Saturday, February 27, 2016


There is an ephemeral grace to Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también that makes it easy to reduce to something simple and small, but that when chased after, reveals deeper meaning and an artful construction of a movie that at times feels like it has no construction at  all.

At it’s most basic, Y tu mamá también is a road trip and a coming-of-age story, both fairly standard and oft predictable genres. At its most grandiose, Y tu mamá también explores erotic identity, political engagement, and the biggest, darkest theme of all: death. It does most of this with a light touch, never once pushing any of these elements so far forward that they dominate. The underlying themes of the eroticism never overtake the erotica itself. More than anything, this is a sexy movie, but like, say, Bernardo Bertollucci’s The Dreamers, a sexy movie with meaning.

The Dreamers is a good comparison for another reason. That movie is a tribute to the French New Wave, and Bertollucci channels the techniques of 1960s cinema through a youthful story of sexual and political awakening. So too does Cuarón adopt the style and the spirit of those influential filmmakers to create something that is free and spontaneous and at its most virtuoso moments, a celebration of moviemaking itself. Released in 2001, and hinting very little at the director’s smart sci-fi blockbusters to come (namely, Children of Men [review] and Gravity [review]) in terms of scope, Cuarón already exhibits the casual mastery of technique that would be so impressive in those later films. Working with frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life [review]), he orchestrates long, unbroken scenes that rarely call attention to themselves. They aren’t used to deliver action, but rather are mostly used to probe the environment, to expose the details of the characters’ world by moving away from them and looking around. The one exception is the unforgettable dance sequence between actress Maribel Verdú (Pan’s Labyrinth [review], Tetro [review]) and, almost literally, the camera lens. Her eyes locked dead center, she dances like someone is watching, locking in the audience, seduction through control. Though much is made of her young co-stars, this scene alone explains why the actress got top billing: she’s the star.

Oh, but of those younger men. Y tu mamá también introduced the world at large to Diego Luna and Gael Garciá Bernal; these talented performers would go from Y tu mamá también to separately work with directors as renowned as Spielberg, Gondry, Korine, Jarmusch, Van Sant, and Almodovar. Here they play recent high-school graduates and best friends in Mexico, with Luna taking the role of Tenoch, the son of a rich politician, and Bernal playing Julio, the average son of a middle-class family. The boys are restless during their final summer before college, and spend most of it getting stoned and trying to get laid. It’s at a wedding that they meet Luissa (Verdú), the Spanish wife of one of Tenoch’s cousins. The horny pair invites her to go to the beach with them, promising to show her a beautiful cove so idyllic it’s been nicknamed Heaven’s Mouth. The locale is pure invention, but they haven’t a hope of luring the older woman to go its shores, so that really doesn’t matter.

Except, circumstances change for Luissa, and when she finds out her husband has been cheating on her, she decides to go with them after all. Their naïveté amuses her, and she takes advantage of their eagerness to please by probing them about their sexual adventures (such as they are) while they drive toward the coast in search of paradise. As they reveal more about what they do or do not know--and as she shares with them in equal measure--a sexual tension builds up, one that will eventually find a release.

This in itself would be enough for most filmmakers, but not for Cuarón. Co-written with his brother Carlos, Cuarón’s script for Y tu mamá también never forgets that there is more going on all around the three travelers. There are regular references to political unrest throughout Mexico, and even glimpses off it along the roadway. The travelers pass police checkpoints and people getting arrested, but remain mostly oblivious to the lives being altered within their view, carrying on with their sex talk as if somehow separate from the changing world. This in itself mimics most existences, we all drive on more concerned with our own situation than that of our fellow man. Yet, Cuarón mixes these macro details with the micro. The vacationers also drive by various rites of passage: a car full of newlyweds, a girl having her quinceañera, and a funeral procession. No matter how isolated the transitional experience of two teenage boys and an older woman may feel, the world carries on.

Which also fits the Nouvelle Vague ethos, particularly that of Jean-Luc Godard, who in movies like Masculin Feminin and La chinoise [review] would use the experiences of young people as a springboard to explore other things, to detail the political climate of his era, and expound on his own radical ideas. You could also say similar things of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude [review], another film about a young man having an affair with a (much) older woman set against political turmoil. Cuarón goes so far as to give Ashby’s movie a shout out. Y tu mamá también opens with Tenoch having sex with his girlfriend under a Harold and Maude poster.

