Written for the screen by Quiara Alegría Hudes, based on the concept and musical stage play by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and directed by Jon M. Chu, “In The Heights” is an urban musical that takes place in one of New York City’s Latino Neighborhoods, Washington Heights. This was the first movie that I have seen in theatres since February of 2020 when some friends and I went to see the “Sonic The Hedgehog” movie on a lark. Thankfully, that one is no longer “The last movie I saw in theatres”, and as a plus- “In The Heights” was truly a delight! The story follows two sets of couples in ‘the heights’, the main storyline of Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and the most dedicated side story of the film, Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins). Though there a LOT of smaller beats focusing on specific members of the community including Nina’s father, Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), Usnavi’s cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), and most importantly, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) the Matriarch of the barrio.
Usnavi begins the film on a tropical beach explaining his Sueñito, or little dream, to a couple of wide-eyed children. He tells them the tale of a nigh magical place at the top of Nueva York that was disappearing when he used to live there, Washington Heights. Over the course of the film we learn of many Sueñitos that the people of the Heights hold dearly. Usnavi dreams of returning to the country of his youth, the Dominican Republic, and opening a shop like his father before him. Vanessa dreams of becoming a successful fashion designer downtown. Nina has some deep anxiety over dropping out of an elite Ivy League College as many in the community projected their hopes and dreams onto her, most describe her as the best of us. Benny, who works for Nina’s father, just wants Nina to succeed and be the best version of herself. Though, I must say that while all of the major characters have interesting and thoughtful journeys, they all got outstaged by Abuela Claudia’s third act song during the Blackout- which by the way, is used as event in time that we are constantly being told is coming, three days til blackout, two days until etc. If you aren’t touched in some way by Abuela Claudia’s song, then I don’t know what to tell you- but something is wrong. On the filmmaking side of things, I was frequently taking mental notes of how impressive and energetic the choreography of the dance sequences were throughout the film. I also really appreciated the few times that the film embraced a sense of magical realism within the songs. You know, characters performing impossible feats while in song and dance like dancing on the side of a building, and I appreciated these little touches of dream-logic seeping into some aspects of the film.
Of all the movies in theaters at the moment, I wanted to choose my return to the theatrical exhibition experience with care. For me, this was a celebratory reunion with my personal mecca, the movie theater. So, I wanted to pick something that felt paired with this moment. Not just a reunion of going to the movies, but a reminder of all the things we didn’t have in the same way over the last year and a half. “In The Heights” is a celebration of community, family, identity, our hopes, our dreams, and our collective struggles and shared losses. Besides, its the beginning of summer, and not just any summer but the start of one where we’re all itching to get back to normal- and what’s more normal than wanting to watch beautiful people sing and dance and enjoy the passion of life? “In The Heights” is a charming and highly entertaining musical, and I personally recommend it giving it a watch, especially on the big screen.
Final Score: 1 neighborhood vendor who sells ice-cold piragua
Written by Sung-bo Shim and Bong Joon Ho, based on a play by Kwang-rim Kim, and directed by Bong Joon Ho, “Memories of Murder” is a loose adaption of the events surrounding South Korea’s first recorded serial killer. The film follows the detectives in charge of the case, though while it’s more of an ensemble in nature we do mostly focus on two of the detectives, namely Park Doo-man (Kang-ho Song) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung). If there was a lead for the film, it would undoubtedly be Park Doo-man, he’s the detective that discovers the first body, and the one whose life we see most of outside of the Police Station. Detective Deo Tae-yoon isn’t brought in until later, he’s the young Detective sent from the big city to assist in analysis of, and the search for, the killer. There are other important characters that layer the proceedings and give the story crucial beats, like Detective Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim) who serves as an example of the extreme frustration the Detectives are dealing with as the film’s protagonists become more strained and drained as the case lingers on without progress. There’s also the steadfast chief of police in the elder Shin Dong-chul (Jae-ho Song), and the frustratingly ignored Officer Kwon Kwi-ok (Seo-hie Ko), the only female cop involved in the proceedings whose more diligent intuitions are scoffed at a bit. Set in the early 1980’s when the majority of the killings took place, the themes and tone of the story match the ebb and flow of the film perfectly, even down to the color grading. The film opens on a golden field with Park Doo-man stumbling across a dead body straight out of a David Lynch film, something truly horrifying lurking just beneath a sunny disposition.
Okay, so I know in my last article I noted that I’d be attempting to get caught up in the recent Oscar winners and nominees that I haven’t seen yet- but the Criterion Collection went and released a physical copy of this hard-to-find Bong Joon Ho classic and after a first watch I knew it had to be the next thing I wrote about here. So, the Oscar movies will come eventually- some are hard to find though. In the meantime, we have this gloriously crafted film to tide us over (and possibly the ‘Samurai trilogy’ starring the legendary Toshiro Mifune if I can’t hold back from the 3 film binge-watch). Anyways, back to the film at hand. “Memories of Murder” is essentially a police procedural about police with no procedures. I can’t take credit for that line specifically, but it rings so true to the essence of the film that I lifted it for this review- though I cannot remember the initial place I heard or read it. There’s so much I could cover in this review, but as a whole the one thing that stood out to me above all else, over and over again, was that there was an auteur behind the camera lens. “Memories of Murder” feels like an instant classic, even to a greater degree than Bong Joon Ho’s later films like “Mother” or “The Host”. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this review from the legendary YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” where the video essayist tackles a crucial aspect to “Memories of Murder”, ensemble staging. I highly recommend giving that a watch, it’s one-hundred percent on point in my opinion. Bong Joon Ho masterfully places his actors with an emphasis on character evolutions, the power dynamics of any given scene, and a critique on the systems of power that allowed this insanity to thrive in the first place. It’s all there on the screen if you’re looking for it. None of it feels forced, or overly cheeky, it doesn’t call attention to itself either. It’s just damn good directing. Beyond the directing, the film excels in drawing you in with a lighter tone overall in the first half of the film. There’s some truly comedic stuff at the beginning, a whole crime scene is upended by a lack of protocols, no control over the situation from those in charge, and destruction of evidence from locals and unruly reporters barging in. That scene also has some masterful camera movement, keep any eye out for stumbling forensic agents, you’ll know it when you see it. The second half is where it truly steps into a whole other level of film though. Things are getting tough, the team not only attacks their suspects out of complete lack of progress and a struggle to keep any witnesses they do acquire alive (don’t worry, no deliberate killing from the police force), they strike out because they don’t know how to handle the situation. The whole tone of the film running into the third act feels unnerving. Characters who scoffed at brutal tactics earlier in the film resort to the cathartic but unsuccessful methods, and other characters that were incredibly confident become mired in doubt and hesitancy.
