Review Bag: Suzuki, Pixar, Abrams, Howard
Seijun Suzuki’s hard-boiled yakuza film, save for its occasional stylistic excesses, is perfectly straightforward and entertaining — nothing too brilliant nor negative to report of — until its final moments. In those last minutes, the full weight of the film’s narrative, the dead bodies and mass bloodletting, bores down on Suzuki’s anti-hero, Joji Mizuno, who sums up a lifetime of grief, deception, and betrayal with a haggard stumble through his director’s exquisitely composed frames. What began as a fairly simple gangster tale ends with the sort of tragic force found in Shakespeare, and it’s all shot like an Ozu picture with guns. Everything up until this moment is interesting and prettily arranged, if somewhat forgettable; it’s Mizuno’s final, horrific action and his anguished reaction that calls down a cascade of pathos, engulfing the immediate moment and the film’s preceding 90 minutes. Repressed realizations bubble up to the surface and pop, and uplift a merely decent film into excellence.
The plot isn’t really anything to write home about; it plays largely as a modern riff on YOJIMBO: Mysterious, ruthless Mizuno joins up with rival gangs and pits them against each other while carrying out his own secret mission, which I won’t reveal. It all goes to hell in predictable fashion, helped immensely by Suzuki’s aptitude for striking compositions, and his actors’ believable performances. Suzuki seems to be having great fun in juxtaposing omniscient, static long shots with a looser, subjective camera that often seems dumbfounded by the existence of offscreen space. In such moments, Suzuki’s camera seems attached to his protagonist, backpedaling physically as Mizuno realizes he’s being ambushed from behind. Other scenes see the camera following his every movement, as though bolted to his hip. It’s one of the stronger uses of the camera as tool to help an audience identify with the protagonist that I’ve seen recently. Mizuno exudes a quiet charisma that does more to earn respect than sympathy, leaving the subtler connective work to the camera. It’s a film of fascinating cinematic choices, which makes its relatively uninspired story easier to enjoy. Suzuki knew what sort of script he was working with, and he made sure to spice it up with his bag of tricks.
As usual per Pixar releases, the praise for UP is deafening, and well deserved. There isn’t much I can add to the chorus that hasn’t been said, but when a film truly deserves its accolades, it’s a pleasure to sing along. UP is, scene for scene, probably the quirkiest film yet to come out of Pixar’s joyful womb: the combination of old and young protagonists, floating balloon-house, and armies of talking domesticated dogs serving meals to an aging explorer on his parked zeppelin — well, I was reminded of David Lynch for some reason while watching. What makes it stand out is how well Pete Doctor and his supernaturally skilled animators convince you to actually suspend disbelief. So many films of today require suspension to work, but they all put disbelief into half-hour detention. UP makes you forget that dogs don’t have talking collars and houses don’t fly to South America, and by the time the credits roll, you are convinced that the fact that such things do not happen in our world makes it a very cruel one indeed.
Watch UP and witness the astonishing economy and grace of a story told well. There is no fat in this picture. Watch how quickly you fall in love with the characters, especially the giant bird/part-time MacGuffin called the Snipe, or Dug the dog. Their introductions are breathtaking in their simplicity, but rich in humour and feeling.
I was astonished by two moments in the film. The first was the now-famous opening montage of the marriage between Carl and Ellie. We watch them grow old together, and the sense of time and the richness of a life fully lived is achieved in 1/16th of the time it takes to happen in BENJAMIN BUTTON. In what may be the most stunning piece of editing in a Pixar film yet, Doctor drives home an emotional sledgehammer with two simple shots, almost tableaux in their direction. The impact is entirely dependent on Kuleshov’s effect — that the very presentation of disparate shots edited together create meaning between them, regardless of how different they are — and the resulting payoff is devastating.
The other moment sees boy scout Russell reminiscing about good times he shared with his now-absent father. Jordan Nagai’s thoughtful vocal work is matched note for note by the animation team, who masterfully imbue the animated character with an air of dawning realization. The effect is unbelievably realistic, and a perfect synthesis of a performance.
These moments, and more, are put to work in service of a larger story about realizing dreams, priorities, humility, compassion, and love. If I had a suggestion, it would be that I hope Pixar’s teams from here on out focus more on character-based scenes, and less on action. It’s wonderfully realized stuff, the action, but nowhere near as interesting as those goofy moments with the Snipe, the relationship building between Carl and Russell, or the acclamations of Dug.
But that’s my only complaint, and even then it’s not really one. UP is brilliant.
STAR TREK (2009)
Not much to add here. Its greatest asset is its cast, all of whom fit their respective roles snugly, except Anton Yelchin’s Chekhov, who is a bit too broadly comical for my liking. The trailers’ prepared me to hate Chris Pine’s every moment onscreen, and I was delighted to be won over by his charismatic recasting of Kirk. The crew’s interaction is the key to any successful relaunch, and that goal is achieved in spades; the greatest pleasure of Abram’s reboot is just observing the characters play off each other. The most important work is done.
I admire the effort to really change the story line, namely with the annihilation of Vulcan and Spock’s mom. Its aftermath was poorly handled from a character point of view (Spock gets his fifteen seconds of grieving, and then on to more derring-do), but it still bears a weight of finality that has been lacking in Star Trek for some time.
I do hope, though, that the sequel treads deeper thematic waters. As one of the eight people who really liked NEMESIS, let me point out that for all of its stagnancy, it explored strong themes, something that Abram’s STAR TREK doesn’t have much time for. The franchise needed a shakeup, and Abrams has delivered, but now that the audience is back and the receipts are tallied, let’s go out and collect the brain that was airlocked back in development, and cook up something that will truly, deeply, go where we haven’t been before. That means leave Khan alone. Show us something new, and meaningful. Please.
Why the talking heads? I understand this was a play, but somewhere in the transition to cinema, didn’t anyone ask, “Why do we need talking-head interview segments telling the audience exactly what they’re watching?” For a film nominated for the big Oscars, I was surprised at how much handholding was going on.
This is the biggest weight around FROST/NIXON’s neck, namely its somewhat dull, literalist treatment. I understand the face-off between Nixon and Frost is gussied up in metaphor land as a boxing match of sorts, but did that really necessitate scenes of secondary characters watching the same thing we’re watching, and then commenting on it to make sure we know Exactly What To Think of whatever it is we’re seeing? It’s a sports movie that’s played with words, but instead of using sidelined characters’ reactions to enhance the feelings running rampant in a scene, their proclamations simply state the obvious. And I’m loathe to see the day when I’m annoyed by Sam Rockwell, but his introductory scene dances towards irritation in its anxious stew of self-righteousness. Luckily he calms down and we get to know him as a real character of sorts, but that first scene careens with a broad recklessness surprising for an actor as finely tuned as Rockwell.
Ron Howard knows how to make compelling films (APOLLO 13), but his treatment here is bland, and nothing more. It’s not poorly done; the final product is watchable and competently made. That’s all, though. Its considerable energy comes largely from its talented cast, lead by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, veterans of Peter Morgan’s play. The supporting cast is strong and believable. But those damned interview segments that interrupt the narrative flow to provide unnecessary context or opinion help drag this one down. I also bet there’s a clever reason for all of those meandering rack focus shots, but that doesn’t make their overuse less noticeable or annoying. In the end, the film succeeds on the strength of its actors, regardless of Howard’s wandering approach to filming the actual story. It’s admirable for its sheer energy, barreling from one scene to the next, keeping viewers caught up in the drama of the moment. It’s only after the dust settles that we think back and realize how much actually didn’t happen.