Movie Round-up #5

Sakuran (2007) – ★★★
I came across this movie when reading some reviews and articles on Japanese cinema. More than one person named this movie as being similar to Memoirs of a Geisha but better, because it was truer than Memoirs to the emotions of women. I was curious and went to dig it out.
Sakuran is the debut film of photographer Ninagawa Mika and upon inspection of her photography work, I can say that the film looks like her photographs. (I now know that she also directed the infamous music video for Japanese girl group AKB48 called Heavy Rotation – which, as I recall, was blasted by many people for being exploitative of the young girls that make up the group – and another film called Helter Skelter, a film that apparently got mixed reviews… but I watched only a few minutes of it and quit because it was totally not my cup of tea. Happily, Sakuran wasn’t as offputting.)
The film follows the life of a girl named Kiyoha from the moment she is sold into a geisha house, until she reaches the height of fame as an oiran – the top-ranked geisha in her house.
I’m not sure that Sakuran did a better job of displaying emotional travails than Memoirs did, but I am very sure of this: from a purely visual perspective, Sakuran is definitely the more arresting film. The world of the Edo-period red light district is brought forth in a blinding rainbow of colours and ornate visual details. It’s the world of the geisha – glamourised. Colours explode off the screen and there is no pretence of “realism”. Kimonos are full of wild colour and patterns – even the little servant girls dress in vividly coloured clothes – and the geisha hairstyles tend to be exaggerated just enough to indicate the comic book roots of the story. No pastels for Ninagawa’s images, only bright, bright pop colours. Goldfish (apparently one of Ninagawa’s favourite subjects) and cherry blossoms frequently appear as visual metaphors throughout the film; quite unsubtle, but they do add interest to the images.
Interestingly, Sakuran doesn’t go the Memoirs route of emphasising the geisha’s skills as a hostess/entertainer but instead highlights their role as prostitutes. This does lead me to wonder: if this film had been made outside of Japan, by a foreigner, by a man, would it still have been lauded? Or would it have been derided as misunderstanding/misrepresenting the culture, or as disparaging women somehow?

Genji Monogatari (2011) –
Such a disappointment. The Tale of Genji is one of Japan’s most famous literary works and with Ikuta Toma (whom I would say is one of the rising stars of the Japanese acting scene) as the titular Genji, I had at least moderate hopes for this film. But it was so boring. And so slow. Literally. People talked slowly, moved slowly, even the carriage wheels seemed to turn slowly! Everything dragged. (Some of the men looked like they were half in drag too, with the eyeliner…) I only made it to the end of the film by skipping many parts. It also didn’t help that I found none of the characters likeable. The production design was quite beautiful though.

13 Assassins (2010) – ★★
Miike Takashi ventures into the samurai genre with this remake of a 1963 film of the same name (Juusannin no shikkaku). 13 Assassins tells of a band of samurai who plot to intercept and kill the cruel and ruthless Lord Naritsugu (played nearly perfectly by Inagaki Goro, whom I had no idea could act like that). The actors who make up the thirteen are mostly experienced actors, with Yakusho Koji (Shall We Dance?, Memoirs of a Geisha) being the leader of the gang. Four of the thirteen I recognised on sight as being actors who often end up playing gangster or bad boy-type roles in TV dramas or movies. That made sense. haha
Alas, considering the talent in the main cast, they were mostly indistinguishable from one another. What a waste. The whole movie was basically a build-up to one massive, overly long fight scene at the end – a fight scene that lasted 45 minutes. That’s 45 minutes of dirt and blood, and fairly graphic swordfights (graphic violence and such is what Miike is known for, and from what I’ve heard of some of his more extreme films, 13 Assassins is probably one of his slightly milder works).
I thought there was too little time spent on developing the thirteen samurais’ characters, and too much time spent on the cruelty of Naritsugu. Of the thirteen samurai, only the leader (whose name I can’t even recall now) and his nephew have any substantial scenes that are not training or fight scenes. The others have very little to do besides fight. So by the time the final battle happens, there is next to no emotional investment in any of them because you don’t know them well enough – you can barely even tell them apart since they’re always so covered in mud and dust. It’s a far cry from the gleaming rainbow-coloured glamour of Sakuran.

