film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Floating Weeds (1959)

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I couldn’t tell you why, but for me this Japanese film felt French.

Floating Weeds is the story of a washed-up theater troupe and its summer stint in a small Japanese seaside town. By night the troupe runs through the same tired Kabuki shows which won them acclaim in previous years, but which bore modern audiences. And the town is so small that by day there isn’t much for anyone to do except for take naps, go fishing, or try to pick up girls.

That’s what the troupe’s leader Komajuro (Nakamura Ganjiro) did several years ago – in fact, he has a son in town, with an old girlfriend (Haruko Sugimora). Their son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi) is now a strapping young man working at the local post office to save up for a stint in college. Komajuro is all for it – he knows he’s a bit of a washup and wants his son to aspire to loftier goals. In an effort not to get in the way of his success, he and his old girlfriend Oyoshi have agreed to pretend that he is a distant uncle who just so happens to drop in every few years.

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In fact, it’s been ten years since Komajuro’s troupe has been in town – so his visit to Oyoshi doesn’t sit right with Komajuro’s current girlfriend Sumiko (Machiko Kyo). She stops by Oyoshi’s cafe one afternoon for lunch to snoop around a bit, and thoroughly pissing off Komajuro when he catches her there. They have a huge blow-up of an argument where he accuses her of trying to ruin Kiyoshi’s life, and he warns her to stay out of his business. But Sumiko didn’t even know about Kiyoshi before this, so this gives her the perfect idea for revenge; she takes aside another, younger woman in the troupe, the shy Kayo (Ayako Wakao), and pays her off to seduce Kiyoshi. Kayo is initially lured by the money, but Kiyoshi is easily smitten with her – and soon Kayo is equally smitten with Kiyoshi. So by the time that Komajuro discovers their summer romance, Kayo and Kiyoshi are both in deep, and Komajuro has a big problem…

I’d said that this film felt French in a way – perhaps I was reminded of the seaside town in M. Hulot’s Holiday, where nothing of consequence really happened and the film just followed people around watching them be idle. Despite the soap-y love drama with Kayo and Kiyoshi or with Komajuro and Sumiko, most of the film is really about the lazy boredom you get in small towns in summer; it’s too hot to do anything energetic, and everyone’s too broke to do much of anything else, so everyone mainly just sits around smoking, drinking, and gossiping. There’s a whole running-gag subplot involving three other guys from Komajuro’s troupe who clearly are only interested in women – they half-ass their performances so they can get finished early and go to the bar, they peek out through the curtains during the shows picking who they’re going to try to flirt with later, and when they’ve drunk through their meager stipends, the girls drop them like old laundry and they are stuck with nothing to do during the day but sit around on the beach and complain, or gossip about the unfolding drama with Kiyoshi and Kayo and Komajuro.

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Ironically, showing these three guys undercut the drama for me – and made it all the more realistic. In my theater days I did one show that had a six-month run – and that was long enough for a lot of the elements of the show to become routine, and for everyone to settle into a groove; we’d all heard everyone’s jokes and stories already, there were shifting and morphing and evolving grudges that ebbed and flowed and waxed and waned, sometimes one of us got extra money from our day job and could treat the others to a drink and sometimes we were all flat broke and spent the downtime sitting around the theater doing kind of nothing, watching time pass until it made sense to get up and start getting ready for the show. We also knew that as soon as the show closed we wouldn’t be anywhere near as interested in the things that were capturing our attention then. We were broke, we were bored, the “what happens after we close” question loomed large for each of us, and gossip was simply more comfortable to think about.

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Because the troupe knows that the writing is on the wall here – it’s been getting harder and harder for Komajuro to find them bookings, and audiences are getting smaller and smaller and a lot of the troupe knows that their days are numbered. Komajuro seems to have some kind of soap-opera-y thing going on, but all the rest of the cast has is a lackluster summer in a small town, chatting with the locals or hanging out with each other and waiting for time to pass so they can finally get around to figuring out the next phase of their lives.

Hmm. Looks like I identified more with the supporting characters.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Rio Bravo (1959)

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One of my go-to actions after I see a film is to look up what other critics have said about it. Sometimes it pushes me to notice something I might have overlooked; sometimes it validates my own “hey, that was great” or “wow that was terrible” gut instinct. And then there are the times it just makes me feel like a stupid doof because the critics are waxing rhapsodic about the stunning plot or the complex characters or hey, didn’t you just love the cinematography in the third act? And usually this happens with a film I flat-out hated or thought was trite and dull and predictable, so my reaction to that is “uh….no?”

