Ukiyo Double Feature: Yojimbo (1961) and Sprited Away (2001)

For my “Ukiyo” class we had another film assignment: after watching both Yojimbo and Spirited Away, pick one that is conclusively “floating world” in its concept and themes, and participate in a group debate in class in which we defend our choice and shoot down the other film as not indicative of the time period we’re studying. Before I even sat down to watch Yojimbo I knew I’d pick Spirited Away– it’s got the hedonism, escapism, lush visuals, and fleeting aspects that defined “floating world” culture. The debates went well but my professor claims they were both draws. Hah.

Yojimbo tells the tale of a wandering ronin (Toshiro Mifune), aka a samurai who no longer has a lord, who finds himself in the middle of a small-town gang war. Disgusted by the feuding gangs’ immorality and pettiness, he sets a plan to manipulate them into destroying themselves, thus freeing the townspeople from their reign. It’s a good plan, but some problems happen, mostly in the form of Unosuke, an asshole gang member with a penchant for gunslinging. But then, some solutions happen in the form of sword fighting and fire-setting. It’s a western for mid-nineteenth century Japan, and it’s all pretty great. There are several comedic characters as well as a few scary/sadistic ones. The samurai himself is cool and gruff, with no reservations about hacking someone’s arm off as long as it’s someone he knows isn’t very nice. He doesn’t need the pleasures of a courtesan or the bribe of a corrupt silk-maker, all he needs is Justice. In case this is sounding familiar, Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, one of three Kurosawa movies to be turned into spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone (maybe that’s common knowledge and I’m just being overly informative, but I didn’t know about this before so… whatever).

Having never seen either a Kurosawa film or any of Sergio Leone’s westerns, I had very few preconceptions about Yojimbo. I don’t think I could have ever seen it coming, anyway! Everything about it was so… cool. The crisp black and white contrasts, the traditional-meets-hep jazz music, the mash-up outfits and punk-chōnin hairstyles: everything combines to create a wonderful, seemingly anachronistic mood. The face-offs between the gangs were awesome and bloody; why can’t all westerns have swords instead of guns? Much more attention-grabbing. My main criticism is that there are way too many characters, and I had a hard time following who was on which side and who did what thing, etc. Could just have been me, though. Maybe if I watch it again I’ll be able to follow it better. Otherwise, it’s a really fun movie with a great protagonist, cool style, and pretty accurate depictions of small-town life and people in Japan on the eve of the Meiji Era (when it fully opened itself to the West). Unfortunately, the soundtrack is mad expensive.

Well, Spirited Away, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? (Probably not much.) In this modern fairy tale, young Chihiro finds herself torn from her parents and thrown into a world of spirits, demons, witches, dragons, and lots of other things I wish we had in real life. Almost the entire narrative takes place in a large bath house where nature spirits come to rest and replenish. It’s run by the large and squat witch Yubaba, who begrudgingly gives Chihiro a job helping with the baths. Haku, a young sorcerer’s-apprentice-type, befriends her and helps her in her quest to save her parents (who’ve been turned into pigs) and return home. She meets a bunch of interesting and fantastical creatures, helping everybody out with her incorruptibility and stalwartness, and (spoiler alert) is eventually able to go home with her parents, safe and sound. Also, she falls in love.

It’s beautiful and heart-warming, with some life-lessons thrown in. In just a few days, Chihiro grows from a whiny, scaredy-cat brat into a confident, enabled heroine. The stunning visuals and imaginative characters surround her transformation with fun and adventure. Miyazaki is a guy who can consistently make a good movie that’s interesting to both kids and adults, plus he’s given anime films some credibility in Western culture. This movie is great, no doubt about it, but I think Howl’s Moving Castle is my favourite Miyazaki film (probably because it’s more of a love story). I’m not sure what made Spirited Away his big thing in America, but I suspect it has something to do with our girl-caught-in-a-strange-land-just-trying-get-home fixation (eg The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland).

Movie Review: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)

Well, I do so enjoy a movie that looks back to the fashionable- and which-boy-will-she-pick- and what-tune-will-she-sing- stories of a different time. Laden with high fashion (though I wasn’t a fan of this hat), 30’s slang, friendship, and Lee Pace, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day has a lot of things going for it. It tells the story of Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), a newly homeless, unemployed governess who sneaks her way into the position of up-and-coming American stage actress Delysia Lafosse’s (Amy Adams) social secretary. Immediately, she is swept up into Delysia’s whirlwind triple love life: she is dating a young theater producer (Tom Payne) in hopes of scoring a lead role and a successful night club owner (Mark Strong) who funds her lifestyle, while simultaneously she strings along pianist Michael (Lee Pace), the man she loves. Guinevere feels very out of place and out of step in this fast-paced world of secrets and debauchery (the daughter of a minister, she had had a rather sheltered childhood), but her forthrightness, pragmatism, and quick-thinking become of indespensible use to the flighty actress. All in one day she is able to help Delysia sort out her career and romantic problems, give a lingerie designer (Ciaran Hinds) a new perspective on life, plus get a stylish makeover. A strong bond between Guinevere and Delysia is established early on, and the story is sort of told through the focus of female comraderie