Not that the reported protests and massacres ever interrupt or invade the getaway; rather, they are representative of the things that these three voyagers are putting off, the seriousness they will ignore and avoid as long as they can in much the same way they--and all of us--put off death. Cuarón regularly reminds us of this unavoidable fate, as well, with the narrator breaking in to tell us about different traffic accidents that happened in spots along the highway when the car passes. This voiceover interrupts regularly to inform us of things we would not otherwise know, filling in details from the past and present and even the future about all the characters. Rather than being overcompensating narration, however, it adds a poetic quality to Y tu mamá también, evoking the style of South American literature. In terms of presentation, it also calls to mind Godard again, the way Cuarón tweaks the sound, turning the volume down on the main audio to give his off-screen speaker the dominance. (It’s probably no coincidence that Luissa’s cheating husband is a writer, and his encouragement of Tenoch’s own literary aspirations gives us cause to wonder if maybe it’s this boy eventually turning their excursion into something more.)

In the end, though, these things all dissipate. Like sea foam, as Luissa might put it. It’s the connection she makes with the boys, and the things they share, that we will remember. Even if--or perhaps because of--their coming together also eventually drives them apart, we can assume it’s also something they can never forget, and perhaps the finality it engenders is because it’s a time of life that can never be replicated. They will always be remembering, always looking back, even as the next road opens up before them.

Included in this set alongside Y tu mamá también is a 2002 short film by co-writer Carlos Cuarón. Though far lighter in tone, You Owe Me One is a fine companion to the main feature, and perhaps should be watched as a lead-in for a full night of programming. The lark features an oversexed family going about their clandestine business on what we can assume is an average night in their home. The laughs are genuine and unforced, with Cuarón lacing together his scenarios with smart cues derived from the story itself. Double the pace, and this would be a screwball comedy, but as it is, it’s genial and fun.

Saturday, February 20, 2016


There is nothing sillier in love than trying to treat romance as a practical thing, yet that is exactly what the young married couple at the center of Preston Sturges’ 1942 screwball rom-com The Palm Beach Story attempt to do. Or more precisely, what Gerry (Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night [review]) attempts to do when her marriage to Tom (Joel McCrea, Foreign Correspondent [review]) hits rocky times. It’s from such complications that  Sturges prefers to draw his laughs. He is not concerned about the paradise most other love stories promise. On the contrary, he opens where those films usually end, a title card declaring that the newlyweds lived happily ever after...followed by a second that asks, “Or did they?”

It’s not that Gerry doesn’t love her husband, she does; it’s that Tom is a dreamer with a $99K scheme to build airports suspended over major cities like tennis rackets, where planes would land on metal strips. Tom and Gerry (hey, wait a minute!) have faith in the plan, but no one else does, and Tom’s pursuit of the dream has left them broke, to the point that their landlord is renting their apartment out from under them. The potential tenant, a near-deaf sausage tycoon (Robert Dudley), takes pity and gives Gerry the money she needs to pay the bills. His gesture also gives her an idea: leave Tom and find a millionaire willing to tie the knot. She can tell him Tom won’t grant a divorce until he gets his $99 thousand, thus getting her husband everything he wants. It’s a twisted O. Henry variation.

For much of The Palm Beach Story, this cockamamie plan takes a backseat to other comedic business, the best of which is Gerry’s long train ride to Palm Beach. She is adopted by a group of besotted rich men on their way to hunt. Calling themselves the Ale and Quail Club, these fellows kill more bottles of booze than they do birds, and wreak havoc by shooting up the train. Sturges-regular William Demarest (a.k.a. Uncle Charlie from the 1960s television show “My Three Sons”) stands out as the most vocal hunter, his emphatic declarations of “Bang-bang!” providing the 1940s equivalent of an SNL catchphrase.

It’s actually when Gerry is running from these drunk gunman that she meets her would-be second husband, the mega-wealthy J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee, also in Sturges’ darker marriage comedy, Unfaithfully Yours [review]). Hackensacker is endlessly patient and eternally pleasant, and he becomes smitten with what looks to him like a lost little girl, buying her a new wardrobe and taking her the rest of the way to her destination on his private yacht. Things get complicated once they return to dry land. Tom is waiting for them, having never signed on to Gerry’s plot, and they also run into Hackensacker’s hot-to-trot sister, the Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor, The Maltese Falcon [review]). Once Gerry insists Tom is her brother, things only get screwier from there.

