Film Review: Uzumasa Limelight (2014, dir. Ken Ochiai)

Uzumasa-NewKeyartReview by Jay Clarke

Let’s get right to it: Uzumasa Limelight should be better than it is. The premise is strong—the film centers around the “kirareyaku,” unsung actors whose job is to be killed by the lead in “jidaigeki” (samurai pictures) filmed in Uzumasa, affectionately called the “Hollywood of Japan.” We follow Seiichi Kamiyama (played by real-life kirareyaku, Seizo Fukumoto, who has appeared in hundreds of films) as he deals with a dwindling public desire for the movies in which he specializes and a younger generation of actors threatening to force him out.

Fukumoto is a wizened reed of a man, lithe and powerful even in his seventies. As the stoic Kamiyama, we see him practice swordsmanship and his death throes in the dust while other actors leave for the nearest sake bar. He’s a craftsman, a niche artist (only in Japan would a type of artistry form around those who perpetually die) but like Calvero in Chaplin’s “Limelight,” which this movie is loosely inspired by, time is pushing Kamiyama out of the game. For now, there’s just pats-on-the-back from his fellow actors who alone recognize the reverence due men like him.

Kamiyama is approached by the beautiful Satsuki Iga (Chihiro Yamamoto), a young “shidashi” or extra for the studio. Satsuki is from Uzumasa (Kyoto) and appreciates and loves the history of the studio. She persuades Kamiyama to teach her how to fight with a sword (see “Karate Kid,” “Million Dollar Baby,” etc.) so that she can get better parts. What follows is the beginning of what ultimately hampers the movie to the end—sentimentality and plot twists that we’ve seen before.

Satsuki and Kamiyama work out in montage until Satsuki slowly works her way up the ladder and finally gets a chance to step into the limelight. Her nerves nearly get the best of her but Kamiyama of course steps in, reminds her who she is and what she’s done to earn this chance, and from there she finds her steel and becomes a big star on her own. Kamiyama is edged out of his job and forced to work at a theme park but even that is threatened to be cancelled. Finally, he and the old crew are asked to come out of retirement for one last movie starring a returning Satsuki who demands that Kamiyama play the villain, that is, that he die one more time on film.

None of this is bad in and of itself, but we are delivered what to feel on a plate. The best definition I’ve heard between sentimentality and sentiment (what we’re shooting for in art) is that sentimentality is the representation of a certain emotion and sentiment is feeling the emotion itself. We do get those moments of true sentiment here—the stunning jump-cut between the falling septuagenarian Kamiyama to him as a young man falling back in his first filmed moment is a powerful way to show how Kamiyama’s past is very much his present; the sobs wracking his emaciated body in front of the dressing room mirror is perhaps the emotional highlight of the whole film. But these are scattered among a lot of meaningful looks, earnest handshakes and static characterizations.

It’s hard not to play the “cultural difference” card here, but I imagine a Japanese audience raised on “jidaigeki” might feel an historical resonance, a nod to the honorable old Japan, when Kamiyama comes back for one last go. Just as an American audience can’t help but feel the echoes of past westerns (and by extension, that old nagging nostalgia for the “American West”) when, in the vastly superior Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s William Munny rides back into town to kick Little Bill’s butt. Then again, Eastwood is the lead in all his movies and is no stranger to the limelight.


Film Review: The Kingdom of Dreams & Madness (2013, dir. Mami Sunada)

The_Kingdom_of_Dreams_and_Madness-661557653-large[The Kingdom of Dreams & Madness screens on Saturday Dec. 6 & Tuesday Dec. 9 at Whitsell Auditorium. Both screenings are at 7pm. Tickets here.]

Review by Jay Clarke

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Mami Sunada’s documentary about director Hayao Miyazaki and famed animation house Studio Ghibli, is not totally unlike a famous Basho haiku. Indulge me here. The haiku reads as follows:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in –
The sound of the water.

It’s an easy metaphor but apt for a documentary that seems to be for the Ghibli obsessive alone but then slowly ripples out to tackle much larger subjects—the conflict between old friends, the pain and process of creation, the burden of history and the dour state of the modern world. If the movie was intended as a long advertisement or career pat-on-the-back for Ghibli and Miyazaki, it fails miserably. There’s far too much humanity (read: duplicity, frustration, jealousy, career exhaustion, doubt, moments of hard-earned beauty) to pitch the movie as a sop for longtime fans. As an honest look inside an animation powerhouse and a creative genius, warts and all, it scores high points.

