INTENTIONS OF MURDER and What Did I Just Watch?

This “review” will be very scattered because I’m not entirely sure what I just watched. Intention of Murder (1964) made by Shôhei Imamura is a 2.5 hour weird thrill ride filled with spouses cheating on each other, rape, stalking, violence, eating, trains, you name it. I really need to watch it again because I probably missed half the film because it was so dense.

Sadako is in a loveless marriage with Riichi, a librarian. She make money on the side (that she hides from her husband) by knitting. Their son, Masaru, is as sickly as his father. Both are weak and need to be cared for by Sadako. Sadako’s grandmother committed suicide 50 years ago and Sadako’s mother was a bar hostess. Sadako’s family for generations cared for Riichi’s family. I think they’re only together in the film because Riichi and Sadako had sex which led to Masaru. The sex may not have been totally consensual but there seems, at one point in the film, to be some love there, somewhat.

The film extensively uses sudden flashbacks and dream sequences that disrupt the narrative and add a surreal-ness to it. In one of the flashbacks, I believe when Sadako is first going to work for Riichi’s family, there’s a group of old women huddled around the tree and whispering about her (I think because there were no subtitles) and the house she is going to (where Sadako’s grandmother committed suicide), and the spooky things that need to be done there. They live in their superstitions. But this whispering comes back throughout the film.

Also littered throughout the film is the double standards, which are used to point out problems in Japan at that time (I think. A lot of this is speculation because I don’t really know much about 1960s Japan. Forgive me). Riichi is having an affair with a colleague from the library and does not seem to think about it morally. Sadako is raped and then somewhat stalked by her rapist who then claims that he loves her. Riichi’s mistress is trying to prove to Riichi that Sadako is cheating on him and that he should just move in with her because, why not? they’ve already been together for ten years and she had an abortion for him a while ago but wants a kid. I told you, this movie is wild and filled with this stuff. So! Riichi freaks out and is there slapping Sadako in front of Masaru while giving no thoughts to his own affairs. The earliest mention of these double standards is when Sadako is about to go to sleep early in the film and she begins to read. In the book she reads aloud, which seems like some kind of sociological study, she says something along the lines of why it is okay for men to smoke but it is not okay for women to smoke and the questions that are brought to light by this realization. But instead of going into it, she just goes to sleep. Maybe this is supposed to show she isn’t the smartest person? I really don’t know! I need to watch the film again!

Oh yeah, more about Sadako’s rapist. So he comes into her house at night, robs her, then rapes her, and it’s pretty brutal. It’s always interesting to see something in a film that makes you uncomfortable, which the director must have known would make you uncomfortable, so you’re being shown something uncomforting for a reason. Eventually, the rapist leaves and Sadako thinks about killing herself, as any honorable Japanese woman would do (something I think director Imamura was making fun of, the “Japanese code,” that is). But the rest of the film, he keeps following her and trying to talk to her. He says he loves her over and over again and tries to get her to run away with him to Tokyo. But then we learn he has heart problems and need his ampule when his heart decides to attack him. This Criterion essay pointed out that basically every man in the film is sick and kind of close to dying and are trying to control a perfectly healthy woman. Among other things, I’m using that Criterion essay a lot to just help me piece together what I just watched.

