Billie Jean vs. the World

Film: Battle of the Sexes
Year: 2017
Directors: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton

As I watched Battle of the Sexes, a colorful and intimate sports film by Hollywood’s premiere husband-and-wife directorial duo (they made the sublime Little Miss Sunshine), it took me a while to realize I was not watching a comedy. Lots of it feels like a comedy, probably because the idea that a tennis match could determine the equality or inequality of men and women is ridiculous. The movie carries a bit of that spirit. But it is also a nonfiction film, about an instance—the rabidly publicized King-Riggs match of 1973—when that idea was not taken lightly at all, and macro-ping-pong did shoulder the women’s liberation movement. The movie carries a lot of that spirit, because however ridiculous it might be to vest two people carrying wiry sticks and a fuzzy ball with the power to validate an entire gender, it’s no less ridiculous to pay a female athlete one-eighth of a comparable male athlete’s salary.

There’s a sobering moment around the middle of the film where Faris and Dayton sneak in some archival footage of celebrities, circa ’73, predicting the results of the media-circus match between recently deposed world champion Billie Jean King (in the movie, Emma Stone) and tennis relic Bobby Riggs (in the movie, Steve Carell). Many of the featured opinions, namely those of the male interviewees, are patently sexist. It was here, for me, that Battle of the Sexes clicked with its very real context. By and large, the movie didn’t submerge me into the river of history, like some great true-story films do. Its approach is more dioramic. Battle takes place in a snowglobe of the ‘70s, a separate (but not irrelevant) little world, where there’s male camaraderie in one corner and female camaraderie in another, and everybody wears a lot of autumn colors.

I don’t say this in criticism. I’m not sure I think this is a great movie, but I think the way it fashions its own world is great. And maybe necessary, too, to reveal what it reveals: America remembers Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs playing a tennis match, but Battle of the Sexes is about each of them playing a very different game than the other.

By the time she R.S.V.P.s “yes” to the old champ’s challenge, King realizes that she’s vying with more than just a legended forerunner: she’s crossing swords with all of his generation, most of her generation, and the wide, wide world of sports itself. There’s a levity to all the “Lobber vs. the Libber” pap that’s used to sell the King-Riggs showdown, and everyone’s attitudes give at least a smiling hat-tip to female power. But beneath this there is still a fundamental trust in the athletic superiority of men. Billie Jean is competing against discrimination toward her sex—as well as persecution for her sexuality, which the movie touches on in a way that is marvelously unpreachy. Her determination is clear. (Mostly from the writing; I didn’t see much sweat under that John Denver haircut. If Stone garners another bouquet of award nominations, it’ll be for her nimble work in the love scenes with the girl who gives her that characteristic ‘do.)

In the symbolic sizing-up of women and men, Battle takes Billie Jean’s side (i.e. the right side). On the court, though, Riggs is left a little sympathy. Overall, I thought his characterization was more nuanced and animated than King’s. Steve Carell, in beaver teeth and porcupine sideburns, plays him as a blustery, frustrated has-been, whose energy has outlived his career. He’s retired and become a bored salaryman by the time the story begins—an old dog with a basket of new tricks and nobody to watch them. The idea of a face-off with Billie Jean lights his fire because it promises a reunion with the thing he loves: not the game of tennis, but being good at tennis. Being, as far as he knows, the best at tennis. He moans and groans through Gamblers Anonymous meetings, and all the while his real addiction is showboating. The glory of the game means little or nothing to Riggs—and neither, the film intimates, do the gender politics that sponsor his comeback. He spews a lot of sexist rhetoric, but apparently only for the press. Nothing Bobby says in private suggests that he believes in any of his “Sugar Daddy” bravado. He’s not really a pig; he’s just a ham. Labelling himself a male chauvinist is the equivalent of putting a lampshade on his head—it grabs attention. (I wonder if Andy Kaufman was watching.)

Whether this describes the real Riggs, I have no idea. But it’s the Riggs who appears in Battle of the Sexes, and that’s why his parts of the movie can play as comedy. The absurdity of transposing social movements onto sports rivalries isn’t necessarily lost on Bobby Riggs. At least, he isn’t concerned with how this rivalry actually relates to women’s lib. The problem is—and here’s where the filmmakers see a story relevant to 2017—that playing a role ironically can have unironic, fully proportionate consequences. He knows he’s playing a bigger game than tennis, but he doesn’t see the bigger game beyond that. The more Bobby vamps, the more seriously Billie Jean has to work. Never mind the paycheck; that’s the real inequality.


