You Only Live Twice

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James Bond movies are not necessarily known for their cinematic greatness, but they usually are a fun time. That is most definitely the case here, with You Only Live Twice. If you judge it on the basis of James Bond movies, then it’s pretty solid. If you judge it on the basis of being a movie in general, then not so much. Nevertheless, I had a great time watching it.

First I want to take a look at the credits. As far as James Bond opening titles go they were pretty standard, but I noticed a few names I really did not expect to be associated with James Bond. First, the screenplay is by Roald Dahl. Yes, that Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl. That really surprised me, which almost goes without saying. Wikipedia tells me that he didn’t stick too closely to the original novel. Another curious name in the credits was under cinematography: Freddie Young. This is the guy that worked with Powell and Pressburger on a few of their earlier films and shot a few with David Lean, including Lawrence of Arabia. There’s not much point to me saying these things except I was really surprised to see these names associated with James Bond.

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Even though this is the first time I’ve seen the film all the way through, I have always affectionately referred to it as “that movie where the spaceship eats the other spaceship!” This is how the film opens, and it’s pretty nifty. The villain of the film, Ernst Savro Blofeld (Donald Pleasence), leader of SPECTRE, has an evil plan to kidnap both US and Soviet spaceships in the hopes of setting the two superpowers off against each other. After recovering from his “death,” M (Bernard Lee) sends James Bond (Sean Connery) to Japan to investigate.

If you like your cheesy Bond action sequences, then you’ve got to see this movie. We have the giant spaceship eating multiple smaller spaceships, evil henchmen getting fed to piranhas, a car getting carried off with a giant magnet attached to a helicopter and dropped into the ocean to its doom, a mid-air fight with a tiny helicopter, and of course, being set in Japan, ninjas. If that doesn’t make you want to see this movie, I don’t know what will.

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Up until this point I’ve been going really soft on this movie, mostly because I had a fun time watching it. There’s definitely an element of “its so bad its good” at play here. I can’t honestly say this is a good movie, it’s just a fairly standard ’60s action picture that happens to be incredibly cheesy. It’s good on that level. It’s kind of hopeless to follow the plot because it’s just a bunch of action strung together, and we have the classic James Bond problem of sexism and racism. They throw in a bunch of random Japanese stuff just to make the film seem more exotic, and it drags the film down considerably. But giant magnets and ninjas, guys!

So there’s definitely a large element of James Bond fangirling here, in that I appreciate James Bond movies because they’re James Bond movies, not necessarily because they’re good. If you are like me, You Only Live Twice is a pretty safe bet. If you want to see some really high level film making and a story that involves you in other ways besides making you laugh at it, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere.

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“You only live twice, Mr. Bond.”

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For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert 1967 review

Top of the Lake

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Because I’m actually in a TV class this semester and not a film class, I have been watching way more TV than I normally do. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does put in a bit of an awkward place, blogging-wise. Instead of investing 1.5-3 hours and then writing a post, I have to invest a ton more. I decided I like reviewing a whole series at a time as I did with Twin Peaks and True Detective rather than an episode by episode basis as I did (and still need to continue doing) with Star Trek. But speaking of Twin Peaks, Top of the Lake was a recommendation based on the fact that I love Twin Peaks so I of course hastened to watch it as soon as possible. While Top of the Lake goes for straight up drama rather than the crazy blending of just about every tone you can imagine as Twin Peaks does, it bears some similarities, mainly that of a tragedy sparking the investigation into a seemingly normal town that turns out to be really messed up.

Robin Griffin(Elizabeth Moss)  is a detective specializing in sexual abuse cases in children. While visiting her sick mother in Laketop, New Zealand, a twelve year old pregnant girl, Tui Mitchum (Jacqueline Joe), attempts suicide. Before Robin can get to the bottom of it, she goes missing. She seems to have a questionable relationship with her father Matt (Peter Mullan), who seems to be involved in a lot of suspicious things besides his daughter’s attempted suicide and disappearance. Robin encounters resistance from both the townspeople and the local law enforcement, the head of which is Al Parker (David Wenham). Other local personalities include Johnno (Thomas M. Wright), Matt’s son and possible love interest, and GJ (Holly Hunter) the leader of a cultish group of women that have moved in on Matt’s land (which he is not happy about).

