Archive for April, 2015

Two Films About Journeys: Kumiko and Jauja

April 24, 2015

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Recently I saw two films, each with a Herzogian story about a person who undertakes an ill-advised journey.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter directed and co-written by David Zellner, is, I’m told, based on a Japanese urban legend. Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) has a dreary job as a personal assistant to a Tokyo businessman. Yearning to escape from her humdrum life, she dreams of becoming a treasure hunter. She finds an old VHS tape of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, and she becomes convinced that it tells a true story. She believes that the money buried by one of the characters is lying in a field somewhere in Minnesota. She steals her boss’s credit card and uses it to purchase a plane ticket to Minneapolis. From there, she sets out for Fargo, convinced that she will somehow find the field she saw in the film. Along the way, she meets a number of different people who try to help her.

This film’s “happy” ending is not quite ironic and not quite cynical. Zellner is clearly aiming for a fairy tale effect here. He succeeds in this largely because of Kikuchi’s convincing and moving performance.

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The trailer for Jauja gave me high hopes, but I found the film itself disappointing.

The film is set in Argentina in the 19th century. The Argentine government is waging a genocidal war against the indigenous people of Patagonia. Gunnar (Viggo Mortenson) is a Danish doctor who has been hired by the Argentine army. He has brought his daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), from Denmark with him. When Ingeborg runs off into the desert with a soldier, Gunnar goes in pursuit of them. He finds the soldier murdered. While he is searching the area, an Indian steals his horse, so Gunnar is forced to continue his search on foot. He comes across an old woman who lives by herself in the desert.

Jauja‘s early scenes have a stark beauty and simplicity about them that reminds one of Herzog’s films. However, it suddenly turns into a Bergmannesque fantasy about a spooky old woman living in a cave. Like Kumiko, this film aims for a fairy tale effect, but it merely ends up being opaque. I found this disappointing, because I really wanted to see Gunnar’s quest lead to something. Instead, we have what feels like two different films stuck together. In addition, Jauja touches upon the racist attitude of the whites towards the Indians, but it doesn’t really have anything to say about this. It’s just a perplexing and unsatisfying work.

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George Lucas and Star Wars Redux

April 22, 2015

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There has been a good deal of talk recently about the JJ Abrams reboot of the Star Wars franchise. This prompted a friend of mine to comment on Facebook: “I haven’t had the chance to get all excited about the new Star Wars trailer, what with me being an adult and all.” Judging from some of the comments on her thread, it appears that some people weren’t pleased with her comment. Yet I think there is an arrested development aspect to this whole Star Wars phenomenon. Most of us first encountered these movies when we were young and our tastes were still largely unformed. Since then, we insist on believing that there is something magical about these films, even though they’re actually not that good. I think we have all had the experience of going back to a favorite book or movie or TV show from our childhood and being dismayed to find that it’s not nearly as good as we remember it being. Our continuing obsession with Star Wars, and our desire for more Star Wars films seem to be an attempt to deny this experience.

What bothers me about the Star Wars films is that they invite us not to think. Because when you think about them, you begin to realize that there are all sorts of things in them that don’t really make sense. (Science fiction purists hate these movies because they make a mockery of the notion that sci-fi is about “ideas”. By the way, the recent film, Ex Machina shows that science fiction really can be thought-provoking.) So, better not to think and to just be awed by the spectacle of it all. As someone who has always valued films that challenge me to think, I can’t help but see Star Wars as a denial of what I most value about cinema.

Lucas has occasionally been compared to Wagner, which is not always meant as a compliment. For example, Lucas is, like Wagner, obsessed with prequels. (Wagner had originally set out to write just an opera about Siegfried, but he felt he had to explain everything that happened before, which resulted in the Ring cycle.) But the comparison isn’t just about size. Critics have accused Wagner of cheapening the myths upon which his operas are based. Likewise, the afore-mentioned science fiction purists have accused Lucas of cheapening the genre. They object to the way these films wallow in all the hackneyed conventions of comic books and Hollywood B-movies.

Perhaps the single best comment I’ve heard about these films came from my father. He was an engineer, and he went to see the first Star Wars film when it first came out. I asked him what he thought about it, and his only comment was: “The spaceships banked when they turned. Why? They’re in a vacuum. Why would they bank?”

He should have been a film critic.

1915

April 19, 2015

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1915, written and directed by Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian, tells the story of Simon (Simon Abkarian), who is directing a play he has written about the Armenian genocide of 1915. His wife, Angela (Angela Sarafyan), who plays the lead character, immerses herself in her role in a manner that begins to disturb the other cast members. The play is controversial, and the director and producer receive death threats. It gradually becomes clear that Simon and Angela have a dark secret.

1915 starts off with a promising premise, but it turns into a bombastic psychological thriller, filled with implausibilities. There is, for example, a silly subplot in which one of the male characters disguises himself as a woman for no apparent reason. However, this film deals with the theme of denial in a manner that is both poignant and pointed. To this day, the Turkish government refuses to admit that the genocide happened (no doubt so they won’t have to pay reparations). And our own government refuses to officially acknowledge it happened. (Because Turkey is our ally!)

One hopes that 1915 will create greater awareness of the Armenian genocide.

Lunch with Orson Welles

April 15, 2015

Orson Welles

I just finished reading My Lunches with Orson, which is the most interesting and entertaining book that I have read in a while. From 1983 to 1985, Welles would sometimes have lunch with his friend, Henry Jaglom, at Ma Maison, which at that time was the most fashionable eatery in Los Angeles. Jaglom had Welles’s permission to tape record their conversations. Peter Biskind had these tapes transcribed and then edited them into this book. The result is a treasure. It would be hard to imagine a more ideal lunch companion than Welles, who was both a genius and a raconteur (a rare combination).

The conversations cover a wide range of topics, and Welles gives his opinions on various matters. Among other things we learn that he thought Hitchcock’s American films weren’t very good. (I can just hear the howls of outrage emanating from film schools across the country.) Just as he had strong opinions about films, he had strong opinions about people. (Among those he liked were Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Erich von Stroheim, and Sam Goldwyn. Among those he didn’t like were Irving Thalberg, Woody Allen, Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, Joan Rivers, and John Landis.) The conversations also touch upon Welles’s left-wing political views. One of the book’s more poignant moments occurs when Welles expresses regret over writing a negative review of Ivan the Terrible, because Eisenstein was subsequently persecuted by Stalin.

Welles also discusses his negotiations with producers over various proposed film projects of his. In the final conversations, he seems at wit’s end. His deals have all fallen through. He is in desperate financial straits. He can no longer get commercial work. One suspects that the stress he was under may have contributed to his fatal heart attack. A sad ending, but at least he led a full and rich life.