Roman Holiday (1953) – ★★½
Ah, the movie that made Audrey Hepburn famous. It wasn’t too bad. Standard stuff – princess is tired of her stuffy life and runs away; meets a reporter who sees it as his chance to make a tonne of money writing a special feature on her but of course in the end he falls for her and doesn’t write the story after all. The ending is one of those rare ones in which the princess doesn’t ditch her life to live with the  “peasant”, but goes back to her duties in the end. That I liked. But overall it was just an “okay” movie. Nothing fantastic. It’s light and easy to watch, and Audrey Hepburn looks really pretty in it.

Hugo (2011) – ★★★
This is the film that walked away with last year’s Oscars for cinematography, art direction and visual effects as well as sound mixing and sound editing. I read a good deal about this Martin Scorsese film – it was praised to the skies for stellar usage of 3D and for beautiful visuals. Many also liked it for its tribute to the father of visual effects, Georges Méliès. It does have lovely visuals and I thought the angle involving Méliès was kinda charming. I would say it’s a nice film, but it didn’t take away my breath as it seems to have done to so many other people.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – ★★★
Nice guy Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is roped into politics by others meaning to use him as their puppet. But when Smith shows that he doesn’t intend to blindly follow their “advice”, they turn the tables on him and try to blacken his name and get him kicked out. I thought it started off a little bit slow, but it gained momentum in the second half. It’s probably not a film for most people I know: there’s hardly any action; all the interest is in the talking and in Smith’s last-ditch attempt to prove himself innocent and buy himself time by a lengthy filibuster in the Senate (which is cross-cut with his friends back in his hometown rallying to try and gain support for him whilst his opponents do their level best to crush his support and wield their influence with the media to distort reports and block information).
I’ve only seen two of Frank Capra’s films to date – this one, and It’s a Wonderful Life. I think I’d like to see more. I like that his protagonists aren’t the tortured souls or bizarre characters like so many modern film protagonists. In the two films I’ve seen, the main characters have been pleasant guys – almost like Steve Rogers? haha – and I find the simplicity refreshing sometimes.

Wreck-it Ralph (2012) – ★★★★
I’m trying to decide which I like better: Wreck-it Ralph or Brave. Hmmmm. I might just like this one a little bit more.
The concept is not completely new – the idea that game characters come to life in their own worlds once the arcade is closed is basically the same idea that drives Toy Story. Ralph is the bad guy in a game called Fix-it Felix, and he’s tired of being bad. So he tries to win approval by obtaining medals from other games, in the process wreaking havoc wherever he goes. He ends up in the game Sugar Rush, where he meets a little wannabe racer named Vanellope Von Schweetz…
It’s a cute story, with appealing characters. I liked that the way the characters moved was in keeping with their own game world (except for Ralph; he seemed more flexible than the others in his 8-bit game), similar to how Toy Story’s characters’ movements were restricted by their toy anatomy. For the most part it’s a brightly coloured film, full of pep and life. Anyone who plays or used to play arcade games will appreciate the “gaming” aspect of the whole story, as well as the little nods to classic games like Sonic the Hedgehod, Pacman and Streetfighter.
* Side note: The theme song for the Sugar Rush game (in which most of the story takes place) was sung by AKB48 and the music video was directed by Ninagawa Mika, who, as mentioned above, directed Sakuran. This movie round-up is full of connecting threads. haha

I was going to review How to Train Your Dragon here too but realised that I left it out of the “marquee” image at the top and am too lazy to fix it and reupload the image right now… so I’ll leave that for the next round. :P

5 stars = “Really really liked it and would watch it again without hesitation.”
4 stars = “Really liked it.”
3 stars = “Liked it.” or “Didn’t really like it, but it was a good movie.”
2.5 stars = “It was ok”
2 stars = “Meh. It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t like it.”
1 star = “Forgettable/Boring/Not interesting.”
0 star at all = “Not even worth thinking about.” Or, “I dislike it so much that I am unable to think rationally about it.”

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