Overall it is well-paced and well-acted, but unfortunately it wasn’t as well-developed as it could have been. I go by what a friend said to me when he watched it: It should have been a musical. I felt things moved a bit too fast at parts, and certain characters could have been expanded upon. In musical format the story could have been adjusted and broadened to give more information on people’s backgrounds, and everything would have just generally been better! More costumes, jazzy dance numbers, showing off Amy Adams’ talents (she only sang briefly at the end). It could have been like Miss Pettigrew Is Caught In A Rich Person’s Musical, with the high society folk she meets singing around her about how wonderful and hedonistic life can be, while she is thrown into a chair and looks around in fear and confusion, unsure why these people are singing at her. Yeah. Man what a good idea I just had.

Anyway it was very enjoyable, though nothing particularly special. I’ve never read the book so I don’t know how it compares, but I’ve seen some comments online that the movie had a lot more war-related stuff (there’s an air raid drill), and a generally darker mood than the very light-hearted novel. Also the whole “Let’s have American actors star in a movie about British people” was a little weird, but most of the supporting cast was from the UK. Either way, good times for any fan of love stories, classic comedies, happy endings, and 30’s fashion.

Movie Review: BASEketball (1998)

Don’t listen to what anybody says: This movie is hilarious. In every stupid, infantile, inappropriate, silly way. Directed by David Zucker (you know, the guy who’s gone from making movies like this to making this) and starring Trey Parker and Matt Stone (you know, the guys who made that popular show), it follows two best friends who, fairly ignorant of their own immaturity and unsuccessful lives, invent a game that combines shooting hoops with base-running: Baseketball. Due to its average-joe appeal, it becomes a national phenomenon, and eventually Joe “Coop” Cooper (Trey) and Doug Remer (Matt) become owners of their team, The Beers. They get caught up in a plot by some evil guy (Robert Vaughn) to turn Baseketball into a commercial, money-based game like everything else. Also there are strains on their friendship. Also they like the same lady (Yasmine Bleeth, the worst part of the movie). The fairly simple plot leaves a lot of room for hijinks! And sight gags! And Reel Big Fish appearances!

Though they receive no writing credits, this is a very Trey/Matt kind of movie. I’m pretty sure most of their lines were ad-libbed. The fact that they got a special part written for their friend Dian Bachar also shows how much influence they had over the script. The game of Baseketball includes “psych-outs”, which are defensive tactics a team can take to stop the shooting team from making baskets. Trey and Matt employ a lot of weird and gross psych-outs- hard to explain out of context but really funny in the movie. An added bonus is Jenny McCarthy as the ditzy-but-sexy heir to the Beers team. It is a pretty ridiculous, over-the-top, in many ways offensive movie, but it does not at all expect a lot of thinking to go into watching it. It’s just really fun and underrated, and never fails to make me laugh. Could be because I idolize Trey Parker, but does it really matter why?


Psyched Out“- The Supersuckers
Take On Me“- Reel Big Fish (video)
Warts On Your Dick“- DVDA/Trey and Matt’s band (video- scene from the movie, watch out for Butts)

Movie Review: The Life of Oharu (1952)

Well we might as well let the cat out of the bag here people (what?). I’m an art history major, and as a result I’m taking a fascinating seminar on Ukiyo-e, or “Art of the Floating World” during Edo Period (1615-1868) Japan. We’re covering everything from literature to theater to prints to erotica, so it’s a bit overwhelming but really cool. We have several films to watch as part of the class- either depictions of the time period or influenced by it. The first of which was The Life of Oharu, based on “The Life of an Amorous Woman” (1686) by Saikaku (Japan’s main literary innovator of the time).

First, a bit of background. The text on which this is (loosely) based takes the form of an old woman telling her life story as she moved from occupation to occupation propelled by lust. She slept with hundreds of men, had many abortions, caused some suicides, and ruined several relationships (of other people, that is). She’s shameful of a lot her actions, but also very open and excited about her passion and her experiences. It is pretty sexist but at the same time interesting in its depiction of a strong-willed, very independent working woman, following her desires in the 1600s.

