Sayonara

 

Sayonara

The uniting of two astoundingly divergent cultures gives ample opportunity for a movie to explore social differences and complications while dealing with relationships of any kind, let alone romantic ones. In Sayonara, the relationships between American military men and Japanese women is examined in the form of a love story between two characters that would, under normal circumstances, have never even considered each other as an interest. Marlon Brando plays Major Gruver, a burnt out flying ace who is moved from his active duty station in North Korea to Japan in 1951. Major Gruver is an all American hero, whose father is a famous four-star general. He plans to marry his long time Fiance, the daughter of a General, and continue his military career. Gruver is asked to discourage the planned marriage between his good friend, and fellow airman, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) from marrying a Japanese national. He fails to discourage his friend, so instead agrees to be the best man; this is to the disappointment of the American Military who tries to prevent marriages of the sort. While his time in Japan increases, Gruver experiences the foreign customs of the land and falls for one of Japan’s greatest dancers, Hana-Ogi (Miiko Taka). It is at this point that the complications for our protagonist begin.

Gruver and Hana-Ogi are two complete opposites. Whereas the Major is an all American southern boy, Hana-Ogi is one of the highest honored women in Japan, a celebrity who, before she agrees to meet with Major Gruver, refuses to speak to any Americans because her family was killed by Americans in WWII. The delicate subject matter was still fairly taboo at the time that this movie was made (1957) and yet it tackles them head on. To an American audience, it’s certain that much of the Japanese traditions and ceremonies shown in the film were unknown, putting them in a similar position that Marlon Brando’s character found himself in. However the true hardships didn’t come simply from a difference of culture, but rather a mistrust and stereotypical view of foreigners from both sides. The American Military strongly opposed marriages and relations with the Japanese, forcing those wanting to get married to storm through jungles of red tape. Similarly many Japanese citizens opposed the unions.

Brando gives a solid performance as the main character, but it’s the story between Airman Kelly and his new wife Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki) that takes the cake for strongest emotional performance in the film. During the course of the film we see Kelly transition from typical American pilot to living in a traditional Japanese house, learning to speak the language and willing to give up literally everything for Katsumi. While the entire movie may center around the relationship between Gruver and Hana-Ogi, the driving force and the heart of the story is with these two. As I stated before, the audience experiences the differences in culture right along with the characters. Weather it be through watching kabuki, sharing a traditional Japanese meal or celebrating t local festival, it’s easy to see how different the Americans and Japanese are from each other, while simultaneously seeing just how similar they are. The film takes place, and is filmed in Japan, offering a fair level of authenticity. The acting, for the most part, is exceptional, making it easy to become absorbed in the story.

Sayonara is, by all means a love story. However, not all love stories are happy. The level of persecution and ridicule that all the characters endure is often times heartbreaking. One of the strongest scenes in the movie takes place when an American man confronts his Japanese wife after finding out she planned to have a surgery to alter her eyes to “look American”. The struggle told in this movie is one that thousands of people had to endure, a struggle that thankfully lies, for the most part, in the past. Perhaps a far more relevant film in it’s day, Sayonara remains a strong example of what it was to be in love with someone once considered your enemy. It strips away the social norms of the time and allows the characters to see past the differences between them and ignore the stares of their peers; an action that took a strength we may never have to understand.

Beyond the Sea

BeyondSeaPos

 

Kevin Spacey is (or rather was, in 2004) far too old to play a young Bobby Darin, the musical artist who is perhaps best known for his hit “Splish Splash”. This is a fact that Spacey himself admits within the scope of his semi-biographical film. In an early scene we see Darin being informed he’s far too old to play himself in his film biography, but this doesn’t dissuade him from doing so; the same way that Spacey placed himself in the lead roll for a film about a man living primarily in his 20s while he himself was in his 40s. Beyond the Sea is a musical centering around the life and career of one of the greatest night club singers of all time: Bobby Darin. Directed, co-written and starring Kevin Spacey, we’re given a polished up glimpse into the sordid affairs of a national icon. We see what drove him, the struggles he was forced to overcome, his ego and his health problems that plagued him his entire life. I’m not completely familiar with the life story of Bobby Darin, but a quick internet search can shed light to the facts pertaining to this movie. Rather, I would like to focus on the aspect of why this movie is worth your time.

