Review: Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Still Walking” (2008)

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Still Walking Hiroshi Abe Yui Natsukawa Koreeda

It’s often thought that the best way to create a film — or any work of art, really — is really to write drama: to craft a conflict, first, and then deal with its natural outgrowths. In most cases, however, this is quite backwards, for true ‘adult’ drama begins not with the energies immanent to it, but to their architects: that is, people, and all the little details, the sums and parts, that help make such energies real. In this way, drama is not a thing that merely happens, but is demanded by the specifics of character, and feels almost inevitable. Few films have shown this better than Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, a work that begins and terminates with its characters, whose whims, personal beliefs, quirks, and mannerisms not only build their conflict, but come to justify it as well.

The film’s narrative follows a day in the Yokoyama family, a (subtly) needling clan not privy to the extent of their own destructiveness, and their shared mistakes. It opens with vistas of an anonymous town as a couple of guitars play (from Japan’s GONTITI) and domestic scenes unfold. These include food preparations — less for a meinichi, we’ll come to learn, than a bitter, self-serving ritual that simply recapitulates their own problems — small-talk between the aging mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), and her daughter, You (Chinami Kataoka), that lulls that viewer into a sense of complacency that will soon be dispersed; and, most interesting of all, shots of Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), the film’s doctor and patriarch, seen in one of the film’s only tender moments as he laughs with a patient. Now, it may be impossible to tell just yet, but this is a clue that he’s not so much aloof as he is aloof from his own family, for reasons we’ll come to know and others never stated.

Kyohei’s role in this dynamic is evident early on, in one the film’s most arresting shots. One sees the parents’ son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), his wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), Yukari’s son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), You, and her husband, talking to one another as Kyohei enters, unseen by the viewer, but clearly there given the family’s sudden — perhaps even fearful — reaction. It is a great acting moment and one that encapsulates the talent of pretty much everyone involved, subtly taking cues from each other and responding to them. The group immediately moves to bow, yet Ryota merely looks on with an aloofness that Kyohei returns. This is not really spiteful, merely proof that the relationship is at its end, with the rest of the film focused not so much on how it unravels — for it’s already quite unraveled, in interactions we do not see but can guess at — but on new insights into the same basic conflicts that must have trended through their lives for much too long.

Thus, there are no massive revelations, no melodramatic secrets that are uncovered to help the … Continue reading →

Woody Allen’s Women: How He Got Them, Kept Them, & Got Some More

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Woody Allen's Women Diane Keaton Mia Farrow Mariel Hemingway Mia Sorvino Samantha Morton Scarlett Johansson Winona Ryder
Let us pretend, for a second, that Woody Allen’s worst feminist detractors are right. Let’s pretend that he’s written too many manipulative women, too many heart-breakers, and too many ditzes to ever be comfortably on ‘their’ side. What then? What does this say of Allen’s oeuvre as a whole, and Allen as the progenitor of such? And, more importantly, is there any evidence of these things to begin with?

Well, there is, partly because one can find almost anything in a complex film if one searches hard enough, and partly because — as Dan Schneider argues — there is an odd tinge of “loathing” underneath it all, wherein Woody Allen’s women fight, cheat, steal, or even lust after a man too old and too manipulative to ever be fair game. At times, this is even played off for comic effect, although the irony is, of course, that there is always someone (even if not Allen) imagining himself in such a position, and tries to be precisely that. Yet assertions without numbers are a hard sell, and have gotten many a critic into trouble with such ‘frills’ as evidence. So, how does one gauge how true the claims are? How does one even measure how good or bad a female Allen character really is? The latter is easily answered: with one’s eyes. Allen’s characters all have motivations and behaviors, for good or ill, and it is up to the viewer — and not a film book, or a theorist — to untangle them. As for the numbers? Let us merely take, for the sake of this thought-experiment, a tally of those who might be OK’d by a feminist reading, and those that will simply never be.

Woody Allen's Women Diane Keaton Annie Hall

Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, perhaps the most famous of Woody Allen’s women.

Allen’s early films are none-too-fertile ground for such an analysis since they are, without question, more gag-driven than character dependent. Yet even here, one sees Allen’s desire to invert Hollywood tropes, and even play rough with gender stereotypes. Many of these women, for instance, simply reject Woody’s advances, or otherwise poke fun at him. Nancy (Louise Lasser) from Bananas wants nothing to do with a rote, passionless ‘weakling’ like Fielding Mellish; Louise (Janet Margolin) from Take the Money and Run is almost beyond analysis, given how steadfast she is, and without reason; and the Diane Keaton/Allen ‘troika’ of SleeperPlay It Again, Sam, and Love and Death has the male lead chasing her, and often losing her. Sure, one sees Boris (Love and Death) already bed a woman well beyond his means, but one also sees some interesting inversions in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*, especially the last sketch, wherein the woman is the aggressor, and a priest represents male “Catholic guilt”, to balance out some of the less flattering depictions of women. One cannot, at any rate, get what’s necessary here — at least not for our purposes.

Allen’s first glimpse … Continue reading →

Film Review Of Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine” (2007)

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Secret Sunshine Lee Chang-dong Jeon Do-yeon Korean Film Review

The great ending to Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine…or rather, what would have been the ending proper.