The Same Amount of the Same

Film: After the Storm
Year: 2016
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda (also writer and editor)

Lately, I’ve taken a quick five-month breather from the old blog bog, and from writing these disgustingly indulgent amateur blurbs on the movies I see that, for one reason or another, tug on my braintubes and give me something to say. You might have noticed my absence, although I hope for your sake there were more important things to hold your attention, like guacamole or learning to tie a sheepshank. I mulled over the idea of attributing my internet silence to the last movie that I wrote about on here, detailing how the process of reviewing it was like a terrible bout with some little-house-on-the-prairie disease, which left me bedridden and moaning weakly about how Topaz was Hitchcock’s masterpiece or something. But the joke was sort of thin. Also I couldn’t remember what the last movie I reviewed was.

The truth, then, is I was conscripted five months ago by the U.S. government to work as a spy: to infiltrate North Korean cinemas and report on the political undertones of the country’s summer blockbusters. The agents who briefed me—two tall, stony drinks of water—explained that I was hand-picked for this operation on the basis of my apparent expertise in East Asian cinema, but I noticed a hat on the desk that was filled with a lot of scraps of paper, so I took the compliment with a grain of salt. Long story short, I was simply inundated this summer with the feature films of the Democratic People’s Republic, and, to my surprise, I was enriched and delighted by much of what the country had to offer. From what I was able to understand without subtitles, the typical North Korean motion picture is life-affirming and radiates with a gentle humor. They do not ignore the ugly realities of the modern world, but they also do not linger on them cynically. They also frequently use the Eagles in their soundtracks. Unfortunately, I was so preoccupied with my official duties that I only had time to scribble my personal reflections in a small, private journal. This turned out to be for the best, as it kept me from expending a thousand words on enough meaningful thought to fill a couple tight sentences. Since I was extracted home to the States, however, my schedule has opened up wider than the golf holes at Mar-a-Lago, and the other day I woke up thinking, “You know that this blog needs? More of the same.” And I’m feeling verbose again, so here goes.

Nothing could have provided a smoother transition from the tender, wise dramas of North Korea back to the bustling buffet of international moviedom than the tender, wise dramas of Hirokazu Kore-eda. The lapsed documentarian has spent the last twenty years bowling turkeys as a director, writer, and editor of fiction. He is considered by some to be the finest living filmmaker in Japan. (Perhaps I should say “contemporary filmmaker,” as there are a number of non-working legends who are pushing a hundred. If you live in Japan, invest in birthday candles.) Kore-eda has become known for a consistent, even-tempered, thoughtful style. He makes his movies with a pinch of “action” and a truckload of human insight. His sense for blocking characters, in ways that reveal something about their personality or underscore the relationship dynamics that are key to the story, is sharp as can be: he can stage a scene for comedy just as subtly as he can show latent tensions manifesting in minute gestures. His recurrent focus is the family, often one reckoning with a grievous loss or separation (death and divorce are popular sights, but he’s not shy of child abandonment or the good old swapped-at-birth premise), and his signature is the uncomfortable bobs and weaves that family members use to navigate generational differences. Usually there’s a well-meaning but troubled son played by Hiroshi Abe, a good-humored but troubled matriarch in the form of Kirin Kiki, a couple of tight-fisted sisters, and one or two exceptional kid actors. The characters in this perennial arrangement are never cheaply built; they are as lovingly tended as flowers in a garden.

All this is true of After the Storm, the director’s newest film (save for some crime thriller business that hasn’t found U.S. distribution yet). The tragedy in this’un is the passing of the father, although for once the family takes it pretty well in stride. The exception is the middle-aged son, Ryota (played by a scruffy, sour Abe), who seems affected by the death mostly because it brings to light what a deadbeat his daddy was, and in a way this confirms his worst fears about himself. Ryota is a washed-up novelist who refuses steady writing jobs because his ego is so enormous that he can’t fit his head through the racetrack exit doors. He turns tricks as a private detective, but this might be a pretense for spying on his ex-wife. Really, he spends most of his time lamenting the direction his life has taken: it’s hard, he says, to be the kind of man you want to be. Ryota is one of Kore-eda’s most pathetic heroes, and this seems to make him especially interesting to the director. The movie concentrates so heavily on Ryota’s personal arc that, after the finely sculpted ensembles of Our Little Sister and I Wish, it almost feels imbalanced. Of course, coming from any other director, I might be disgruntled by this kind of imbalance. Minor variations on a single thematic recipe are what have made Hirokazu’s filmography such a pleasure to imbibe. His work is like a flight of honeywines, all under the same gustatory canopy but all bearing a unique aftertaste. Kirin Kiki’s mother character might be less developed here than in other H.K. collabs (see Still Walking for a bone-ranklingly great performance), but the grinning grace she lends to the atmosphere of the film is undiminished.