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I don’t have many complaints about this show, so I’ll get them out of the way first. Both of them are related to pacing, which is uneven and a bit strange throughout. In the middle of the show, we start going into Robin’s past which is actually my favorite part of the show, but the main case kind of gets put on hold for a couple of episodes which is off-putting. They should have weaved it in with the main story better. Similarly, after they are done examining Robin and her past for a couple of episodes, the main case comes back and wraps up very quickly. We’ve spent the better part of six episodes only to have it solved in an almost accidental way. They sort of hint at it throughout the show, but Robin doesn’t figure it out until like the last twenty minutes so the ending feels very abrupt.

Other than these issues though, I have very little complaint with the series, and there were several things I appreciated about it. One is the main character. Robin Griffin is probably somewhat of a cliche by now, the driven female detective in a world full of unhelpful and sometimes hostile men, but nevertheless I was able to get behind her in most respects and found her fascinating. I really like the way her past wasn’t revealed right away; I didn’t really guess at any of it even though it probably should have been obvious. It was a great closed off performance by Elizabeth Moss here. Peter Mullan also turns in a great performance as Matt. He is able to capture the conflict in his character as he seems to love his daughter but also doesn’t seem to concerned with finding her. This is essential as we are really not supposed to be sure how we feel about him. Another aspect I liked was the strange cultish group of women headed by GJ. They never really did much besides take care of people who wandered into their settlement, but it was interesting to see the contrast between their benignity and the chaos that reigned in Lake Top proper.

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On the technical side of things, the most notable visual element is probably the color scheme. It is mostly blues, greens, and greys, making Lake Top seem like a very cold and inhospitable place. There is really no warmth, either indoors or outdoors, in this town. That doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful all the same, because it is. The rest of the cinematography, lighting, etc… seemed pretty standard from what I remember.

Top of the Lake is a mini-series, and at only seven episodes I finished it in a week. It requires only a small time commitment and is definitely worth it. It’s a completely closed off story, no cliffhangers at the end are left unsolved.  While I like a healthy dose of ambiguity in my life, it’s refreshing to see a show wrap things up so tightly. All in all, I’m glad I watched the show. It’s not something I would probably revisit again because the mysteries did pretty much get wrapped up, but it’s a pretty good show.

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“Trust in the body. The body knows what to do.”

“Done to death by strangulation and Rope….”

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Also known as: what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks. Pictured above (in regrettable quality; I’m sorry about that) is the set I worked on for Rope. The play is best known from the 1948 Hitchcock film, so you can guess why I was excited to work on it. I got to help build the set, which mostly turned out to be painting (which was fine with me because I don’t actually know how to use power tools), and also help out with the lights which were really awesome! It was supposed to be influenced by German Expressionism, with the lights getting progressively more strange and hellish over the course of the play as Granillo (in the movie, this character’s name is Phillip, played by Farley Granger) feels increasingly guilty. You can sort of see the diagonal slashes of light on the walls in this picture, but it’s hard to see the orange ones and the red ones stand out more. Also notice the creepy red light coming in through the window; it’s tilted on purpose so it doesn’t match up and it becomes a bit off-putting. I got to mess around with the fireplace and some lightning, so that was a fun time. The show was a big success and went incredibly smoothly.

It was finally nice to see what was different between the play and the movie. While Hitchcock captured the general plot and message of the play, a lot of details were changed. Most of them aren’t really thematic, but the main difference is. In the play, Brandon strangles his classmate, but in the film it’s Phillip/Granillo that actually does the deed. It puts a whole different light on their dynamic, and makes Brandon much more of a hypocrite.  It’s interesting, I’ll have to find out why they decided to make the change one of these days.

Anyway, now that that’s over I’m back to blogging. I did watch a grand total of two movies in the past couple of weeks: Fargo and Noah. It was good to finally see Fargo as it’s practically a classic at this point. While it won’t shoot to the top of my personal list of favorites, I do recognize the quality. The frozen desolate landscapes they show are particularly impressive and effective. I saw Noah in the theater and I liked it quite a bit. (That and The Grand Budapest Hotel I’ll have to review on a rewatch once they’re on DVD.) Some parts of it were kind of weird tonally, like parts that probably shouldn’t have been funny but ended up being funny just because they too ridiculous. Nevertheless, these were some of the most enjoyable parts of the film. A bigger problem is that the ending moral dilemma is way more interesting than the impending doom at the beginning, so the film is a bit unbalanced. Still, it was a really interesting film from Aronofsky and I was pleased with it.

