[Screenshot]This is certainly a self-consciously arty film. Like many Japanese dramatic films, it brings to bear a fair number of stage dramatic conventions which I’m not deeply familiar with, so certain nuances of expression (and of course of language) might have been lost on me, but nonetheless it was impressively presented; it was very long but never felt like it was dragging, laying its story out in a way that left me anticipating its (rather gruesome) revelations and conclusion. It’s very much a period drama, but unlike the many (mostly Kurosawa) films of the feudal period, this one is set in the Edo period, with a strong consciousness of social change, evidenced both in the crumbling of the great houses which forms the primary dramatic backdrop for the story, and the technological change presaged by the appearance of firearms.

It’s a beautiful film, with stark cinematography and dramatic contrasts of shade in the set design; the most obvious criticism that can be leveled at it is that, like so many of its artistic peers, it runs quite long. The story is ultimately pretty slight, spun out in detail which although gorgeous occasionally gets a little narratively thin, and although it’s never dull it does tend towards a certain languidity, lingering on a particularly striking setting or bit of acting. But if you don’t mind a certain leisureliness of pcing, there is enough here that you won’t feel like your time’s been wasted.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Zorba the Greek

[Screenshot]Zorba the Greek seems like one of those films everyone has a vague idea about but nobody has actually seen. I knew it involved Greece and Anthony Quinn dancing the sirtaki to a well-known tune which has since been reused pretty much any time a film director needed a tune to set an appropriately Greek mood. Based on this very limited information, I kind of expected a story with Those Wacky Greeks teaching us all to love life and whatnot, a preconception the Netflix blurb didn’t disabuse me of.

So, with that background information, you might not be surprised (if you actually know the film) to learn that I found actually watching it to be pretty bleak. While the designated Wacky Greek does have the whole loving-life-in-adversity thing running as a theme, an awful lot of the running time is devoted to the drama of horrible island people doing awful things, and my overarching impression was less “oh, those Greeks, how joyously trangressive they are” than “damn, Greek villagers are assholes”. To its credit, it’s actually a quite well-done film, even if it’s not what I expected at all. Anthony Quinn shows a considerable range within his lunatic characterization, when all is told, and Alan Bates likewise shows a reasonable expressiveness, although his character never quite came to life for me. Most of the other actors are incidental: Kedrova is the only other notable speaking part, and doesn’t display much subtlety, but really it stands pretty much entirely on the strength of the two main characters. Other cinematic aspects I’m vaguer on, since the older a film is, the less I’m able to assess its cinematography. Certainly nothing jumped out as problematic, and the sets were appropriately evocative of the right atmosphere (not wholly surprising, since it was shot on location).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.


[Screenshot]I saw a trailer for this at the front of a completely different movie (I completely forget which one), and it seemed like it might be interesting, so I enqueued.

It’s structurally quite competent, laid out in a series of interlocking vignettes, and there’s some pretty decent acting: Chazz Palminteri particularly does a nuanced job, and the comparatively obscure Jessica Chastain held up the lead role respectably. The other actors do a decent job with what are honestly rather cartoonish characters.

It’s hard to know what to make of the story thematically, though. It’s a downer of a story, and wanders into strange, skeevy areas with regard to gender and agency. In several of the early vignettes it’s hard to tell whether Jolene is an innocent victim of the (mostly male, although women not of Jolene’s generation also get to be malicious on several occasions) predators in her life or whether she consciously embraces her own destruction. I found myself constantly troubled by the lack of agency she exhibited, drifting passively into other people’s circles; the only case where she takes an instigatory role is the episode with Coco. But further into the story her lack of control over her fate seems to become a theme: she actively resists entanglement with Brad, and ends up getting horrifically fucked over anyways.

I’m focusing on themes because they were what stood out the most for me. The story itself kind of wanders and never really picks up speed, and the cinematography doesn’t really make it pop except early on when it embraced a late-60s/early-70s aesthetic. Apropos of that, the chronology of the film’s a bit tricky to get a handle on: we have a number of markers firmly mooring the different segments in different times and places, from the early-70s beginning to the end which signals certain “mid-90s” elements, and I’m not sure how well the timeline actually fits. Really, in spite of its many virtues of design, Jolene is a little bit drab and doesn’t really stick firmly in one’s mind. I’m a bit curious about the source novel now, but this is a film very little of which, I fear, is really going to stay with me (and indeed now, months later, finishing this review, very little seems memorable).