If I have a concrete grievance with After the Storm, it might be that Kore-eda’s inspiration sort of runs away from him: he packs the movie with so many visual metaphors for Ryota’s unshaven solipsism that the climactic tempest, a shoo-in symbol for upheaval and change, doesn’t carry much water. Also I laughed out loud when a scene opened with Ryota frowning over a batch of half-price “damaged rice cakes.” But there I go, picking nits.

This is the ninth Kore-eda feature I’ve seen, and while I wouldn’t dispute that the man is a master cinematic gardener, I’m also not sure I would call any one of his films independently masterful. He’s the type of artist who is continually exploring one roster of themes, and it’s the process of reiteration and revision that I find alluring. What After the Storm tweaks in the formula makes it another singular entry in the sequence; what it retreads is, for the most part, nice to see again. If you’ve never watched a Kore-eda picture, you could glean from this one whether he’s a filmmaker for you. Alternatively, you could watch one of his better movies.

Mood Being the Operative Word

Film: In the Mood for Love
Year: 2000
Director: Wong Kar-wai (also writer and producer)

I feel a bit blindsided to learn, only after watching this steamy weepie from Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai, that In the Mood for Love is one of the most lauded films of the 2000s. Probably I was just inattentive to the hoopla when I came across it in the past, a result of my being not very familiar with Wong or his style. Having seen the thing, I don’t find myself sprinting to catch the hype train.

In the Mood is a seductive film that wants me to feel more than it’s willing to admit. Am I meant to sympathize with these characters, or to feel nothing? Should I treat them as fully dimensional and autonomous individuals, or as trampled and repressed souls, or the squashed reflections of the movie’s secondary characters, two people who are living their lives more truly, more passionately? The only contradiction that the movie appears to acknowledge—the tension between furnishing its characters with the ethical ground to commit adultery, while maintaining that to exercise this right would be wrong—is a very good one. But there are contradictions in Wong’s exploration of this terrain that leave his maps muddled, and me rather lost.

A pinch of synopsis: the year is 1962, and two married couples move into neighboring Hong Kong apartments on the same day. Though all four are gainfully employed, the real breadwinners from each couple are often absent on overnight business trips—in fact, these two are never really seen by the camera, and are heard speaking only off-screen. The remainders, Mr. Chow from one apartment and a girl named Su from the other, are left to eat their meals and ponder alone. They strike up an acquaintance that turns to commiseration as they realize, through their own lonely sleuthing, that their spouses are having affairs—or rather, one affair, with each other. Dejected, Chow and Su spend ever more of their time together, staging re-enactments of the affair in a clunky pursuit of catharsis and play-acting confrontations with their cheating partners. All the while (as if a movie could go any other way), they develop an intense attraction to one another, upon which they never act. That they refrain stems from a habit of not breaking the rules, I think, more than a genuine sense of virtue.

This is fine material. But Wong’s presentation, which is sensuous to a frame, becomes the origin of some confusion: I can’t tell whether it is implied that Chow and Su ought to conduct an affair of their own, or that they already are. Their relationship is wholly erotic and wholly asexual. They refuse to consummate it because they believe that doing so would sink them to the level of their betrayers (who, though it is never said aloud, are probably happy with their decision). But the attitude of the movie seems to be that, by keeping each other nearby and the idea of infidelity in mind, Chow and Su are as good (or as bad) as adulterers anyhow. To make matters head-scratchier, they are given a sort of interchangeability with the cheating couple—indeed, Chow and Su seem to talk about nothing else, often answering personal questions with references to their spouses, as if they feel defined by their others—which suggests that the prevailing reason for their quasi-courtship is basic compensation, like they are thrust together by some Newtonian mating force to fill the rift made by the original infidelity, and neatly reciprocate their better halves’ choices.

I thought In the Mood for Love was about knowing that something is wrong, doing it anyway, and enjoying it all the less. But the movie might be about doing it halfway. Or not doing it at all. These are not interpretations that, for me, can compellingly coexist in one film.