Like with this – Roger Ebert described this Howard Hawks/John Wayne picture the work of “a master craftsman”. “The film is seamless,” he gushed. “There is not a shot that is wrong. It is uncommonly absorbing, and the 141-minute running time flows past like running water.” He further calls this one of John Wayne’s best performances, raves about the romantic chemistry between Wayne and co-star Angie Dickinson, speaks well of singer Ricky Nelson in his supporting role, and caps that paragraph off with a nod to character actor Walter Brennan providing “comic support that never oversteps”.

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However, I thought the whole thing was predictable, the “romantic chemistry” attributable mostly to that old “will they or won’t they end up together” trope, and thought that Walter Brennan was kinda one-note. Ricky Nelson wasn’t that bad, but he didn’t really have that much to do. But this is Roger Ebert who was raving about the film, so that left me wondering exactly what in the hell was wrong with me for missing what he saw – until I remembered that in matters of taste and aesthetics like this, my own opinion is just as valid as his, so there. (And hey, apparently Ebert hated The Usual Suspects and Gladiator, and loved Home Alone 3, so…grain of salt?)

Tradition has it that Rio Bravo was made in response to High Noon, and that Wayne signed on because he found that earlier film to be an “un-American” critique of McCarthyism. Both Wayne and Howard Hawks also found the plot of High Noon to be far-fetched – Hawks dismissed it as “a good sheriff […] running around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking for help”. So instead, for Rio Bravo, Wayne’s “Sherriff John Chance” is the strong, silent type, bravely preparing to single-handedly defend his small Texas town against some bad characters despite a whole lot of townspeople falling all over themselves to play backup. He does relent and accept help from a few folks, though – “Stumpy” (Walter Brennan), an older and disabled sharpshooter, is left to guard the jail, while the younger “Colorado” (Ricky Nelson) proves himself to be equally capable with a gun but also smart in a crisis. And for sentiment’s sake, Chance re-enlists his old deputy “Dude” (Dean Martin), who’s showing signs of finally being ready to give up the bender he’s been on since getting dumped two years prior.

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The plot is practically non-existent; Dude gets into a scuffle with local bad boy Joe Burdette, a bystander gets killed in the crossfire, witnesses say Joe pulled the trigger and Chance puts him in the klink and sends for a US Marshall – prompting Joe’s big brother Nathan (John Russell) to turn to increasingly violent stunts in an effort to “persuade” Chance to let Joe out while they wait. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it subplot involving Angie Dickinson as a showgirl Chance nicknames “Feathers”, who’s half of a couple wanted for illegal gambling; but when Chance confronts her early on, she protests that she was roped into it, and Chance lets her go – but Feathers decides to stay around anyway, having taken a shine to Chance during that one brief conversation.

Really, the plot is just an excuse for the various characters to Do Random Stuff. Feathers and Chance have several “flirtatious” arguments where he stubbornly insists she should be on the next stagecoach out of town and she just as stubbornly insists that he should admit that he deep down likes her, kinda. Dude struggles with overcoming his craving for booze. Colorado drifts in and out of his various scenes, sauntering in to say he knows he’s not working for Chance or anything, but he may want to hear some of the scuttlebutt he’s heard around the saloon… Stumpy says “colorful” things. There’s even a music break, with Dude and Colorado conveniently starting a singalong so Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson can show off their singing chops. And Chance has ample….chances to look wise, stoic, big-hearted, brave, stern, or whatever random emotion the scene has decided The Big Hero should manifest.

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And, I mean, it’s not that anyone is terrible in their roles. It’s just that the plot points are so transparently nothing more than excuses for characters to show off different character traits, as opposed to being things that organically happen – with the most blatant of the “let’s show off this character” plot points being reserved for Chance, piling on the Heroic Qualities to the point that they are no longer character traits but rather Proofs Of Manliness.

So yeah, I wasn’t all that impressed, it’s safe to say.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The World Of Apu (1959)

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Good Lord Apu can’t catch a break.

