Rob Harmon’s and (the other) Hank’s Recommendations 07/09/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’s PICS

THE LIFE OF OHARU (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)

If you are a devoted movie-goer like me you probably gauge your opinion of a film as you are watching it and—whether bad, good, or okay—it can oscillate, during and after viewing.

Yet, once in a while I stumble upon that rarest of treats: a film that I know little or nothing about but whose excellence is apparent right from the get-go.

I had one such experience with The Life of Oharu, Kenji Mizoguchi’s epic tale of a fallen woman in Tokugawa era Japan. I was living in New York City in my early-20s and MoMA was doing a small series of Mizoguchi films during the summertime. I knew very little about Mizoguchi but knew enough that I should investigate. I had heard of movies like UGETSU, THE 47 RONIN, and SANSHO, THE BAILIFF (all wonderful, by the way) but absolutely nothing about Oharu. I settled into my seat.

The opening sequence of The Life of Oharu told me that I was watching a great movie: a woman, with face veiled and diverted, awkwardly shuffles down the dimly-lit, twilight street of a chintzy Edo period red-light district. The camera dollies behind, tracking her—floating almost—as she passes the sights and sounds of late-night debauchery which surround her: Who is she and what is her story? The shot is so achingly-beautiful that it instantly succeeds in grabbing the attention, in eliciting sympathy for this mysterious character. We soon find out that this is Oharu, played by the great leading lady of the Japanese screen Kinuyo Tanaka, a middle-aged prostitute who is heading home empty-handed after a night of tiresome street-walking, of trying to talk and act as though she is thirty years younger than she actually is. After stopping to warm herself by a fire she wanders into a Buddhist temple where the memories of her difficult life begin to unravel in flashback.

Life_of_Oharu_DVDOnce the high-born Lady Oharu, a pretty and desired lady-in-waiting of the court at Kyoto, she makes the mistake of falling for an earnest young retainer (played by the estimable Toshiro Mifune) after he gallingly declares his love for her. Once caught together she is exiled and her inexorable fall from grace begins. Oharu passes from one station of tragedy to the next: from lady-in-waiting to noble concubine to geisha; she gains favor with men, she loses favor; she finds a good job, she loses it when her notorious past catches up to her; she has a child, she marries… well, you get the idea. The film—epic in scope—amounts to a master class in heart-break, a sort of object lesson in the Buddhist idea of life-as-suffering, with Oharu subjected to enough melodramatic misfortune for five movies.

Holding it all together is Tanaka, whose gargantuan performance is dignified and sustained, vulnerable and moving: to call it a tour-de-force is almost insufficient. Mizoguchi, here towards the end of his career, was at the top of his game. He was famed for his interest in the limited rights and roles of women in Japanese society and this may be his strongest statement on the subject. In 1952 women in Japan were still living in the grim economic aftermath of World War II and it is not difficult to imagine the applicability of Oharu’s plight—a woman with once-grand ambitions, now cut-down in the twilight of her life and forced into drudgery—to many who watched the film. As another prostitute says late in the film, “It’s a pitiful life we lead, but no one’s going to help us out.”

Mizoguchi was also renowned for his daring, ornate camera movements and for his long, patient takes, which serve this film particularly well. This quiet, restrained, and observational approach—as in the memorable opening—simply shows the audience without grandstanding and lets the material speak for itself, making the drama all the more penetrating because of it. Mizoguchi first stepped into the director’s chair in the mid-1920’s and directed numerous silent films, developing a strong visual flair, before becoming instrumental in his country’s transition to sound, making many of the most effective early talkies there.

The Life of Oharu, never before available on DVD, has gotten its long over-due release thanks to the Criterion Collection (now, if only they would release Mizoguchi’s THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM!), meaning that this great film can finally reach a new audience.

The 47 Ronin, SISTERS OF THE GION, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, STREET OF SHAME, and other fine films are available for rental in our Kenji Mizoguchi section.

NEIGHBORING SOUNDS (dir. Kleber Mendonҫa Filho, 2012)

Neighboring Sounds is the enigmatic feature film debut of Brazilian director Kleber Mendonҫa Filho. Set in the coastal town of Recife and on a single city block the story follows a number of different characters: a real-estate agent for the shiny-new condo high-rise (carved right out of the slums) and his girlfriend; his father, who owns most of the street, and his nephew, a young member of the bourgeoisie who occasionally takes to stealing car stereos; a woman and mother who struggles with getting the very best for her young family, even if that means keeping the barking dog next-door quiet; and a mysterious security firm that shows up in the neighborhood in the wake of a series of unexplained crimes.

The film’s gauzy, nebulous subject is the geography of urban displacement, or gentrification, and, though the scene is peaceful, class tensions are everywhere.  The “sounds” of the title are auditory throbs, squeaks, and hums which occasionally take over the spare soundtrack, assaulting the building’s inhabitants during their uneasy encounters with the “other side.”