Ghibli is a famously insular world. Early on, the film appears content to keep its distance and respectfully show the working life and relationship between director Miyazaki, producer Toshio Suzuki and the nearly 400 animators, lawyers and staff that have helped make Ghibli an international power. The film closely follows the creation of The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s historical biopic about Jiro Horikoshi, the controversial creator of Japan’s WWII Zero fighter plane. As storyboards are drawn and colored ad infinitum, voice talent put through their paces, plot points worried over like beads, Miyazaki slowly reveals himself as a difficult, emotional philosopher, a kind of wise trickster, a child with a thousand yard stare. A great artist, essentially. He stops by the children’s nursery everyday and says things like “it’s the children that keep me going.” He muses if a distant rooftop could be jumped over, if a tree branch will break under his weight should he climb it and then, seemingly without any dissonance in his own mind, if the world will end soon and how. “I don’t ever feel happy in my daily life,” he says near the end, ever-present cigarette in hand.

Call it beginner’s mind, call it the curse of the cynical dreamer or a perfect example of a man who embodies negative capability. Miyazaki is a fascinating character full of wild contradictions (making a sympathetic movie about the creator of the Zero while being a staunch anti-war activist is only the tip of the iceberg). It is fitting that Miyazaki’s retirement announcement begins “I hope to work for ten more years.” His method is not so much to confound as it is to allow the plus and minus, the shadow and the light, to exist at the same time. And his films show it. But there is a lot of grey area in that philosophy and it’s not always easy to work within.

Miyazaki’s dedication to his craft says one thing very clear: despite the muck and dreck of life, there is the possibility to continue on, to do the best one can, to finish what one sets about doing and maybe, in the end, that is precisely what life is for. In this way, the film is, and I never thought I’d say this with a straight face, inspirational. Miyazaki talks openly about the void left in his country after Fukushima, the blows taken by Japan’s continued economic recession and the scars still visible from its sustained madness in the ’30s and ’40s, and yet, he works everyday but Sunday from 11am to 9pm. I can’t go on, I’ll go on indeed.

Maybe it’s from years of seeing that permanent rictus grin on all things Disney and their ilk, but you stop expecting too much when the curtain finally gets pulled back on any kind of studio, especially a studio that trucks in a child’s dreams. But children, like adults, want the truth more than anything. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness says the truth here is simple: some studios simply want to inflate their profit margins and some studios want to create art.

Film Review: Pulp: A Film About Life, Death, and Supermarkets (2014, dir. Florian Habicht)

PULP_One_Sheet[Pulp is screening at the Hollywood Theater on Wednesday Nov. 19th at 9:30pm]

Review by Robert Ham

With the unprecedented amount of information available online about our favorite bands and artists, I believe we’re going to start seeing more documentaries like Pulp, films that are less blow-by-blow histories and more impressionistic portraits of these musicians and groups. And, in many cases, that’s going to provide enough information and color and flashes of insight to shade in the edges of the story.

What gets left out of Pulp though is the most interesting parts of the band’s story: the long, slow build of fan base and critical interest that eventually exploded with the release of their chart-topping single “Common People,” then the slow decline and breakup followed by a successful run of reunion tour dates.

Instead, we catch Pulp at the very end of their run, with the last show the band will likely ever play, staged at the arena in their Sheffield hometown. And rather than use the city to tell the band’s story, we get little bits and pieces of their pre-and-post success lives: the last big show they played at home before decamping to London, the frustration everyone felt in the wake of the Different Class juggernaut, and their confusion at the idea of trying to put the band back together after a decade apart.

Habicht, who worked on the concept for Pulp with Jarvis Cocker, give the majority of the film over to the people in and around Sheffield: a gaggle of hardcore fans waiting outside the arena on the day of the gig, a chubby newsagent, two choirs of female vocalists, a dance troupe who perform a synchronized routine to the tune of “Disco 2000,” and even a pair of young kids reacting to the band’s music for the first time. Even though almost all discuss Pulp in some manner, Habicht spends far more time letting them wax philosophic about the subjects in the film’s subtitle.

The film is rich with lovely shots of the city, charming little interviews, and a fair amount of concert footage from the last date. But it still doesn’t feel like enough. Even a longtime fan like myself knows that there’s far more to the history of Pulp than the little pieces we are given here. Pulp doesn’t feel made for people like me or folks looking to get converted to the cause. This was intended for those folks sitting around the Sheffield Motorpoint Arena or the woman in the swimming pool bragging about her homemade Pulp underwear or anyone else who still worships at the band’s altar even now that they have vanished again.