Let’s try to piece together this structure. I mentioned before that the film has flashbacks and dream sequences but it doesn’t rely on them. Honestly, you probably could take them out. But! I liked them. I do think they added more to the story, especially Riichi and Sadako’s background. Whatever, leave them in. I like a film that takes risks. Then the rest of the film seems… episodic? But it’s not really. The rapist scene happens ten minutes in and the story unfolds from there. There isn’t much of a conventional plot. It’s almost like a Tarantino film, in that way. I remember watching a Tarantino interview on Charlie Rose and he was talking about how American films at the time were very predictable. As in you could watch the first ten minutes and knew exactly what was going to happen because American films have been stuck in this storytelling rut. He then went on to say that foreign films at the time (around 1994) were great at introducing a story and letting it unfold in front of you, rather than very structured Catalyst On Page 10 American films. I’d put Intentions of Murder in the latter category. Yes, there is a plot, but also not really. We more just follow Sadako (more on that in a second) after she’s been raped and how it changes her life. Sadako slowly, slowly changes into the woman at the end of the film because of the seemingly loose story. But that seemingly loose story comes together. There’s zero way this film would have the ending it had if it had not created all these small characters tensions. For example, Riichi’s mistress follows Sadako and her rapist near the end of the film, thinking Sadako is cheating on Riichi. We know Sadako’s character motivation because we’re with her most of the film, we know the rapist’s motivation because he told Sadako, and we know Riichi’s mistress’ motivation because of what she told Riichi. I’m just now realizing how amazing this is. The seemingly plotless film built up these character tensions and motivations and allowed the last twenty-ish minutes to have the smallest amount of dialogue in the film, which holy shit, that’s so brilliant!!!

Also, I take back what I said about the flashbacks before, they definitely are needed to create the backstory of some of the things that happen later in the film. Sorry, it’s a long film and I’ve only watched it once and I just remembered how important the flashbacks are.

There are some crazy beautiful shots in this film. One that I’m still thinking about is when Sadako gets off a train and it suddenly starts snowing. And the fantastic combination of long takes with quick cuts. And the use of tripod shots with long dolly takes with handheld that makes sense. Man, this film was really thought out.

The more I write about this film, the more I like it and notice how amazing it is. I look forward to watching this again. This is total rule-breaking cinema. I wonder if anyone could get away with making a film like this today.

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MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT and Possible Problems with the Auteur Theory

I haven’t seen many Woody Allen films, by golly, he’s directed 53 so far. I’m trying to change that. I think his films are often fun genre-benders that play with the conventions of cinema. I’ve seen Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Husbands and Wives (1992), Midnight in Paris (2011), and, as of a few minutes ago, Magic in the Moonlight (2014). Regardless of what you think of Woody Allen, you ought to respect the talent of a person who can make a whole film every single year since the late 1960s.

I look forward to watching old Woody Allen films I haven’t seen yet because I’m always expecting them to be as fantastic as Annie Hall. To take what a friend of mine said in the words he didn’t use verbatim, “no end of a film quite destroyed me like Annie Hall.” Here is a man who made MANY really dope films that come on screen and say, “hey, I’m not doing that bullshit you want me to do. This is MY film.” And we sit there along for the ride. Think of the fantastic way he blends comedy and drama. His films aren’t stereotypically actor-heavy but I think his films have some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in them. There’s a small scene in The Purple Rose of Cairo where Mia Farrow stumbles on a few words when talking to her abusive husband and it blew me away. It was so realistic and human and vulnerable. Or the scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are breaking up and Woody Allen’s character says something along the lines of, “mad? Of course I’m not mad. I’m devastated.” That line absolutely destroyed me because I feel like I rarely see characters say what they’re feeling in a way that isn’t tedious exposition. It felt honest to me.

All this being said, I thought Magic in the Moonlight was pretty decent. I wasn’t crazy about the age-difference in the two leads, I’ll tell you what. But I feel like the film didn’t do as well critically because it is a Woody Allen film. “Whaaaa? But you just praised him for two paragraphs.” Yeah, I know what I wrote. The unfair problem with the auteur theory is that, by studying a certain director, we compare his/her films to their previous ones. E.g. “I liked The Dark Knight Rises but it was no The Dark Knight.” Agreed, it’s not The Dark Knight because it’s a completely different film made a few years later. That may be an unfair comparison in hindsight because it’s a trilogy and the characters are the same. Please remember, these articles are hastily written. A different e.g. “I liked Magic in the Moonlight but it was no Annie Hall.” That’s better.