Nonetheless, I cannot deny that on a visual plane it is an exquisitely designed, ultra-carefully planned picture. (Despite Wong’s regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle being tagged out by Mark Lee Ping Bin when production ran over schedule, the transition between DPs is seamless.) Practically every shot takes place in some tight, deep corridor into which the characters are funneled by silent fate, yet the sense of the broader, hostile world beyond is never lost. In a miraculous feat, we are able to feel both the screaming proximity of Chow and Su’s quarters, and the labyrinthine, Escher-like mouse trap of their apartment building. Even the offices and living rooms are framed with a claustrophobic squeeze, powerfully underlining the sexual repression of the characters—and, I’m told, of the era. Wong and his crew evoke the period through only a few bits of costume and set, which are utterly convincing yet wonderfully subtle. There may not be a frame in the movie that isn’t a pleasure to look at, as the compositions by Wong and his cinematographers are always inspired, and most of them have Tony Leung or Maggie Cheung’s face in them.

Between In the Mood and his more abstruse Chungking Express, Wong strikes me as a very smart guy. He just doesn’t know how to take his good ideas and make them into a movie. These two pictures lose a great deal of traction over the same shortcoming that comprises the most well-reasoned criticism I have heard leveled at Wes Anderson: the more Wong tries to flesh out and emotionally validate characters who spend most of the film defined by a sort of flatness, the more he undermines his own work. It is as if the director and the writer in Wong are not on the same page, and the movie suffers for it.

In the Mood for Love is, by the by, an excellent title: mood is everything here. Each third or fourth scene is a deaf, slow-motion tableau, scored with a Kubrickian string-quartet motif, in which Chow and Su languish in dapper romanticism—the mood for love, if not love proper. When this device appeared first, I was skeptical of what it was adding to the story. After a few reprisals, I realized that it is the very essence of the film: there is nothing accomplished by the movie—its aesthetic, its atmosphere, its themes of repression and loneliness and inevitability—that is not encapsulated in any one of these stately, stylized passages. Much as I came to relish them, they only made other 99% of the movie seem redundant.

Stand By Your Man(ifestly Mediocre Husband)

Film: The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums
Year: 1939
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

“If you’re praised when you’re young, you can’t become good,” says Kikunosuke’s uncle. Mostly out of familial goodwill, he has cast his nephew in the well-liked Osaka revue that he headlines, though the other cast members complain that the young man is no good—a “salted ham.” The uncle has put his finger right on it: Kiku has never seriously practiced his art, but has climbed high in the shadow of his adoptive father, sponging up the echoes of admiration meant for the older, more talented man. Long poised to succeed his popular pop and become the sixth in a line of exalted Kabuki actors, Kiku finds himself suddenly edged out by the birth of a natural son, and realizes that a lifetime of commendation to his face has been matched by derision behind his back. Otoku, the wet-nurse to his baby brother, is helpfully candid about his on-stage faults. They fall in love over watermelon. Because of her subservient position in the family, the relationship is forbidden and she is dismissed. Kiku runs away and, with Otoku at his side, joins a poor travelling theatre company, where he at last confronts and hones his skill—but comes to struggle violently between the ever-dismal reception of the audience and the undying support of his wife.

It occurs to no one that the issue with Kikunosuke’s acting may be that he is cast exclusively as women, about whom he knows nothing. Even today, I am told (the movie takes place in the 1800s), the tradition of men playing female roles endures in Japan’s Kabuki theatre, so perhaps this is beside Mizoguchi’s point. What the movie does intimate is that Kiku’s evolution as an actor stems wholly from the encouragement and faith of Otoku—in the practical sense that she constructively criticizes and, in times of self-doubt, compliments Kiku’s performing, and also verging delicately on the transcendental sense, as when she withdraws from Kiku’s make-or-break show to pray for his success in a secluded corner of the theater. The Last Chrysanthemums is a softly gripping illustration of the “behind every great man” adage, revising its ending to read, “stands a much greater woman.” It has a bone to pick with habitual perception, and stresses the power of breaking free from it: Kiku is oblivious to his own shortcomings as an actor because he has grown up with no sincere third-party insight, only the placating false praise of his father’s theatrical vassals. Otoku offers the first open criticism he has known, and it proves invaluable—until, as a touring stiff, he finds the tables turned, with contemptuous audiences unable to see beyond his status to his actual talent, and Otoku providing the sole affirmative response he can cling to. As before, he falls into the quicksand of the consensus, and comes to see himself as a hack and Otoku as one of the white-lying yeasayers who so long surrounded him. The movie appears at first to champion honest criticism over pliant approval, but becomes more a monument to the wielder of this honesty, the selfless soul who gives unwavering support to her partner as she feels she best can, and with every ounce she has to give, and in the end receives nothing from it save the pleasure of seeing him succeed.