Sturges has always had a light touch, but it’s also very precise. Famous for directing his movies by acting out all the dialogue for his actors, there is not a word in The Palm Beach Story out of place, nor a scenario that falls flat. The dialogue comes fast, but it’s also smooth, so the witticisms and turns of phrase ring clear. His command of language is only equaled by his command of his performers. Time and again, Sturges was able to make the most of Joel McCrea’s whitebread mannerisms, making him both the everyman and a parody of the same; Vallee is likewise uptight and strange, an early depiction of the eccentric millionaire. (Between him and the alcoholic hunters, and factoring in Tom’s aspirational endeavors, there is much we can hash out here about class and the American Dream, were we so inclined. Maybe another day....)

It’s the ladies whom the writer/director lets cut loose, which is kind of his signature (see Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve [review], or Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels [review]). Mary Astor is a hoot as the five-time divorcee on the prowl for her next husband. She is a gossip and a troublemaker, and though she knows she is overbearing, the Princess has absolute faith in her own charm. “I grow on people,” she tells Tom. “Like moss.”

The star of the show, though, really belongs to Colbert, who is genuinely charming and winning in all the right ways. Her earnestness often turns to devilishness, but that can also give way to genuine sympathy and concern for the man she loves. You can believe in her belief she is doing the right thing, and forgive her for being so blind.

Gerry’s misguided mission does, after all, gives us all the zany plot turns and clever gags that lead to Sturges’ preposterous ending. The conclusion of The Palm Beach Story is amusingly self-aware, and just plain funny--and once again, a kick in the crotch to all those other fairy tales. Sturges doubles the love, gives us the second happy ending, but then wonders again, “or did they?” I guess it’s up to how romantic you are whether or not you shoot back, “They did?!”

On a side note, in Criterion’s great tradition of reaching out to current artists and illustrators to design their covers, The Palm Beach Story’s cover and interior drawings are by famed Canadian cartoonist Maurice Vellekoop. Check out more of his work at his website.

Monday, February 15, 2016


NeoRealism meets noir in Giuseppe De Santis’ 1949 crime drama Bitter Rice.

The bulk of the story is set in the rice fields of Vercelli, a place nomadic workers travel to for 40 days at a time to harvest the current crop and plant the next one. It’s at the train yard the day the workers are supposed to ship off  where two thieves hope to mix in with the crowd and get away with stolen jewels. Except one of the pair, Walter (Vittorio Gassman, Big Deal on Madonna Street), has been made and the cops are on scene to nab him. He makes a run for it, leaving Francesca (Doris Dowling) with the loot. With the help of Silvana (Silvana Mangano, The Decameron [review]), Francesca gets a job with the rice crew--albeit an illegal one, since official contracts have all been handed out already. Silvana is experienced with the system, and is also experienced manipulating people. We are introduced to this spitfire when she is dancing in the train yard to a jazz tune playing on her portable record player. All attention turns to her. Like many a femme fatale before her, Silvana knows she is desired and takes the power that comes with it.

Only, the femme isn’t all that fatale. Or nearly as experienced as she thinks. Though she quickly susses out the truth about Francesca and why she is running away, Silvana is not prepared for the consequences of getting tangled up with dangerous people. When Walter comes looking for Francesca, he sets his eyes on the new girl. Silvana immediately forgets the cautionary tale that Francesca spun for her, about how Walter got his hooks in her and she can’t escape. He is a manipulator himself, and an abusive one at that. By the end of Bitter Rice, the women will have switched places. Francesca will learn the value of hard work, while Silvana will learn the downside of chasing a quick score.

There are many twists and reversals to be found as Bitter Rice progresses. The jewels change hands, Silvana tries to get Francesca kicked out of the camp, they make up and become friends--it’s both melodrama and pulpy crime. A handsome soldier, Marco (Raf Vallone), proves to be equal parts conscience and romantic distraction. And there is another heist yet to be planned.