While the characters make some progress in tracking down the killer, what they do achieve feels superficial at best. While attempting to understand the serial killer’s process, they discover that the killer only comes out to prey on women when it’s raining, and he always calls in a specific song to the local radio station. The film converts you into believing that a specific suspect who fits several of their collective hunches so incredibly well, that when concrete evidence denies them that satisfaction of closing the case, you may find yourself siding with the detective who’s about to shoot an innocent man. The film has a lot going for it from the more analytical filmmaking notes like blocking, shot framing, ensemble staging and color grading, to the purely popular entertainment value in these detectives’ search for justice and just how fiercely this wrought their very lives and the mindset of South Korea as a whole. I knew going into the film that the real killer had not been caught or discovered by the time the film was released in 2003- in fact the South Korean public wouldn’t get an answer until 2019 when Bong Joon Ho’s international fame was hitting an incredible high for winning Best Picture and Best Director for “Parasite” (review here:https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/01/30/review-parasite/) The killer had apparently already been imprisoned for another crime later in the 1990’s and he revealed that he had actually seen this film, but in typical serial killer fashion, the guy was a weirdo with a weird response. Check out the following link to an article that the Criterion Collection wrote up about that subject (spoilers for this film and others in Bong Joon Ho’s oeuvre: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/7361-memories-of-murder-in-the-killing-jar#:~:text=Thirty%2Dthree%20years%20after%20the,a%201994%20crime%20in%20another).
There’s not really much more I can say without revealing all of the film’s secrets and nuances, but it is one I highly recommend you give a chance. It’s smart, quite funny at times, harrowing, incredibly sad, and the last shot of the film will leave you with horrific implications of unchecked evil in the world. Oh, and I can’t leave without noting the incredible number of dropkicks performed by nearly all of the Detectives at one point or another throughout the film. Each one elicited a euphoric laugh from me personally, no one expects the dropkick. If you’re a student of film, I urge you to watch and learn.
Written and directed by Orson Welles, based on a novel by Sherwood King, “The Lady From Shanghai” is the second noir film from Welles that not only showcases his strengths in production, set-pieces, and direction, but also his weaknesses at this point in his career in writing with some questionable performance choices. Out of all the films I’ve seen from Orson Welles, this one is definitely the film I am most mixed on. The first forty minutes are rough. If you’re into overly melodramatic and cheesy line delivery by both Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, then you’ll love it. I was not so entertained by this portion of the film. What may have contributed to the overly mushy and almost disgusting levels of romanticizing in this portion of the film is the fact that Welles was married to Hayworth during the shoot, even though they were heading towards divorce after the film’s release. The general story that the film is trying to tell is that of Michael O’Hara (Welles), an Irish Sailor with a penchent for talking a bit too much at times, who saves Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) from a group of thugs in Central Park New York while on a carriage ride. She informs him that she and her husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) had just arrived from Shanghai and intend to sail to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal, after which she offers him a job on their ship for saving her life earlier. He agrees against his better judgement (We learn through the character’s seemingly ever present narration), and they set off to sea.
As far as noirs go, this one has all of the right ingredients, it just takes its merry time setting up all of the pieces. The mysterious machinations of both Bannisters is toyed with as the journey goes along. However, Arthur eventually gets suspicious of the comfortable nature that Elsa and Michael exude and he hires Sidney Broome (Ted de Corsia), a divorce-themed detective to follow them and investigate. Then there’s Arthur’s business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders). Grisby may be my favorite performance in the film because nearly ALL of his acting choices feel completely bonkers for the film he’s in, but hey, it was fun. Anyways, Grisby catches O’Hara in the act of courting Elsa and uses that information to force O’Hara to help him fake his own death so he can get the insurance money and live abroad in hiding. O’Hara blindly accepts, not knowing the true extent of Grisby’s plan, but the offer of $5,000 for faking a murder was enough for him to go along for the time being. Unfortunately for Grisby, Broome had been following along and digging into all of the principal characters motivations and backgrounds, which brought him to the truth. He figured out that Grisby had been planning on killing Arthur instead and pinning it on O’Hara. When confronting Grisby- Broome’s mortally wounded, but stays alive long enough to warn O’Hara and Elsa over the phone and in person of the truth. Everything comes undone when Grisby is found actually dead, not Arthur, of whom O’Hara had rushed to save- unfortunately with his confession written by Grisby on his person. There’s a courtroom scene where Arthur defends O’Hara, but also discovers the extent of O’Hara and Elsa’s affair. Eventually O’Hara makes a suicide attempt in a huge commotion in the court and escapes in the confusion. All three major characters end up in a house of mirrors, each armed with pistols, a will to survive, and an urge to kill.
I have yet to see the film that Welles’s made inbetween this film’s release and “The Magnificent Ambersons”, “The Stranger”, which was his first foray into the noir genre. Reportedly that film had several different writing contributers including an uncredited effort by John Huston. I have to say though that while this film is worth a watch, the deficiencies of the scriptwork suggests that the film “Mank”s titular argument of sole writing credit for “Citizen Kane” being mostly due to the talent of Herman J. Mankiewicz rings doubly true. The script and line delivery are curious at best. Orson Welles’ Irish accent goes in and out throughout the whole of the film, and when he seemingly remembers that he’s supposed to be playing an Irishman, the brogue is impeccably laughable. No, the writing is not what works here- it’s Orson’s set-pieces and technical imagery maneuvers in the back half of the film, but particularly in the last fifteen to twenty minutes that make this film worth watching. Once Grisby shows up dead and Orson’s O’Hara is on the run, the film’s spirit rises from floundering to fantastic.
Overall this is a decent noir and one with some truly impeccable imagery from Orson Welles behind the camera. It’s just too bad that the first half of the film takes its time with some truly cringe-inducing romance between real husband and wife Welles and Hayworth. If you really enjoyed the second half of this noir, I would implore you to check out Welles later effort in the genre in “Touch of Evil” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/11/07/old-school-review-touch-of-evil-1958/). That film is a far better example of what the infamous auteur is capable of. Though, to be fair, I can only recommend the “reconstructed” version of that film which was re-edited to Welles’ notes and specifications decades later.
Final Score: 1 Easy to Miss Background Cameo of Errol Flynn
Written for the screen by Millard Kaufman, and adapted by Don McGuire, from the short story “Bad Time at Honda” by Howard Breslin, and directed by John Sturges, “Bad Day at Black Rock” has elements of both noir and western as an inquisitve one-armed man comes to the small desert town of Black Rock in search of answers. Admittedly, when hitting play on this movie, I had fully expected a nineteenth century western to appear before my eyes mostly due to the title alone. What I got was an unexpected delight, as those assumptions had eroded fairly quickly as the opening of the film was following a train that was far too modern to be of the old west. The first hint of something odd afoot is when the train station telegrapher, Mr. Hastings (Russell Collins) seems surprised, and maybe even a bit worried, that the Train is slowing down to stop, the first time it has done so in four years.
