Friday, November 18, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Nov. 11-17

Dreams (1990) **½
Director/Writer: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Alira Terao, Mitsuko Baishô, Toshie Negishi, Mieko Harada, Mitsunori Isaki, Toshihiko Nakano, Yoshitaka Zushi, Hisashi Igawa, Chôsuke Ikariya, Chishû Ryû, Martin Scorsese

Ever since I saw Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” for a Shakespeare class in college, I have been a convert to a man I feel comfortable calling the best cinematic director ever. That doesn’t mean that everything he made was gold. It does mean that even his coal is worth watching.

To give the man a little slack, “Dreams” was made when Kurosawa was already 80 years old (he would direct two more before his death in 1998). The film was based entirely on dreams the director himself had. It’s really an anthology piece involving eight separate stories with only a single character, presumably Kurosawa’s alter ego, appearing in every one. Some of the dream segments are philosophical (“Crows”, “Village of the Watermills”), some are frightening (“The Tunnel”, “Mount Fuji in Red”), some are right out of the “Twilight Zone” (“Sunshine Through the Rain”, “The Blizzard”).

Despite the imagination involved and the stunning imagery provided by Kurosawa, “Dreams” never really takes off and flies. The anthology format is restricting when dealing with Kurosawa’s great strength of building stories around characters. Much of the film drags in its own unusualness. His only point is to depict these dreams, but he doesn’t really seem to have much to say about them. They are presented with the same mater of fact nature as some of Kurosawa’s great classics, but they really demand a more unusual touch. Certainly, even this Kurosawa will serve to enlighten anyone who sees it, but it’s not the place to start when building your appreciation for cinema’s greatest visionary.

Western of the Week

The Warrior’s Way (2010) **
Director/Writer: Sngmoo Lee
Starring: Dong-gun Jang, Kate Bosworth, Geoffrey Rush, Danny Huston, Tony Cox, Lung Ti

I guess “The Warrior’s Way” is trying to be a cross between a classic American western, a Japanese Samurai flick, and something related to “Sin City”. It’s actually a Korean brainchild and it’s a little too goofy to pull off its ambitious premise. That’s mostly because its execution is only set on the level of a B-grade action flick.

The story involves an assassin who has become “the greatest swordsman ever” and on the verge of destroying his clan’s enemy, decides to call it quits. Perhaps that’s because the final member of the opposing clan is just a baby girl. Perhaps it’s because the plot requires a betrayal so he can be hunted for the rest of the movie.

He decides to hide in the American Wild West, finding his way to Lode, the strangest western town you’ve ever seen. It seems to have been established and entirely populated by circus show freaks. A vile man, who seems to command thousands, played by perennial villain Danny Huston, also persecutes the town. Yes, there’s a love interest and a big showdown at the end involving the townsfreaks, the Huston gang and the assassin’s former clan. I’ll give it points for keeping its options open with two sets of bad guys.

Unfortunately, the director’s vision seems to have exceeded his budget. Many of the fake backdrops look as it they’re supposed to replicate the stylization of a “Sin City” or “300” type of movie, but they’re so poorly done it just looks like cheap production values. The action is beyond ludicrous and too often looks “fake” rather than stylized. The middle segments of the movie take more time to flesh out the story and characters, and for a brief period it seems the movie will redeem itself, but then the goofy stylized action returns for the final showdown and the B-level production values can just no longer bear their weight.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) ****
Director: Robert Mulligan
Writers: Horton Foote, Harper Lee (novel)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Brock Peters, Frank Overton, Collin Wilcox, James Anderson, Robert Duvall

A few weeks ago the local cinema in my hometown celebrated its one-year anniversary under new independent management. The new management has done an incredible job with the small old-fashioned three-screen cinema. The recent transfer to all digital projection has transformed the old theater house into a modern cinematic wonder. As part of their first anniversary celebration they held a free screening of a cinema classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

The film adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel involving civil rights in a Southern courtroom as seen through the eyes of children has been one discordant for critics. Some say it’s as much a classic as the book. Others argue it doesn’t live up to its reputation. Either way it’s a seminal film in the civil rights movement because the point of view comes from the children, who we all know see the world without the filters we put on our own views as we grow older.

I brought my oldest boy to see it on the big screen with me. He’s the budding cineaste of the tribe and the only one I felt could really appreciate such a classic. I remember going to see my first adult minded movie with my mother when I was about his age. That one was “On Golden Pond”, and I never forgot the experience. I was very anxious to see what he felt about the movie. There were some moments where it lost him, but he seemed very connected with it throughout most of the screening.

He said he loved it, except for the courtroom scenes. Those were boring. Having seen it for the first time as an adult myself, the courtroom scenes were the ones I remembered best. I’d forgotten how much of the movie was about the kids just being kids, spending their summers looking for trouble to fight the boredom, getting into the Radley’s business when they shouldn’t. Trying to understand what their high-minded father was trying to do for the black man he was defending in court. I was impressed how director Robert Mulligan and screenwriter Horton Foote worked the issues of prejudice and injustice into the everyday lives of being kids. In the context of childhood, the kids were only being children; but in the context of the civil rights movement, they get right to the heart of the country’s most divisive issues of the time.

It’s difficult for me to judge the cinematic quality of this film, because the issues at its core strike such a cord with me. I think the use of a childhood context is ingenious of both Mulligan and Lee in her original novel. It was such a joy to discuss these important issue with my son afterward, and rewarding that he showed genuine interest in something other than giant robots fighting each other in the streets of Chicago. Jack’s future as a filmgoer looks bright, and if the Marshall Cinema continues to program such quality films along with the current mainstream fare, it will prove to be a quality resource for Marshall’s children for generations to come.

Tales from Earthsea (2010) **
Director: Goro Miyazaki
Writers: Goro Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa, Hayao Miyazaki (story), Ursula K. LeGuin (novel)
Starring: Matt Levin, Timothy Dalton, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin, Mariska Hargitay, Blaire Restaneo

Earlier I talked of Akira Kurosawa as perhaps the greatest filmmaker of all time. One of the few directors who could challenge Kurosawa’s position in my opinion is the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Responsible for the Academy Award winning “Spirited Away” as well as many other anime classics, Miyazaki’s strength has always been his signature hand drawn animation and his incredible imagination for creatures, magic, and their connection with nature and the planet.

At age 70, Miyazaki has slowed down his own film production. His last film was the incredibly charming “Ponyo”, based on the same Hans Christian Anderson tale that inspired “The Little Mermaid”. His Studio Ghibli animation studio still cranks out animation for the ages; even when it doesn’t come from the master himself. Recently, his son Goro Miyazaki has gotten into the game, although Hayao has said that he must create a name for himself. “Tales from Earthsea” is Goro’s first feature anime, adapted from a novel by one of his father’s major influences, Ursula K. LeGuin.

It’s obvious that Hayao is allowing Goro to make his own mistakes in this film, but Goro doesn’t stray far from the themes and elements that populate his father’s work.
“Tales from Earthsea” tells the story of a boy who murders his father for reasons unknown even to him. A wizard, who is locked in an ongoing battle with a former disciple, takes him in.

There is much said about the dying ways of old and the relationship of the world to the planet. There are dragons and swords and magic, but there isn’t much spark. Much of the film drags as it mistakes inactivity for introspection. The action of the movie is just that, action with little substance behind it. It’s reflective of his father’s early work, but it lacks the ambition of even a young Hayao Miyazaki movie. It also lacks the invention and spirit of his father’s work. There’s a glimmer of his father’s magic, but Goro needs a lot of work. Hopefully, his dad will relent and help him along just a little bit.

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