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Giulia non esce la sera

[Screenshot]I’m not entirely certain how this ended up in my queue. I have a lot of films like that. But I did my best to get into it, and partially succeeded. This is rather a film that keeps the viewer at arm’s length: Guido’s motivation and character are rather opaque, in spite of the glimpses of his psyche we get through his story-writing. On account of his somewhat inscrutable character, it’s hard to get much of a read on his wife either: it’s clear there’s no chemistry any more, but I never got a feel for the cause and effect between Guido’s infidelity and the cooling of his marriage (or, indeed, whether I was supposed to view his infidelity as particularly a character flaw). Some of this may be cultural: Eurpoeans have historically, and to a certain extent still do, take a different attitude towards the nature of a household which makes something like, say, Guido refusing to move at the same time as the rest of his family, seem a bit less bizarre.

There are definitely some tender moments in the story, particularly involving Guido’s attitudes towards his daughter and her boyfriend, which I found appealing. I liked the interplay between Guido’s creative endeavors and his real-world interactions, and the satirical look at the literary world as a whole was a nice sidelight. Unfortunately in the end almost all these interesting elements are dwarfed by Giulia’s drama, and the last half of the story, in spite of its dramatic tension, never quite felt as engaging as the earlier section where Guido felt more human and more involved with his world as a whole (on the other hand, maybe his withdrawal from his former interests was the whole point, and I missed it completely.

Technically the film was competent, making use of cinematically motivated shot framing and lighting; it’s a bit too fond of blue-tones but is clearly trying to keep the camerawork and lighting fundamentally aesthetic. I always have trouble assessing the expressiveness of actors not speaking English, so I’m not too clear on the acting potential.

See also: IMDB.

עיניים פקוחות/Eyes Wide Open

[Screenshot]More Israeli cinema, and a return to Orthodox Jews and their conflicting emotions about troublesome guests. This time, though, the trouble is homoerotic.

I seem to end up watching a fair amount of queer cinema, so it’ll probably surprise my readers to learn that I haven’t watched Brokeback Mountain, without which (as I understand it) I’m unlikely to actually get any film about restrained, clandestine homosexuality made in the last several years. With that having been said, I’ll admit I’m not sure I entirely got this film. It seemed to go from point A to B to C to D with a minimum of fuss, which may well keep things uncomplicated but also seems to raise questions about motivations. We go from Aaron’s sympathy for a charity case to open sexual tension so quickly that it’s difficult to see what makes either of our heroes tick, or what they see in each other. There’s no real sense of rapport, and likewise, once they acknowledge their feelings, it seems that we miss the most critical dramatic element, which would be Aaron’s internal conflict. Everything we have seen in the story so far suggests he should be tormented, and yet he only actually becomes upset when an external threat to his happiness appears. Maybe this is all meant to emphasize his reserve, but I’m not sure the acting is nuanced enough to get that point across.

Apropos of the final linear-plot-element, the (unnamed, as far as I know) community of Jerusalem where the events of this film take place turns startlingly ugly awfully fast. We get to see them being moralistic assholes in a non-homosexuality-related context first, but we hadn’t gotten even a hint of this particular social dynamic until the last half-hour. I wasn’t thrilled with this urn of events: even if it is an accurate depiction of the reception a revealed gay relationship receives in Orthodox communities (which I am not entirely sure about) it seems to dilute the cultural message to have the stones thrown by other people rather than by Aaron’s own psyche. Our heroes don’t come across as terribly complex, and that cheapens what might have been a distinctive voice in the gay-awakening-and-conflict-with-local-culture genre.

