The Only Son (1936)

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“I want you to study hard and become a great man” says mother to her only son.

She’s had to sacrifice in order to send him to school.

Years later she visits him in Tokyo. His life hasn’t amounted to much; he’s a poor night school teacher with a wife and baby living in a shabby house. Quiet desperation is going on.

Aren’t you too young to simply give up like this?” she says to him “I worked hard because i wanted you to succeed”.

Soon, his mother is crying, he’s crying, his wife is crying, I’m crying; the only one not crying is the baby, fast asleep oblivious.

Then a neighbours son is kicked by a horse. The son shows his true value: how to succeed in being a compassionate human being.

Maybe it’s for the best you didn’t get rich” says mother.

Despite the degraded print of the film this has all been powerful stuff. It’s got to me somewhere quite deep and flawed inside.

The emotional rawness has ripped me open.

That was Japan, 1936. This is England, 2013.

The feeling of affinity between then and now is timeless; the appeal to a shared common humanity universal.

Dir: Yasujiro Ozu, Japan

7.5/10

Tokyo Twilight (1957)

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Thats a sad looking face. Shes pregnant and the boy who got her doesnt want to know. Her own mother walked out when she was 3. Her father, although well-meaning, cant understand. She feels lonely, wishes she’d never been born.

There don’t appear to be many chairs or sofas in these Ozu films. Everybody squats on the floor; which is where the camera squats too, about 3 feet above the ground (called the “tatami shot”). This has the effect of making scenes seem small or smaller, and compacted by closeness, stifled by intimacy

In this film the intimacy feels intensified  by how dark and shadowy most scenes are.

The camera gazes directly at the actor speaking.; no over-the-shoulder shots move me to the outside of what is said, as if merely spectating. Its like I’m being immediately spoken to, intimately invited to listen.

The editing and cutting between shots is long and leisurely. It’s calming to watch images that aren’t flashing and splitting your consciousness into jumpy fragments.

So once gain I’m admiring Ozu’s style.

Father is oddly sanguine considering his daughter has just killed herself.

It’s been a long 140 minutes. My attention wavered. I’m probably watching too many of these Ozu films (this is the 4th in the last 2 weeks) They get to seem samey; the same actors in each film, interchangeable plots, the same unwavering treatments; this steady style of staidness, of slowness, of stillness, of sadness.

Of slow-burn boringness. And in this film, bleakness.

Dir: Yasujiro Ozu, Japan

5.5/10

Equinox Flower (1958)

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Ozu changed to colour with this film.

Patriarchal old authority is being gently poked at by changing daughters (not the sons funnily enough)

As with all these Ozu films I’m noticing the particularities of the Japanese way of life as fascinating peculiarities, as much as i’m following the narrative of the film.

The funny runny shuffle in kimonos.
The excessive bowing and nodding.
The sitting on the floor, shoes off at the door
Wifes undressing their husbands, fetching their kimonos, acting like little doormats; and if the husband has thrown jacket on floor?, it’s the wife-servants job to pick up and fold away

The narrative isnt exactly dynamic.

So instead I’m watching Ozu’s “style”again, his way of doing rather than whats being done. All these boxed up, boxed in, frames. Everything set squared to straight lines and stationary logic. Neat and tidy discrete packets of ordinary world. Seeing is from below and from a discreet distance away. Not too “in your face” with looming zooming in close-ups. Keep the camera “work” minimal.

Daughter wants to make her own happiness *i see things my own way“. Father is resisting, sulking. But eventually relenting, letting go, accepting. Tolerating that things must change, life must change, he must reluctantly change (to some small extent) also.

These Ozu films slip the sleeve of your consciousness into pleasant tedium; a bit like listening to Classic FM while doing the washing up.

Dir: Yasujiro Ozu, Japan

6/10

Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952)

Spoilt younger wife is bored of phlegmatic older husband. He’s a bit of a “dull -san”; too full of good hum and um and hmm.

Is their arranged marriage about to crumble?

She’s craving independence; being a stay at home wife has got boring. She wants some fun with the girls without hubby needing to know. They’re off to a health spa for the weekend

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All the pretty quartet of actresses so vibrantly alive in this film are now dead (in fact everybody in
the film is no longer alive including Ozu (who died in 1963 aged 60) I’ve had this kind of “death” awareness happen a few times before when watching old black and white films.

Green Rice

This set piece in the spa is one of the standout scenes in the film.

Irony is The Wife bossily wants her young niece to be yoked into an arranged marriage too; but the pretty girl is trying to wriggle out of it.

