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

Akira Kurosawa: Red Beard (1965)

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.


Street Fight (2005)

For those of you tuning in to read my review of the Juliette Binoche-starring film Elles, I apologize.  A plethora of computer issues, weird playback problems, and recurring blue screen of death prevented me from viewing much more beyond the opening scene.

However, very late into the night, I now come to you folks who are still reading with a request.  Hulu, that often generous provider of television but only recently giving source of films, has a movie that anyone interested in the modern political process needs to see.

The film is Street Fight, directed by Marshall Curry, that details the circumstances behind the 2002 mayoral election of Newark, New Jersey.  The contestants are Cory Booker and Sharpe James, two men who have done a significant good for the public.  But the film, to paraphrase the bard yet again, is not about the good that men do but the legacy they leave behind.  For better or worse, James was a man willing to do everything he needed to in his position to make sure he was secure, and so Booker would be left behind.

Politics has always been nasty, and this film successfully cataloged (what I hope is) the first step of pure idealism into the realm of currently necessary backstabbing and mudslinging.  It's a film I crave discussion on regarding a politician who seems to have been beyond most of the muck but seems to need it.

Here is the film:

Please comment if you are able.


Dark Horse (2012)

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

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.


New on DVD reviews the week of 11/27

Holiday gatherings and a strong storm disrupted our normal podcast recording.  It will post on Tuesday!