After watching the complex and daunting (yet very impressive) “Tenet” earlier in the week, I was left wanting something slower and simpler. Which is exactly what I got with this film. At an hour and twenty minutes, this film offered me both something old and something new. I was very engaged by the mystery that the film wraps you in almost immediately, but it also has just enough of that Noir flavor sprinkled in to really set this one aside as slightly elevated nostalgia genre fare. For me, this film was comfort food. For about a third to the first half of the story, we really don’t know the intentions of either the townsfolk or this stranger, John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). All we know is that he’s searching for a Japanese American farmer named Komoko, and that everyone in town is suspicious of him once he starts asking around. At first I thought that the townsfolk might actually be protecting Komoko as one of their own from this Macreedy, possibly a government stooge? He had the suit for it, but as it turns out I wasn’t even close on first impressions as it became evidently clear what the truth of the situation was. Everyone in town tries to stall Macreedy at every turn, from not offering him a hotel room, physically getting in his way, to curt and aggressive social tactics. After awhile a young woman in town, Liz Wirth (Anne Francis) allows Macreedy to borrow her jeep to the disdain of Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the unofficial ruler of this small town. Macreedy makes his way out to Adobe Flats, where he finds the remains of a charred house, a well with water deep in the bottom, and strangely enough, wildflowers growing.
On his way back into town Macreedy’s assailed by one of Smith’s goons, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), as he rams the small jeep around the uneven dirt road and eventually smashes Macreedy off the road with a laugh and a glare before beating him back to town. Eventually Macreedy puts enough clues together to get a good idea of what happened to Komoko, but he goes out of his way to confirm that before he and several good townsfolk acknowledge the real danger that Macreedy’s gotten himself into. I was particularly entertained by the exasperated, but good natured, Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) as he tries his best to help out Macreedy in his search for truth, and justice for Komoko. This was a quick delight of a film, and it’s wondrously anti-racist at it’s core. In fact the film almost didn’t get made as the subtle rebuke of Mccarthyism gave studio executives a myriad of problems on the matter, but it eventually got made in spite of this pushback. During my watch I was charmed by the old school mentality of an able-bodied actor with two working limbs trying to fake a lame one throughout the film production. They don’t make movies like that anymore, and while it could be a partial limb that the character was hiding, it’s pretty clear that Spencer Tracy’s just got his hand in his pocket the whole movie, but hey, it still gave the character more mystique initially. We eventually discover that he was a platoon leader in Italy during the war, which is fresh in everyone’s minds as this film is set in late 1945 after the war had just ended mere months ago. We eventually discover the humility and morality behind Macreedy’s reasoning in seeking out Komoko, but I’ll leave that one for you to discover on your own. There’s also a surprising and explosive scene in which Macreedy performs defensive judo moves on Coley Trimble under threat of intimidation tactics, and that alone would cover the price of admission for me. I found this one on the Criterion Channel, but it’s one that will be leaving at the end of the month, so check it out there while you can!
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, “Tenet” is a high concept spy thriller that’s technically fascinating and very impressive on the filmmaking side of things- but narratively it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The film is now available for video release, so I finally sat down and gave this highly anticipated one a watch. I have to say, while I’m not really sour on the film, I am merely in a state of confusion about it overall. This is Christopher Nolan’s most jarring film for me to date. The highs are very high, but there are so many questionable story tactics displayed throughout the film that I really do need to see it a second, third, maybe even fourth time to understand it better. Maybe that’s just me, but let’s dive into a discussion about the story at hand first. The first thing that hits you over the head with this film is just how fast the pacing is, it doesn’t stop to let you blink or breath at all before taking off to the next scene. The opening scene takes place in an opera house in Ukraine where the protagonist (John David Washington) is introduced as a CIA agent participating in a raid on the packed music hall, covertly. If you’re wondering why I didn’t name John David Washington’s character, it’s because he has no name, he’s just the protagonist. Things don’t go so well for him as he and his team are captured and our protagonist has his all of his teeth pulled out in a trainyard torture scene before the titlecard arrives. Pretty bad day, even worse as he fights to eat a suicide capsule to avoid giving up his team, and succeeds. At least, he believes he should be dead. It was just a pill that put him in a medically induced coma, a “test” from the agency, and one that he passed. From there he’s given a briefing on his latest mission, to save the world from certain doom. He’s only given two pieces of information, a word, Tenet; and a symbol of interlocking fingers. From there he’s sent on his globe trotting investigation to track down any and all possible leads, starting with a visit with the character who I like to call “the scientist of exposition” (Clémence Poésy).
This curt yet concise scientist then describes the high-concept idea that governs the rest of the film’s logic. She shows the protagonist how to interact with items, in this case bullets, that have been inverted by some future technology sent back in time. She puts it plainly, “you’re not shooting the bullet; you’re catching it”. From there he’s pointed to a powerful arms dealer in India, Priya (Dimple Kapadia). To gain access to her for information on Tenet, the protagonist is aided by an inside man with knowledge on the international crime market, Neil (Robert Pattinson). Together they break into the towering fortress that Priya has holed herself away in and discover that she sold ammunition to a Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who had the cartridges inverted. To get to Sator, they attempt to go through his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), an art collector and expert. I’ll leave the plot description there, I don’t want to spoil it any further, but I feel that’s enough to get a direction of where the film is headed (well, maybe not quite, but it at least decribes who the major players in the story are). Personally speaking, I could understand the broad strokes of what was happening but from scene to scene the logic of what was happening was not easily digestible. Which is saying something as I rarely ever have a hard time understanding what’s going on in a movie at this point. I’m not trying to humblebrag my way into a justifiably negative outlook on the film or anything like that, I’m just saying that if I had a hard time following the story- I can only imagine what kind of experience the casual moviegoer had with this one. This is different from the rhetoric around Nolan’s other high concept spy film, “Inception”- which I understood the story of the first time around and found it to be a much more enjoyable film experience. That’s not to say this is a bad film by any means, it’s just a bit of a mess at times.
