Daily Film Thoughts: The Importance of Family

I’m trying to do way too much now – lots of things going on Oscar wise and review wise – so I’m going to try to pace myself. Do these review, see Avatar this weekend, review that, try to get to Day 9 of TIFF before The White Ribbon gets a release… And then there’s my keeping up with the aughts (this decade for those that don’t know what to call the 00s… I prefer the 00s to it, though) to refine a top 100 for next year, as well as keeping up with the foreign contenders (I’ve a few on my computer to watch like The Secret in Their Eyes, Terribly Happy, Samson & Delilah and a few others that won’t be significant to the race, but I’d like to see and review regardless) A lot of stuff to review, but I’ll kick it all off with this post. Here, I’ll review four of the years most well reviewed films that I’ve seen as of late (going by Metacritic’s standards) and coincidentally, each of them is about the family dynamic. They are Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata and Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours. And because I’ve given up adding a rating at the end of my reviews, if you’re curious as to what I rate what (if the review doesn’t indicate as such) click the “2009 Films Seen” page on the side.

Sitting pretty ahead of every other feature of 2009 with Metacritic is 35 Shots of Rum, the latest feature by the French auteur to be released in America. While this is only the second of two films I’ve seen by the director, I can wholeheartedly say that this is the type of work I like to see filmmakers produce (having not been impressed by White Material at this years TIFF).

Darkness illuminated by street lights, the sound of trains accelerating over metal tracks, the perspective of a man on a motorcycle – Claire Denis immediately sets a forlorn and melancholic aura to saturate the script. Although she does this well, the extensive cutting back and forth between subway, motorcyclist and man in a car that lasts 8 minutes feels more insipid than poignant. In turn, Denis also sets another sort of sensation, albeit unintentionally. This mood would be tedium laced in lethargy, just as one would encounter while indulging in 35 shots of rum, as the title would also indicate.

Home is where the heart is. A subway conductor on the verge of forced retirement, Lionel (Alex Descas) lives with his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) who is both overly studious (like most college students are) and in a relationship with what appears to be a drug dealer in Noe (Gregorie Colin) who is quite nice, but has a phobia of public transportation and is persistent that cars are the only way to travel. And yes, that is where the source of the couple’s strain does come from. Not from his profession or brandish attitude, but rather that his obsessive preference clashes with Josephine’s beloved routine. Also in the mix is a taxi driver named Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) whose incessant wist to marry Lionel and have Josephine as her daughter is far more tiresome than emotionally tragic. This is because either Ms. Dogue or Ms. Denis misread the constructed character and pushed too many buttons to elicit a character viewers would care for.

Each person faces their own trials. Gabrielle’s has been going on since Lionel’s wife (Josephine’s mother) passed away years ago, Noe and Josephine feel burdensome to either marry or split up; Noe wanting the latter while Josephine undecided but leaning towards the former, and Lionel growing more and more worried with what his fate will be when he is old. In an early scene, a colleague/friend of his in Rene (a performance wrought with honesty by Julieth Mars Toussaint) is forced into retirement by the train company as he’s 60 years old. A few glimpses are shown with him falling more and more out of touch with reality when Lionel bumps into him around town. Of course, this worries Lionel because what will he have left when his daughter leaves and he’s too old to work? Will he suffer from the same circumstantial depression as his friend? With this, Lionel’s story exudes far more tragedy and interest than the juxtaposed stories aforementioned. Still, not enough time is given to each individual character to cleanly interpret the amassing problems they face. Add on a plethora of seemingly symbolic references and you’ve a film too busy to be reduced to a mere 100 minutes. Like a fine wine, a film like this needs to breathe to achieve its full potential.

Far from exciting, although imbued with quiet wisdom and interesting, but quotidian characters, 35 Shots of Rum doesn’t shout out “look at me” at any instance throughout the duration; the particular reason why so many (I included) are drawn to the film. Simple indications, solitary thoughts and nonpareil character studies that flesh out though a few days in the life of four loving people – two elders and two young adults – cause for reticent tension. You know, the best kind that isn’t spoken with words but rather worrisome gestures.

If not for the berating scenes where Denis feels like you have not had enough of Gabrielle’s grief, the story would have fired on all cylinders and harnessed melancholic existence without overshooting the mark. With it (unfortunately) you’re subject to an admirable approach to what your life would look like if displayed on celluloid. 35 Shots of Rum doesn’t meander in questioning why we’re each here or pretend to be philosophical to intrigue discussions about its value, but rather plays out everything it wishes to with as delicate a touch you’ve ever seen. It’s not a film that will impress immediately, but one evening when you’re laying in bed, the final scene of crock pots will play over and over in your head and you’ll wonder what it all means – be it life or the message Denis tries to teach.