So that’s a bit of an update about what was going on this end for the past two weeks. I’m not sure exactly which reviews I’ll be putting up this week, but Becket will be one of them, and I just watched The Usual Suspects last night! I’m glad to be back blogging and thanks to all those who followed me even when I was away!

The Next Two Weeks….

I will be taking a break from blogging. I’m am going to be working on a production of Rope at school, and it’s going to take up almost all of my time. The time it doesn’t take up I will be sleeping through, so that leaves little time for blogging.  I promise I’ll be back for the second week of April with some reviews! Thanks for bearing with me.

True Detective: Season One

poster_truedetective From how it’s being referred to and its near unimpeachable level of quality, I am sure that HBO’s True Detective, the first season at the very least, is going to be admired and discussed for a long time. It already has a solid place in contemporary television that is well deserved. Though it handles characters better than plot, that is just the way I like it so I can’t fault it too much. This is a review of the entire season, so I will probably be dipping into some generalized spoilers but nothing too specific. Read at your own peril!

True Detective‘s first season depicts a complicated decades long search for a serial killer in Louisiana. More importantly, it is double character study of the two primary detectives investigating it, as well as their complex relationship. Rust Cohle (Mathew McConaughey) and Martin “Marty” Hart (Woody Harrelson) bump up against each other, and more often than not, uncomfortably at that, as they try to track down the mysterious killer. The show spirals and circles through time, weaving a pretty intricate and complicated narrative. The first couple episodes consist mainly of flashbacks, while in the later half of the season the action gets propelled into the present.

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The show consists of eight one-hour episodes, and even though I watched them all within a couple weeks or so, I found it very hard to keep track of the actual case Rust and Marty are investigating. I remember the final perpetrator, but don’t ask me how they figured out who it was or what specifically he was supposed to have done (besides creepy satanist killings, I got that part). The first body they find sticks out pretty clearly in the mind, and more are hinted at, but never really fully detailed. This is a very hard case to keep track of, and the show doesn’t really make it easy with its twists and turns. That’s really the only criticism I can level at the show, and as I said before the character studies are what had me watching the show in the first place. (I’m also willing to admit that this could be because the character development was what I cared about; someone who’s more interested in plot might be able to decipher the case better.)

Rust and Marty are often in pretty high contrast. Rust is a self-described pessimist; he seems to have given up entirely on the human race after the death of his daughter and spends most of his time wallowing in his depressing philosophies and getting drunk. It’s strange that he devotes himself almost single-mindedly to the case at hand, because it seems as if he doesn’t care about anything at all. However, actions speak louder than words and he most certainly never gives up searching for answers, even if it means disobeying the law and putting himself in a lot of danger. Though Rust seems pretty insane, in my opinion he ain’t got nothing on Marty.

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At first, Marty seems like a relatively normal cop. He does the job, goes home to his family, and is basically on repeat. However, as he gets deeper into the case and more importantly several personal relationships, he starts to reveal his true colors. While Rust has always seemed weird, Marty at first seems normal and then you find out he isn’t at all, which to me is ultimately more concerning. He tries to keep work and home separate, but maybe he fails because his personal life gets really messed up. He has major problems with basically every women he interacts with, mostly involving ridiculous double standards and jealousy. Through this, he completely ruins his relationships with his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), his daughter, and his mistresses (the more memorable one being played by Alexandra Daddario). It’s interesting to see Marty and Rust interact as they are so different internally but end up uniting to solve the case.

