Women Transformed in Two Japanese Films, One Old, One New

June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

Yoshio Tsuchiya and Peter in “Funeral Parade of Roses”

Koji Yakusho, Josh Hartnett and Shinobu Terajima in “Oh, Lucy”

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing two surprising Japanese films, one on the festival circuit and the other enjoying its first U.S. release since the early 1970’s. Although dissimilar in many ways, both involve women–cis and trans–who break out of society’s expectations in unexpected, sometimes violent ways.

“Funeral Parade of Roses,” by the late Toshio Matsumoto, premiered in Japan in 1969 but was not seen in the United States until 1970, probably because of its depictions of gay sex, drug use and violence. Matsumoto, who for most of his career was an academic and an experimental filmmaker, sets his story in the demimonde of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. His characters are gangsters, filmmakers, student rioters and trans women. Most of the action takes place in a gay club whose gangster owner, Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya), is pitting Leda, the “mama” (Osamu Ogasawara), against a younger rival, Eddie (Peter), who aspires to succeed her as the hostess. As the lover of both Leda and Eddie, Gonda sets in motion a tragedy of Greek proportions.

“Funeral Parade of Roses” is at once an art film, a black comedy, a feature film, soft core porn, a film-within-a-film, a horror flick, a political commentary and a retelling of “Odeipus Rex”–and I’ve probably missed a few genres. It references Man Ray’s photographs and French Cinema, and is beautiful, messy and brilliant. The film was a major influence on Stanley Kubrick, who borrowed from it in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” Despite being nearly fifty years old, “Funeral Parade of Roses” received a wildly enthusiastic reception from a mostly young audience at Cinefamily the night I saw it. It will be released on DVD and deserves its praise.

“Oh, Lucy” directed and co-written by Atsuko Hirayanagi, was well received at Cannes this year. The story of a 55-year-old single woman in Tokyo who unexpectedly changes her life, the film deals in Japanese themes (suicide by train, office ladies, yakuza) as well as universal ones (workplace politics, alienation and family relationships).

Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a hoarder and office drone who witnesses a suicide off the tracks on her way home one evening–in fact, the man bids her goodbye before jumping. Soon afterwards, her niece Mika persuades Setsuko to buy a package of English lessons from her. Despite having no interest in learning English, Setsuko hands over the money and goes to the class which, oddly, is held in a yakuza establishment in Shinjuku.

“I’m a hugger,” says the American teacher, John (Josh Hartnett). He promptly wraps her in an embrace, christens her Lucy and makes her wear a blonde wig, all of which he claims will help her to learn English. Galvanized by his method, Lucy develops a crush on John as well as a tentative friendship with a fellow student, Tom (Koji Yakusho). When John abruptly disappears along with Mika, Lucy wastes no time in flying to Los Angeles to find him, accompanied by her estranged sister Ayako, Mika’s mother. Once they find John, they set out on a road trip to San Diego in search of Mika. There, liberated and unmoored, Lucy wreaks havoc on everyone around her. A black comedy that gets progressively darker before its hopeful ending, “Oh, Lucy” is as unpredictable and indelible as its heroine. It’s well worth seeing.

Hollywood, the Most Sexist Industry of All

March 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

The director who won:

Kathryn Bigelow


And those who didn’t:

Sofia Coppola

Jane Campion

Lina Wertmüller

On this International Women’s Day, it’s worth noting that the average American fire department offers more opportunities for women than the film and television industry. I’m not just talking about women directors, though the fact that only four women have been nominated for the Best Director Academy Award in the Oscars’ 89-year history looks really bad, as does the fact that only one has won. I’m talking about opportunities for women across the board. The statistics are not only deplorable but actually getting worse.

The 2016 annual report of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film states:

In 2016, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 2 percentage points from last year and is even with the percentage achieved in 1998.
Women accounted for 7% of directors, down 2 percentage points from 9% in 2015 and 1998. Last year, 92% of films had no female directors. In other roles, women comprised 13% of writers, 17% of executive producers, 24% of producers, 17% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers.
This year’s study also found that only 3% of composers working on the top 250 films were women.

What is to be done? It’s not enough to increase the female and minority membership of the Academy, which remains overwhelmingly white, male and old. The executives who greenlight films and TV shows have to change too, both in their gender makeup and outlook. It’s one thing to have more women executives who embrace the status quo, and another to have female–and male–executives who champion women writers, directors, cinematographers and composers. Another factor plaguing film and television is the lack of urgency. As long as the powers that be think things are fine as they are, nothing will change.

Life In All Its Colors: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea”

November 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in "Manchester by the Sea"

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea”

Most American films about families–in fact, most American films–are about progress: in the course of two hours, happiness–or at least resolution–is achieved, and the characters move forward with their lives. But it didn’t used to be that way: before “Rocky,” films often ended unhappily, or at least ambiguously. These less-than-happy endings made movies a lot like life, and the lack of them is precisely what makes today’s films so unsatisfying and unreal. No wonder there are so many movies about superheroes today–an obvious fantasy is better than a contrivance disguised as the truth.