DVD Review: A Summer’s Tale (1996, dir. Eric Rohmer)

MV5BMjE3MjUyMDAwOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjM4MTk4MTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_[A Summer’s Tale is now available on DVD via Big World Pictures]

Review by Jay Clarke

It’s hard to imagine a movie more apparently unassuming than Eric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale (released in France in 1996, coming to DVD in the US on November 18). Walks are taken, the sun shines, meals are eaten, a guitar is strummed, a bit of drama finally rises up but then falls beneath the waves. It feels less like a movie and more like a breezy conversation you’ve accidentally walked in on.

And so it would be easy to assume that the third of Rohmer’s “Tales of the Four Seasons” has little to it beyond the sun-blasted sand and rolling grass hills of the northwest French coast. Like most of Rohmer’s work however, there are always deeper forces just below the surface—the struggle of identity, of male and female relationships, of owning one’s own desire, of honor, fate and circumstance.

Gaspard (Melvil Poupard), a recent graduate in mathematics and an aspiring musician, arrives at a seaside Breton town for a quick vacation and to meet his sort-of girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin). While waiting for the flighty object of his desire, Gaspard befriends a local waitress, Margot (Amanda Langlet, making a return appearance after Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach), who makes it clear she is interested in Gaspard’s friendship but nothing more. Margot suggests that Gaspard pursue Soléne, a sensual, direct woman who is interested in Gaspard but only if he commits to her exclusively. When Lena finally shows up, Gaspard is forced to decide among the three women. Margot is the best choice for him, the only one that lets him truly be himself, but because she is devoted to her absent boyfriend and because he refuses to take any chance without assurances, their obvious attraction goes unfulfilled.

And that’s basically it. No gnashing of teeth, no rending of clothes. These are smart, young people with more life ahead of them than behind. No reason to get so worked up over the opposite sex. Still, there’s a creeping suspicion that despite their age and the seemingly endless possibilities that their lives could take, the walls are slowly closing in. At one point, in tears, Lena says to Gaspard “I am not prepared to give anyone, anyone at all, the slightest bit of my freedom.” While Lena comes off as self-centered and outright cruel, she’s speaking here to a fear each woman shares—men will try to control them because they cannot control themselves.

If there’s a grand theme in the movie, and it was a grand theme in much of Rohmer’s work, it’s that men do not take risks. They do not offer all and because they want a contingency plan for love, they are ultimately cowards. Of course, this stings the romantic Gaspard. He wants to live by honor and truth but doesn’t see how his indecision has created his fate. Ah, but he’s young and there’s time. With the easy passing of each day, Rohmer seems to say that yes, there is still time, right until time runs out.

Film Review: David Bowie Is (2014, dir. Hamish Hamilton & Katy Mullan)

w610[David Bowie Is screens at Hollywood Theatre, Tuesday Nov. 18th at 9:30pm]

Review by Robert Ham

David Bowie Is isn’t so much a movie as a feature-length commercial for the exhibit of the same name, first presented at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and now traveling around the world, that celebrates the life, career, and art of the titular chameleonic pop star.

That would be fantastic if the exhibit were coming anywhere near Portland. Or if this were a comprehensive documentary exploring all facets of Bowie’s long career in the music, film, and fashion world. As it stands, this is just a tantalizing teaser.

What this does wind up doing is stoking the fires for any longtime fan of the former David Jones, wending in TV footage, first person declarations of wonder by visitors to the original run of the exhibit as well as folks like Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker and fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto, and little glimpses of the multimedia work that went into bringing “David Bowie Is” to reality.

From the look of what they put together for the exhibit, David Bowie Is might just inspire you to get a plane ticket for the Chicago opening. The curators did an amazing job of touching on all corners of Bowie’s life and work: from baby photos to early footage of the future superstar discussing men with long hair on British TV to many original and recreated iconic outfits from throughout his career to even a glass-encased modular synth that he used during his Berlin period.

The exhibit looks borderline overwhelming. But as the film shows, around every corner is another tantalizing bit of cloth, paper, sound or vision that will have fans drooling with desire. David Bowie Is does what it can to wrap it all up in a nice, neat, easy to swallow package, and comes as close as anyone to offering up the museum experience without filming each step of the way for a slow, 5+ hour experience. There are folks that might go for that, as there are folks that will be heading to the Windy City soon enough. This film is for them, not for the casual fan with a dusty CD copy of ChangesBowie in the back of their closet.