Kenji Mizoguchi’s career was rabidly prolific, though it was cut short by leukemia in 1956 and today fewer than half of his works survive. Virtually all of the lost films were directed between 1923 and 1936, in which year he released Osaka Elegy, reportedly considered by the director to be his first “serious effort” although it was something like his fortieth overall. From here until his death, Mizoguchi would concern his films almost invariably with the tragic situations of women throughout Japanese history. Among the country’s filmmaking legends, he is the most associated with feminism (in contrast to Kurosawa, who admitted to not knowing how to write women). The typical Mizoguchi protagonist is a societally underfoot woman—often a sex worker, perhaps inspired by the director’s sister—who, simultaneously in spite of and in heartbreaking accordance with the sexist status quo, makes immeasurable sacrifices for a man she loves.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums is exemplary of this model, and unlike his better-known Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, I felt its weight immediately. Curiously, I think that’s because the filmmaking techniques with which Mizoguchi is synonymous are less refined here than in his masterpieces of the ‘50s. The mise-en-scene often appears sloppy at first sight, plagued by distractingly naturalistic lighting or by actors turned at haphazard angles from the camera and blocked in each other’s way. But, as scenes unfolded—usually in uninterrupted long takes, like held breaths—I was time and again subsumed by the overwhelming realism and inhabitability of the drama and the space. While Ugetsu and Sansho are comparatively so perfect that they could at times glide frictionlessly over me, the near-shoddiness of Last Chrysanthemums causes me to notice the techniques that are being employed—to notice the suspenseful prolongation of each shot, to notice the withholding dearth of close-ups—and, with this touch of awareness, to succumb to their intended effect. Sometimes a character will be about to say something important; they’ll pause, catch the words in their throat, hesitate, say something different; at the camera’s cruel distance, through its unblinking eye, these moments that could otherwise slip by become exquisite. And a relatively simple story fills two and a half hours, as a flower fills a reading room.

Furthermore, it becomes clear that the movie’s feminist angle is not just a matter of plot, but one of intonation. It is evident in the dynamics of Kiku and Otoku’s relationship, and in the way Shotaro Hanayagi and Kakuko Mori play these roles. I walked away from Last Chrysanthemums convinced that Mori was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in film, though Mizoguchi hardly ever shows us her face. She does all her acting with her voice and her neck. Inside her flustered protestations, we sense an articulateness and wisdom and passion that she feels she must suppress. Ostensibly it is Kiku, as the male, who drives their relationship, confessing his affection for her, proposing marriage, deciding where his career will take them. But it is Otoku who inspires these actions and effects every significant change in Kiku’s character. Likewise, though the story follows Kiku more closely and gives Hanayagi the starring role, it is Mori we remember as the heart of the film and the obvious hero.

Harder Than It Looks

Film: Harakiri
Year: 1962
Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Harakiri is set during the early seventeenth century, a period when war and strife had decimated once-powerful samurai clans across Japan, and many a skilled and studied bladesman was reduced to a masterless ronin, wandering the streets and countryside with little aim besides subsistence, hardly more than a beggar. Apparently, it was common practice at this time for a needy ronin to appear at a surviving clan’s doorstep and request permission to use their court as a venue in which to honorably excuse themselves from the hardships of life—often instead leaving with a few coins and the local lord’s pity, or even fresh employment. Thus a scam is born.

After hearing of the increasing philanthropy of their neighbors, the samurai of the Iyi clan have become wise to the ploy. When a haggard veteran named Tsugumo comes calling one spring day, they are suspicious of his resolve to commit ritual suicide at their open-air altar. The senior counsellor, Kageyu, invites Tsugumo to his chambers and tells him of the last ronin who pleaded for this favor: when the Iyi tricked the young man into revealing his true intentions, they forced him to see through the promised mutilation. Tsugumo avers that his self-destructive proposal is in earnest, and his demeanor suggests no less. The steward leads his guest to the courtyard and assembles his retainers to witness the ceremony. While they await the bloodshed, Tsugumo begins to relate a story of his own, shedding harsh light on himself, the Iyi’s former victim, and the very practice of symbolic suicide.