Next up is Hirokazu Koreeda’s next to latest feature Still Walking – a film that studies under Yashijo Ozu’s principal that simplicity in storytelling can be as affecting as the most complex of concepts.

Following two days in the lives of individual family members at one of their sporadic get-togethers, Koreeda steps in the shoes of one of Japan’s most acclaimed filmmakers in Ozu and paints a miserable portrait about a scenario that Hollywood would generally squeeze into an overly comfortable experience.

In it, though never told through abrasive monologues that unleash a fury of despondency, the audience is given a treat to watch honest characters unfold realistically. The plot revolves around the experience that the son of the parents holding the event, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) encounters. Whether it be the despondent relationship with his father who wanted his career as a doctor to trickle down and land firmly on him, prompting him to become a doctor as well or the muted tension between he and his mother who is opposed to treating his wife and son like apart of the family the entire visit, Ryota’s stay morphs into more of a trial of his patience.

Though Koreeda clearly drew the outline of the film behind some personal malady about family – be it his regret that become exposed in the final narration or various brushes with temper that feel too true to be fiction – he never lays the blame off of himself. Ryota is just as human as anybody else in the tale. He neglects to do tasks that would better situations, he seldom tries to better the relationship with his father, and he doesn’t respond well to general family interactions. In fact, he seems concerned only with leaving the home and never soaks in the few pleasures revisiting the home you grew up in and people you grew up with can offer. Aside from the distaste that comes with bad memories in the home – his brother dying and parents mourning more over the loss of their “gifted” son than tending to the needs of their other one – he is a wonderful husband and father, which gives you an area of relief and humanity in an otherwise dire story.

What is most admirable about the feature is Koreeda’s neglecting to succumb to convention. Japanese filmmaking generally doesn’t face this issue, but over the past decade Koreeda has become sort of an interpreter America from Japan – receiving acclaim (none moreso than this film, mind you) for basically his entire filmography thus far in the states. Usually filmmakers get big headed and aim to appease the masses outside of their home country and aim to breakout in stateside with further releases. This is not the case with Koreeda who demonstrates the purest way of keeping dignity in a mostly corrupt industry by speaking not with your tongue, but with your heart. This establishes the soul of Still Walking in that, while it can be cheery and warming, he wants you to feel as desolate as he did remembering and reconstructing the sorrowful pieces of life that has defined him.

By only overstaying his (re)visit (of the story) by dwelling on prime subjects to a point of tedium and mixing his forms of dreariness with glee in some disadvantageous areas, Koreeda is able to establish a great feature with very few missteps. The most crucial element of this entire process – from the script to the direction to the post-production – is that Koreeda seems to have found himself or at least been able to achieve some catharsis without exuding pretension or even self-awareness. It is both a marvel to behold in that it is surprisingly unique to see such a commonplace tale being told realistically and that the director’s artistic intent was only surpassed by his hopes to obtain a sense of self. It appears he did all three beautifully and I’m doubtful he could be any happier with how all of this came into fruition.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa: a filmmaker who has made his dent in contemporary cinema by blending a masterful visual style found in few landscape painters with incomparable, but coherent concepts that dwell in the realm of his dark imagination. For him to discuss the current tribulations of society in his work isn’t uncommon, but for him to play it out in a most feasible fashion as he does in Tokyo Sonata is.

Studying the family dynamic is common in filmmaking. Not just for Japan or America, but every country that has made a film has made one about the trials and strain that a life at home can inflict. In Kurosawa’s latest, he puts on display an anti-fairy tale; a story that would be the happily never after to a delightful prequel.

In the opening minutes, Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) gets ‘relieved’ of his managerial position at a well-to-do company who face the misfortune of today in financial woes. Because he is a proud man, Ryuhei refuses to tell his family the bad news and slowly, but surely they begin to fall apart; primarily because Ryuhei’s disciplinary stance becomes more overbearing by the day which slowly tears the foundations beneath he, his wife and two sons apart and into individual pieces of what a “happy home” should look like.

