November 2012 - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Akira Kurosawa: Red Beard (1965)

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If the movie Red Beard were a person, it would be a spirited kid pursuing a career as an engineer even though he's terrible at math, simply because some well-meaning kindergarten teacher told him he could be anything he wanted when he grew up. This is a film that really, really wants to be a quiet personal epic, and it seems to think all it needs in order to do so is the will. Character transformation from one spectrum of values to the other? Check. Lengthy running time covering a multitude of experiences from a wide range of characters? Check. Grand, generalized emotional struggles? Super check.

I don't dislike this movie, but Red Beard needs to make a choice between two extremes: either a long-form epic that takes place across many different, smaller stories building to a grand mosaic effect, or a tighter, more quickly paced film that covers the fairly standard territory it does here. As it is, it offers glimpses of a meandering, sweeping experience, but doesn't arrive much of anywhere at the end of it.

The basic plot concerns Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama), a young, arrogant doctor returning from his studies in Nagasaki with an entitled attitude toward his arranged position serving the Shogun. Much to his surprise and whiny, 3-year-old-level dissatisfaction, he finds himself routed instead to a public clinic run by Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), an older doctor who gets his name from his distinctive facial hair and also, as he explains, the fact that it is very difficult to pronounce his name. It's literally the most easily pronounced name in the whole movie, but one can imagine Akira Kurosawa sitting over the typewriter trying to find ways to lift the character to mythical status before he even appears on screen, scratching a 5 o'clock shadow, and having an “aha” moment.

The film's structure offers multiple episodic occasions for Yasumoto to learn the error of his ways and come to appreciate not only his position at the clinic and the good he can do there, but also the deeper philosophy of Red Beard, which essentially consists of “be a good person except when you have to do bad things to bad people... but then have the decency to feel bad about it.” The older doctor views his profession less as one in which he must “cure” people, and more as occupying a unique position to marshal patients between life and death. He is a guardian angel figure for the weak and poor in the community, easing their pain when possible and taking advantage of the corrupt elite when he needs additional funds.


Dark Horse (2012)

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I was a bit surprised to see so many attractive people dancing at the beginning of Dark HorseTodd Solondz films have always centered around the delusional outsiders who may be attractive in their own way, but not in the toe tapping wedding that opens the film.  All those smiling faces start to seem a bit too choreographed, the dresses and suits a bit too shiny, then finally the camera focuses on a large, self-satisfied man sitting by a morose woman.

There's Abe.  Pathetic Abe, listening to endless cds of mindlessly inspirational pop, whose entire family has passed him by and is only able to live with him to the extent they can ignore what he is.  He's made himself a fixture at his parent's home and commercial real estate business but it's not clear he ever contributed anything other than laughing scorn.  There's Miranda.  She's the sudden apple of Abe's eye who he pursues relentlessly for a date because her doomed literary career has sent her into a shame spiral so deep that a relationship with Abe starts to seem like, if not a good idea, then one that will let her live life with slightly less shame.

Abe is what you see in the last stop of a pointless life filled with empty privilege.  What's different this time around is that Solondz's focus is less on the environment that produced Abe and has made what may be his first real character study.  This emphasis on the who and why of the man-child results in one of Solondz's most straightforward films but one that aches with genuine sadness where so many have stepped back to embrace nihilistic chuckles.  There's still a lot of darkness in this film, but for once the players at least have the faintest hope of improvement.


Life of Pi (2012)

Pi on boat

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Pi on boat

I find it interesting that both The Grey and Life of Pi were released in the same year because they share many qualities.  They both are about fighting for survival past the limits of the human body, they include man vs. the harsh elements of nature, and both have the ever present threat of an animal that is an embodiment of death itself.  Also, one other thing, both of them happen to be some of the best films I have seen this year.

Life of Pi is a gorgeous tale told with a deft hand by director Ang Lee who should (and probably will) be up for another directing nomination this year.  It is a tale of survival, a spiritual examination, and a story about the power of words and imagination.  The movie might take place primarily in a small lifeboat with a boy and a tiger, but it is so much more than that.