The roots of Harakiri lead back to writer Shinobu Hashimoto’s work on the legendary Seven Samurai, which as a wee zygote was planned to be a record of the classical samurai’s daily life. Harakiri is no such diary excerpt, but instead is what many have called an “anti-samurai” picture, a moral undressing of the widely hallowed Bushido, or code of the samurai. One of the most outstanding tenets of this doctrine is, of course, the act of harakiri—known in Japan by the more macabrely connotated term seppuku. The deed entails a samurai’s self-disembowelment using their own sword, which here as always functions (I think, don’t listen to me) as something between a token and a literal incarnation of their soul. The primary operation of this unimaginably painful display is a sort of dual-purpose repentance and punishment for some otherwise unpardonable disgrace. Besides this, seppuku could also serve as a deeply venerable method of early retirement. Given these applications, and the intense trappings of honor affixed to the act, a façade of harakiri fever could also be used as a bargaining chip by penniless samurai who would prefer something to eat over the toothy tithes of Bushido.

For Hashimoto and director Masaki Kobayashi, harakiri signifies even more: the ultimate expression of a fundamentally inhumane and totalitarian system. The movie stands at once in awe and in condemnation of the practice of seppuku, striking a mean balance that few contemporary films seem interested in pursuing. (Mel Gibson’s directorial work comes to mind, though it tends to tip in favor of awe; his sappy but sporadically stunning Oscar contender Hacksaw Ridge is no exception.) Once of the first items on the filmmakers’ agenda is the seppuku catch-22 to which the Iyi clansmen treat the desperate young ronin Motome, who precedes Tsugumo: if Motome is to secure the samurai’s respect and ideally their money, he must prove his honor by pledging harakiri—but once he has so pledged, to back down upon the offer of charity would be a disgrace forgivable only through the same sacrifice. He is left with no choice. The scene of his death is made all the more gruesome, and the young man’s character all the more amazing, by the fact that he has already pawned his swords out of destitution and must slice himself open with bamboo.

Bushido as a creed is not on trial here so much as the inflexible devotion it was sometimes paid during Japan’s feudal ages. Part of the enthralling irony of Harakiri is that its hero, Tsugumo, challenges the authoritarian order by exemplifying it, by following decorum to the letter—at times more rigidly than his bloodthirsty audience, it seems—and twisting the codes of honor against those who have not learned to exercise them righteously. Disciplined heroes become villains and monsters under the pathological commitment to a dogma, inflected with cultishness and sadism, to the point that it overrides basic human decency. As, I believe, the only actual veteran of battle in the movie, Tsugumo has lived through enough to distinguish a martial philosophy’s benefits from its dangers; if overtheorized and underpracticed, by those who have never seen war or hard times, it can become like a sword without a hilt.

Harakiri’s political consciousness is a descendant of Kobayashi’s earlier The Human Condition, an anguished World War II trilogy comprising a ten-hour death punch of tragic storytelling, which maybe sacrifices a certain amount of visual energy in pursuit of its remarkable thematic material. The artistic merits of Harakiri are more akin to Kobayashi’s following feature, the breathtaking ghost horror epic Kwaidan. In both of these movies, cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima achieves a sort of proto-hi-def quality, with every face—and faces are a recurring point of fixation—rendered in a clammy, abject porousness that bespeaks all the sweat and sorrow of life. Tatsuya Nakadai as Tsugumo is, by default, the face to watch—and he is great, foreshadowing his work twenty years ahead as the doomed monarchs of Kagemusha and Ran—but in terms of countenance alone I was more transfixed by Rentaro Mikuni as the magisterial Kageyu, who spends much of the movie studying the jaguarlike composure of his guest and growing less sure of who is inside the cage and who out. Yet even Mikuni hardly trumps the strength of the secondary actors, all of whom intermingle feelings of ritual, schadenfreude, piety, and terror as they prepare to witness another grisly performance of seppuku. Not a speck of these emotions is lost as Miyajima’s camera siphons from the beady flesh of their cheeks and brows with a penetrating vibrancy.

Blood, Salt and Tears

Film: The Founder
Year: 2016
Director: John Lee Hancock

There is fine line, a teensy-weensy one, between selling yourself in order to sell your product and unchecked egomania. Watching The Founder, it isn’t exactly clear when Ray Kroc slipped over that divide—we can tell only when he was too far gone to be rescued. The movie is smart to walk this delicate line as long as it does, and when toward the end we find ourselves in the despotic freefall that Kroc carved for himself out of a lifetime of failures and one trillion-dollar idea, we are lucky enough to have the tenured leading man Michael Keaton as our parachute.