Despite the massive discrepancy in age between how old Darin is supposed to be in the film and how old Spacey is in actuality we’re given a performance that is completely packed with emotion. And it isn’t just Spacey that gives a powerful performance, John Goodman plays “Boom Boom”, Darin’s agent and Kate Bosworth plays an excellent Sandra Dee. Darin has such a huge ego throughout the course that when set next to Sandra Dee’s strong will the emotions just naturally flow through both actors, oozing out of the screen and into the consciousness of the audience. Shortly after Darin fails to procure an Oscar, one of the most entertaining, and best acted arguments I’ve seen in recent memory erupts from the screen; the scene involves Darin threatening to leave his wife, Sandra Dee. in response she becomes enraged at the idea that HE would leave HER. She refuses to allow him to leave before she does. As they hurl verbal insults at each other they both race to fill their suit cases and take their own cars in an attempt to be the one doing the actual leaving. The solid performances put in by the entire supporting cast is simultaneously convincing and entertaining, allowing for a good mixture of comedy and drama.

The world that these incredibly talented actors are set in is, quite simply, beautiful. The premise of the movie is that a biographical film ins being made about Bobby Darin spanning over three decades, the seams between reality and fiction are blurred so much that it becomes incredibly easy to forget that the elaborate dance numbers and sets are all part of the facade, to the point that it’s hard to tell if it ever was a facade and not just the reality that the film is based in. The dance numbers are stunning as well, taken strait out of an old time Hollywood flick in which every cast member must not only act, but sing and dance as well. This is, after all, a biography about Bobby Darin, there has to be music, a beat that pulses through the entirety of the film. That pulse is felt and heard through the entire movie, sure it slows when Bobby seems to have lost himself, but it inevitably beats stronger as he finds himself. Darin belonged on the stage, that was something that everyone around him knew, but that he sometimes forgot. The music he created parades through the course of the movie non-stop, it compliments the phenomenal acting, the beautiful set pieces and elaborate dance numbers to the point that you can’t separate one aspect of this movie from the other.

The slump in this movie happens roughly three quarters through the film, at which point the vibrant and vivacious Darin succumbs to bouts of depression and sets off to find himself. It’s not that this isn’t an important aspect of the movie, it’s just the drastic change in pace that seems somewhat jolting. The slower pace only lasts for a short time, almost as a way for Darrin to take care of a few things before approaching the final act of the film. And what a final act it is. Beyond the Sea is a celebration of life, as ugly and devastating as it sometimes can be.

“What’s Up, Doc?” The movie that taught me the meaning of propriety

There is no greater challenge in the film industry than making a truly great screw-ball comedy; a truth that has become evident by the tragically un-funny Scary/Date/Disaster movie franchises. Comedy in itself is difficult to make relateable to a large scale audience, let alone putting humorous settings and situations into narrative film and making it work well. But once in a great while something comes along that becomes iconic. What’s Up, Doc? manages to be one of the funniest while at the same time one of the most nonsensical movies to grace the big screen. It is filled to the brim with jokes, slap-stick humor and deadpan performances that all hit the right notes at the right time.

Necessity dictates that the movie have a plot, so a story is presented that allows all the jokes and quirks of the movie to huddle around one focal point. Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) is competing for a grant which will allow him to continue his study of primitive musical rocks. Staying in the same hotel as Howard Bannister and his Fiance Eunice, is a woman who has millions of dollars worth of jewelry and a man with top secret government documents. Naturally the jewelry, documents and musical rocks are all in identical red plaid bags. Judy Maxwell (Barbara Streisand) is a strange woman that seems to be constantly pursued by trouble, and who herself seems to constantly pursue Howard, in the midst of the biggest step towards the career of his dreams. She appears almost out of nowhere and walks with no hesitation into the lives of this unsuspecting couple.