The World of Apu is the conclusion to Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy” – in which we saw little-boy Apu Roy lose his sister in the first film, then teenage Apu become an orphan in the second film. At least Aparajito softened the blow by ending with Apu embarking on a promising stint as a student in Calcutta.

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But The World of Apu rips all that out from under him right in the first scene – as the now-grown Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) is dropping out of school because he’s run out of money. His principal is urging him to find a way to save up and re-enroll somehow; or at least to keep up with his writing, insisting that Apu has a talent for it. And for a while, Apu does live the starving-writer life – trying to write the Great Indian Novel while selling off his books and stringing together occasional tutoring gigs as his “day job”, living in a rented room near a train station and running behind on his rent. It’s not the most lucrative lifestyle, so his buddy Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) occasionally takes him out to dinner or tries to get him work to make sure he doesn’t completely starve. Pulu even invites him along as his “plus-one” for his cousin’s upcoming wedding, so Apu can get a bit of an unorthodox vacation.

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The wedding hits a snag, however – when the groom shows up, the bride’s family discovers that he has a profound mental illness, and the bride’s mother calls a halt to the wedding. The only problem with that is, the family is adheres to the then-common Hindu tradition that there are certain “auspicious times” for weddings – and if you miss your window, you have to stay single. So even though she shouldn’t marry that guy, bride Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) really ought to marry someone at the appointed hour. And conveniently, Pulu has brought a single dude with him…

Despite the unlikely beginnings, Apu and Aparna’s marriage actually works out quite well for a while – Apu grows up a little, taking a desk job to support them and doting on the pretty Aparna, and Aparna quickly adapts to Apu’s bare-bones lifestyle. They’re also visibly crazy about each other; and before long, Aparna is expecting their first child, and heads home to her parents’ place for a while so she can give birth in a bit more comfort. But tragedy befalls Apu yet again, and this time it looks like he may not bounce back quite as quickly.

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The bits with Aparna and Apu are a sweet, and ultimately poignant, bright spot in the film, largely because of the chemistry between the pair. Remarkably, this was Sharmila Tagore’s first film – and she was only fourteen at the time of filming (although she fortunately looks a bit older). Tagore’s youth may be what gives her turn as Aparna the impish, playful quality that I found so charming – she’s shy and scared in her first couple scenes, and understandably so, but after settling in she is swatting Apu on the butt to wake him up in the morning and teasing him about work. But it’s also clear that this is just their love-language – in a more serious moment, when Apu suggests taking a second job so they can get Aparna a maid, Aparna earnestly says she’d be happier with a husband who isn’t overworked. By the next scene she’s gone right back to teasing Apu about his novel and his day job.

Apu also clearly loves it – he waxes rhapsodic to his landlord at one point about how spunky she is, and during an extended sequence, he spends a commute home from work stealing peeks at a letter she’s written him, smiling indulgently as he reads her mock complaints about how he hasn’t written her often enough, and how he’d better come for a visit this coming weekend like he promised or she will be very cross. …And in a tragic twist of fate, just as Apu is finishing this letter, he gets an unexpected visit from his brother-in-law with some bad news…

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Honestly, the rest of the film pales in comparison to that bright spot for me. I’ve not said much about exactly what other misfortune Apu suffers, but that’s not just me being coy about spoilers. The bits with Aparna are just so vividly alive that everything that comes after – and there’s a good bit that comes after – doesn’t really stand up for me. Apu goes wandering a bit out of grief, and the film felt like it also meandered a bit. This could, though, be a sign that I fell in love with Aparna a little bit as well.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Apartment (1960)

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Welp. Moving sucks. I am still not completely unpacked, I do not have a television and it was only yesterday that I found the box where my coffee maker was stashed. Prior to this I hadn’t changed apartments in 15 years and so this was a massive upheaval that left me shell-shocked, and I’m just now starting to come out of my daze.

Something that helped immediately after the fact was a quick trip to visit my family on Cape Cod (it cut into unpacking time, but I think it was a wise tradeoff). I got to catch up with some aunts and uncles and cousins, played doting aunt myself, and let my parents baby me a bit. Fittingly enough, one habit my parents and I have picked up for when I visit is a movie night – and this time, I suggested something from The List, jumping ahead a little bit to 1960’s The Apartment; something which they’d both already seen, but were happy to watch again.