I had this problem a lot when I started giving ratings on IMDB. I’d watch a film, say like Boyhood which I gave a 9/10, and then I’d watch another film likeeeee The Guardians of the Galaxy which I think I gave an 8/10. The whole time I watched The Guardians of the Galaxy, I was thinking of what IMDB rating I’d give this. “Oh, this is a 7/10… But you gave that other film a 7/10 and this is way better. Okay, 9/10. Whoa, wait, you’d put this up there with Boyhood? Yeah, maybe. No, maybe not. 8/10.” Then the rest of my movie going experience is just me jumping between numbers. It’s a totally mediocre way to watch anything. And I think that’s a problem with modern Woody Allen films. Since he puts out SO many films, people can’t help but to compare it to Annie Hall which came out in 1977. Rating films, at least for me, does not work. One should look at a film and decide if what the film was trying to do worked or not. Under that criteria, I think Magic in the Moonlight worked as a romantic-comedy with a fun, albeit very slight, twist of the genre conventions. What I think didn’t work was the age-gap in the leads but, ya know, can’t win ’em all.

Let’s pretend Magic in the Moonlight was made by an unknown director and was exactly the same. I would praise its realistic dialogue (not the BEST dialogue, but I didn’t groan during any dialogue scenes), how fucking beautiful the film is (every shot is basically a painting, look at that deep focus and that use of sun!), and the way they introduce Emma Stone’s character. It reminded my of The Third Man (1949) where they talk about a character and how amazing (or in the case of The Third Man, brutal and amazing) they are, how they have impressed whoever is talking about them, etc, etc. So you have this image in your head of this person and you’re not meeting them and it drives you crazy. And then you meet them and you’re just blown away. While meeting Emma Stone’s character didn’t blow me away as much as meeting Harry Lime in The Third Man or John Doe in Se7en (1995), I was still impressed with by the time of meeting her, I knew what everyone thinks about her.

Let’s take a quick look at the structure of this film. Out of all the Allen films I’ve seen, Magic in the Moonlight seems most like a Save the Cat type of story. It’s almost paint by numbers structure which is okay but I think I’m at a point in my life where I’m tired of hearing about Save the Cat. You watch the film and then the characters get to their low point and you think, “oh no, will they make it out of this?” but you know they will because that’s Hollywood. But you don’t think that with Woody Allen because his endings are often more poignant and sad. I wish Magic in the Moonlight cut to black on the Medium Close Up of Colin Firth after he hears the knocking. Slight smile, turn of the head. CUT TO BLACK! Instead of what we really saw. But that’s totally prescriptive and I obviously can’t go and change the film. I just think an ending like that would have made the film more memorable. It’s weird to think that the last ten seconds of a film can change an opinion on a film that much.

So, Magic in the Moonlight wasn’t horrible. It wasn’t awesome either. But it looked pretty, the acting was solid, the story was fun with it being a magician trying to uncover another magician, and, well, that’s about it. Maybe I would have seen this film differently had I not known Woody Allen’s work from before. But it’s almost impossible to separate the name from a body of work. For better or worse.

-ERO

KICKING AND SCREAMING (1995) and my first Noah Baumbach film

Holy cow. You’re probably asking, “Hey Erik, how is this your first Baumbach film?” To which I answer: I have no idea. What have I been doing with my time? This film, Baumbach’s first feature, is absolutely wild and inspiring. What fantastic characters, what solid dialogue, what fun, what sadness! What a time!

There may be some spoilers but I’ll mark major spoilers with something like “MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUT TO OCCUR”.

I honestly have zero idea of what I was expecting. I’ve heard about the film before but only knew loglines that sounded like, “kids graduate college and don’t leave,” which led me to think the film was going to be a cookie-cutter comedy that focused on the fun of not growing up. Which could have been fun. But from the very first Max Ophuls-esque shot blaring The Pixies and picking up weird bits of dialogue that didn’t necessarily add to the story but definitely added to the world, I knew I was in for something way unexpected.

Grover’s first conversation with his ladyfriend Jane made me remember how awe-struck I was by the opening dialogue in The Social Network (2010). Just a fast, in your face, “these people are smart” way of talking that draws you in with its fantastic wit. Cut this conversation with splices of Grover’s pals talking about drinking delivered with a deadpan sarcasm that could possibly make a viewer think, “what? Is he being serious?” And then the bit about the pajama top. By golly, that’s humor! Humor! While cutting back to the protagonist and the start of his conflict? Amazing!