If the plot seems confusing then you’ve got the right idea. It’s one joke after another. visual gags, verbal quips and hilariously elaborate chase scenes permeate with perfect timing and hit just the right chords. It’s a risky business, comedy, but with an excellent cast that caries the jokes with expert precision we’re given a real treat. there is such a vast amount of character in this film, it doesn’t just showcase the quirkiness and humor of one or two characters, but the entire cast is hilarious. Madeline Kahn plays Eunice, Howard’s very reasonable fiance who is constantly cast into very unreasonable situations. The culmination of the film ends in a spectacular car chase that has yet to be matched in any other film.

This movie has one goal, to make the audience laugh. Since 1972 it has done just that, provided a hilarious movie that can be enjoyed by all ages. It’s a fun throwback to the days of It Happened On Night and His Girl Friday, when movies made you laugh and could be watched over and over. It should be the standard that others in this strange little genre should hold themselves against.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Back in 2008 there was a little problem in Hollywood; namely the Writers Guild of America was on strike, thus halting the majority of film and television productions. During this lull Joss Whedon decided to write, direct and fund a project that became Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a three part web series/movie that allowed him to work in the medium he loved without breaking the terms of the strike. The entire movie/show was released online and became wildly popular. Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day, the movie won multiple awards, including a People’s Choice Award for favorite online sensation. Whedon did something that had never been done before, released a professional grade mini-series on a shoe string budget and released it exclusively online.

The film follows Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), an aspiring super villain, as he attempts to prove his worth to the “Evil League of Evil”. His arch Nemesis, Captain Hammer (Fillion), is a self inflated egotistical imbecile. We learn through Dr. Horrible’s video blog that he loves a girl that he frequently sees at the laundromat. When this girl, Penny (Felicia Day), begins dating Captain Hammer, Dr. Horrible becomes even more determined to join the Evil League of Evil in a misguided attempt to impress her.

The low budget is evident throughout the movie, but ads far more to it’s value than it subtracts. As is the case in much of Whedon’s work the characters and the jokes are very tongue in cheek, almost to a fault. Any amount of cheesiness (intended or otherwise) is completely forgivable due to how well each of the three main characters portray their parts. The music is poppy and fun and the story is quirky in that it takes the sympathetic side of the villain.

Whedon’s signature style of storytelling glares through the entirety of the project. Witty dialogue and events that the audience “needs not wants” show us that even in something as humorous as Dr. Horrible there are elements of storytelling that should not be ignored. This project is just about as opposite as you can get to his more recent film The Avengers, however he maintains his professional love for movies. It’s a lovingly crafted piece of film history that was shown the same level of  any large scale blockbuster. If you have Netflix I believe it is currently available for streaming and well worth your time to watch.

Dragon Wars: D-War

I finally got around to seeing Dragon Wars: D-War, the South Korean film made with an entirely North American cast. I hate the term “so bad it’s good” because so often films that try to fit into this title are just bad. However, in rare instances the title fits the film. This is just such an occasion. This move is, for all intents and purposes, a South Korean movie. Shim Hyung-rae directed this film based on a Korean legend about dragons. basically this guy named Ethan is chosen to protect the Yeouiju (A woman named Sarah who bears a birthmark that looks exactly like a dragon tattoo) just long enough to deliver her to the “good dragon” the Imoogi. before the evil dragon gets to her. Naturally (as was the case in their past lives) Sarah and Ethan fall in love.

This movie has some of the most unintentionally hilarious situations and dialogue I have ever seen in a movie. I don’t even want to describe some of the lines because I wouldn’t do it justice. However, I will tell you about my favorite scene. At one point a zoo keeper is making the rounds at night. He hears a commotion coming from the elephants habitat and is almost crushed when one flies through the air and lands, badly wounded, right next to him. Basically, these dragons are giant, building sized snakes, they reduce elephants to the size of feeder mice. The reaction of the zoo keeper, and the awkward way he must maneuver around the “dying elephant” prop had me rolling. Another highlight was when all the FBI agents started leaving their cubicles to go out and find the dragon, and as one guy exits he whips a shotgun out of nowhere and loads it. Seriously, it’s a lot funnier when you see it.