A happy sense of solitude” is what “dull-san” uncle/husband values.

(They like tucking into their little bowls of noodle soup in Ozu films, chopsticking it in with gusto)

The airport scene of friends and relatives seeing all their dull-sans off is unintentionally hilarious; it was like a well practised, perfectly drilled, synchronised waving at the plane routine.

The Wife has her little strop, goes off on her own for a few days; but is rudderless without her dull-san; the brief bid for independence is short lived.

They end up making an improvised meal together out of the bits left over in the fridge,”ochazuke” style, their marriage crisis seemingly, all too easily, resolved (by a bowl of green tea over rice)

As usual, with Ozu, its been a pleasant, well-ordered amble through problems domestic. Not marital strife exactly. Strife, or strain, is not really Ozu’s style. You don’t get the feeling he’s straining himself much to produce these elegantly conceived, immaculately composed, little film minatures.

Dir: Yasujiro Ozu

6/10

Record Of a Tenement Gentleman (1947)

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Bitter gruff widow v stubborn flea bitten boy. She doesn’t like him. She doesn’t want him.

He got dumped on her by a fortune-teller. So she tries dumping him in the dunes – and running off (a funny-sad scene that)

Little sad unwanted chap stands forlornly around with dirty hands deep in grubby pockets.

But he’s followed her back home.

What about glaring at him. And calling him stupid. And making him so scared of you he wets the bed.

Then he’s stolen her dry persimmons she shouts (he hadn’t) More wetting of bed.

This time he runs off, away from her.

But she misses him now. Realises she’s gone a bit soft on him. He’s returned and she treats him better. Taking him to the zoo,  letting him massage her shoulders. She’s even happy to share his fleas with him.

Soon his nice dad turns up, searching his lost lad; not an abandoned urchin after all.

She misses her “lovely boy” even more when he’s gone. Wants one now. A child. To relove her life with.

The plot and its progression was predictable. We expect her heart will melt, that somewhere tender is probably there inside her tough gruff shell-like.

Its only 70 minutes long. The film print wobbles and wavers. Ozu buffs may consider it “minor”.

But I was won over by its cheeky charm.

And there’s a song sung to chopsticks around table with neighbours that made me smile. So much so, I’m including it here for whenever I fancy a happy little silly sing.

Dir: Yasujiro Ozu, Japan

“Don’t you “hum” to me” she says. I’m hearing this “hum” a lot in Ozu films; its like a verbal tic that concurs, or offers an agreeable note of affinity to smooth the conversational flow.

7/10

Bande à part (1964)

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This is the 4th Jean-Luc Godard film I’ve seen. I didn’t like the other 3 and I don’t like this either.

Can I bothered writing an in depth review of why I don’t like it? No. It’s for much the same sort of reasons I didn’t like Godards other films. I can never warm to any of the characters. They’re too cool to be real. Or too abstract to be actual. There’s too much deliberate detachment in the story-telling. Any emotional engagement you might be feeling is being consciously under-mined, under-cut. I feel fiddled about with as a viewer. Disorientated, confused. Blah blah blah. I could go on, but I won’t go on. I don’t want to invest (critical) energy in a film that didn’t give me any.

But. There is one scene that did engage me. A 3 minute dance scene. Its quite famous. In fact I already knew this dance before I watched the film. Here it is.

It goes into my folder of “film dances”. I don’t know why I like it. Maybe because its a bit anti-dance. It’s 3 people dancing who are more in their heads than their bodies. They can’t really dance but they don’t care. They are self-conscious but not embarrassed. They contrive to be cool without being cool. It’s all slightly ad-hoc, under-rehearsed, sloppily spontaneous. It’s odd-bods doing odd-bod dancing. It sort of encapsulates their  “Bande à part ” outsiderliness.

Anway, I’ll always watch this 3 minute dance they do; the rest of the film is already forgotten.

I’m not going to watch any film by Jean-Luc Godard ever again. He’s one of the “Greats” of Cinema I’ll just have to give up on.

Dir: Jean-Luc Godard, France

4/10 All for the dance scene.

Babette’s Feast (1987)

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I’ve seen this film 3 or 4 times. Or rather eaten it. So I bought it.

We’ve got a religious sect of dour Danes, puritanical to a fault: reading their Word, singing their Jerusalems, praising their Lord, Hallelujahing. Founded by the father of 2 spinster sisters.