Surreal ideas and imagery abound: a night-watchman with only one eye and another who mainly sleeps; an army of burglar-intruders endlessly swarming over the building’s protective walls as seen by a young girl; a mother exhaling marijuana smoke into the hose of a vacuum cleaner; and a couple exploring an abandoned countryside cinema, filmed as though it were an archeological ruin—no doubt a snarky comment by Filho on the bleak future of the medium. The film cultivates a mysterious air, spending great amounts of time on seemingly inconsequential events while weighty matters are casually elided, only to be brought up in passing in later scenes.

The film is admirably-discomforting to watch, with echoes of Michael Haneke, particularly CACHÉ, as the grimy forces of the favela keep pressing at the walls of the ivory tower and the psyches of its inhabitants. The film begins with faded black-and-white photos of traditional Brazilian folk-life and ends with the neighborhood’s violent past—thought dead—boiling to the surface. The Neighboring Sounds of this haunted block are the howls of a population which refuses to be ignored or kept out.

Hank_Hoffman_Picks_Image_sketch_Web(THE OTHER) HANK’S PICS 07/09/13:

A diverse program of three quickie recommendations from me, Hank Hoffman, Best Video’s “other Hank.”

In SPRING BREAKERS, cult film director Harmony Korine drunkenly walks the line separating exploitation cinema and serious filmmaking. Four college girls (including two played by former fresh-cheeked Disney ingenues Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens) pull a caper in order to garner enough money to attend the annual spring break bacchanal. Once there—amid the overflowing  pulchritude, oceans of beer and motel rooms besmogged with pot smoke—they get mixed up with gangsta-wannabe and white rapper Alien, played by James Franco. It’s a walk on the dark and dangerous Day-Glo wild side, the atmosphere thick with sex and violence. It is almost worth it for Franco’s bravura performance alone.

If your head is still spinning from a Spring Breakers contact high, then THE GATEKEEPERS, an Israeli documentary, will sober you up. Director Dror Moreh interviewed six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service. Interspersed with their surprisingly candid reflections is extensive archival footage and—where such footage is unavailable—some reenactments. Moreh was inspired by the work of American documentarian Errol Morris and, particularly, Morris’ THE FOG OF WAR, which focused on former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his role in the Vietnam War. To a man—and they are all men—if to varying degrees, they all have come to the conclusion that Israel’s hardline approach to unrest in the occupied territories is counter-productive. Some of the issues they consider—the efficacy and morality of torture, targeted assassinations—are also issues relevant to the ongoing conflicts in which our country is engaged.

If the seemingly intractable Mideast conflict leaves you pessimistic—as it does the former Shin Bet heads in The Gatekeepers—perhaps some laughter is in order. The Criterion Collection has just released a beautiful remastered version of SAFETY LAST, silent film comedian Harold Lloyd’s masterpiece. From 1922, Safety Last is built on a wonderful visual metaphor for the “climb for success.” A romance, an action movie, a comedy—Safety Last is a hilarious and oft-times white-knuckled classic.

New Releases 06/18/13

Top Hits
Quartet (drama/comedy, Maggie Smith. Rotten Tomatoes: 79%. Metacritic: 64. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review; “In a charming, only somewhat condescending scene in Quartet, Reginald Paget [Tom Courtenay], a retired opera singer, lectures a room full of hip-hop-loving teenagers about the similarities and differences between his favorite music and theirs. Opera, he explains, is about the expression of intense emotion through song. Rap, he surmises, sort of does the same thing. There is more to it than that, of course, but Reginald is distracted before he can finish the lesson. Perhaps he might have pointed out that singing opera (and rapping, for that matter) also demands a great deal of discipline and attention to technique.” Read more…)

Movie 43 (comedy, Richard Gere. Rotten Tomatoes: 4%. Metacritic: 19. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “The kindest thing to be said of Movie 43, a star-saturated collection of crude one-joke vignettes made with big-time directors, is that most of the participants seem to relish being naughty. What binds these skits in a format that leads from one to the next with no connective tissue is the occasional presence of Dennis Quaid as a crazy, down-on-his-luck filmmaker who has wangled his way into the office of a timid midlevel studio executive [Greg Kinnear] to sell the project.” Read more…)

21 & Over (comedy, Miles Teller. Rotten Tomatoes: 27%. Metacritic: 34. From Nicole Herrington’s New York Times review: “There’s a line early on in 21 & Over about your “oldest friends always being your strangest ones.” That may be true, but there is a bigger theme here: After four years of college lifelong friendships can become forced, resulting in awkward attempts to reconnect and relive the good old days.” Read more…)