The dialogue is…not stale, but feels like something was lost in translation. I have this theory about movies foreign films. I feel like I could watch a movie and think it was terrific, all while missing some major flaws that I chalk up to cultural differences and language barrier. This movie takes place in LA using an (almost) all English speaking cast, which makes this whole ordeal somewhat surreal by seeing some of these cultural differences seep through. Ethan looks like a GQ model, and dresses accordingly despite it’s inconvenience to the situation (seriously, he wears a sports coat, All. The. Time.) He also wears a medallion the size of a small dinner plate around his neck that no one seems to notice or address. It is tacky, but the actors are dedicated to a scripts that just feels unnatural.

As of 2007 this was the highest budget movie to ever come out of South Korea. I can’t help but assume that almost their entire 70 million dollar budget went to special effects. The dragons are awesome looking, despite the difficulty in distinguishing the “good dragon” from “the bad dragon” it’s fast paced and isn’t stingy on the eye candy, something that other “so bad they’re good” movies tends to do (I’m looking at you Shaks in Venice)

It’s short and ridiculous, well worth at least one watch. I mean, did you SEE the poster? If nothing else, watch it to see the strange way that this “Foreign Film” uses American actors and settings to tell it’s story. Also, it has fat lizards with rocket launchers on their backs.

 

The Illusionist

Nothing is what it seems.” So reads the tagline for the 2006 film The Illusionist. Few slogans are so aptly written for their films. We’re treated to a piece of fiction in which the entire film seems to share an essence with a masterful stage illusion. Smoke and mirrors lie just outside the frame, we’re distracted by the tale, while just beneath the surface we miss the mechanics of the illusion. The illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is one of the most renowned magicians in all of Austria, if not the world. His ability draws the attention of the Crown Prince Leopold who becomes fascinated with his work. Eisenheims mysterious past is brought partially to light by the fact that Leopold’s (almost) betrothed, Sophie, is actually his lost love. The Police inspector (Paul Giamatti) is hired to keep this unruly magician under control; a task that becomes increasingly difficult as both his own wonder, and that of the Austrian peoples, grow to revere the famed magician.
     
     There is so much subtext and foreshadowing in this film that I would hate to give anything away for those that haven’t seen it. The setting and tone for this movie is incredibly fun.  Turn-of-the-century Vienna, dark and mysterious shots and to top it off it’s about a magician facing off against a crowned prince. It’s dangerously close to The Prestige a movie that gained far more traction (arguably because it’s a better movie) and was released the same year. While this film boasts a very talented cast (particularly in Norton and Paul Giamatti) it was no match for the huge names associated with The Prestige, which, as my dad put it after seeing the trailer, looked to be “Wolverine vs Batman”. Still, this film, though overshadowed, is by no means a bad movie; It’s not even an average movie, it’s really good. The story is told mostly through the police inspectors eyes, leaving the audience in the seat of a spectator at a world class magic show.
     
     The emotions and motives of the characters is a strong selling point for this film, especially with such a strong cast. Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) displays such frustration at the fact that he is being subtly defied by a commoner, but his arrogance will not allow him to admit defeat, even in something as simple as not knowing how a trick is done. The Prince has everything to lose, not because of Eisenheims actions necessarily, but because of his own brash actions against situations beyond his control. All the while, Eisenheim has everything to gain, but wants only one thing, perhaps the only thing that seems to be out of his grasp, his beloved Sophie.
   