Wilder Diversions: Sabrina (1995)

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While she was growing up, Sabrina Fairchild (Julia Ormond) spent more time perched in a tree watching the Larrabee family than she ever did on solid ground. As the chauffeur's daughter on their lavish Long Island estate, Sabrina was invisible behind the branches, but she knew them all below... There is Maude Larrabee (Nancy Marchand), the modern matriarch of the Larrabee Corporation; Linus Larrabee (Harrison Ford), the serious older son who expanded a successful family business into the world's largest communications company; and David (Greg Kinnear), the handsome, fun-loving Larrabee, who was the center of Sabrina's world. Until she was shipped off to Paris. After two years on the staff of Vogue magazine, Sabrina has returned to the Larrabee estate, but now she has blossomed into a beautiful and sophisticated woman. And she's standing in the way of a billion dollar deal.

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site

One of my favorite TV shows was a goofy show called "Boston Legal." Its lead actors were James Spader and William Shatner, if that gives any indication of its direction. There's one particular line that struck me from the show, after Shatner's character has been married to a woman for roughly forty minutes and the intrepid cast has finally found her to be a gold digger, that I think sums up Sabrina. Even though he's obviously being taken advantage of, Shatner admits he still loves the woman, and tells her this: "Our love story is a fairy tale for grownups."

And I think that's where Sydney Pollack's version of Sabrina ended up heading. Taking the very fairytale original and beefing up the interplay between Linus and Sabrina-- here, Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond-- manages to make the film still feel suitably romantic but a different beast than the original.

There are lots of other changes too. Sabrina becomes a photographer rather than a cook, David realizes he's kind of a jerk much earlier on in this version, Sabrina isn't so willfully destructive as Hepburn was and not nearly as secure, the Larrabees have lost their father and gained a business minded mother, and now the name of the game is flat screen televisions instead of sugar plastics.

I won't say all of the changes are net positive. The opening sequence, with Sabrina's narration over the Larrabee grounds sounding more flat that florid, is especially messily constructed compared to the original. Luckily, for all of its quiet changes, I think it improves immeasurably once Harrison Ford makes his entrance. Far sexier than Humphrey Bogart (there, I said it, and I won't take it back), Sydney Pollack always brought out the best in Ford, and it pays off in spades. It's amazing that they can make Ford look uncomfortable in a baseball cap and how funny it is at the same time.


Rise of the Guardians (2012)

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I understand why certain legends are kept alive to a point.  Santa Claus is a nice embodiment of the spirit of giving and a nice figure to introduce children too if parent's don't feel equipped with the means of teaching the young one's why charity is good.  True, the jolly old man has been whittled down into a dispensary of video games and toys while the adult's wearily exchange smiles and smaller items, but at least the intent is there.

Less understood are why we've decided to let the rest of these characters pollute the imagination.  Of the very few good movies I've seen involving Santa Claus I don't think I've seen a single appearance by the Easter Bunny in something worth a damn and never even touching the original representation of virgin birth or fertility.  The rest of the cast of Rise of the Guardians and their involvement in film history the better as the Tooth Fairy has been more often been the source of bad horror films, the Sandman only really successful in comic form, and Jack Frost?  I didn't even know he was still talked about enough to warrant being in the film.

Of course that's something of the point to RotG, frequently discussing how old legends grow into complete irrelevance if they aren't treated as real.  Based on their presentation in RotG I'm not sure why they should be kept around.  Genuinely altruistic motives are scarcely seen and what actions are witnessed are through the creations of a sadistically quiet creator who created all the problems and then appointed avatars of selfishness to represent him.  Approaching this film as an adult the film is boring and mean, but as a kid I have no idea what I would think of the scenes where Jack silently contemplates the meaninglessness of his existence while the existential face of non-existence looms in space overhead.  You know, for kids.