Giuseppe De Santis creates a seductive amalgam of post-War Italian cinema and contemporary Hollywood Bs. His premise is rooted in reality, even if his plot is thoroughly hardboiled. Bitter Rice opens with a radio correspondent addressing the film-going audience and laying out all the details about Italy’s rice production and why the industry relies on women to do the picking (small, fast hands). The director could have easily made a film about the conditions of the migrant workers and the politics of the system, but rather than make a polemic, he uses the unique setting as his foundation. Rather than let the romantic quartet of criminals and their opposition be the sole focus, he lets the film breathe, moving away from their machinations to show us other characters. Bitter Rice has a large cast, and its narrative is brimming with life. We first see this early on, with the first of many beautiful tracking shots executed by De Santis and cinematographer Otello Martelli (a regular collaborator of Rossellini and Fellini, he shot both Paisan [review] and La dolce vita [review], among others). While seeking out the source of Francesca’s music, the camera pans across the train cars, and in every window, we catch glimpses of an individual existence. Each passenger is given action and purpose.

So, too, are the ladies that form the workforce at the rice fields. Several emerge as key players and return again and again. We see a lot of them in another elaborate, uncut take, as men come to the work site to catcall, and the ladies answer back, generally giving as good as they get (though, amusingly, Francesca is noticeably annoyed, as separate as ever). Again and again, De Santis will choreograph this kind of sequence to show us the full crowd, and to create a very real backdrop for the rest of his plot to play out.

Infused in all that are little nuggets about workers’ rights, fair treatment, class structure, and just general proper community behavior. Francesca initially takes to the work out of opportunity, but she bonds with the other women and comes to appreciate what it means to stick her hands in the soil and make something grow. Thus, when Walter starts to focus on the rice itself for his next crime, she can’t go along. She offers the age-old justification: when they stole from people who could afford it, it was okay, but stealing from people who toiled over something and leaving them nothing to show for it is despicable. (Never mind that several tons of rice doesn’t seem like the easiest thing to go fence. Walter doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who thinks things through.) While Mangano gets the showier performance--and with it, a different kind of attention from the camera--Dowling makes a more subtle transformation. With her perfect posture and dark eyes, she could be misconstrued as overly arch, but it fits Francesca, who begins the picture completely on guard, but ends it in a more empathetic place, yet without surrendering any of her strength.

The final half hour of Bitter Rice is an exceptional orchestration. As the workers plan to celebrate their last day with a wedding, Walter and his new gang put their scheme into motion. De Santis jumps around, taking in all the action, building tension, and then releasing all of his players to their fate. It’s quite riveting, and ultimately satisfying. Crime, as per usual, doesn’t pay, and virtue is rewarded, but that reward is hard earned. The final image of the film encapsulates all these things, with ultimate respect being paid to the more sustainable values, the things that Silvana once knew but has rebuked, and that Francesca has come to anew.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, February 13, 2016


For many, The New Land will be where Jan Troell’s two-part Swedish immigrant story set in 19th-century America really starts to take off. In many ways, The Emigrants [review] was merely preamble to get us here.

Released in 1972, a year after the previous entry, The New Land picks up the story of the Nilsson family almost immediately after the final scene in The Emigrants. Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow) has claimed a patch of riverside Minnesotan land as his own, and he’s bringing Kristina (Liv Ullman) and the kids, along with his younger brother Robert (Eddie Axberg), to start transforming it into a home and farm. The work will be hard, but it ends up being rewarding, and the Nilssons become part of a growing community of Swedish transplants.

Of course, the more people that come from the old country, the more the problems previously left behind that start to catch up with them. Believers in the Orthodox Church, for instance, begin to introduce the same pressure to believe along accepted lines back into the community worship. The new arrivals also start to assimilate well, though not always in the best way. One man takes a Native American as his wife, while also taking on the inherent racism that white Americans felt toward the “savages.” Troell doesn’t layer it on too thick, but he definitely sees the irony in the land of the free that denies freedom to others via the easy adoption of Manifest Destiny.

Much of what we see the Nilssons go through is fairly standard for this kind of tale. The building of the farm goes as expected, with the occasional setback, but mostly with positive progress. What sets The New Land apart is the core relationship between Karl Oskar and Kristina, who definitely strain at times to maintain harmony as they grow old together, but who genuinely try to be there for one another. As more kids keep coming, for instance, Kristina has trouble taking her pregnancies to term, and there is much to explore in what that means for their union and also how it tests their faith. Likewise, how that faith changes over time, with the notion that God helps those who help themselves taking precedence over leaving things entirely up to His will.