This is a film that’s got so many things going for it, that I can hardly knock it for narrative comprehension- but that did have an effect on my time with the film. There are some seriously great sequences throughout the film. There are intricate heists, some excellent fight scenes, thrilling car chases, there’s a lot of really fantastic stuff that I truly wish I could have seen on the big screen over the summer- but hey, it is what it is. The performances from the actors is top notch, very quick-witted and technical, but nowhere near as much thorough characterization as I would have liked. This is probably the best role I’ve seen from Elizabeth Debicki, and I really enjoyed both John David Washington and Robert Pattinson’s performances- they shared a palpable chemistry that evolved as the film went on. Kenneth Branagh also delivered a very good villian in Sator, I really enjoyed the menace and danger that he brought to the story. I also have to applaud the reliance on practical effects, the film felt as big as it looked with a tangible sense of scale and urgency. Though Nolan’s sound mixing still detract’s from the film’s clarity a bit, it’s just too much in some scenes. Overall, this is a good film, with some flaws that could erode after multiple viewings, but only time will tell on that front. I do recommend giving it a watch, or three.
Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to return to Japanese cinema. Specifically the films of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. With both infamous directors having styles on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum, I figured I’d find some commonality between two films, one from each, and go from there. I finally landed on “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” by Ozu and “Drunken Angel” from Kurosawa. Both films are black and white postwar films that take place in Tokyo, and that’s enough for me. I’m especially looking forward to “Drunken Angel” as it was Toshiro Mifune’s first pairing with Akira Kurosawa in cinema. Though I have heard excellent things about Ozu’s film as well! Let’s dive in!
Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujirô Ozu, and directed by Ozu, “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” is similar to almost every other film that Ozu has directed in his time, which usually involves familial drama. Ozu’s works mostly focus on a particular aspect of interpersonal social situations within the family dynamic that are played out to charming, often melancholic, and sometimes horrifically depressing, effect. “The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice” falls into the charming but a bit melancholy category. It’s a fine film, particularly due to Ozu’s directorial touch, but it’s not quite as fufilling as his late ‘Master Period‘ that I dove into earlier back in quarantine (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/06/18/quarantine-2020-catch-up-rapid-fire-reviews-5-yasujiro-ozus-master-period/). As in every Ozu film, there is no typical lead character at the forefront, it’s an ensemble that focuses mostly on the Satake family, but with flourishes of family friends and close associates. The brunt of the initial plot progression rests on the shoulders of the young niece of Taeko (Michiyo Kogure) and Mokichi (Shin Saburi) Satake, Setsuko (Keiko Tsushima) who fiercely opposes her parents’ demand that she participate in the traditional arranged wedding. However, once Setsuko decides to hide out at her aunt and uncles to avoid this outcome, both Taeko and Mokichi look inward and take stock of their own faltering marriage that was also arranged.
Throughout the film both Taeko and Mokichi are presented one way, then their layers of personality and true selves slowly emerge as the story goes on. Though, admittedly Taeko’s evolution is more abrupt and not as easy to digest- at least for me. It may take a rewatch to better unerstand her character’s evolution across the movie but for the majority of her time onscreen she behaves as a selfish socialite with no empathy. It isn’t until late in the film when Mokichi tries to explain the differences between them and why that may be. He’s willing to behave and act the way she wants him to, but he falls into old habits without thinking about it, like taking the economy class on the train because he prefers it to first class, or smoking a cheap brand of cigarettes not because they’re cheap but because he just likes them that way. Or pouring his stew over his rice, which she detests as it’s not proper. She was raised in an upper class lifestyle in Tokyo, and he was raised in a working class family in the country. After Mokichi is assigned to an abrupt relocation to Montevideo in Uruguay for his company, Taeko finally protests (not knowing of his immediate reassignment) her “Bonehead” husband and takes off to a friend’s place out of town for a few days. She hears of his reassignment, but decides to stay and not see him off to Uruguay. She returns after he leaves and has time to let his assessment of their marriage absorb for a couple hours until he walks back through the door unexpectedly, the plane had experienced some engine troubles. Thus right when you expect a reckoning between the two, a hashing out of both of their ideologies and actions- they instead have a tender late night snack in their kitchen together as they try to find ingredients and utensils without waking up their maid. While they eat, and later as Taeko retells the exchange to her friends and family after Mokichi leaves the next morning, Taeko has an epiphany about her husband’s nature through simplicity. They agree that marriage doesn’t need to be all about social expectations or a bourgeois way of life, but rather through authenticity and humility- something as simple as green tea over rice.
Ozu was never one to have an explosive argument where one might expect such an outburst, in fact this may be his most restrained film (of the ones I have seen thus far). Even the smallest of emotions or dialogue gets an equal amount of respect and devotion. The script and direction do not judge their characters even when they’re acting out like children. I shouldn’t have expected a blowout between Taeko and Mokichi, but everything that had happened in the film up until then would suggest such a scene. Instead Ozu has Taeko re-evalute her husband’s self-compsure and reliability as strengths, not weaknesses as she thought before. As for the filmmaking itself, I was quite surprised to see Ozu move the camera, at all! This film has the most camera movement that I’ve seen from Ozu, granted they were just a lot of push inserts and pull outs, but still! This film also may have had the greatest variety of scenes set outside of the home, Ozu’s main setting in each of his films. Characters go to bicycle races, a Pachinko parlor (which results in a delightful but short appearance of the great Ozu regular Chishû Ryû as a wartime friend of Shin Saburi’s Mokichi!), a Kabuki theater, and several ramen shops. There’s also quite the influence of American consumerism since this is a post-war film set in Tokyo, though Ozu’s “Good Morning” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/05/31/old-school-review-good-morning-1959/) had this hashed out in a more prominent way. I think this is a fine film from Ozu, it may not reach the heights of some of his great films, but I’d still recommend it. To be fair though, I would not recommend this as your first Ozu movie, I’d suggest either “Tokyo Story”, “Good Morning”, or “Floating Weeds” (1959) instead.
Final Score: 2 bowls of Ramen
Written by Keinosuke Uekusa and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “Drunken Angel” is the fiery introduction of a pairing of actors that Kurosawa would employ many more times throughout his filmmaking career with Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. While this was the first role that Mifune would take on with the bravura director, many staples of his future characters appear more forthright in Takashi Shimura’s Doctor Sanada. Sanada is a loud, brash, and temperamental Physician who attacks his patients’ problems as if he’s personally going to war with each illness, but at his core he has an unyielding set of principles and of doing the right thing despite the challenges. He even has a similar lack of empathy for anyone that has a subservient attitude or a sacrificial personality, something that would come to be a cornerstone of legendary Mifune characters like the legendary ronin, Yojimbo (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2018/02/02/old-school-review-akira-kurosawas-yojimbo-1961/). The good doctor has no patience for people that won’t take initiative to solve their problems, and this surprised me as I’m mostly familiar with Shimura’s later work with Kurosawa like “Ikiru” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2017/11/03/old-school-review-ikiru/) or the Woodcutter in “Rashomon” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/01/10/old-school-review-rashomon-1950/). Toshiro Mifune’s Matsunaga is a local gangster who’s diagnosed early on in the film with TB, or Tuberculosis. The first half of the film is more devoted to Doctor Sanada as he tries to help the volatile and incendiary young man- but Matsunaga’s prone to taking offense at the Doctor’s incredibly blunt methodology of handling patient interactions. We get a better understanding of Matsunaga as the film progresses into the second half, but I was incredibly entertained by any scene with both characters as most sequences end with altercations involving lapel hoisting, shouting, and throwing glass bottles at each other.