Film Review: The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music (2014, dir. Beth Harrington)

FINAL_POSTER_150ppiReview by Jay Clarke

Very early in Beth Harrington’s excellent documentary, The Winding Stream, the singer and songwriter Joe Ely says, “people should know who [the Carter Family] are just like they should know who the first president of the United States is.” By the end of the movie, it’s hard to quibble with the assessment. The Carter Family (originally A.P., his wife Sara and her cousin Maybelle) are arguably the very foundation of country music. Their story and ancestors wind through the history of the form.

A.P., Sara and Maybelle’s career begins as a casual outfit playing songs, but A.P.’s ambition and feverish collecting of local tunes pushes the family to greater exposure. Small local shows quickly blossom into cutting sides, traveling to Texas to play on the famous border radio station XERA, and then suffering the usual side effects of being on the road—losing touch with family, home and one another.

Often in music documentaries there is an imbalance in the historical perspective of the artist. Too many famous people paying their respects can turn the tone sycophantic—too many first cousins talking about the old weathered house where they used to play cards and the movie begins to drag. Luckily for Harrington, the Carter Family is so influential and their reach so vast, that many of the “family” interviewed in the movie are famous themselves.

Case in point, Johnny Cash, who married into the family via Maybelle Carter’s daughter, June. To hear Cash’s high opinion of his adopted family and to see him play these old songs with June and their son and daughter is worth the price of admission alone. Through Cash and others, one gets the sense of a long line of talented artists and their importance to the history of music. Harrington is smart enough to step out of the way and let the music and the history tell the tale.

What we’re left with in the end is a fine balance between the life and the art, how they suffered, how they played and finally, how the music redeemed them. A great doc, expertly handled with exceptional music throughout.

[The Winding Stream screens at 5:30pm on Saturday, Nov. 15th @ Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave.]

DVD Review: Canibal (2013, dir. Manuel Martín Cuenca)

Can_bal-734061513-largeThe most unsettling part of any horror film are those scenes when nothing much is happening onscreen. It’s already been established that terrible things are going to take place; it’s the waiting for them to occur that really sends the cold chill up the spine.

That is why, although not a great movie, Canibal still kept me rapt through every last minute of the inaction. Like all folks who grew up watching horror and suspense films, I kept leaning forward anticipating when the big bloody moment was going to happen. That it never actually occurs only left me feeling tense and tingly for a while afterwards. Once that went away, that’s when I was able to see the flaws in this beautifully presented, but ultimately empty film.

The cannibal of the title is Carlos, a (of course) quiet, reserved, nattily attired gent who, when he’s not hunting fresh game or lovingly preparing his meat in his spotless kitchen, works as a tailor in the Spanish city of Granada. We watch him go through his obviously well-honed routines, whether it’s pulling apart the seams of a suit or waiting patiently by a remote gas station for his next female victim. What we don’t see is the action of him carving up the body. All the gruesome stuff happens off screen.

His routine is interrupted by his sexy upstairs neighbor (Olympia Melinte). Carlos is obviously attracted to her, but doesn’t know what to do with his feelings, even when she is in his apartment outwardly flirting with him in the guise of seeking help after she has a loud argument. He, instead, offers a ride to the police station, a trip that she never returns from.

Into Carlos’ world arrives Nina, the twin sister of his neighbor (also Melinte), a mousier but no less alluring version of the object of his lust. He again offers to help but initially in hopes of just getting rid of her. But as her story and his begin to get more intertwined, Carlos is faced with confronting some unnamed demons that might be the cause of his unusual penchant for human flesh.

Unlike most cinematic cannibals, Carlos (played with nice understatement by Almodovar alum Antonia De La Torre) isn’t outwardly evil. We only actually see him commit a few horrific acts. The nasty side of him stays completely subjugated. But, again, that’s what keeps you on edge through the whole movie. Having been inured to the actions of Hannibal Lecter and his clones, you anticipate he’s going to snap. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that that moment never comes in Canibal.

Despite De La Torre’s efforts to give this character a beating heart, though, I don’t see how anyone could sympathize with him either. In fact, there’s no one in this picture worth rooting for. You may not want to see Nina get hurt, but she offers no personality traits that you’d want to preserve either. Instead, the movie becomes a slow-paced, beautifully-shot waiting game, as you look for the big dramatic moment that will turn everything on its head. And if you’re anything like me, when it does come, you’ll be terribly underwhelmed.

[DVD available from Film Movement]