      The visual aspect of the movie is almost dream like, again, adding to the feeling that this whole thing is one big illusion, a showy spectacle to distract us while very well thought out actions and consequences take place just below the surface of the story. We are kept in the dark, but we are also kept on the edge of our seat. What starts as a simple love story unfolds into a revolution. Power becomes the driving force. Everyone in this film is striving for power over others. Eisenheim, though the hero, strives to demonstrate power and rebellion over the Crown Prince. The Crown Prince feels a necessity to demonstrate his power over almost everyone through intimidation. The police inspector longs for more power by aligning himself with the Crown Prince, even when it goes against his conscience. This power that is so greatly craved seems to come from one source. Knowing the truth, yet choosing to withhold it and distract from it; just like a magic trick.
The movie, while not obscure, has been vastly overlooked, more so than it deserves. It is a unique artifact. It uses everything to draw the viewer into it’s overall magical theme and whimsical tones. The visuals, musical score, character, emotions and plot all come together to form a cohesive and entertaining piece of film that is well worth watching.
   

Marty Vs Every Romantic Comedy

There is, perhaps, no sub-genre of film that is as rife with cliché as the romantic comedy. I would argue that anyone can name at least one rom-com that they, despite any good reason, love to watch. It is the film version of young love, pulling on the collective heartstrings of an audience full of saps, this of course includes myself. The film industry has discovered what makes our emotions tick, and they have exploited our weakness. It is a well known fact that two people who hate each other at first will, after a series of misunderstandings and misadventures, learn to see eye to eye and then fall madly in love…right? Sadly (read: thankfully) this is almost never the case. The world moves much faster than 24 frames a second. In the vast ocean of the genre, there are a few movies that defy the norm, none more so than the 1955 Best Picture Academy Award winning Marty.This is a short list of rom-com norms that this charming, down to earth film, defies.
Opposites attract
The classic rom-com formula gives us the idea that two people that have absolutely nothing in common must be destined to fall madly in love. In Marty the two love interests have just about everything in common. Marty (Ernest Borgnine) and Clara (Betsy Blair) are awkward. Neither one is attractive, both are refereed to as “dogs”. The second we see Clara on screen (Shortly after being dumped at the dance by her blind date), we instinctively know that her and Marty are perfect for each other, it’s a truth that the film makers do an excellent job of portraying the us with very little dialogue. Where most modern romantic comedies would save the romantic payoff for the end of the film, here we are treated early on with two characters who share such perfect chemistry right off the bat. Much like in life, the majority of relationships start out with excitement and near uncontainable joy. This sentiment is expressed on Marty’s face as he enthusiastically calls for a taxi after dropping Clara off at home after their first date, you can practically hear his heart pounding behind his ribs. He is, much like I was the day I proposed to my wife, ecstatic.
                       Leading Characters must be attractive
This is pretty much a staple of all films. People are drawn to attractive people, so it stands to reason that movies, particularly ones dealing with love, would want to give you characters that you could find yourself falling in love with (the idea of the person, not the actor themselves, though that certainly has become a prevalent problem). Marty has to deal with the fact that he’s almost 40 and is still single, he’s fat and not particularly handsome, yet when he meets Clara, his friends laugh at him for falling for a “dog” saying that he can do better than “that”. And while this leads to certain conflicts within the film, it ultimately doesn’t stop Marty who realizes that he is honest to goodness, truly, wholly in love with this girl. These characters are unattractive, and for that they are more loveable than any character in a modern day rom-com. Film is obsessed with beauty. It’s a visual media, and for that reason so many film makers have decided that a film risks failure should they use anything less than perfection.
The relationship between the two love interests is the driving force for the romantic drama
Relationships and interaction between characters has always been a terrific force in drama, which is where this genre gets most of it’s momentum. There are two people who hate each other, and we watch as their attitudes slowly change into love. But in Marty the equation is expanded to every character in the film, giving them massive influence in the mind of Marty. Opinions are voiced by the aging mother, cousin, best friends, neighbors, and customers. Marty is much closer to relate to than most characters in film today. He has a normal job in a butcher shop, he has a close circle of friends, and he loves his family. Naturally those forces would come into play in real life when introducing the element of a girlfriend, and we certainly see the struggle that it puts in Marty’s mind, perhaps the same struggle you may have endured at one point in life.
As a study in human nature, Marty excels above other films in it’s genre. It exchanges the glam and glitz of standard romantic movies and tells you the story of an ordinary guy finding an ordinary girl. Marty and Clara could just as easily be any member of the audience. We see the two having fun on their first date, We see how they have to deal with the criticisms from his friends and family, and the movie shows, like all rom-coms, that love conquers all.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