Both Sanada and Matsunaga have mentors and friends that are either directly spoken of or keenly referenced in the first act that inform the audience as to how these men were shaped in their formative years. While Matsunaga’s only just broken out of that time in his life, Sanada’s impressionable period has long since passed. For Sanada that man is Takahama (Eitarô Shindô), they both went to the same school for medicine and while Takahama is far more profitable by this point in his life, he highly regards his old miscreant friend as one of the best doctors around. Unfortunately for Matsunaga, his mentor and friend is Okada (Reizaburô Yamamoto), former gang boss of the muddy backwaters and alleyways of the district that Matsunaga and Sanada live and work in. After Okada returns from prison, he upends the power structure that had Matsunaga at the top temporarily. Okada quickly makes moves to place himself back atop the criminal pyramid in the district. He can smell Matsunaga’s weakness as his health deteriorates throughout the film, for while the young and gruff gangster seems to want to take Doctor Sanada’s orders seriously by the time he realizes just how bad he has it- but his fear of losing face among his peers and especially with Okada drives him to failure. Okada isn’t just a menace for Matsunaga though as Sanada’s assistant at his practice, Nanae (Michiyo Kogure* Who played Taeko in ‘Green Tea Over Rice’!), is a former flame of the elder gangster and he wants her back. While Sanada himself may be an alcoholic, he doesn’t let that sway his principles when Okada comes knocking after some goons see Nanae at the small clinic when they brought Matsunaga to the Doctor after collapsing. The gruff doctor defends Nanae and the ghost-like Matsunaga, who attempts to save face at any cost.
I won’t spoil the film’s infamous ending, but it’s a good one. It involves a desperate and animalistic knife fight that I won’t likely forget soon. Expectations should be kept in check though, it’s not like this is a knife fight that could rival the one in “John Wick 3” (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/05/21/review-john-wick-chapter-3-parabellum/), but narratively it works very well. From the filmmaking side of things, Kurosawa uses the natural elements to cleverly layer the film with mood and atmosphere that directly relate to the characters and the story at hand. The Doctor’s clinic for example is nearly surrounded by a bubbling black bog, a leftover from the war that hasn’t quite been attended to yet. There’s some whipping wind and rainfall when it’s needed most, just excellent creative decisions all around. There’s also some fun abstract visuals in the form of Matsunaga’s fever nightmare sequence where he cracks open a casket on the beach which reveals a very much alive and horrific version of his former self that leaps out of the shattered box and chases him down the beach as waves violently crash around them. “Drunken Angel” is an excellent crime noir that embellishes the genre with some damn fine artistry amongst all the fistfights and broken glass.
I highly recommend giving this one a watch. More broadly, I strongly suggest seeking out films from both of these legendary Japanese directors. This pairing of films is the perfect distillation between the two extremely divergent styles of directing and storytelling as a whole. Yasujiro Ozu’s films are about the quiet and everyday dramas that unfold between family members and friends in houses, bars, and offices whereas Akira Kurosawa’s films are about more Macro sensibilities that occasionally take place in a modern setting, but more often than not are set in Japan’s past and reflect broader sentimentalities, usually with larger casts and set-pieces. Though Kurosawa does have more lead characters with individualistic characteristics than Ozu overall. Kurosawa’s narratives are almost always about the broader nature of human beings as a whole, while Ozu’s universality comes from his focus on the everyday drama of the family, but both can be enjoyed by everyone and anyone. Please give these filmmakers a chance, they are some of the medium’s absolute best.
With Netflix’s latest auteur oriented film release, in the form of “Mank” directed by David Fincher, shining a light on the lesser known screenwriter behind “Citizen Kane”, I figured this would be the perfect excuse to write a double feature review on both films. I’ll start with ‘Kane‘ and then dive into “Mank” afterwards. I highly recommend looking into the history of Old Hollywood and its key players to fully enjoy and understand the extent of each of these films. If you don’t already know the name William Randolph Hearst, he’s an integral piece of the puzzle when it comes to these films, a quick google search would go a long way in parsing out “Citizen Kane” at the very least. Oh, and fair warning, I will be spoiling key plot points of these films in order to freely discuss them. I’d suggest giving them a watch first and then returning here for analysis. Enjoy!
Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, and directed by Welles, “Citizen Kane” is the film lauded for most of the twentieth century as “The Best Film ever made!“. While I’m loathe to give any one film such a title, Welles’ first film is certainly one that should be in the conversation when discussing some of the most groundbreaking and revelatory films in cinema’s young history. To better understand the context of this film you’ll have to dig into the history of both Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst, the man that Charles Foster Kane was based on, and the very public feud between them. Hearst’s onscreen counterpart certainly has a lot in common with the real McCoy, and while there are differences between the man and the character, the broad strokes are there- and impossible to deny. Hearst was the son of a millionaire mining engineer who owned several gold rich mines. Both he and Kane went to, and were kicked out of, Harvard. Both men were fiery liberal progressives in their youth who bought out several newspapers across the country and started several salacious circulation wars between rival Newspapers of reknown. Both were titans of the print industry and each used their persuasive papers to push for a war with Spain over Cuba’s independence, and while historians have downplayed Hearst’s claim of personally starting the Spanish-American war of 1898, he did have an immense effect on the public’s fury over the topic. Later, after World War One, both men turned more conservative and isolationist in ideology. They both had mistresses that they made grandiose gestures for, one in Hollywood, the other in Opera. Both men also grew dissatisfied with the world after losing very publicly in their political pursuits, and each turned their isolationist views into reality by building outrageously over the top castles on acres and acres of land, the real one in California, with Kane’s “Xanadu” in Florida.
