues, there gets to be a pretty strong anti-Catholic message that it’s easy to understand from a perspective, but moves away from the relay of a compelling situation, a horrific story, and a real crime.  I mean, I totally believe that all of these people should face criminal prosecution, but I think the film sort of loses some of its power in the final stretch.

However, the Japanese-American father whose daughter was abused from age 5-11 by this man that they brought into their home, cared for, and supported until the very end, delivers the film’s most powerful cry of outrage that is almost impossible not to identify with.  It’s incredibly hard and terribly sad.

As a documentary, the film is good.  The subject matter is so compelling and powerful, it has the tendency to obscure the film itself.

The Fountain

The Fountain (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Darren Aronofsky
viewed: 05/16/07

Fuckin’ new age hippie transcendental pan-religious head-trippin’ science fiction pretension.

High-minded, for sure.  Sure.  Dude, seeing a bald, floating cross-legged Hugh Jackman glowing white…yiikes.  That’s an image that I could have done without.  Floating in outer space in a bubble that inhouses the “Tree of Life”.  Seeking the “fountain” of youth, the cure for death.

Darren Aronofsky, director of Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), indulges science-y, new age, poeticism to a really pretty non-functional level here.  I have to say, that it sounded interesting on the outside…well, maybe not the way that I am describing it here.  But this is retrospect and insight here.  The story parallels two or three narratives in which Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz (who for some reason I always end up liking in movies) are carried over through the centuries and time/space continuums, seeking the “Tree of Life”, a cure for death, immortality.  In one phase, Jackman is a conquistador seeking the literal in the Mayan empire for the queen of Spain.  In the “contemporary” narrative, Jackman is a medical research scientist looking for a cure for brain tumors, which his tragically insightful wife (Weisz) is dying from.

From some of the stuff I’d read, Aronofsky was shooting for something to compare to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), something deep, visual, and head-trippy for acid takers or pot smokers or pseudo-intellectuals.  Okay, I added that target audience on myself.  Sadly, in some ways, I was more reminded of the utterly heinous What Dreams May Come (1998), the Robin Williams/Cuba Gooding, Jr., arty death experience that could nauseate at first glance.  I think this is perhaps the most succinct way of posing The Fountain‘s failure.  Not that it manages to reach for a heartstring, it’s too detached for that.  It just is pretentious weirdo art designed death experience.

The irony is that this film’s march to the screen is actually more interesting than the film itself.  Originally a big budget film with huge sets and massive goals and to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett before the studio pulled the plug, Aronofsky turned The Fountain into a comic book and eventually into this pared-down version with lower-drawer stars.  That may not sound so interesting, but in a more full-blown play-by-play, the film’s journey is indeed more compelling than the film that eventually came out, which is in and of itself a reasonable commentary on the process of film-making in Hollywood and its “visionaries”.

Little Children

Little Children (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Todd Fields
viewed: 05/14/07

Having liked Todd Fields’ In the Bedroom (2001), I was actually kind of anticipating Little Children when it came out and wasn’t surprised that it had a good buzz.  A good cast including Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly head this family melodrama/comedy/what-have-you and some more Oscar nods too.

However, the film didn’t really work so well for me.

It starts with this omniscient, deep-voiced narrator, with a detached, though knowledgeable insight into the characters’ feelings and histories, which seems to draw from the voice of the book from which this content was adapted.  It’s an intrusive and non-cinematic aspect of the film that relates things in and out of the regularly played narrative portrayal of the storylines.  Right from the get-go, I was not in step with the film, and though I eventually got into it a bit more, I never connected.

The characters are all somewhat damaged suburbanites with “little children”.  This should, more or less, be something, or an aspect of the world to which I should be able to identify.  And at first, I thought that the film would strike some strange and uncomfortable recognitions.  The world of young parents: book clubs, hanging with people who have kids the same age as yours but nothing else in common, the dissociation from ones prior life, the breakdown of intimacy within a married relationship as the child takes the fore,…there is a lot.  Just looking at sippy cups and having to carry “snacks” to every outing.  This stuff could have had more resonance for me.  It didn’t.

The movie isn’t awful by any means.  I think as it stretches out into the analysis of the sex offender and his situation in society and his relationship with his mother…there are things there that could have been more interesting, but also end up being a little too hot-button-ish.  The film always stays on this somewhat detached, ironic and critical attitude towards suburbia and the loss of self in this world.

Yeah, I wouldn’t really bother with this unless you have “little children” and feel like you might identify more than I did.

The Aura

The Aura (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Fabián Bielinsky
viewed: 05/10/07

In doing my meager web research that I do to verify any facts that I try to site or background information about the films of which I write, I discovered a sad, poignant fact, that writer/director Fabián Bielinsky died of a heart attack while promoting this film in Brazil and so, this film is the last one that he ever made.  I had seen an earlier film of his, Nine Queens (2000), which was a clever and interesting film about con-men on the streets of Buenos Aires.  It has stuck in my mind these years, and they adapted it in Hollywood in 2004 as Criminal which I hadn’t seen, but gave some credence to the possibility of him growing in recognition.

And as it turns out, The Aura, is an equally, if not more, interesting film.  I actually tried to tell someone the storyline and realized that it’s pretty complicated to explain and I won’t go into it too deeply for that reason and also because of the surprising plots twists or events that have more power because they are unexpected.

The film starts out with the protagonist, an epileptic taxidermist who fantasizes about leading efficient large scale robberies, is talked into going on a hunting trip in Patagonia, despite the fact that he does not want to kill anything.  His wife has left him and he moves into this space of acting and speaking upon his impulses.  That said, the movie is slow and paced, so his actions though impulsive, have a measured step to them nonetheless, showing a commitment to the actions and the choices though they are clearly outside of his normal sphere.

There is a sense of metaphysical or existential experience, yet one that strikes back into reality.  It’s hard to say how much of this is signified by the gorgeous forests and hills of Patagonia.  As a taxidermist, his relationship to nature and animals is detached yet intimate.  They are skeletons and frames, coats of fur, neatly sewn and made to look alive.  As he ventures into the world where life and death are taken, closing in to experiences with living animals, the opportunity to live his fantasies, his world is transformed.  How much this is an analysis of Argentinian life or how unspecific that is, I cannot say, but it is does register and resonate.

It’s a true tragedy that such a fine writer/director passed away with so little a body of work that shows such promise and such a sensitive eye.  Such is life, and somehow, this film might have some appropriate context for Bielinsky’s sense of life, death, and experience.