The weird thing about the ongoing additions to the family being so prominent is that Troell never gives any of the children an identity, and it’s never quite clear how many there are. They appear only rarely, and are mostly out of sight throughout The New Land. Troell doesn’t give the kids much thought or importance, which becomes abundantly clear as we see the parents aging at much more rapid pace than their progeny. Over a decade passes in this half of the story, yet none of the kids ever seem to become teenagers who could help work the land, even as their mother and father become stooped and frail.

In terms of side characters, Troell is far more interested in Robert and the dysfunctional fraternal relationship between him and Karl Oskar. Midway through the first act, shortly after the farm is on its feet, Robert and his buddy (Pierre Lindstedt) set course for California in search of gold. The younger man returns some years later, looking worse for wear but boasting much success--something Karl Oskar has a hard time believing. Through a set of intriguing flashbacks, Troell shows us the reality of the boy’s journey. These slices are immediately separated in style from the main narrative. There is a minimum of audible dialogue in Robert’s story, the director instead choosing to let music and sound effects take charge of the montage. Rhythmic percussion sets the pace for quickened storytelling, with the oddness of the audio perhaps intended to represent the hearing problems Robert suffers due to a beating he took when he was a farmhand in Sweden. As we discover, the younger brother got a much harsher dose of wilderness living than Karl Oskar, yet he still can’t quite prove himself to the elder sibling.

Troell also uses music to underscore some violent sequences in the film, though to a much less convincing effect. The Native Americans pushed out of Minnesota tried to reclaim their land through both legal means and, eventually, force. The preacher Danjel (Allen Edwall) and his family are attacked and killed, and Troell enlists composers Bengt Ernryd (the I am Curious... series) and Georg Oddner to drop a hallucinatory organ dirge on the scene, which creates an odd, dreamlike effect, calling back to a bad vision Kristina had about Native men invading her home earlier in The New Land. The music adds an almost horror-like element to the grisly murders, even as the performances fail the material. Let’s just say the Swedish actors don’t make the most of their death scenes.

This violence is followed by a somewhat plodding final act. The breaking of the peace casts a shroud of death over everything, and the Nilssons are pushed along the path to the inevitable. I don’t think Troell intended to juxtapose the heinous retaliation of the American government toward natives with Kristina’s ruined health, or to suggest that her illness is the result of bad karma; rather, it seems he’s intending to convey what a difficult life all the immigrants had chosen, how the conditions were far from the idyll the fanciful reports of the infant country conjured in their minds, but yet perhaps worth the struggle regardless. The whole film yellows from this literary jaundice, looking as ill as it did in the seasick portions of The Emigrants.

This is maybe the downside of the chosen dramatic structure. As the goal of the characters is to merely keep living, the film can only follow them until they don’t. The movie ends, but it’s a fade out that covers years. Life is nothing if not anticlimactic. Even so, there is still a sense of accomplishment, and the feeling of experience shared. Which is basically what we signed up for when hitting play on The Emigrants and The New Land, so in that, Jan Troell is very successful.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


"The greenest fields lie furthest away."

This is going to sound facetious, but it’s apt: Swedish director Jan Troell’s 1971/72 dual-header is essentially what we’d get if Werner Herzog were hired to direct The Lord of the Rings.

Bear with me.

Two very long (3 hours and up!) interconnected movies, neither of which is entire unto itself, detailing a long trek through unforgiving nature and an impossible but worthy goal. No magic, no fantasy, no indulgent effects showpieces; rather, harsh living, insurmountable odds, and an indifferent universe all plotting against people banded together to get from one end of the globe to the other.

Based on a book by Vilhelm Moberg, this ambitious adaptation by Troell (Everlasting Moments [review]) follows the Nilsson clan in the mid-19th Century as they pull up stakes in Sweden and head for America in search of the myth of a better life they’ve read about in newspapers and pamphlets. The journey begins with The Emigrants, which is essentially the events leading up to their decision to leave, their trip across the ocean, and then their further delving deep into the American heartland, destination Minnesota, to lay new stakes in the New World. Once they get there, the film is done, and what happens next is for the concluding volume.

Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal [review]) leads the cast as Karl Oskar, a farmer who can’t catch a break. One year the snow kills his crops, the next year a heat wave. He is married to Kristina (Liv Ullmann, Autumn Sonata [review]), and together they have three children--though that number will shift as the story carries on, both regressing and progressing. Fed up with what he considers cursed soil, Karl Oskar plots with his younger brother, Robert (Eddie Axberg, My Life as a Dog [review]), a slow-witted farmhand, to make the move. Though, as Karl Oskar is warned, once he has decided on this journey, he will discover he has far more relatives than he had previously realized. Kristina’s uncle Danjel (Allan Edwall, Fanny and Alexander [review]) has been leading his own Christian congregation, one separate from the dominant church, and he and his followers have been persecuted for it. He wants to go along and bring the faithful with him.

So it is that a rather healthy-sized group sets off to sail the Atlantic for a better tomorrow. The build-up comprises the first third of The Emigrants, and the sailing the second. Unsurprisingly, the passage the Nilssons can afford is not the best, and they are crammed into the hull of a ship with little food and no real ability to cope with the seas and disease. A much smaller group lands on the American shore, and the final third of the film goes along with them as they head by train and river for Minnesota, seemingly finding what they have been looking for.

Troell is content to let the story roll at its own pace, and his presentation is unadorned and naturalistic. Conditions are severe, and we feel the drudgery and the disappointment as things grow progressively more difficult and take more time. The nausea that dominates the ocean voyage practically comes through the screen. Try not to feel a little green around the gills yourself. Troell wants to re-create the time with a rigorous and exacting attention to detail, down to the small talk and diversions. The only bits that don’t come across as believable are the hairstyles, which change not at all over a 10-week voyage, and some of the American accents of the people they encounter upon landing. But those are pretty insignificant nits to pick.

Unsurprisingly, The Emigrants can be a bit of a struggle to watch, but not an unrewarding one. Though the pacing is slow, Troell packs the script, which he co-wrote with Bengt Forslund, his collaborator on Here is Your Life, with plenty of personal conflict, be it the difficulties of marriage or the clash of ideas, as opposing views of religion and rational thought criss-cross within the group. (In one excellent moment of ironic piety, we discover a reformed wanton woman (Monica Zetterlund) has gained the honest to goodness moral high ground without remotely tempering her personality.) These are brought to life by a fine cast, with the expected exceptional performances by von Sydow and Ullmann. He plays Karl Oskar as a man tripped-up by his own vanity (the American will is strong in this one!) but who generally wants to do what is right; she gives Kristina a foundation of concern and compassion, tempering her motherly instincts with a practicality her husband sometimes lacks. He is the dreamer, and she is the one who often has to find each dream’s shape.

So, strap in when you have a full night ahead of you, and maybe prepare to take a break when the intermission pops up midway through each feature. For as much as a commitment as these two can be, when you get to the end of The Emigrants, you’ll want to know what happens next.

Onward to The New Land

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, February 6, 2016


For decades now, going back to at least the 1980s when I was a kid, Japanese popular culture has steadily gained influence around the world. Anime, manga, and video games have become predominant art forms, with an aesthetic that eventually could be seen in American comics, cartoons, and movies. Perhaps the only modern movement to have more of a foothold is hip-hop--which itself has never been afraid to borrow from across the Pacific. Take a look, for example, at Pharrell Williams’ video for the song “It Girl.” Set to an anime backdrop featuring cute cartoon girls and colorful settings, the clip was produced by renowned artist Takashi Murakami, whose “superflat” fine arts brand has always borrowed from all of the above to create energetic pop art that has permanently altered the visual landscape.

Given the buoyant nature of Murakami’s creations and its source material, it’s only natural that he’d experiment in different media. So it was that he moved into feature-length motion pictures in 2013, directing Jellyfish Eyes, a sci-fi children’s adventure designed as a perfect vehicle for the artist’s visionary imaginings.

Jellyfish Eyes is a bit like a live-action Pokemon. It tells the story of Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), who after losing his father in a tragic accident, moves to a new town with his widowed mother. The night before his first day at school, the nervous boy stumbles upon an odd looking mini-monster whom he calls Jellyfish Boy. Like Elliot luring E.T. into his home with Reese’s Pieces, Jellyfish is enamored of Masashi’s chee-kama, a snack stick made from cheese and fish. Though surprised at first by the rubbery pink-and-white goblin, Masashi discovers his new pal is playful and fun, and so he adopts him as a pet, carrying him everywhere in his backpack. Even to school.