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I did know generally what happens already. Jack Lemmon stars as “C.C. Baxter”, a quiet clerk at a New York insurance office. Baxter is a bit of a milquetoast, but he has something going for him – a small and private apartment on an out-of-the-way street. It’s a perfect spot for quick trysts – or at least, that’s what Baxter’s superiors all tell him, pressuring him to let them use his place as the arena for their various extramarital affairs. They’ve all promised to help him get a promotion in exchange, but things are slow in coming – and Baxter is starting to chafe a bit, as he’s finally started summoning the courage to ask out Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a pretty elevator operator in the office.

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Baxter’s luck turns a bit when his four “tenants” finally press his case with the personnel director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), urging him to take on Baxter as one of his direct associates. Sheldrake accepts – but quietly tells Baxter he’s figured out that such glowing reviews were “paid for” by the use of his apartment. Instead of firing Baxter, though, Sheldrake wants in on the deal himself, effective that night. He offers the reluctant Baxter a pair of Broadway tickets to sweeten the deal, and Baxter finally accepts – it’d be the perfect excuse to ask out Fran. And Fran happily accepts; only she says she already has plans to have a drink with another guy first, and promises to meet Baxter at the theater later. ….What Fran doesn’t tell him, though, is that the other guy is Sheldrake, who’s been stringing her along for months now with unresolved promises that he’s going to leave his wife for her. Fran falls for Sheldrake’s smooth talk yet again, leaving Baxter stood up and heading to Baxter’s apartment with Sheldrake.

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For a few weeks, Sheldrake continues to hook up with Fran in Baxter’s place – unbeknownst to Baxter – until the company Christmas party, where Sheldrake’s secretary (Edie Adams) – herself once wooed by Sheldrake – gives Fran a bit of a come-to-Jesus warning about him. Fran drags Sheldrake off to confront him in Baxter’s apartment – but Baxter sees them leave together, and heads off to drown his sorrows at a local bar. He hits on another patron and invites her back to his place, but when they arrive, they find an unconscious Fran; her confrontation went so badly that she downed a whole bottle of sleeping pills she found in Baxter’s bathroom.

Enlisting the help of a neighbor, Baxter saves Fran from immediate danger, and then stays home to look after her for a couple days while she recovers. Fran’s wounded heart is soothed by Baxter’s kindness and empathy, and she’s charmed that instead of wanting to hook up, all he wants is to play gin rummy and cook spaghetti together. But before long another one of Baxter’s “tenants” drops by for his regular Wednesday hookup and discovers Fran there, with Baxter. Rumors start to fly in the office, Sheldrake bribes Baxter with a promotion – on the condition that he leave Fran to Sheldrake – and both Fran and Baxter find they each have a choice to make.

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I’d told my parents that I wanted to have a bit of a quick chat about their reactions to the film after seeing it again – and I was kind of surprised that the one and only thing they wanted to talk about was the sexism. Mom remarked on the “Me Too stuff” almost as soon as we were done with the film, talking about how icky and exploitative it was. Dad agreed it was icky, and wondered aloud “how often that kind of stuff happened in real life?” I suggested that if it was driving the plot of a Billy Wilder comedy, it was probably considered routine enough that Wilder knew he could get away with it being a plot device without his audience getting distracted. “Yeah, that’s probably true,” Dad said.

“It’s crazy, though,” I said, “because at the same time I really like the chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. They do a great job.”

“They do,” Mom said. “And Fred MacMurray too. Although he wasn’t playing that great a guy.”

“I guess you’re right, and they thought they could get away with that story,” Dad said again.

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I swear I am not making that up. My parents – two people in their 70s, both of whom had seen The Apartment during its original run and enjoyed it – forwent any discussion of any other element of the film and talked solely about their distaste for the sexual politics. I did make that one attempt to nudge things towards the film itself – but I found that I also was preoccupied by the sexual politics as well. Not that it’s all I noticed – there’s the famous moment where Baxter is attempting to drain spaghetti in a tennis racket, singing Italian gibberish as he works, and another sequence where a last-minute schedule change touches off a complicated scramble on Baxter’s part as he negotiates different reservation times with his various tenants. Lemmon handles both moments perfectly. And he does have some fantastic chemistry with Shirley MacLaine.

But these days the premise of the film was just….oogy, to the point that it overshadowed all else. I’m starting to wonder what other upcoming films I may hold at arms’ length now.