Stoker (thriller, Nicole Kidman. Rotten Tomatoes: 67%. Metacritic: 58. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The first half of Stoker passes in a rapture of dread, as the viewer anticipates terrible things to come. This is partly because the director, Park Chan-wook, here making his English-language debut, is an internationally renowned master of bloodshed. His ‘vengeance’ trilogy — in particular the middle chapter, Oldboy, currently being remade by Spike Lee — is cherished by many cinephiles, in South Korea and beyond, for its blend of visual elegance, melodrama and extreme violence.” Read more…)

Jack the Giant Slayer (fantasy/adventure, Nicholas Hoult. Rotten Tomatoes: 52%. Metacritic: 51. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Recently filmmakers have been dusting off fairy tales and giving them a revisionist feminist spin. As movies like Red Riding Hood and Mirror Mirror suggest, striking a balance between the old [and often sexist] and the new [and vaguely progressive] is trickier than it might seem. The makers of Snow White and the Huntsman tried to reconcile two potentially irreconcilable ideas— a thoroughly modern miss and an old-fashioned happily ever after — by putting a sword in Snow White’s hands so she could ride alongside her heroic hunk. The results weren’t half bad, even if this butched-up Snow White didn’t magically transform into a genuinely liberated princess. The makers of Jack the Giant Slayer, by contrast, have generally opted to stick to the original boy meets beans, boy loses beans, boy meets giants, and so on, embellishing the familiar bedtime story with 3-D and other effects, noisy battles and an occasional wink at the material.” Read more…)

American Mary (horror, Katharine Isabelle. Rotten Tomatoes: 59%. Metacritic: 46. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Andy Webster’s Times review:”‘I don’t think it’s really fair that God gets to choose what we look like on the outside, do you?’ says Beatress Johnson [Tristan Risk] in American Mary, a new horror movie from the twins Jen and Sylvia Soska. So Beatress has had work done. Lots of work: ’14 different surgeries to get me to look like this’ — a nightmare Betty Boop, with a synthetic, cartoonish face to supplement her ’50s homemaker dresses and a Kewpie-doll voice uttering the occasional obscene epithet. Beatress is just one fascinating player in this compelling film about appearances and their manipulation.” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray
Jack the Giant Slayer
Jack the Giant Slayer 3D
Al Pacino Double Feature: Scent of a Woman/Sea of Love

New Foreign
Neighboring Sounds (Brazil, drama/thriller, Sebastião Formiga. Rotten Tomatoes: 91%. Metacritic: 77. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “The characters in this densely populated movie can be roughly divided into masters and servants, and you notice just how much labor — ironing clothes, refilling water coolers, delivering packages, opening doors, selling drugs — goes into maintaining the leisure class in its life of ease. But [director Kleber Mendonça Filho], a former film critic whose command of the medium is both formidable and subtle, is up to something more than the usual upstairs-downstairs comedy of colliding destinies in a small place. The scope of his movie is narrow, but its ambitions are enormous, and it accomplishes nothing less than the illumination of the peculiar state of Brazilian [and not only Brazilian] society.” Read more…)

Marketa Lazarová (Czechoslovakia, 1967, drama/history, Magda Vásáryová)

New Classic DVDs (pre-1960)
Safety Last (1923, silent comedy masterpiece, Harold Lloyd. Rotten Tomatoes: 96%. From Dave Kehr’s New York Times DVD review: “Even people who don’t know [Harold] Lloyd’s name will probably recognize the ubiquitous image of the young man in horn-rimmed glasses, hanging from the hands of a clock high above a city street. The scene is from Lloyd’s 1923 feature Safety Last!, which is being reissued this week by the Criterion Collection in a newly restored and breathtakingly sharp Blu-ray edition. The encounter with the clock is only one gag in the film’s meticulously constructed 20-minute climactic sequence, in which Lloyd, as a lowly department store clerk, finds himself forced to take the place of a professional human fly, whom Lloyd has hired to climb the store’s skyscraper headquarters as a publicity stunt. But even [or perhaps, particularly] when it is removed from its carefully motivated context, the image maintains its force and piquancy as a metaphor of urban anxiety: modern man uncertainly suspended over the chasm of an uncaring, impersonal metropolis, struggling to hold on to something, anything, as his feet churn the void and the minutes of his life click away.” Read more…)

New Brit
Call the Midwife: Season 2

New Docs
Brooklyn Castle (inner city teen chess champions. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Metacritic: 77. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “The child chess champions in the irresistible documentary Brooklyn Castle don’t take long, as one of these sweetpeas likes to say, to crush you. Year after year, these big brains and little bodies at Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg win chess tournaments, and their winning streak continues on screen. They are a remarkable, funny, inspiring, at times devastating group. Through the eyes of the director Katie Dellamaggiore, you come to know these children, their teachers and parents as you witness their pulse-quickening matches and tears splashed on the family dining-room table. There’s smiling uplift here, but the road is seldom easy and sometimes brutal.” Read more…)

Shakespeare Uncovered (literary history/analysis, Derek Jacobi)