Happily, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” is a bracing refutation of that style. When we first see its protagonist, Lee Chandler, he’s grinding through a series of long days as the super for four Boston area apartment buildings, doing everything from shoveling snow to fixing toilets and electrical problems. He lives alone in a basement apartment, talks as little as possible, and alienates everyone he meets with his unfriendliness. His social life consists of drinking alone in a bar until he lashes out for no reason, pummeling strangers with his fists. The grimness of his life seems self-imposed but we don’t know why, and won’t for some time.

Lee gets word of his older brother Joe’s sudden death, and this sets the plot in motion. He takes a week off to return to his Cape Ann hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, to make funeral arrangements and settle Joe’s affairs, intending to come back to Quincy afterwards. But Joe has a 16-year-old son, Patrick, whose alcoholic mother is out of the picture, and Lee discovers that the will names him as his nephew’s guardian. Unwilling to assume the role of father and son, Lee and Patrick embark on an uneasy new relationship marked by grief, anger and–because Patrick can’t drive–a lot of carpooling.

Lonergan, a playwright as well as screenwriter and director, is a master of realistic dialogue. His characters don’t make speeches and are sometimes at a loss for words; when they do talk, they talk economically. He is also a master of silences: several key scenes are filmed through windows without sound, but everything you need to know is conveyed by the actors, all superb. Casey Affleck, always excellent, gives the performance of his career as Lee.

Gradually, through a series of flashbacks, we learn the source of Lee’s violent anger, depression and self-exile. It’s a trauma so huge that there’s no way to rationalize, let alone recover from, it. Lee is in purgatory and always will be, as he knows. While he does his best for Patrick, it’s far from the resolution Joe (or anyone) would have hoped for. Yet the ending rings true, like everything in the “Manchester by the Sea,” including the accents. I can’t remember when I last saw a more satisfying film.

Radical Solutions For Loneliness in Two German Films: “Wild” and “Aloys”

October 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

Lilith Stangenberg in "Wild"

Lilith Stangenberg in “Wild”

Georg Friedrich in "Aloys"

Georg Friedrich in “Aloys”

Though there may be some bad German films I’ve never seen one, which is remarkable given the number I’ve watched over the last thirty years. This past week’s German Currents brought to Los Angeles eight recent features and a documentary on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose huge oeuvre (forty-four films in the eighteen frenetic years before his death, in 1982, at thirty-seven) was my gateway into modern German cinema.

Unfortunately I could attend only the last night’s films. Both were excellent and shared a theme: social isolation in contemporary life.

In “Wild,” by writer/director Nicolette Krebitz, a solitary young IT worker named Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is galvanized by the discovery of a large wolf in the park near her sterile apartment building. Soon she’s reading up on wolf hunting and constructing a perimeter of flags to trap the animal, which she tranquilizes, drags back to her apartment and, improbably, tames. As the wolf becomes domesticated, Ania becomes more feral, with dramatic consequences for everyone and everything around her. Stangenberg’s performance is astonishing, as is the wolf’s (apparently two animals played the role), and the ending is unforgettable.

Aloys (Georg Friedrich), the lonely protagonist of writer/director Tobias Nölle’s eponymous film, is a private detective whose misanthropy and profession have cut him off from normal human interaction. Filming and taping are Aloys’s means of expression as well as tools of his trade, and he pursues them constantly. At the start of the film, Aloys’s father and business partner has just died, leaving him completely companionless. After drinking himself into a stupor on a bus, the bereaved detective awakes to find his camera and latest videotapes gone. Soon he gets a call for ransom, which involves “telephone walking” with a mysterious woman. Through a conversational game, Aloys is gradually drawn out of his isolation and into a relationship with the thief, who turns out to be his suicidal neighbor.

Though neither “Aloys” nor “Wild” has U.S. theatrical distribution at this point, it’s likely that they will be available online in the near future. I recommend both films highly.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Died Here

September 13, 2016 § 3 Comments

1443 N. Hayworth Avenue/Hope Anderson Productions

1443 N. Hayworth Avenue/Hope Anderson Productions

Several years ago I met a man who lived at the bizarrely named Chateau Alto Nido, an old apartment building on Ivar Avenue in Hollywood. Though the Alto Nido (“High Nest” in Spanish, presumably because Le Haut Nid was too hard to pronounce) has seen better days, its fame is undiminished: it’s where the doomed screenwriter Joe Gillis lived in “Sunset Boulevard.” Its sign and Spanish Colonial enormity are immortalized in the film’s establishing shots.

When I visited the Alto Nido, hummingbirds were flying in and out of the windows, the only charming touch in a dwelling that seemed to be both an abandoned DIY renovation and the lair of a mid-level hoarder. The place was on the Franklin side and thus not Gillis’s Ivar side apartment; still, I enjoyed its proximity to hallowed cinematic ground. That is, until the man said, “Guess who died here?–the guy who wrote The Great Gatsby.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, but he was serious.

“Yeah, right here,” he insisted, pointing to an alcove.

I knew this couldn’t be true: if F. Scott Fitzgerald had keeled over at the Alto Nido, someone would have written about it, and no one had. Also, I was pretty sure the location was off the Sunset Strip. As far as the Alto Nido man’s delusions were concerned, this turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. I got out fast.