Both McConaughey and Harrelson give extremely impressive performances, and have tremendous chemistry with each other. The whole show basically rides on their shoulders as most other characters are pushed to the background with the occasional exception. It’s amazing that they were able to pull this off as it’s almost an eight hour movie spent almost exclusively with two strange, psychologically damaged, and not very likable guys. The only relief is the case they’re working on, which isn’t much of one to be honest. McConaughey and Harrelson do their jobs more than well enough so the show doesn’t need to focus on the case as much to work. woodyyeahhescrazy_truedetective Behind the camera, there’s a lot going on. Cary Joji Fukunaga (also director of 2011′s Jane Eyre which I am a big fan of) has definitely made a name for himself here by directing all of the episodes with a highly distinctive atmosphere as well as including that six minute tracking shot at the end of episode four. It’s a pretty impressive shot; I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it was all in one take had I not already known there was one in the show. It’s seamlessly employed in the show so you are worrying about the characters and not necessarily how the effect is being achieved. The soundtrack as well as the faded yellowey color scheme greatly contributes to the immersive atmosphere. Though I had a bit of trouble placing the time period at first, that is soon cleared up and the way they detail they put into the setting is pretty fantastic.

What season 2 will consist of seems very up in the air at this point. We could get Brad Pitt, two female lead detectives, and/or the “secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system.” The creator, Nic Pizzolatto, hasn’t really set anything in stone at this point as far as I can tell, other than that the next season will not be under the control of one single director. While this still remains a mystery, one thing’s for sure: I am really excited for whatever turns up. Even though it’s sure to be completely different (keeping with the anthology format) surely the level of quality will remain the same.

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“Back then, the visions…most of the time I was convinced that I’d lost it. But there were other times, I thought I was main-lining the secret truth of the universe.”

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For Further Reading:

Fukunaga on how the tracking shot was achieved
Mettel Ray review
Cinematic review on “Form and Void”

Also for funsies:

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The Wind Rises

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This may be director Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, but as it probably comes as no surprise to those who read the blog regularly, it’s the first one of his I’ve seen. It’s also the first animated film I’ve reviewed on the blog. I was pretty impressed by the film, though it dragged a bit in the middle, overall it was pretty good. The animation was very beautiful and I liked the blending of fantasy and reality.

The Wind Rises is the story of Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It starts off with him dreaming of building airplanes as a small boy. He is guided in his dreams by an Italian engineer, Caproni (Stanley Tucci). The film follows him throughout his life as he deals with personal issues, his engineering career, and the conflict between his peaceful engineering dreams and the war that his planes are used for. With him on his journey is his best friend and fellow engineer Honjo (John Krasinski), his wife Naoko (Emily Blunt), and his sister Kayo (Mae Whitman).

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What struck me most about the film was its expert blending of fantasy and reality. One gets the sense that Jiro is living in his own little world most of the time, a happy dreamland where airplanes soar freely across the sky. The real world isn’t like this obviously, but Jiro always seems to be able to escape, lead back into his dreams by Caproni. I’m not sure whether or not this is a good  or a bad thing, but it definitely helps him do his job. He is able to think creatively and help push Japan into the 20th century. The tricky part of it all is that it somewhat mitigates the damage he may or may not have done by creating weapons to be used in war. However, his intent is clearly not to harm people but only to advance technology. He hopes that one day airplanes will be used to carry people and not bombs, but before that day comes airplanes still have to be designed. It’s an interesting point of view and having it expressed in the form of a dream is at once hopeful and cynical.

The personal side of life is where the film doesn’t do quite as well. There’s a section in the middle when Jiro takes a break from designing airplanes to get some rest, and during this time falls in love with his eventual wife. The film really drags here, to be honest I found it hard to stay awake let alone focused. This portion is almost completely free from conflict and Jiro’s personal life is advancing (very slowly) but his professional one is not, which is what was more interesting to me. The romance here is pretty standard, so it didn’t need as much time to develop as it was given.

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All in all though, the film was very beautiful. Though I am not an expert on animation by any stretch of the imagination, and Japanese animation even less so, I thought the style was very refreshing as well as the more adult content. I’m still not sure how it deserves the PG-13 rating though; I suppose there were some scary visuals but overall it was not a disturbing or frightening film. There were many cinematic aspects of the animation, though I still found the excessive sweat and tears very strange. The strong bold colors made the film very vibrant and the music was interesting as well.

Though not perfect, The Wind Rises is a very interesting and enlightening film. It drags in the middle and takes a misstep common to many biographical films of focusing to heavily on the subject’s personal life, but the personal and national themes it deals with were still present and well defined. If one doesn’t have much knowledge of Japanese history it can be a bit confusing, but not so much so that you will be completely lost. It’s a beautiful film that seems like a worthy swan song for any director.