The movie’s main thrust is, as you might expect, Keaton’s performance as the man who poached a happenin’ San Bernardino burger joint from its brainparents, brothers Mac and Dick McDonald, and businessmanned it into a coast-to-coast empire. Kroc was a textbook American Dreamer, perseverant for self-made success long past the point when meeker men would have woken up. In his 50s he was peddling milkshake machines that nobody wanted or needed and had a string of business ventures behind him so embarrassingly rotten that his go-to investment prospects would laugh as they saw him coming. Perhaps he couldn’t help, when he finally bumped into the idea that he was searching for, grasping it in his hand a bit too firmly. Keaton captures all of Kroc’s frustration and excitement in a portrayal that has the actor not so much “disappearing” into the character as expertly sculpting it beside him. Most impressive, I felt, is how he wriggles into scenes underneath his costars, like a salmon in the Black Sea, his squeaky motormouth somehow saying less than the stony refusals of his listeners. Keaton’s most overtly good work comes in the last act, when with a subtle shift he assumes (obsessive, outrageous) control of his life and business, but there’s a lot to be said for the earlier mountebank Kroc, and Keaton’s ability to command a scene while not commanding the conversation.

If The Founder ends up as only a dollar-menu edition of what could have been, then I suppose I can only point to the tepid direction by John Lee Hancock. Under his supervision—which, if you ask me, is a real misnomer in this case—the movie takes a safety-in-numbers approach to its coverage, skittishly hopping from one shot to another like a dinner party host so concerned with everyone’s comfort that they forget to savor the evening. This restless cutting works for behind-the-scenes peeks at the original McDonald’s kitchen model—a sleek, symphonic assembly hive that, though bastardized and outmoded by now, is successfully shown in all the Jobsian future-is-now innovativeness that the design exemplified in its time. In other places, the editing tends to distract from mostly well-written drama and a bizarrely immediate chemistry between Keaton and Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch as the jilted McDonald bros. Like with his previous The Blind Side, Hancock plays an unadventurous shepherd to material that seems a born crowd-pleaser. There’s nothing wrong with story-minded direction, of course, but I can’t help imagining how this story might have fared with an edgier director—why not its screenwriter, Robert D. Siegel, whose credits already include Big Fan, the script for The Wrestler, and captaincy of The Onion?

Then again, maybe edgy isn’t what this movie needed. I hear that, when Siegel penned the thing, it was projected to run in the darker vein of There Will Be Blood and The Social Network. But a grim and foreboding history of McDonald’s would have been the easy route, and probably a tired one, too. True, in Hancock’s hands The Founder seems held together by a used piece of tape, but it also features a certain sunny temperament that defies your garden-variety fast food exposé. The movie almost completely eschews questions of the health value and environmental impact of McDonald’s, and is downright inspiring in its admiration of the good old-fashioned entrepreneurship and engineering displayed by the real McDonald’s founders—and, more ambivalently, by Ray Kroc.

That said, The Founder is not without stormy weather. The rise of McDonald’s was indeed meteoric—in terms of the ascent to worldwide moguldom that Ray Kroc experienced as well as the ruination of quality control and proud proprietorship that befell Dick and Mac McDonald. It was meteoric in many other ways that are not explored here, but I didn’t mind the omissions; we know them by know. The Founder is concerned with how Ray Kroc snaked his way onto the McDonald’s throne and inevitably incurred a bad case of megalomania. It isn’t about the danger that franchising poses to society, it’s about the danger that franchising poses to individuals. It’s not about fast food, it’s about people. About opportunists like Ray Kroc, who saw fast food for what it was: the culinary paradigm of the twentieth century. As a closing title card informs us, McDonald’s now feeds 1% of the world population every day.

With respect to Casey Affleck’s impending Oscar…

Film: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Year: 2007
Director: Andrew Dominik (also writer)

I first watched Andrew Dominik’s king-size-titled historical fiction feature at a second-run theater/pub hybrid in the early days of 2008. This was not long before the best-lit night of the year in Los Angeles, that seasonal jamboree where squat, blingy statuettes of bald men with etchings at their feet reading “cinematography” and “supporting actor” were presented instead to the movies There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. Those films deserved their gold, and Jesse James deserved its nominations beside them. Together, this triumvirate of quick-setting classics (with the more conventional 3:10 to Yuma as the estimable runt) defined 2007 as the year of the pensive Western.