This very long film draws a few exact scenes from the story and has the basic idea of following a woman who sinks lower and lower in her profession until she is an unlicensed prostitute, but the central character and overall tone is completely changed. She is now innocent and reserved, sleeping with many men generally because they force her or as a way of making money (her father is in great debt); nothing is done out of passion. A minor plot about a son she is forced to bear but unable to see is added, eliciting one or two watery eyes from yours truly. The beautiful, careful visuals soften everything even further. Because this pathetic life has been thrust unfairly onto someone so passive, the film is more sympathetic than the book (whose narrator was often self-referentially despicable). It’s also more tied together. The book is more a collection of reminiscences, with little sense of linearity. In the movie we see Oharu age and be affected by her past. She is more relatable, but also more stereotypical.

You can see I have mixed feelings. Saikaku’s story bothered me because of the weird juxtaposition of an independent woman who was misogynist (the result of a sexist man writing a female protagonist, I guess?). The movie bothered me because of how generally passive Oharu is. Overall it’s still a really beautiful film and an interesting glimpse into the position of women in Edo Period Japan. Kinuyo Tanaka’s performance was highly praised, and I was impressed with her ability to portray so many ages and to wholly carry the film despite not having a great amount of dialogue. Plus it won some awards! I think it was the first film from Japan to be internationally acclaimed, or entered in the Venice Film Festival, or some landmark of the sort (anyone who knows the specifics, please tell me). Also Mizoguchi is a pretty prolific, big deal Japanese director so I guess it’s important if your interest is non-Western cinema. Basically, watch it only if you’re into this sort of thing.

Hal Hartley Double Feature: The Girl From Monday (2005) and The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

You all might as well know that I have a pretty serious thing for Hal Hartley films. I don’t know whether it’s the highly choreographed conversations, the puzzling character motivations, the liberating musical scores, the frequently re-appearing actors, the grainy cinematography, or the way everything seems to work out, but not really, and how each story seems like it still has so many places to go. I’m sure it’s some combination of everything. His films affect me like no one else’s, and I can’t compare them to anything. Continuing my journey through his collection of movies and shorts, the other day I settled on The Girl From Monday, his most recent before Fay Grim and his only foray into science fiction. It’s also his least well-liked, if IMDB ratings are any indication.

Shot in loose, blurry, hand-held format, The Girl From Monday has an anxious, uncertain mood that’s perpetuated by the ambiguity and confusion of the plot. Set in a not-too-distant future where people are considered stocks and everyone has a barcode tattooed on their arms (showcasing their status as consumers), the story is narrated by Jack (Bill Sage), the inventor of this human-based market. People sleep with each other to increase their personal value, making sex for pleasure odd and “barbaric”. All pretty Brave-New-World-ish. Jack is feeling uncomfortable with the world he’s helped create and ends up secretly leading “Counter-Revolutionaries”, mostly teens who are anti-consumerism and pro-sex-for-fun. He ends up dragging coworker and crush Cecile (Sabrina Loyd) into their illegal activity. Simultaneously, a strange and beautiful woman (Tatiana Abracos, in her only film role to date) appears and ends up staying with Jack. She helps him unlock some buried secrets of his past and also enacts a subplot about alien life.

Overall it’s entertaining, funny, and has a good cast. The experimental cinematography was a little off-putting but interesting. The story was kind of shoddy, but the concepts were good. I can see why this is one of his lesser films, but at the same time it still satisfied my need for Hartleyesque storytelling.


Finding myself with some time on my hands after The Girl From Monday, I decided to follow it up with another Hartley movie, one of my favourites: The Unbelievable Truth. His first film, it follows serious, ex-con-turned-automechanic Josh Hutton (Robert John Burke) as he tries to start a new life in his old town, surrounded by people who think he’s a mass murderer. Meanwhile, Audry Hugo (Adrienne Shelly) is a highly intelligent, gorgeous high school senior with constant fears of world wide nuclear destruction. She starts to fall for Josh but is thrown off by his alleged past and by her father’s threats against the relationship. Eventually she ends up working successfully as a model to make money for college as Josh grapples with his inexperience with women, among other things. Various characters interact and intersect, truths are revealed, deals are made, conversations are repeated, and everything is pretty swell.

This movie is awesome. Unfortunately it is a little bittersweet as each viewing of it re-awakens my sadness over Adrienne Shelly’s death. Also when will it be released on DVD already? Sheesh. Not that I don’t love watching the trailer for Black Magic Woman on my VHS copy (seriously, it is pretty damn hilarious- just look at the tagline), but come on guys. Let’s give Hal Hartley some high-quality, extras-ridden love.