If you haven’t yet seen this film, (I highly encourage you to do so, it’s pretty good!), it begins with the death of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) as he gasps his final word, “Rosebud”. Kane’s death reverberates through the News publications of the world, and one such outlet designing a visual obiturary reel titled “News On The March!” gives the audience a quick outline of the Newspaper Magnate’s life in bullet points. The editor of the Newsreel then delegates Jerry Thompson (William Alland) with finding the meaning behind Kane’s last words. The rest of the film is divided into flashbacks on Kane’s life through Thompson’s investigation and interviews with the people who were closest to Kane. Initially he tries to talk with Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), his mistress and second wife, though she’s inconsolable during his first attempt. Thompson next goes to the vault of the late banker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) who oversaw Kane’s trust fund from childhood until his twenty-fifth birthday. While reading Thatcher’s personal memoirs, Thompson learns of Kane’s financial rise and fall. Under the prudent investments that Thatcher had made while Kane was in his youth, he had essentially become one of the richest men in the world by the time he took over his finances. Kane acquired many Newspapers and fiercely fought against the business practices of Thatcher himself and those of his ilk. None of this brought Thompson any closer to finding the truth about “Rosebud” however, and he moved on to interviewing Kane’s personal business manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane). Bernstein’s interview and flashback is personally my favorite segment of the film. It focuses on the early days of Kane’s purchase of The New York Inquirer and his circulation war with Chronicle, of whom he effectively stole the top journalists from. This began his intense interest in collecting both people and things for the rest of his life. The scenes of the early days at The Inquirer are full of energy and confidence, with Welles’ Kane striking a resemblance to future onscreen billionaires like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, AKA The Wolf of Wall Street. The next two candidates for interview were Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) Kane’s estranged best friend and a return to interview a more collected Susan Alexander Kane. Both subjects clue Thompson in to the more intimate relationships and nature of Kane as a person and how he evolved over time in the latter half of his life. The final shot at finding the meaning behind Kane’s final words lay with Kane’s butler at Xanadu, Raymond (Paul Stewart). Raymond knows of at least one other time Kane uttered the word ‘Rosebud’, but it’s not enough to form a better understanding of its revelance to Kane or his life. Thompson finally ends his search with his time at Xanadu, saying that he doubts any one word could unlock the mysteries of a man such as Kane, or any other man for that matter. Though we, the audience, receive the truth as we witness unnamed workers clearing out the treasure trove of Xanadu’s massive collection. A small snow sled is casually tossed into the incinerator, which we see inscribed with the word Rosebud, as it is set ablaze.
With this film Orson Welles broke new ground in filmmaking, generating new techniques and methodology that would spur filmmakers of the future to similarly write new rules of cinema as they saw fit. Even though “Citizen Kane” didn’t make any money due mostly to the blackout campaign that Hearst waged against the film’s release, Orson Welles succeeded in making a revolutionary film that has stood the test of time. His career following this would be a constant battle against the studio system of Hollywood, ever vying for artistic control against the bottom line of the studio’s budget. In the end Welles’ career as a filmmaker would outlive the studio system that he battled against for decades, so, in that respect, he won. “Citizen Kane” is an excellent film, and a touchstone of history in cinema. If you care at all about the history of movies, this one is a must watch.
Final Score: 1 Snowglobe
Written by Jack Fincher and directed by David Fincher, “Mank” is the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, screenwriter of one of the most infamous films of all time, “Citizen Kane”. Much like how ‘Kane‘ used flashbacks to try to understand the elusive fictional media figurehead, “Mank” also uses flashbacks of our titular character to better understand him and his reasons for writing what is effectively a character assasination of one of the most powerful men in media at the time. While the film eschews direct character interviews to provide the flashbacks structure, there is a similar string of characters important to Mank who visit him to persuade him not to take on Hearst, which is an entertaining flip. The film begins with Mank being driven out to a small homestead in the Mojave desert with a large cast entombing one of his legs. In this temporary abode Mank is supported by two women, Rita (Lily Collins) a British Secretary that types for him as he dictates from bed initially while also effectively working as a sounding board for script ideas and insight, and Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann) who attends his medical needs as he needs them. He’s also repeatedly visited by John Houseman (Sam Troughton), the politely anxious assistant of Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who calls and eventually stops by for consultation. The series of flashbacks, which are charmingly introduced with screenwriting introductions like EXT. MGM STUDIOS – DAY – 1934 (FLASHBACK), begin in 1930 when Mank is introduced to William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) via a set visit of one of the films starring Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Thus beginning a near decade of Mank’s involvement in Hearst’s inner circle of friends and various recipients of his vast wealth and empire. The film goes back in forth in time as we garner information about Mank’s time with Hearst’s inner circle and how Mank views the film industry and politics (there’s probably some insight into how David Fincher views these as well). We see the effects of the great depression on the movie industry and the true nature of the old school movie studio executives like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley). There’s also a surprising amount of screentime given to Upton Sinclair’s (portrayed in one scene by Bill Nye) 1934 campaign for Governor of California, beseiged by the power hungry political machine run by Hearst, Mayer, and Thalberg to name a few.
What really hooked me with this movie was that the film wasn’t interested in the “how” of Mank writing ‘Kane‘, but the “why”? Sure, the real life drama was more about the fight for screenwriting credit of the script between Mank and Welles, and this film does touch on that, but only briefly near the end. Instead the film poignantly focuses on the years building to Mank’s writing of ‘Kane‘, when he was in the orbit of Hearst through most of the 1930’s, witnessing the reality of powerful people, and how they manipulate systematic control through crushing fiscal hegemony. Mank tries to do what he can to combat these actions, but ultimately hes’ a beneficiary of that exact system, and it’s not until he sees the brutal effects that these manipulations have on ordinary people that he decides to dig in his heels and do something about it. Personally, my favorite scene is the drunken monologue at Hearst mansion where Mank essentially pitches “Citizen Kane”, mockingly, to Hearst as he entertains a dinner. One by one the loyal roaches, like Louis B. Mayer of MGM, slink away from the table, eager not to be associated with the court jester’s imminent ousting. Apparently, the scene took over one-hundred takes to nail down before Fincher and company were happy with it- and I have to say, the juice was worth the squeeze with this one. While I’m not sure if this is technically the best film that was released in 2020, it may end up being my favorite film of this terrible, awful, year. For it shows that principles, in the end, matter more than power. At least, that’s what I got out of it. You also don’t have to twist my arm to get me interested in a film about a screenwriter, I’m the core audience- I just also happen to completely adore the character of Mank as portrayed by Gary Oldman in this movie. Witty, entirely fallible, Mank employs self-deprecating humor at every opportunity, and he’s incredibly capable of delivering corrosive criticism with sharp clarity while completely sauced. He uses words and a literary understanding of the world to not only get himself into far too much trouble, but to gracefully avoid it at times as well. The choice to cast Charles Dance as Hearst was Brilliant! Dance is particularly skilled at portraying powerful figures of aristocracy, and his performance here only enhances the production as a whole. I also have to praise the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, it’s perfectly period accurate and delightfully engaging! The cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt and editing by Kirk Baxter also pair to give the film an authentic ‘Old Hollywood‘ tangibility. I really just dig the look, sound, and feel of this film. For me, it all works gloriously.