The following year I met a normal-seeming man who lived in an old building on Hayworth Avenue in West Hollywood. Much to my relief, his apartment showed no signs of chaos or hoarding; in fact, it was clean and neat. My first visit went well until he said, “You want to see where F. Scott Fitzgerald died?”

Please don’t say “in my apartment,” I thought fervently.

He pointed to a building up the street. “It’s that one.”

And people say Los Angeles isn’t literary.

He was right about the location, of course. He’d even read Fitzgerald, though not much as I had. But that’s beside the point, which is: what are the chances of my meeting two completely different men in consecutive years whose hook was Fitzgerald’s death spot?

Both men are long gone from my life, mercifully, but I still wonder about it.

Related Post:https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/f-scott-fitzgerald-lived-and-wrote-here/

F. Scott Fitzgerald Lived (and Wrote) Here

September 9, 2016 § 3 Comments

The F. Scott Fitzgerald House in St. Paul, MN/Photos by Hope Anderson Productions

The F. Scott Fitzgerald House in St. Paul, MN/Photos by Hope Anderson Productions

While visiting the Twin Cities for a wedding over Labor Day weekend, I squeezed in some sightseeing. One of my destinations was the F. Scott Fitzgerald house on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, a street notable for its grand Victorian houses and large lots. Though Summit is St. Paul’s Millionaire’s Row, the houses on it include apartment buildings, at least one former boarding house, and row houses, including Fitzgerald’s. Always keenly aware of money and social standing, he referred to his family’s house as “a house below the average on a street above the average,” though it is attractive and substantial. Rented by Fitzgerald’s parents while he was at Princeton, it was the home Fitzgerald returned to after leaving college for the Army and a stint in advertising in New York City. In 1919, he wrote This Side of Paradise, his first novel, in his bedroom, taking cigarette breaks on the balcony because he wasn’t allowed to smoke indoors. When This Side of Paradise was accepted for publication, Fitzgerald ran up and down Summit Avenue, spreading the good news to drivers of passing cars.

img_4797Today the Fitzgerald House is on the National Register of Historic Places. (It’s also for sale: $625,000 for 4 bedrooms, 2 baths and 2 half-baths.) As I gazed at it, I was struck by the contrast between the place where Fitzgerald’s career began and the nondescript West Hollywood apartment house where it ended only two decades later. Between those residences were a great many other Fitzgerald residences, including the estate on Long Island where he wroteThe Great Gatsby, apartments in Paris and Rome, a villa in the South of France, and a grand hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, near the sanitorium where his wife Zelda was institutionalized.

As he moved from house to house, Fitzgerald’s career soared and foundered. At the start the Depression in 1929, Fitzgerald’s short story rate at the Saturday Evening Post was $4,000–$40,000 in today’s dollars. He spent as fast as he earned, however, and by 1937 he was laboring in Hollywood as an unsuccessful, albeit highly paid, screenwriter. In 1940, while writing his comeback novel, The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald was felled by his third heart attack in the ground floor apartment of the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, his last companion. He was only forty-four but had lived in more houses than most centenarians.

Next time: F. Scott Fitzgerald Died Here

Sources: Matthew J. Bruccoli: “A Brief Life of Fitzgerald,” 1994.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald Walking Tour of St. Paul, MN” http://wcaudle.com/fscotwlk.htm

The Joy of Watching Movies Alone

August 24, 2016 § 2 Comments

222px-Interno_di_un_sala_da_cinema
Last month I went to a crowded sneak preview of “Star Trek Beyond.” As I took my seat, the young woman next to me asked, “Did you two get separated?” When I told her that I was alone, she was wildly impressed. “I’ve always wanted to do that but I’ve never had the guts,” she said. I was baffled: after all, this was a popcorn movie, not a week-long Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective. “I almost always go to movies alone,” I said. “You should try it; it’s great.”

There was a time when watching films was my job. I generally saw 130 per year, at least half of them in theaters. During this period, I lost all perspective about normal–i.e., recreational–moviegoing. Not only did I no longer regard films as entertainment but I also had no idea what constituted an average person’s intake. Was one movie a week considered a normal number? I didn’t know, because I averaged three a week in theaters and more on video.

Mostly I watched alone, but I never felt alone: my attentions were fully on the screen, rather than on those sitting next to me. Which brings me to back to the woman who was afraid to see movies alone: how much companionship is there in watching movies? Sure, you can hold hands, but you can’t talk. And the experience is far from shared, as anyone whose opinion of a movie has differed a friend’s can attest.

Last night I went to a screening of a terrible new movie that I can’t name because there’s a press embargo on it until next week. I happened to have a friend with me, who fortunately felt much the way I did about it. Still, I couldn’t help worrying about her reaction to what was on the screen, as well as to my flinching from the gunfire and smirking at the script. At some point I realized there were two movies playing at once: the real one and the one in my row. That’s fine for mindless entertainment, but good movies require a level of concentration that’s hard to achieve when you’re wondering if your companion wants to walk out. That’s why I usually watch alone.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Feature Films category at Under the Hollywood Sign.