It’s in class that the boy discovers that all the kids in his new home have a creature like Jellyfish Boy. They also have small iPhone-like devices they can use to control them, and they have secret tournaments where their avatars fight. Unlike Masashi, they did not find their creatures by accident, but they were given to them by the mysterious scientific cabal running a nearby lab. Masashi’s uncle Naoto (Takumi Saito) works there. It’s through him that we discover that Jellyfish Boy is an escapee from the program that created the creatures, which are code-named F.R.I.E.N.D.s, a rather unruly acronym that stands for “life-Form Resonance Inner Energy Negagive emotion and Disaster prevention.”

That’s right, disaster prevention. Through means that aren’t entirely clear, the children and their F.R.I.E.N.D.s can stave off or harness other-dimensional bad energy. Energy that four black-cloaked rogue scientists in Naoto’s company want to take advantage of. It’s because of them that Jellyfish Boy has escaped. And it’s going to be up to Masashi and his little buddy to stop an even bigger monster from taking the town.

Jellyfish Eyes mashes together a variety of influences, including Godzilla [review] and countless anime series about young boys being pushed into a noble destiny by virtue of their command of something special (think, for instance, the teenage pilots operating giant mecha in Neon Genesis Evangelion). Girls get their due here, too, as Masashi’s first ally is Saki (Himeka Asami), who has the largest F.R.I.E.N.D., a hairy combo of Sweetums from TheMuppets and Spike Jonze’s take on the Wild Things. Murakami does fall a bit on familiar tropes, as the girl is of course the voice of reason among the bloodthirsty boys, but then, Jellyfish Eyes is lathered in genre trappings. The cloaked masterminds look like wizards out of a horror movie, while Naoto is caught in a cautionary sci-fi tale. In a clever twist, he ends up having to fight a F.R.I.E.N.D. that is an exact replica of himself. It all comes down to Jellyfish and Masashi, however. Like Pikachu before him, Jellyfish turns out to be as important and powerful as he his cute and diminutive. And Masashi will have to give up everything in order to save the world.

It’s all rather fun, but not entirely unique. The arc is familiar, and Murakami’s screenwriters don’t add anything to the genre. It’s really only Murakami’s colorful designs, and the exquisite digital animation that brings them to life, that distinguishes Jellyfish Eyes from any number of similar features. (Stephen Chow’s terrible CJ7 comes to mind [review]). Each F.R.I.E.N.D. is different, there are no two alike, and they are distinctively Murakami. Jellyfish Boy flies using the pink artichoke leaves on his head; he coos like a kitten when happy, snorts like a bull when triumphant. The action in the fight sequences is fast and energetic, and viewed in high-def, one can really appreciate the craft with which Murakami’s team brings it all together.

That said, Jellyfish Eyes still is little more than a trifle. The same movie made with a less revered practitioner at the helm wouldn’t have likely been imported around the world, much less added to the Criterion Collection. It doesn’t have that certain something special, it just is what it is.

Which I suppose is enough, especially when Murakami ultimately delivers his message of peace and understanding. The children eventually learn to respect nature, not to use living things as violent toys for their amusement, and to get along with one another rather than compete. (In one tremendous set-up near the climax, one schoolboy leads his entire class in a coordinated attack, sending their swarm of F.R.I.E.N.D.s  up against the big bad.) And like the aforementioned Godzilla, Jellyfish Eyes cautions against using science irresponsibly.

In all that, it may have more resonance with younger audiences; as an older fellow, it failed to charm me into that childlike state the way a more equipped filmmaker like, say, Hayao Miyazaki can. Jellyfish Eyes is basically a well-presented diversion--particularly in this package. The transfer is top-notch, and the sound design takes full advantage of the multiple speakers. Special effects fiends will also enjoy the pair of documentaries looking at the making of the movie and its invented stars.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Friday, February 5, 2016


1960s New Wave cinema certainly loved the emerging ideal of a modern “it” girl and the travails she suffered on the way to adulthood, as the swinging lifestyle revealed perhaps how the cultural revolution had not necessarily turned as far as it could have (or should have). Joining the titular actress in Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 and Goya in Godard’s Masculin feminin, Stefania Sandrelli’s Adriana from I Knew Her Well is another young lady whose liberation comes with consequences, whose choices don’t always add up, and yet who deserves more. She charms the audience more than perhaps she charms the predatory men who promise her access to bigger and better things. So much so, she often looks directly at us, a knowing look in her eye, self-reflective, daring her observers to judge her harshly or, at least, with a greater moral authority than she already judges herself.