Having re-watched 2007’s much-lauded Secret Sunshine, one can’t help but draw comparisons between Korea’s Lee Chang-dong and Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, not only in their style — realistic, character-driven dramas on a variety of themes — but also in the disconnect between their most-loved films (at least back at home) and their best, as well as the respective flaws of each director. For, in many ways, the lackluster Green Fish (1997) is to Korea what After Life (1998) is to Japan: films that rightly heralded 2 new talents, even though the evidence typically proffered for such was wrong, coming, as it had, too early in their careers, when they were still developing their sense for art. Yes, the two would go on to craft better films, but just as interesting as the films, themselves, is this on-screen evidence: evidence that might get things wrong, but shows all the little paths a director could have taken, instead, thus crystallizing the art a lesser film might otherwise occlude.

And so, Lee Chang-dong’s excellent Secret Sunshine — a film far superior to Green Fish — has a number of representative moments: moments that show a director both at his height and not, moments that, in the midst of really fine execution, nonetheless point to something better that is waiting for uncovering. Rather than hunt for examples, however, I’ll just start at the film’s end, which is usually where these tendencies come and so often get mis-managed. Lee Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) has just returned from a mental health hospital, and decides to go get a haircut. Pale — Pollyanna, even — something’s clearly not ‘all there,’ despite her release. She is, as we’ve come to expect, accompanied by the film’s perpetual loser, Kim Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a wannabe lover who takes Shin-ae’s moods, spurnings, and general abusiveness with glee in the hopes that ‘somehow, somewhere’ the two can be an item.

As per Jong-chan’s luck, however, he takes her to a salon manned by the offspring of her child’s murderer. She nervously approaches Shin-ae, begins the haircut, and Shin-ae — despite a large portion of her hair now being lopped off — runs out into her own backyard. Jong-chan arrives soon after, smiling at her (as if there’s anything funny), and offers to hold up a mirror she has found to cut her own hair. He’s smiling, still, as she sits there with the scissors, looking at herself (we see glimmers of her face in the mirror), trying to complete the task, and the viewer is immediately struck by the import of these last few minutes. Here is Shin-ae, clearly NOT alright, and given to the same life-patterns the film only hints at — unhappy relationships, self-loathing, an inner void — that she is repeating yet again, albeit with a quickly-narrowing way out. Jong-chan, too, will continue to ‘be there’ for her, to give … Continue reading →

Dan Slevin (Rancho Notorious Podcast) on “Woody Allen: Reel To Real”

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Dan Slevin Woody Allen Reel To Real Alex Sheremet Rancho Notorious FishHead Magazine

Dan Slevin’s Rancho Notorious Podcast.

Earlier this week, I was interviewed by Dan Slevin — editor of FishHead Magazine — for his Rancho Notorious Podcast, on my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real. The interview focuses on Woody Allen’s film work, my reactions to it, as well as the e-book process.

According to Slevin, the book is “a massive undertaking, and one of the most significant pieces of film archaeology you could come across.”

You can listen to the interview here, a little past the 1 hour mark.… Continue reading →

Review Of John Sayles’s “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984)

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John Sayles's The Brother From Another Planet Train

A great shot from John Sayles’s The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

Near the end of John Sayles’s The Brother From Another Planet (1984), the film’s unnamed protagonist (Joe Morton) looks out of a train’s back-window as it pulls away, thus leaving him to reflect on things the viewer can never really know. Now, this may be an issue to some, but to those that get the fundaments of art, Morton’s ‘what’ is immaterial, perhaps even a distraction. This is because the film spends so much time showing Morton in bewildering situations, as well as his silent (albeit quite legible) reactions to them, that this particular scene is merely an extension of the same: poetic shots, familiar images cast anew, and elided (not ‘omitted’) details that help the viewer imbue their own perspectives into the film’s narrative. It helps, too, that Morton doesn’t budge, but merely stays there, in a shot that doesn’t linger too long, content as it is to simply capture the man’s recession and all that it makes him think.

And don’t let the film’s premise fool you: Morton is, at film’s end, a ‘man’ in the deeper sense of the word, for he does precisely what men must do. He re-considers his life, he weighs again his options, and comes to deal with the compulsory fallout. No, none of this is probed very deeply, and The Brother From Another Planet is not even close to broaching the sort of greatness that John Sayles’s later films would, but it’s technically well-wrought, and manages to anthropomorphize a being that is neither human, nor ever given the opportunity to speak. The latter is the more important vis-a-vis the artistic arc, for it ensures the film’s demands must be picked up by Morton, himself, through his emotive glances, subtle gestures, as well as Sayle’s occasionally brilliant writing. And this brilliance (sporadic as it is) comes through in many places: from the choice to have Morton’s character first appear in a nigh-abandoned building with a dark, extraterrestrial feel, to Virgil’s ‘tour of the night,’ which could have so easily devolved to mere political posturing, yet exposes, instead, the sort of intellectual fraud that nips at the credibility of black communities, and even in the film’s depiction (one of the first and deepest in art, really) of a videogame otaku, whose addiction is given an oddly effective philosophic thrust. These are the sorts of ideas the film touches upon, satirizing white people, black people, and the personages from ALL camps that claim to be each other’s intermediaries.

The film’s basic thrust is this. An extraterrestrial (Joe Morton) crash-lands on Earth, takes on (or already has?) the appearance of a black man, finds himself in what appears to be a noisy, unfathomable landscape, and must learn to become a resident of Harlem all the while lacking the ability to speak. He has, naturally, a few alien features: 3 toes, an ability to heal wounds, fix broken machinery, … Continue reading →