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“Which would you choose: a world with pyramids or a world without?”

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Touch of Evil

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Orson Welles is famous for many reasons and one of them is the amount of studio interference he suffered from. Ever since the political fallout after Citizen Kane, where he was famously granted an unprecedented amount of artistic license by RKO, Hollywood mercilessly tampered with his films. Touch of Evil, his last Hollywood film, was no exception. After changing the screenplay significantly and shooting the film, the studio recut the film and released it despite Welles’ objection memo. In the memo, he outlined the changes that would need to be made to return the film to its original state. Luckily, this was actually done, though not until the ’90s. I was fortunate enough to see this version, re-edited by Walter Murch, in my local theater.

Touch of Evil is a classic example of film noir. With shady characters and high contrast lighting, it definitely fits the bill. It takes place primarily on the border between Mexico and the US, putting the characters in a weird transitory state. Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican police officer trying to bring down the Grandi brothers, leaders of drug cartel in Mexico. He’s already got one of them before the film starts, ensuring his safety for the duration of the movie (if the remaining Grandi brother, “Uncle Joe” (Akim Tamiroff) kills Vargas, the brother in prison will surely be blamed). However, his American wife Susie (Janet Leigh) is not so safe. After the two of them witness a car bombing, Vargas is roped into Hank Quinlan’s (Orson Welles) investigation of it. He is prejudiced against Mexicans and might possibly be corrupt, but his partner Menzies (Joseph Calleia) trusts him with his life and believes he would never do anything wrong.

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The films’ opening scene is legendary, with a tracking shot that clocks in at over three minutes in length. I saw the shot in film class over the summer, and I’ll admit, it’s the main reason I wanted to see the rest of the film. The idea is extremely effective: a bomb is placed in a car trunk, and there aren’t any cuts until the car blows up. The camera follows the car, letting it go out of the shot occasionally so we can also follow Vargas and his wife, and with the violence of the explosion there comes the violence of the cut. It’s an incredibly simple idea that works wonderfully.

In the course of the investigation, Vargas comes to suspect that Quinlan has planted evidence against the prime suspect, a Mexican man involved with the dead man’s daughter. In the meantime, Susie is in danger from the Grandi’s and Mike is hardly aware of it. Welles derives a reasonable amount of suspense from the Grandi’s intimidation of her. There is a great part when she is in a nearly abandoned hotel off the highway that seems like foreshadowing for Leigh’s role as Marion Crane in Psycho. Vargas’s quest for the truth at the possible expense of his wife is partly frustrating and partly commendable, but neither the Vargas’s or the Grandi’s are the most interesting part of the story.

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What matters less than the complicated plot is the moral ambiguity surrounding Welles’ character. Like his most famous character, Charles Foster Kane, Hank Quinlan is not easily summed up into good or evil. Though it is revealed by the end that Quinlan most certainly acted on the wrong side of the law, it is still impossible to say whether he thought he was doing the wrong thing or not. His complex back story involving the death of his wife at the hands of a criminal explains his somewhat overzealous approach to police work,  but his alcoholism is never fully explained and we get the sense that a lot more happened than is referred to. Quinlan is a character, like so many in film noir, whom the past weighs heavily on, but it is not shown through flashbacks which creates a lot of ambiguity. Though Vargas is technically the main character, Quinlan is infinitely more interesting. His friendship with his partner Menzies is a crucial emotional hook in the film, as he both protects him and uses him at the same time. Nothing Quinlan does can be easily evaluated in a moral sense.

Touch of Evil is a film I think I’ll have to see again to fully appreciate it; I got the sense that I could go through every shot and derive meaning from the lighting and how the characters are placed in the frame, but I clearly was not prepared to do that on a first viewing. Seeing the film in the theater was a rare treat and I’m glad I took it. It was interesting to try and dissect Quinlan, and obviously I was glad to finally see the rest of a movie that had started so wonderfully.

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” He was some kind of a man… What does it matter what you say about people?”

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For Further Reading:

Empire review
New York Times’ review
Roger Ebert “Great Movie” review