I’ve seen Blood, No Country, and Yuma plenty of times over the past years, but only recently did I gear up for a second viewing of Jesse James. Much of its impact was lost on me in ’08, as I recall, though perhaps the employees in my recollection department have been playing games: however underwhelmed I felt back in the day, the extent of what I found I had retained was, given my roller-rink memory, nothing short of a miracle. Virtually the entire visual procession of the film came unearthed, if not intact then with all pieces accounted for, even as my eyes pored over the DVD case. I remembered the simple dirt-road strolling of unnamed and demurely clothed parishioners, and the lusty amber candlelight in an outhouse of sin. I remembered the blearing periphery that DP extraordinaire Roger Deakins imparts to certain scenes, smudging them into antiquity. I remembered the divine, Dreyerian airfeel in the room with the dusty picture. As the movie progressed, every image was suddenly familiar, like refrigerator pinnings that I had continued looking at regularly but stopped really seeing.

What I had forgotten was the soul inside these images. I forgot the pious solemnity of the movie’s quietest moments: a doomed locomotive slicing through the dark, a crowd awaiting the coroner’s tintype exposure of the body of America’s most treasured thief. I had omitted completely the dry, laymanlike voice-over narration, recorded (if I’m not mistaken) by one of the assistant editors, which edges the film toward the frontiers of poetic documentary and folk tribute.

Most of all, I forgot the exact scope and rhythm of the movie: tight, grim, and dwindling. True to its name, this beast is both plain and epic. For a two-point-five-hour biography on the Napoleon of Old West banditry, not a great deal “happens.” There is a sequence in the middle where James seeks and silences the would-be loose lips among his disbanded circle of train knocker-overs; the passage plays as neither explosive nor crafty, but slow and inexorable. This is the momentum that Dominik has found in the whole story. It is a single death knoll that peals and fades over ten years, and swallows up all the damned remnants of the once indomitable James gang.

Given his sizeable talent and immeasurable popularity, it’s curious that so little has been made of Brad Pitt. (This excluding the endless monsoon of five-alarm tabloid drivel, which if tallied would put him volumes ahead of Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, and Jesus combined.) What I mean is that, as far as I can tell, there is no well-defined or ratified “Brad Pitt persona,” or at least not one that has been weaved through his many impressive performances. If any of his roles warrant this sort of examination, my vote is for the outlaw Jesse James. The main parallel between the two men is obvious: both know what it is to be idolized by the American public on largely superficial grounds. During one scene in Dominik’s film, just after the James boys’ train-tipping swan song, the starstruck teenager who will later shoot his hero in the back recites a newspaper blurb that dwells on James’ “school-girlish” good looks. Gender bending aside (or maybe not), doesn’t this seem all too familiar? Though Pitt was more proactive than, say, Matthew McConaughey at shirking his tenacious “pretty boy” status, I can still remember a time when he was not widely taken as a serious actor.

Pitt proved his grit and dexterity long before playing James, of course, but the role of the short-lived American legend is one of his most essential. This is not, as it easily might have been, a performance of ersatz brooding and troubled-soul lip service, but one of genuine contemplativeness, a true sympathy with another man’s confusion. Pitt plays the Ozymandian outlaw as someone sure of his own skills and nothing else. He knows the look of dishonesty and fear, but cannot fathom why he should so often find it directed at him. He, alone, seems attuned to the sense of almost providential death that pervades the movie, as if the path to his demise has been revealed to him but he can do nothing to diverge from it. The infatuation nursed toward him and his fame by Bob Ford is sorely transparent—to James and everyone else—yet I wonder whether he invites the peril that not even Bob realizes it might predicate.

Bob, meanwhile, continually strives to conceal his throbbing obsession beneath unconvincing displays of autonomy and bravado. At the sensitive age when one cultivates an identity, he has fallen into the trap of borrowing someone else’s—one for which he is disastrously mismatched or under-prepared. That he becomes an actor of a certain repute in the wake of his single-barreled betrayal is no big surprise: he has been acting all along, always desperate to slip into the dashing, daring faces of the men around him, always cracking the mask over his own grin-pricked cheeks. I disliked Casey Affleck in this role the first time I saw him, because he gives an awkward performance of an awkward young man. I hope it’s not too late to recant any unflattering statements I might have made back then. This is terrific work, the kind of movie acting that trickles and sinks many deep, thorny roots into us and does not let go.

Pitt and Affleck are the steeples of film. They are crabbed by a beefy roster of supporting actors, not the least commendable of which are Garret Dillahunt as a squirmy, sallow snitch and Sam Rockwell as the elder Ford, even less stout-hearted and poker-faced than his baby brother. And this, too, is to say nothing of the movie’s innumerable other merits. If I haven’t done them all justice here, it can only be because I have to go outside and be in the sunlight for at least a few minutes today.