“Mank” is out now on Netflix in the US and I highly encourage you to check it out if you can. Everything about this film worked for me, hopefully you’ll get some satisfaction out of it as well! I’ve also linked below to an article from the New York Times about the Upton Sinclair election in 1934, which was pretty neat and quite valuable in layering “Mank”‘s historical accuracy versus the fictional liberties they took in creating the film. Enjoy!
Final Score: A Debt of $24,000
For some more information on what “Mank” got right with the Upton Sinclair campaign in 1934, check out this informative NY Times article:
Written and directed by Orson Welles with additional direction by Fred Fleck and Robert Wise, and additional script work by Joseph Cotten and Jack Moss in Welles’ absence, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is a familial epic designed as a Shakespearian Tragedy set across several decades as the Ambersons chart their course in matters both historical and intimate. This being Orson Welles’ second feature after the powerhouse debut of “Citizen Kane”, known derisively in Hollywood at the time as “The Boy Wonder”, Welles was riding high after a decade of proving his naysayers wrong and possibly il-advised, he may have thought himself invincible, capable of the impossible even. This film however, was where his fracture with the studio system in Hollywood was forged, he never fully regained his artistic control within this system going forward. After digging into the story of the making of the film, I’ve found it to be a fascinating look into mistakes made by both the Hollywood executives, fearful of financial ruin after “Citizen Kane”, revolutionary as it was, didn’t make nearly enough profit to continually invest in the artistic whims of a supposed ‘boy genius’, and the mistakes made by Welles himself thinking that he could do it all. I’ve linked below this article to a story that Vanity Fair wrote on the entirety of the subject that I highly recommend for anyone seeking to understand the broader scope of it all, but for now, I’ll get back to the film at hand.
The story, while it remains an ensemble at it’s core, mostly follows the life and actions of George Minafer (Tim Holt) the son of Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello) and Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway). Though the inciting incident of the whole story begins with Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) as a young man partaking in the dying tradition of romantic youth at the time, the serenade. A mishap with Eugene accidentally falling over his cello and smashing it to bits in the yard of the Ambersons, as he had hoped to take the hand of Isabel in song, immediately dashed his chances of any serious courtship as this made him a social outcast in the town. So, he took his heartbreak and funneled his ambitions into his invention of the automobile instead. Flash forward twenty years or so and Morgan returns to town with his burgeoning automobile business in fruition and a daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), as he’s found himself an inventor and a widower. In that time Isabel had bore a petulant and insufferable child with Wilbur, a man she did not truly love, which harbored in young George a fiery and combative spirit. Young George was seen by the whole town as an annoying brat that they’d all like to see get the stuffing walloped out of him. Thus we have a lead character who’s unanimously seen as a blight on the town’s citizenry, and yet throughout the film we’re given moments and scenes in which the character’s complexity is hinted at, he’s not entirely a character that experiences sucess at every corner, but one that slowly eeks into abscurity in life, but most painfully, in love as well. Though, I have to say, he’s a character who’s earned a tragic end despite the upbeat studio enforced ending that we got. Which is that he’s ironically run over by an automobile, resulting only in a couple of broken legs with Eugene visiting him in the hospital in the last scene, hurridely conveying an off-screen resolved understanding between the two that belies the last half of the film’s path to tragedy. Which is the crux of the issue of this film. While broadly adequately telling the tale of the Ambersons and the notion of the erosion of family and tradition, this altered version of the film that we’ve got feels like it’s pulling its punches.
Even in this form, the film showcases Welles’ skill in framing, blocking, camera movement and his pioneering of ‘Deep-focus’ onscreen. There’s a lot to enjoy here even if the film does indeed feel the absence of those forty minutes cut from its runtime. The film still does hold onto it’s notion of being ‘an epic’ even though its 88 minutes feel at odds with the story at hand. You can tell that there’s something missing, but the overall decline of the Ambersons family is intact, if not as biting as it could be. The last scene in particular feels one-hundred percent at odds with the last half of the film narratively speaking. It still works, but nowhere near as well as you might expect from Welles- which makes the Studio’s cuts that much more obvious. When looking back at this film, especially alongside his later film in “Chimes at Midnight”, Welles seems indeed to be a man in love with the romanticized past. The opening of this film brilliantly showcases this notion as Welles narrates over the way of life that had benefitted the Amberson family so greatly in the late 1800’s. As we’re shown men changing their fashion styles in a large mirror over the seasons as they pass Welles narrates the seemingly increasing speed at which life was (and still is) accelerating. “Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare….In those days, they had time for everything. Time for sleigh rides, and balls, and assemblies, and cotillions, and open house on New Year’s, and all-day picnics in the woods, and even that prettiest of all vanished customs: the serenade.” Throughout this he’s darkened the corners of the frames and made this sequence feel as though you were thumbing through old sepia-toned family photographs, a nostalgic and anxiety inducing look at the harrowing speed of humanity and its changing ways, which is more constant than we perceive it to be.
While the film isn’t what it could have been, I would still recommend a viewing of it. The performances, truncated they may be, are an idication of Welles evolving direction after ‘Kane‘. I also can’t forget to mention Agnes Moorehead as ‘Aunt Fanny’, she has some of the most playful and heartbreaking scenes with Tim Holt’s George throughout the film. Welles choosing not to impart his own performance as any of the leading characters allowed the audience to more aptly connect with them, or against them, on their own terms. Welles is all over the film in parts, but his bravado and presence would probably have taken away from the ensemble nature of the film, which I do believe was a wise choice. Though I have to admit the production design of the mansion itself, and the gliding, inventive, camera-work stole most of my attention the first time around. For the record, I do not believe that this film is better than “Citizen Kane” as some have come to say in recent decades, it’s a fine film- but just as almost every other film of the twentieth century, it’s no “Citizen Kane”.
Final Score: 2 Broken Legs
For an in-depth look into the history of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and it’s original edit’s status as film’s ‘Holy Grail’ of undiscovered glory, check out this article by Vanity Fair:
Written by Sam Shepard and directed by Wim Wenders, “Paris, Texas” is a road movie that’s ultimately about troubled parents, loss, and connection. The film begins in southwest Texas as the camera travels over empty, grand, landscapes of rock and dust until we come upon a man wandering alone through the vast expanse. The lone figure is clad in jeans, a suitcoat, and a worn red baseball cap, his face sunburned and craggy, he has but a jug of water that he empties before continung onward. Eventually he comes across a small building that juts out from the nothingness. It’s a local watering hole, he enters, grabs some ice out of a freezer, and then passes out.