The first half takes a laboriously long time to get to the best bit, the pay off of Babette’s Feast. Unleavened drab bread of dreary piousness weighs down your watching like slow moving stodge.

Instead of the usual modest supper of boiled bread and brown soup, Babette (Stephan Audran) wishes to cook a luxurious celebration French dinner for them all, paid for with her own money (won on the lottery)

She’s giving them turtle soup (with a real turtle) buckwheat cakes with caviar (proper caviar); little quails in puff pastry shells with foie gras and truffle sauce (quails came in cage) and rum cake with dried figs for dessert; all washed down with copious amounts of wine and bubbly.

So does this lovely food make these joyless Puritans cheer up? Yes (even though they hadn’t wanted to) They even start forgiving one another, and dancing around in little jigs of happiness and harmony.

Babette’s culinary alchemy has lightened their spirits, sweetened their souls – so that they can all gaze up to the starry heavens and be blessed by Gods wonder again. Hallelujah!

The revelation of the feast I’ve seen (on this watching) as too twee. Transformation doesn’t happen that quick or that easy. Their communal bonding is too film feel-good.

But it is only a film after all. And this feels like a film fable. And can be watched as a sort of latter day Good News Bible parable. Nice, and simplistically edifying.

Personally, I reckon its the booze wot done it (went to their heads) Oh, ok then – and the food too (softened their bellys)

Dir: Gabriel Axel, Denmark

7/10 I’m keeping it, but probably won’t feel the need (or hunger) to watch it again.

Vagabond (1985)

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A young girl is lying there, frozen to death – in a ditch.

The rest of the film fills in how she – Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) – got there.

She was a homeless dirty drifter hitching around in winter with a backpack and a thin tent. She appears to be a non-interest sort of person. Rejecting first before she gets rejected. The people she encounters give their impressions of her in a mock-documentary type of way: “She had a vacant stare like a vagrant”

The camera continues roaming randomly around picking people up that pick up Mona. I’m wondering if the film is meant to be as much about these others as it is about Mona. We get reflections of Mona refracted, and distorted, through them.

Weve all got to do our thing” says philosophal goatherder, “You chose total freedom but you got total loneliness”. He’s getting as fed up of her as I am, “You sleep all the time, we work all the time. It’s not fair, and it’s dirty here” (in the caravan he’s letting her doss in)

This was Sandrine Bonnaires first film role (aged 17). It’s sort of unself-consciously anti-glam. And anti-acting (too much) She’s been encouraged to go naturale and be natural. Flatten down any obvious emoting or affectation. Don’t be too cute. Don’t get too heroine like. She hasn’t got anything heroic to depict. This isn’t a heroic life of suffering or coming through suffering to some sort of redemptive self-knowledge. She’s learning nothing. This wandering life is not making her an improved person. Nothing transformative is going to happen. We sort of know that all along (because of flagging up her dirty ditch death right at the beginning) Her journey wiil have to be doggedly anti journey. No getting anywhere to anywhere better. Just this dreary drifting around from one aimless bit of chance circumstance to the next.

It’s all trying to be too true to life. An observational rather than a psychological study. Showing, but not telling, us how it is. The dirty reality of disenfranchised marginalised lifes; maybe for the time (1985) and the place (France) this was relatively novel; but now – 30 years on – we’re saturated with documentaries showing every kind of gritty shitty reality; you name it, we’ve seen it, and had our nosey noses stuck in it. So this film doesn’t have the same kind of shocking, or disturbing, impact that it may have done back in 1985; watching from where I am now it comes across as a constructed film fabrication of a wilfully unconstructed life; a proper – as in, genuine – straight documentary treatment, unadorned with any feature film pretensions might have worked better in getting this nose (mine) nearer to the ground. I couldn’t really, authentically, smell her (even though there’s constant reference to how much she stinks)

And Varda doesn’t give us much psychological context; we find out next to nothing about Mona’s backstory, why she’s ended up on the road; Mona offers little in the way of personal insight, or even personality when we’re tracking her around. She’s like a blank, blanked out slate. She’s not contributing much to the people she encounters, or giving us (the viewers) much to engage with either.

I’m gradually becoming bored with and by her. Feeling as indifferent towards her as she is to everybody else. A lazy, sullen, uncommunicative person – mostly, only, self-interested in smoking, getting off her face on dope and cheap booze, idly lying around reading books, getting herself shagged (and raped) but kind of impassively stumbling through it all – as if nothing much is registering or leaving a mark.

The tag-line to this film when it came out was: “Would you give her a lift?”

