a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

Archive for November 2010

Kaitanshi Jokei / 海炭市叙景 / Sketches of Kaitan City

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Based on the last unfinished novel by Yasushi Sato, Kaitanshi Jokei, molds a set of stories, bound not so much by character or crossed lives, but by place. The place is Kaitan City, a fictional Hakodate, crippled by a moribund economy and left with few expectations. The time is winter. The characters in question lead small and relatively unexceptional lives. Director Kazuhoshi Kumakiri takes 5 of these stories and crafts an extraordinary downbeat parable of the contemporary disillusion. The first story follows Souta (Pistol Takehara) and his sister, Honami (Tanimura Mitsuke). We’re introduced to them as children learning the news that their father has died in an industrial accident at the shipyards. Years later, Souta is working at the same shipyards. Following a strike and the capitulation of the union, this working class hero finds himself laid off and slowly and quietly reaches the end of his tether. His sister watches, but can do nothing. On New Year’s Eve he bids adieu to Honami after watching the sunrise from the hill overlooking the city and thus ends his story. An old lady, her only companion a fat cat, earns a meager living selling vegetables and raising pigs and chickens at her tiny lot surround by cleared and vacant land. A suit comes to visit, cajoling her to sell the tiny parcel and make way for a major development. She simply says no, but one snowy night, her cat disappears. Two stories follow with variations of similar themes, one on the cuckolded husband and the other on the wife who thinks her spouse is two-timing her. The resolutions of both stories remain sad and unfulfilling. Kazuhoshi takes both into troubling and not necessarily pleasant places. But in looking at the small town as macrocosm for the larger society, he resolves them with a strong critique of how men cope and fail in this ol’ macho world. The final story follows an all too familiar failure of fathers and sons to communicate and get past old hurts. The film ends with a surprising ray of hope in springtime with the old woman at her brave little house still standing as big construction machines break ground around her for the new development and a more generic future. Kumakiri takes a certain risk in this particular style of omnibus film that is ever so popular these days and makes it work, not by making the lives interact, but by allowing them to pass through the same space. Place and mood take the burden of the individual narratives and connect them. Which is not to say that the standout performances of all involved, a cast of professionals and found talent, don’t matter. There’s not a missing note in any of the performances.

Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2010

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Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 30, 2010 at 12:55 am

Leonie / レオニー

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Leonie follows the story of Leonie Gilmour, mother of sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Though the details of her life are lost to history, director Hisako Matsui, speculates as to Leonie’s character, motivations and unfulfilled life. Beautifully shot, with wonderful period design and costumes, Leonie falls somewhat flat in casting choices, a somewhat facile feminism, stilted dialogue and ultimately a central character who is hard headed, but not particularly dynamic as person. The film starts with Leonie (Emily Mortimer) as a young woman, brash and full of vinegar. After meeting poet Yone Noguchi (Shidou Nakamura), bearing his child, following him to Japan, finding out he is married, struggling for years without learning a word of Japanese, sending her son to an uncertain future in the USA, returning and dying soon after Noguchi’s first exhibition, all one is left with is a portrait of a battered spirit and the continued calcification of her heart. Her sad story is even further trivialized by the rationale of her spirit living through the work of her son. She deserved more.

Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 30, 2010 at 12:17 am

Bakamono / ばかもの / The Idiots

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Alcoholism seems to be the subject du jour in Japanese cinema these days. Bakamono weighs in, but with a more psychologically probing and clearer look at a young man’s descent than Yoi ga sametara uchi ni kaerou. Unfortunately, by the final act, director Shusuke Kaneke manages to jaw-droppingly throw away what made the film interesting for a contrived denouement. As Hide, Hiroki Naramiya puts in a great performance as a naive young college student who meets a slightly older seductress, Yuki (Yuki Uchida). With her wild and worldly ways she makes a man out of him. Just as soon, she leaves. Hide goes from bad to worse, hitting the bottle hard and emotionally falling apart. Family and friends witness his fall. But he lands, leading to recovery. Great ensemble work, particularly Takashi Kobayashi as his father and Yuko Kotegawa as his mother, makes a moving exploration into the dynamics of alcoholism. However, 10 years later, when his lost love is found, missing an arm and silver-haired, Bakamono falls into cliché with no chance of recovery.

Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 30, 2010 at 12:13 am

Saigo no Chushingura / 最後の忠臣蔵 / The Last Chushingura

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Longtime TV director, Shigemichi Sugata jumps to the big screen with Saigo no Chushingura. Adapted from Shoichiro Ikemiya’s 1994 novel, Saigo no Chushingura builds on the famous story of the 47 – or is it 46 ? – ronin who committed seppuku in the beginning of the 18th century. In this variation, Magoza (Yakushi Koji), the 47th, is charged with living and raising chief samurai Oishi Kuranosuke’s illegitimate child Kanon (Sakuraba Nanami). Magoza’s old bud, Kichie (Koichi Sato) stumbles across him living in the forest. Thinking that Magoza betrayed his fellow samurai, accusation, swordplay and confusion ultimately give way to truth and reconciliation. As befits a TV eye, Sugata spends a lot of time with intimate close-ups and plenty of talk in lieu of visual storytelling to drive what would otherwise be an action-filled tale. Despite some workman-like swordplay, Saigo no Chushingura founders with seemingly endless exposition and revelations telegraphed from early on. The two main leads, Yakusho and Sato – both screen naturals – work hard but ultimately fail in making this plodding epic move.

Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2010

Yoi ga Sametara Uchi ni Kaerou / 酔いがさめたら、うちに帰ろう / Wandering Home

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Tadanobu Asano does his best in this story of alcoholism and recovery, but with a flimsy script and general misdirection he doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Ray Milland or Jack Lemmon. Based on the autobiographical story of Yukata Kamoshida, director Yoichi Higashi seems to pull any and all punches in regard to the human suffering that lies in the wake of the drink. Instead, there’s a long and ill-paced section highlighting the strange foibles and colorful characters inhabiting the alcoholics’ ward. The scenes leading to Kamoshida’s fall are full of signifiers, but little of great heft. His domestic violence comes off as a dull joke. His increasing decrepitude doesn’t show in Asano’s face or body. And of course, there’s the mandatory sentimental ending. Asano remains a likeable screen presence, but even that amiability is stretched by the cliché of undying support by his ex-wife, manga artist Reiko Saibara (Hiromi Nagasuka). The image of the ever faithful and abused Japanese spouse, even if based on reality in this case, refuses to wither away.

Originally published in EL Magazine, December 2010

Bambi

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A couple of days ago The New York Times ran an obituary on Lawrencia “Bambi” Bembenek. She became a bit of a tabloid sensation in the late 80s and early 90s for being implicated and found guilty of the murder of her husband’s ex-wife. Bembenek, a former Playboy bunny and police officer (!) gathered strong public support among those who variously thought the murder was justified, thought she was innocent and thought she was the victim of sexism and a public pillorying. Beyond that, she made even more headlines escaping from prison and going on the lam for 3 months.

Readers of this blog may well wonder what the hell does her life and death have to do with Hot Splice.

Tucked into the obituary was this item.

Within a year, supporters produced a low-budget documentary, “Used Innocence.” And in a three-hour television movie, “Woman on Trial: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story,” Tatum O’Neal played the title role.

No doubt many followers of this blog will find interest in the Sandor Stern directed masterpiece starring Tatum O’Neal, but Used Innocence may be of more interest.

The “low-budget documentary” produced by Bembenek supporters, Used Innocence, was directed by James Benning.  Exactly what these supporters were thinking when they got Benning in on the project is up for speculation, but the result was a masterpiece – a classic, austere and abstract film on Bembenek, America, the nature of documentary and a very personal essay dealing with Benning’s and Bembenek’s relationship.

Completed a year after Erroll Morris’ Thin Blue Line was released, Used Innocence follows some similar ideas and expands others in its use of actors playing real people, the use of images as evidence and most importantly to Benning, how landscape and place define character, motivations and events. Long pans of anonymous housing tracts and the blank landscapes of contemporary America beg questions of what produces tabloid worthy crimes. On top of all this are letters written between Benning and Bembenek. Benning has the letters read over the soundtrack – and in Benning style, the length of the letter determines the length of the shot. The letter shots are of clear blue sky. But unlike, say, the narratives of a film like Deseret, where historical texts build the contextual framework for the beautiful shots of Utah landscapes, the texts in Used Innocence create a sort of dance between Benning and Bembenek. Their relationship builds through their shared letters – at times questioning, seductive, manipulative, angry. Benning questions everything about the making of the documentary. How evidence, images, words make a case (or not) of innocence and guilt. How he as a documetary-maker uses Bembenek and how Bembenek is using him to make a case for her innocence. What’s truth? What’s not? Their missives become intensely personal , but that only adds more questions to the nature of their relationship.

When Benning was at NWFF a few years ago, I asked him about Used Innocence. He said it was perhaps his most personal film and because of that he rarely lets it be screened. It was last shown in the Pacific Northwest, maybe ever, sometime in 1990 at the Rendezvous in Seattle and at the Olympia Film Festival a week later.

Bembenek obituary in the New York Times

Originally published in Hot Splice, November 23, 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 24, 2010 at 12:53 am

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Luis García Berlanga 1921 – 2010

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Luis García Berlanga passed away last Saturday, November 13. Along with Juan Antonio Bardem – oh, and Bunuel – he defined post-war Spanish cinema under the iron fist of Francoism. His filmmaking was of a classic mold but suffused with wicked and biting satire that often got him into trouble with censors and the government. He is perhaps best remembered for his hilarious 1952 film, Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall (Welcome, Mr. Marshall), in which the residents of an Andalusian village get wind that a delegation of Americans will visit. In hopes of getting some loose Yankee dollars, the village prepares by becoming a stereotypical Spanish town, building fake theatrical building sets and dressing up everybody in 18th century Majo and Maja costumes – all bought on credit. The day arrives and the Americans zip through town in big American cars without stopping. His 1963 film, El Verdugo (The Executioner) was a succès de scandale when Spanish authorities tried to stop its screening at the Venice Film Festival. El Verdugo is a morbidly black comedy about a man who inherits the job of state executioner from the father of his new bride. By the late 60s, between genuine problems getting financing and permission to shoot films and the rise of a new generation of filmmakers – the likes of Carlos Saura, Victor Erice, Jose Luis Borau and Manuel Gutierrez Aragon – his star was eclipsed. However, after the death of Franco in 1975, Berlanga hit his stride again with 1978’s La Escopeta Nacional (The National Rifle) where his acerbic humor and take-no-holds skewering of Francoist Spain gave him another lease on his long film career. He continued making films films until 1999, when he officially retired.

Originally published in Hot Splice, November 17, 2010

Written by Nicholas Vroman

November 17, 2010 at 11:35 pm