Beneath the fermenting dystrophy is the gift of a child that isn’t exploited to get its audience to indulge in some happiness. Rather, the gift of Kenji (adorably played out by Inowaki Kai) gives exudes an allure only briefly as his happiness and the fate of his future plays out without much hope. He has talent, but with the chaos taking place behind closed doors and the recently quarrels he’s been having with administrative figures, the game of ‘which path will he wind up taking’ is utilized with an understanding for the issues children face and how their futures can wind up never being about them, but about their parents. Kurosawa angles this just adjacent to a pretentious theme, but because everything is underplayed so well, this aspect — that may find to be an annoyance and pretentious for less caring viewers — benefits in turn and keeps its head above water. It’s touching; it’s difficult; it’s childhood.

There is a noticeable change in tone that befalls the final act. Like Up in the Air, after writing two acts of pure and honest cinema, Kurosawa (like Reitman) resorts to coincidence and irony to prove a point to his audience. But because Kurosawa does it with cosmic self-awareness, his intent and ethic never die down during this half an hour. The story does suffer from the collapsing of all the character arcs and purpose that went into leading up to this point, but Kurosawa’s confidence sees him (and the viewers that feel safe with his mindset) through these events and will actually be the highlight of many’s experience with this film. I, however, found it to be a tad flimsy – especially the mother’s arc as it fabricates out of thin air just prior to her ‘collapse’ so what happens to her hardly resonated with myself – but the hurdles both the father and son encounter made for riveting cinema.

All in all, Tokyo Sonata is a diligently composed piece with a frantic and contrasting final movement. Dulcet keys play throughout, a knack for visual wisdom arises where other filmmakers wouldn’t even think of some of these marvelous shots, and the performances are top-notch. You may or may not feel cheated out of the ending, but the two acts preceding it are divine and it is clear that Kurosawa has given his latest feature both his heart and soul.

Last, and surprisingly least, on the docket was Summer Hours. Having watched it before Oscar season got underway, I had no idea how big it really would be. How is it that a generic film such as this can win “Best Foreign Feature” more times than any other film this year? Critics must be going mad this year…

In a concept that is a far cry from “turn of the century” (unless you’re speaking in regards to 19th to 20th), a family finds itself unappreciative at their mother/grandmother’s lavish home in the French outback. It’s pristine, bodacious, but ‘too’ classical for their taste. They manage to visit once a year – using their unaligned timetables as excuse, though it is made clear that most just want to get out of there from the moment they step onto the property – to spend family time with one and other. This is much to the chagrin of Helene (Edith Scob), the elderly owner of the home. Having grown tired of being alone and depressed that her family isn’t lavishing in their time together, she prompts her afterlife plans to her son Frederic (Charles Berling). Spitfire assurance from her mouth to his ear makes it less depressive as it could be, so the audience finds itself beneficiary of French craftsmanship at its… well, not finest, but top-tier authenticity.

So the mother dies — or gives up living, as the audience is meant to believe — and the house/finances are to be divided amongst the three children Frederic, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier). Soon follow quarrels and conflict pertaining to Frederic shouting “the house is family tradition” and several other obvious lines, so this concept is ridiculously tangible. So much so that it becomes an endurance test.

Cliche after cliche; obvious turn after obvious turn; ‘unexpected’ ending after ‘worrisome’ climax – Summer Hours has it all. All that you’d see out of a soapy Hollywood feature, at least. The primary issue is that writer/director Olivier Assayas doesn’t take a risk in telling the story. He doesn’t pick sides in the fight, but allows the family conflict to breathe. This would be a fine gesture to viewers if the concept hadn’t been done organically dozens of times prior. Every scene is glossed over with a solid cast and soft photography, but this adds to the laziness that Assayas inflicts. The “Lifetime movie” criticism has never been so valid.

In fact, it is only because the cast is so good that this is passable in my eyes. Particularly Charles Berling’s immaculate performance as the son wanting to save his family history gives some validity to the feature. Then Renier turns out yet another semi-frantic youth performance that you’ve seen him give in his collaborations with the Dardenne brothers, but on a softer (see: less compelling) level. And Juliette Binoche doing the thing you’ve seen her do time and time again. In fact, her effort and performance would be a perfect analogy for this film here: seemingly effortless, common and merely nice.

An inoffensive tale told calmly about the commonplace, Summer Hours is a perfect film for the inn-kept elderly. With this under his belt, it appears that Olivier Assayas, at the ripe age of 54, is finding his sentimental destiny. Unfortunately, this viewer will not be following him on his journey to senility.

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