The prospect of coming into a vast sum of money suddenly, drives the imagination of the world. National lotteries are multi-billion dollar industries. People of all colors, classes and creeds love to spend time imagining what lavish lifestyles they could lead with just one little stroke of luck. The discontentment and dissatisfaction of one’s personal financial state is a near universal reality. What would you do with a million dollars? In Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) Finds himself in the very position that millions before (and after) him long to find themselves in.
The film opens up with a speeding car careening down a narrow road. Swerving, the car flies over the edge of a cliff. Through spinning newspaper headlines we learn that the deceased man was a famous millionaire. The law firm left to manage the affairs of the man that died send representatives directly to Mandrake Falls, the sleepy little town where Deeds resides. Urgently, the representatives inform Deeds that he has become the sole benefactor of a 20 million dollar fortune. The firm, naturally, plans on doing all that it can to be given the power of attorney over his fortune; they explain to Deeds that it’s an awful lot of work to manage all the money, and that he would be better off just enjoying his fortune. This is the first of many attacks that is made against Longfellow and his new found wealth. With his dry wit, kindness and no nonsense view, Longfellow Deeds proves to be a worthy opponent to the forces of greed that bombard him throughout the film.
It is obvious at the start of the film that the antagonists, upon realizing that the inheritance is going to a man from a small town, plan to simply walk Deeds through the process of adjusting to a wealthy lifestyle, making as much money for themselves as possible. Imagine their surprise when upon telling him of his fortune he responds that he doesn’t need it (As he continues to play his tuba). Deeds acts as if nothing has even happened. He, of course, is talked into going to New York to reside in his inherited mansion and decide how to use his wealth. He is much more interested in seeing Grant’s tomb and the Statue of Liberty than managing his finances.
Gary Cooper personifies the average man in this film. He balks at the idea of having a servant help him put on his pants. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town parades the absurdities of the rich and famous in front of the audience, and Mr. Deeds exposes every bit of it as pompous and self serving. While we may at one point or another want to punch a smug, self satisfied jerk in the face, Longfellow does so, in the midst of both a fancy restaurant and a courtroom, no less. It isn’t until the Pulitzer prize winning news woman Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) goes undercover to expose his naivety that Deeds really allows himself to be affected by his circumstances.
Shortly after realizing that he was being used by the woman he loves, Deeds is confronted by a desperate man who lost his farm and whose wife and kids are starving. He screams at Longfellow, reprimanding him for his lavish spending (feeding a whole bag of donuts to a horse!). Until this point in the movie we’ve only seen the exceedingly wealthy try to get a portion of the inheritance. We’ve seen fortunes spent on fancy parties and we’ve seen place settings made of gold. This film was released in 1936, at the height of the great depression. Writer and director Frank Capra knew who his audience was, and when he made his protagonist change gears to help the poor farmers, he was telling every man in America that was looking for a job that he stood behind them.
Longfellow Deeds shares common traits with many of Frank Capra’s characters from other films. He is by no means normal (a fact that plays heavily into this film, to the point where his sanity is questioned) . He is removed from humanity in that he is an optimist in a cynics universe. This optimism is contagious, and begins to bleed into the characters surrounding him. Capra by no means ignores that fact that the world is often times a dark place full of cynical and greedy people, but he counters it with his heroes. These heroes are good, kind and strive to make a real difference in the world that they live in. Not because it’s some grand goal of theirs to change the world, but that’s just who they are.