Would I? Yes, I suppose I would have. But I wouldn’t have gone far with her. I’d have dropped her out well before the 105 minutes this film dragged on for. And not cus she was a stinky skank. But because she’s a selfish sponger. Who gave me nothing. No conversation, no chat. Not even a smile or a thank you.

Dir: Agnes Varda, France

6/10 Cus it felt like a bleak, unenlightening, ordeal. Disaffecting rather than heart-wrenchingly engaging.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Opens with tarot card reading. Appears like Cleo’s (Corinne Marchand) number is up. Shes doomed. She’ll know and we’ll know in 2 hours when the biopsy comes back.

“As long as I’m beautiful I’m more alive than others” she thinks into mirror. Narcissistic.  Mirrors reflect her superficial image everywhere she goes.

“What a drama queen, shes got everything she needs to be happy” thinks bossy personal assistant. Yes, wealth, celebrity, beauty – all the selfish stuff.

This bossy personal assistant wont let her wear her new black hat “Nothing new on a Tuesday, are you trying to attract bad luck?” Luckily, she didn’t buy this silly white hat

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Now, shes swinging off bars, doing physical exercises in her camisole, like a child. And throwing hissy fits. “Everyone spoils me, no one loves me” she says.

Film is turning – bizarrely – into a Michel Legrand musical cabaret.

By now we know Cleo to be narcissistic, self-absorbed – and add on deluded; cus although you might have terminal cancer you gotta have a fag

She’s out into the streaming streets with the frog swallowers and the hustle bustlers, whizzing around in cars, hopping into taxi with her friend to be sped about

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(How do you drive on Parisian streets?! I mean, really – it iz crazeee, merde!)

Half way through and, surprsingly, I’m not “digging” this film as much as I thought I would. Its all a bit giddy and fragmentary. Nothing to hold onto.

Theres a little interlude with Jean Luc Godard in silent movie slapstick (must be some kind of in joke going on there)

The 2nd half slows down (deliberately) Cleo is getting away from all that rush around razzmatazz glitzy surface stuff. She’s out into the parks to sit down, to quieten down, to reflect.

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“My precious, so capricious body” she says parodically posing it down these steps.

A nice soldier chats her up, accompanies her back to the hospital to get the biopsy result. And cus hes been so nice and sympathetic she seems to fall for him (all a bit too easily I think)

Its cancer. Its 2 months of radiotherapy. But her quick 2 hour  journey around Paris has been a journey of self-discovery (has it? I’m not entirely convinced) and a less selfish centre (and maybe even a bit of love thrown in (for soldier)

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“I’ve the feeling my fear has gone”. I think I know why she might say that; cus the fear of bad news is often worse than the bad news itself; now she knows, she can accept. But the inference here is that she knows now – not just about the cancer – but more importantly, knows about herself. In these 2 short hours she’s come to some kind of self-correcting self-knowledge.

Surprisingly – and slightly disappointingly – I’ve not been bowled over by this film. I thought it was nailed on to be up there with the very best of anything I’ve ever seen  (by Varda, or anybody elese) But it might get better on watch 2 or 3. Cus I reckon I’ll have to be watching it again.

Dir: Agnes Varda, France

7/10

Mid August Lunch (2008)

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It’s about time I saw an Italian film I actually like.

I liked this because the high voltage histrionics and rapid shouting I’ve seen and heard in previous Italian films, were here toned or tuned down.

Thats more than likely due to the presence of gentle Gianni Di Gregorio in the lead role. In fact, his calming influence is all over this film: he directed it and co-wrote it as well as acted in it.

And he’s good in it, very pleasant, very pleasing, being a very affecting – if initially, put upon – 60 something Italian son to his 90 something Italian mother.

The heart of this film lies in its warmth and light tone.

The old ladies are depicted respectfully; they aren’t made too dotty or too cantankerous; they aren’t overly sentimentalised or stereotyped; they feel like real people (which they were, being non-actors), vivid with their own personality, still viable.

I liked the semi-improvised spontaneous feel of the dialogues and interactions between Gianni and these old ladies; nothing was stretched too far or made too implausible; they weren’t having to act too far away from themselves, or adopt contrived personas.

It all felt totally natural, and truthful, nothing made up or made overly melodramatic.

I got a feel for how Italians feel when they’re being together; the warmth of spirit, the simple need for affection of connection.

How cherishable life must be if you are an old Italian Mamma, and you have such a dutiful son as Gianni, being such a good boy.

Dir: Gianni Di Gregorio, Italy

7/10