Tampopo (1985)

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“So you’re at the movies too, huh? Whatcha eating?”

That quote comes from the first scene of the film, as a stern man in a white suit threatens to kill someone at the movie theatre for making too much noise with their snack wrapper. “And…” he says, “I also don’t like watch alarms going off.” Then he turns to you, amused, and asks it. “So you’re at the movies too, huh? Whatcha eating?” And thus, Tampopo shows its hand. A film that doesn’t play by the rules. A film that leans into play, not work. A film where the highest of stakes are given to the smallest of delights. A film not just about how we make our food, but how our food makes us.

A couple of culinary ronin arrive in town. They are masters of ramen, and the enjoyment of noodles seems to them like a religious experience. When they stumble upon Tampopo, a charming restauranteur with subpar ramen, they answer the call of duty to transform Tampopo’s ramen shop into a five-star experience. Interspersed through the film are subplots concerning food’s relationship to business, sex, and murder.

Tampopo bends the samurai genre until it folds in on itself, becoming something new. It’s been called a “food fantasia” and a “ramen Western”. I find it more samurai than western. It’s akin to Seven Samurai, where a range of master swordsmen must come together to defend a town under attack by bandits. Only in Tampopo, the swordsmen are culinary experts with a mastery of food service. It’s a fun, fast, and even heart-warming spin on the “samurai savior” narrative that swaps swords for chopsticks.

Movies are fun, but it’s rare to find a movie that feels like it’s having fun itself. Tampopo asks you to throw caution to the wind and live in each of its moments. Some of it is cultural, like the business restaurant scene in which a young man embarrasses himself and his coworkers for ordering different dishes at a restaurant, but most of it is universal. You’re encouraged to laugh along as Tampopo unpacks our strange, personal rituals surrounding food. We also get to admire the craft of ramen with the strongest food details I’ve ever seen in a film. If you’re going to watch the movie, be sure to have snacks handy.

Tampopo must be enjoyed like a special meal: chewed on slowly with every moment savored. It’s a delightful two hours that is as sweet and crunchy as it is cinematic, leaving a delightful, lingering taste.

Films Left to Watch: 820

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District 9 (2009)

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“When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”

There’s a lot to love about District 9. I remember when it was released 10 years ago, it was one of those “make sure you go in blind” kind of movies. I’d have to agree, given the way the movie toys with your biases. So if you haven’t seen the film, I’d recommend not reading further until you have.

The film sets itself up like a documentary. Aliens have landed on Earth, but instead of being celebrated and admired, they are impoverished and relocated to slums. Humanity turns against the aliens, whom they nickname “prawns” due to their shrimp-like features, and the extraterrestrials become outcasts of society. An unimpressive bureaucrat, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is tasked with evicting the aliens from their homes by orders of the government. In doing so, he faces an encounter which changes his life forever.

Wikus is an unlikely protagonist, incapable and unlikeable from the outset. Still though, I found myself relating with him in a sick way as a Westerner. We’re conditioned to root against otherness. We are ultimately led to humanize with the prawns, following Wikus in his journey, but it takes some time. The cruel relocation practices and bureaucratic trickery of the humans seems so familiar that we almost understand it as humane. It’s only as the film really progresses, through an awesome transformation along the vein of great body horror, do we come to understand “otherness” in its full capacity.

On the subject of body horror, District 9 pulls it off really well. The progression of the Wikus from man to prawn is unsettling and ripe with pathos. The detail-work is what pulls off similar concepts, and I was reminded of Videodrome and American Werewolf in London. There’s both a physical and mental progression as the hero learns how to function but also how to cope as a hideous creature, and District 9 cements itself in the genre for how it manages these elements.

I do think the first 30 minutes were more entertaining than the 90 that followed, but such is often the case when you play with form. For the time the film manages to keep you guessing, it’s a refreshing genre-bender that eventually settles into a worthwhile sci-fi horror piece.

District 9 is a memorable movie that toys with you in a lot of fun ways. It earned a lot of rightful buzz, although it seems to be discussed far less these days. Still, though, it’s a movie I’m glad to have on my shelf.

Films Left to Watch: 821

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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

“I’ve run through it over and over again. I can’t get it out of my head, but I can’t manage to pin it down either.”

I love horror because it casts a wide net. I think it would be a mistake to put such narrow labels on what terrifies people, and thus my definition of horror is fairly inclusive, and I see it as a wide umbrella. Giallo, the Italian thriller-horror films of the 20th century, fits snugly into this umbrella, and I was anxious to indulge on some of it. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was my first giallo film, a fitting choice given that it was one of the first great films of its kind, paving the way for a number of imitators.