This could maybe help you fellow writers out there. Look at how the conflict is set up in the very first scene. But then you watch the rest of the film. The rest of the seemingly plotless film. Maybe themes and conflict can be introduced in the beginning of a work and then you can allow the characters to live their lives in regards to these themes and conflicts. But it’s not like there’s a “real” conflict happening (i.e. Grover has 90 minutes to stop a bomb), it’s an existential conflict. One about not being with the person you’re supposed to be with because they’re in Prague. One about being forced to grow up but not being ready to. Not to say that there are not little moments of conflict. How about the scene when Kate screams at the “I’d Rather Be Bowhunting” pickup-truck driver who is about to take her parking spot? And Max is just sitting there stunned and totally unsure what to do because this pickup-truck driver doesn’t even want to be here, he’d rather be bowhunting.

(Scene starts at 0:35)

So there’s little moments of conflict, more like little episodes, we watch people we enjoy watching go through. This isn’t to say everything is fun. There is still the main conflict happening. We can’t forget about that. So we’re shown little moments of the camera moving into a voicemail machine and it’s Jane calling from Prague saying some sweet things. But then her voicemail is cut short or Grover just stops listening. Ergo, we stop listening. It’s a great repeated device that keeps bringing us back to the central conflict.

And then the plot gets a little non-linear, but not really, which is totally groovy. We just get scenes from the past. We know we’re in the past because 1) we see Jane and Grover together and 2) these scenes are introduced with a black and white freeze frame of Jane, dissolved into a sepia freeze frame, dissolved into a color freeze frame, then into the actual moving film. Baumbach said he took influence from La Jetée (1962) for these flashbacks. La Jetée is a whole film done with still photographs (save for one shot, I think) and is about time travel/the past/the way things were, so it is entirely appropriate that this is how we as the audience are introduced to the scenes of the past. Especially since the whole film has a theme of nostalgia, which I’ll talk about at the very end. But these are more of the serious moments of the film. It’s where we see Jane and Grover together and, unlike the first scene where she reveals she is going to Prague, act as two people attracted to each other. The first time we flashback, though, and I’ll have to check (not right now, remember, this is hastily written) is when Jane and Grover have their first conversation but have not officially met. They’re in a writing class and the other students are absolutely loving Grover’s wonderful words. But, alas, Jane points out some problems she has with it. So we know right away that she is not like the other students. She has an opinion, which is totally rad. And I’d like to point out that she does not seem like one of those stereotyped Zooey Deschanel quirky girls who read hip books just because. As evident from the first scene, she is just as smart and witty and as capable as the male protagonist. She’s also not a stereotypical “bitchy” girlfriend. Heck, she invites Grover to go to Prague with her but he won’t go because… he doesn’t want to postpone his post-college anxiety? Look at that character flaw that drives the whole story forward! The art of storytelling!

Sorry, I got a bit sidetracked there. I’m just trying to say that the flashbacks worked for revealing character and conflict and backstory. It’s interesting, we don’t feel Grover’s pain until the end of the film. We are slowly revealed information about what he has lost and it makes the film painful. There’s no way this film could ever work if told in a linear fashion. I can’t even comprehend how it’d work. It’d be a completely different film and in a bad way. I see the flashbacks as allowed to be in the film because of that nostalgia theme (I told you I’d talk about it again!). The whole film can probably be summarized by this scene (starts around 1:34 but watch the whole thing). Sure, Max is saying it. But don’t you think the joke in the film that all these boys talk the same means something?

So, to end this hastily written review, Kicking and Screaming was awesome. Definitely more character-driven than a conventional film. But never underestimate the power of strong characters, strong side-characters, and strong side-side-characters. A lot of where the charm comes from in this film is when the camera goes by random people talking and they’re there ACTUALLY saying something and not pretending to talk. Just doing little things like that can totally add to your film and make it a world the audience wants to be in.

 

Thanks for reading. Go watch Kicking and Screaming. And La Jetée.

-ERO