Cinematically, it’s a quite well-crafted work; shots are deliberately composed but not pretentiously so, and there are some effective tricks of light and shadow that serve to impart an often oppressive air to the scenes. The localization was rather imperfect, though, with some dialogue (and all prayer/singing) left unsubtitled, which was rather to the film’s detriment. I’d describe it overall as a technically accomplished work which is unfortunately treading well-worn ground with its plot and themes and bringing very little new to the table.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

巌窟王/Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, full series

[Screenshot]A lot of basic information about this series was written up in my review of the first four episodes and then my review of the next four episodes. I’m stepping back from partial-series reviews these days because they leave me with less and less to say by the end. Certainly this series is no exception. The visual style continues to be fantastic and somewhat unnerving: it really is a love-it-or-hate-it effect for the most part. The use of textures is getting steadily less restrained near the end of the series, with more garish and violent combinations of texture and color. That may (or may not) be intentional. I was mildly disappointed by the increasing role of CG effects in the later parts of the series, though: as background decoration they’re brilliant, but as foreground elements they clash badly with the texture-wackiness. Also, the CG gives them an excuse (or perhaps an obligation) to do mecha battles, which I at least could have done without.

The Japanese dub is quite good; the American dub is passable modulo some peculiar design decisions: there is one character who always speaks in French in the original dub, and his dialogue is translated to English the same as everyone else’s in the American dub. While the original decision was a bit peculiar (having exactly one character speak in French, uncommented on by everyone else, in a story set in a futuristic France in which everyone else speaks Japanese is more than a little peculiar).

So, I’ve gone over the technical aspects, but I’m not sure what to say about the plot. It’s deeply divergent from the original story, which is not necessarily a problem: it’s a pastiche built over the characters and motivations of the original work, changing things liberally to fit the story desired (Franz is a much larger character than in the novel; most of the Morrels are absent completely and the few who remain have a considerably diminished role). Peppo, who I adored in the first four episodes, remains lamentably underused, but reamis a ray of sunshine occasionally brought out to play. The final showdown between Morcerf and Dantes felt weak and a bit problematic, but much that led up to it was in fact excellent.

I’d cautiously recommend this one — up to episode 17 it is absolutely fantastic, and from there on it depends a bit much on flashy CGI and lets the plot grind down, but even up to the 22nd episode it remains riveting and interesting. The last two episodes are a bit of a mess, but not in, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion territory. If you liked Dumas’s novel but not so much that you see a disordered recapitulation of its themes and characters as a travesty, then you might well like this series as I did.

However, the easiest test is just to watch the first episode. If the art style puts you off, no amount of intrigue and drama will really counter that. If you find the art fascinating or alluring, it’s probably worth your time at least for the first half.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

Brighton Rock

[Screenshot]Interesting news: there’s a new adaptation of Brighton Rock coming out this year. I basically had no idea, and watched this 40s classic without any particular intent of being relevant. It’s one of a great many lesser-known Greene adaptations, but arguably in the top tier of those (with, say, The Ministry of Fear, This Gun for Hire, and, if we’re feeling particularly charitable, the unfortunate 1958 version of The Quiet American). Atmospherically, this film definitely works: there is the darkness of noir and the bright cheeriness of the seaside town coexisting in the same film harmoniously, and reflecting the Brighton of a bygone day. Even as an adaptation it’s quite good: Greene was involved in the production, so it’s faithful to his vision and mostly to his words — no Mankiewicz butchery here! Where it falls down, in my estimation, is in casting: this work basically succeeds or fails entirely on the ability of Pinky to convincingly emote his character, and rising star Richard Attenborough, despite his later brilliance, would not quite fit the bill here. He was a mite too old even at the time for the youthful gangster, and his costuming and manner didn’t actually help matters. While the sadistic element came through in full force, it seems vital to the character and themes that Pinky be elementally innocent and derive his cruelty from that well, and Attenborough isn’t even trying to be innocent, just vicious.

That having been said, the supporting actors fit their roles comfortably. Where Attenborough fails, Carol Marsh succeeds, with an innocence that makes you want to slap her silly combined with an unguarded craftiness; likewise Hermione Baddeley comes across nicely as a character with a strong sense of justice but not anyone you’d actually enjoy spending time with.

Oddly, many of the Catholic themes seemed to get lost in the shuffle; both of the Catholic characters are terrified of sex in the original work, and this motivates much of their relationship. But sex is notably absent from the film; yes, it may have been the 40s, but surely there was a way to slip those themes in edgewise, as prominent as they were in the original work. It’s not even particularly clear in this adaptation that Pinky’s Catholic. Rose’s Catholicism comes across loud and clear, and of course they include that fantastic, conflicted line about the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God, but all the same, Catholicism seems to loom much less large than it seems like it ought to, in spite of the extent to which it’s hammered in the last five minutes.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.