We soon discover that this man’s name is Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) and that he’s been lost wandering the desert for roughly four years after a Doctor (Bernhard Wicki) finds and calls Travis’ brother Walt (Dean Stockwell). Walt flies out from Los Angeles to retrieve his long lost brother, and after several false starts- Travis has a tendency to get up and walk away- they then embark on the road trip back home as Travis will not fly. This first third of the movie Travis is essentially mute, and despite all of his brother’s attempts to get him to talk back and tell him where he’s been this whole time, he barely utters a word until he slowly begins to reintegrate into society and seemingly remember his past, who he was… and is. Turns out that Travis had a wife and a son, and that Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clément) have been raising Hunter (Hunter Carson) as their own ever since Travis’ disappearance. The second act takes place in L.A. as Travis lives at his brother Walt’s home with Anne and Hunter. It’s a slow going reunion, but eventually both Travis and Hunter realize that they both remember each other and begin to reconnect. It’s rather charming in its own way.
Later, after the family watches some old footage of a beachside vacation before everything went to hell, both Travis and Hunter are entranced by the appearance of the missing wife and mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski). This spurs the two to throw caution to the wind and depart to Houston, Texas on a hunch that they can indeed find her. The third act is mainly of father and son reuniting to rediscover their Jane. We also get a deeper realization of what each parent has gone through after Jane is found and they both take turns trying to explain to the other their deep existential crises, their sadness, and regret. It’s easily the best scene of the film with Harry Dean Stanton giving a powerfully emotional monologue. Strangely, out of their confessionals comes a heartfelt, if illogical, reunion between mother and son. Travis sacrifices his love for them as he knows he cannot be a father, or husband to either of them anymore.
To truly enjoy this movie, you must throw away the notion of realism. This film is Wenders engaging with the American Myth with a European eye guiding the characters. It feels like every sad country song you’ve ever heard- but depicted with earnest sincereity and shown plainly. The characters take their time with their words, almost irritating so, but this film isn’t interested in reason or logic. This is poetic allegory onscreen, and that may not work for every viewer, but for those that it does, you’ll find an emotional journey with carthartic release by the end. I myself am torn about how I feel about the movie. I’m glad to have watched and experienced it- but it’s my least favorite film of Wim Wenders’ that I have seen thus far. It is painfully slow paced. I’m game for a good slow burn, but it almost doesn’t feel like the wait was worth it. I would argue that the film is worth a watch for the cinematography and for Harry Dean Stanton’s acting. He does a lot with little to no dialogue. I also quite enjoyed the mystery of the first half of the film. Your enjoyment of this film may vary based on your patience.
Written, edited, produced, starring, and directed by Orson Welles, “Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight)” is an adaption of several plays by William Shakespeare regarding Henry the IV, Henry the V, and notably Sir John Falstaff, knight of mischief. My relationship with Shakespeare has been an evolving one since having to read through several of his most famous plays in High School. I’ve never much cared for “Romeo and Juliet” or even “Macbeth” for that matter, but I’ve come to greatly admire the plays concerning the ruling hand of England, academically called the “Henriad” plays, meaning four to eight (depending on who you ask) of his works dealing with Historical figures and events (though my favorite piece by Shakespeare is “King Lear”). Orson Welles took the comic side character of John Falstaff and decided to tell a story that focused more on the relationship between Hal (Keith Baxter), or Henry the V, and his two father figures in Falstaff and Henry the IV (John Gielgud).
More than that however, the film seems to be intently focused on the changing of the times, going from a more “Arthurian” romanticized and nostalgic past, versus the new, cold, modern age. The first act is full of playful scenes full of movement amongst Hal and Falstaff and company that is perfectly juxtaposed against the later scenes in the film concerning Henry the IV and the colder, harsher, future. The scenes in the Castle are rigid, somber, with architecture filling the frame rather than the first half of the film which focused more intimately on the faces and action of Hal and his companions. Welles’ blocking and cutting on movement greatly assist in the pace and kinetic energy of the story as it’s being told. Which, I must say, helped to keep me personally invested in the film. While, yes, the langauage is old and a bit difficult to understand at times, the actors all emote so effectively that you get the general idea of what’s happening and how the story is moving. I found this film to be far more approachable than Laurence Olivier’s adaption of “Henry V” for example. That film had few camera movements and felt as though it were itself a stageplay and didn’t quite use the medium of film to its advantage.
After the mesmerizingly well executed battle sequence halfway through the movie (more on that in just a bit), you may begin to have an inkling that this story, or at least this version of the story, isn’t one that may end in joyous good fortune, but rather, one of tragedy. It’s as much Orson Welles’ longing for a good pair of rose-colored glasses as it is for the simplicity of easier times gone by, and Falstaff embodies that wholeheartedly. The character is one of charming ego and pathetic lies, conjured from exaggeration and jovial, bawdy, good times. Which, in the light of modernity, cannot exist side by side such a serious and brutal world. That brutality is borne out in the expertly crafted war scenes in the middle of the film, which were particularly exciting. The whole sequence felt surprisingly modern in its depiction. Quick cuts with the editing amid the dirty, chaotic, action with many men dying in the mud felt revelatory for its time. The battle feels appropriately frantic with handheld shots and close ups of horrified faces, especially when you compare it to the earlier scene in which Falstaff and Hal commit a small scale robbery in the woods, filmed on gliding dolly shots set against a beautiful forest with a very playful mood. When you focus on how Falstaff is depicted during the battle, it’s as if the two time periods of England are merging. Falstaff running around cowardly in his huge armor and hiding from the fight- while intercut with rapid shots of men dying awful deaths, most of which is indescernable when trying to figure out who’s who on the battlefield. In this beginning of the new era, Falstaff is out of place. He does not fit in this violent and serious world of conflict. I must also take a moment to point out that though rotund and portly, Welles was shockingly nimble and quick on his feet in several scenes throughout the film. I did not expect that.
This film was far more complex and fascinating than I expected going in. It’s actually quite funny too. There’s a scene early on when Hal and Poins (Tony Beckley) turn Falstaff’s cheeky robbery on him by spooking him into running off, which turns into a great bit when they hear him greatly exaggerating his pursuers and his bravery in fending them off. I highly recommend this one, and if you can get past the archaic language barrier you’ll find a satisfying and endearing story. Orson Welles himself cites this as his favorite film to have worked on and completed, despite it being a financial failure. Check it out!