Released in 1965 and both directed and co-written by Antonio Pietrangeli (The Visitor [review]), I Knew Her Well is a portrayal of a segment of time, though it is itself unconcerned with time’s exactness. In terms of narrative, the hours and days are immaterial. We move from episode to episode with little orientation. There are breathers here and there, such as when Adriana leaves Rome to visit her family in the country--our only real hint of her origin--but otherwise we are caught up in her beguiling endeavors. She goes from party to party, man to man, auditioning for modeling jobs and for paramours, finding a laugh in almost everything, attracted to life and the people in it as much as they are generally attracted to her. All set to a pop music soundtrack, an early use of a contemporary tunes to drive the story, the jaunty ballads acting as a kind of Greek chorus, the way they do so often in life.

Adriana’s goals seem simple, and also relevant. For lack of a better description, she wants to be famous, and if she can’t pull that, she wants to at least have a good time. There are steps to this. When we first meet her, she is working in a beauty parlor in a seaside town, saving money to buy some publicity. The girl manages to travel a lot, and she manages to get herself to the right parties. Pietrangeli and his director of photography, Armando Nannuzzi (Mafioso [review]), follow her, observing how she acts in the different locations. She makes eyes at a movie star, dances with a musician, stomps away from her lecherous agent, the would-be pimp that he is. The camera doesn’t keep a consistent distance, but there are noticeable visual shifts. Those aforementioned close-ups come at more emotional junctures, an implied intimacy with the audience. At other times, our own lustful gaze turns to melancholy and pity, as Adriana turns away from us, lounging mournfully during bouts of loneliness or regret.

But then, one might also consider that she turns away from herself. In one striking scene, both sides of Adriana’s life are encapsulated in one relationship. She is on holiday with a writer (Joachim Fuchsberger), a fussy individual who is his own unique character. Tellingly, this man won’t dance or swim, and he refuses to let Adriana listen to the radio. He’s no fun, but his stiffness forces introspection. He belittles and rebukes her, and then makes up with her quickly, psychologically diagnosing her as someone who is constantly seeking the companionship of others to avoid having to be herself. He ends by saying this may make her “the wisest of all,” and he’s not exactly wrong. If Adriana were alive today, she’d have a hell of an Instagram account.

And probably a similar list of terrible lovers. She is the target of carnivorous husbands and bosses, leering old men and groping boys, opportunistic publicists and agents, con artists and thieves. The only sweet and genuine person she encounters is the one who isn’t an intellectual--the unsuccessful boxer Lunk (Mario Adorf, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [review]), whom she meets briefly, has an honest exchange with, and then abandons. She doesn’t see the effect she has on him, but we do. It’s a sweet scene, but also illuminating. From it, we can extrapolate just how much better it would be for Adriana if she realized how wonderful she can be when all pretense is gone.

There is no pretense in Sandrelli’s performance. The actress, who can also be seen in the Pietro Germi films in the Criterion Collection, is a natural presence on screen. She is effortlessly alluring, inviting the audience to watch, revealing her inner character through glances and gestures, particularly the ones that play against what she may be saying or doing. She was born to be a star.

Though narratively I Knew Her Well brings to mind the aforementioned Godard and Varda efforts, in terms of setting, the Italian film draws earned comparisons to its country-fellow, Fellini’s La dolce vita [review], particularly for its depiction of life in Rome at the time. Though Adriana is several steps down in status from the movie stars and players of that earlier effort, we know that Marcello and Sylvia are out there somewhere on the periphery. Too bad they couldn’t take Adriana under their wings and teach her how to deal with the hangover of all this excess a little bit more; then maybe I Knew Her Well wouldn’t have such a shocking ending. Its tragic nature is strangely unsettling, and ends up being hard to shake, nearly blotting out the humor and the joy that marked so much more of the film.

I Knew Her Well is sumptuous and seductive. Though it seems long forgotten, this hidden gem of mid-60s cinema has been unearthed at last. It is as bright and dazzling a bauble as you’re likely to find, but also provocative and daunting. It twinkles with story. Don’t hesitate to seek it out.

The disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.