Giallo is a blend of slasher exploitation, detective mystery, and psychological thriller. Argento hits all three of these checkmarks in perfect symmetry with the film. It follows American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) on vacation in Rome when he spots a bloody attempted murder through the glass windows of a museum. Dalmas becomes obsessed with the crime, prolonging his stay in Rome as he helps police track down the killer through his own investigative work. Tensions escalate as the body count rises, and the cries of one rare bird may be the key to solving the case.

Like Argento’s more popular Suspiria, the film oozes of bold color choices. Nearly every shot in the movie contains the color red, often in small but calculated subtleties. The colors pop off the screen like nothing you’ve seen in a movie from 1970, a testament to Argento’s command of mise-en-scène. The film boasts a motif of art and horrifying beauty through its characters and scenarios, and every frame complements this theme. Argento constructs a chilling world of gorgeous women, taunting us as to what secrets they hold and which will be the next to bleed.

The movie is also a thriller, and for that, Argento owes a great deal to Hitchcock. Several shots from Vertigo are staged nearly identically in this movie. The iconic dangling and falling from the rooftop and the spiral staircase are both present in the film, although Argento puts a clever twist on the shape of the staircase, which isn’t square as in Vertigo but rather arrow-shaped.

There’s a buffet of influences that stitch together the movie. It works so well that the film ended up becoming a major influence itself. Giallo is an engaging connection between bloody exploitation and a more calculated detective thriller, and this movie is a wonderful proof of concept. I look forward to engaging with more Argento and more giallo very soon.

Films Left to Watch: 822

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An Actor’s Revenge (1963)

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“This woman’s suspicious.”

“That’s not a woman.”

It takes a great performer to pull off a movie like An Actor’s Revenge. Kazuo Hasegawa seems as capable as any, with the film marking his 300th completed movie amidst after a career of acclaim. Hasegawa also played the same leading role 30 years prior. The part, of course, is Yukinojo: an actor-samurai out for bloody revenge. In this part, Hasegawa displays powerful showmanship, deep sensitivity, and a satisfying zeal for blood that drives a beautifully crafted film.

We open on an intense scene of kabuki theatre. Yukinojo graces the stage playing a leading female role. Like many great actors of his day, Yukinojo projects femininity on and off the stage. Through his wardrobe and mannerisms, Yukinojo creates the constant illusion of a timid woman. But behind closed doors, Yukinojo is plotting the death of three corrupt noblemen responsible for the death of his parents. Stopping at nothing to exact his vengeance, Yukinojo wins the heart of the beautiful young Namiji (Ayako Wakao) to get closer to his targets and claim his revenge.

The film examines gender roles as if it were a work of Shakespeare. Characters drift in and out of their chosen gendered disguise both literally and figuratively. Yukinojo wears the veil of a sensitive female to disarm his enemies, harnessing his masculinity to deliver the killing blow. Other characters revel in gender fluidity, such as the master thief Ohatsu whom other characters view as maculine for her deception and swordsmanship. Some characters, such as the ingenue Namiji or the stocky noblemen, seem firmly planted in their gender, and this lack of fluidity costs them greatly. An Actor’s Revenge offers a world where survival mandates a mastery of disguise and the ability to perceive the disguises of others.

More generally, the idea of performance is woven into every piece of the narrative. Yukinojo uses scripted theatre to charm others and gain influence, then performs the role of polite and harmless to build interpersonal relationships. When Namiji fails to see through this disguise and falls in love with the fake Yukinojo, we sympathize with her passion and are forced to weigh the cost of deception as a means to vengeance. We also see other characters performing. The thieves of the night are obsessed with their legacy, performing for passersby seeking reputation among the town. The film is littered with fakery, often with direct asides to the audience in the form of narration, a further nod to the Shakespearean nature of the film.

Director Kon Ichikawa shoots the film in a way to highlight these themes. The widescreen format was new to Ichikawa midway through his career, and although he was originally skeptical, the film shows a mastery of the proscenium-like aspect ratio. The film is melodramatic and intentionally “meta” to imitate the artifice of theatre. Characters are often filmed straight-on, especially in more theatrical scenes (lying, courting, and trickery). For more intimate scenes, however, the movie feels more like a movie. Dim lighting accompanies Yukinojo as he strikes down his victims. Scenes at nighttime seem more personal, breaking down the characters and revealing their pathos. By day, the movie is a melodrama. By night, it is a tragedy.

An Actor’s Revenge is a clever reflection of the stage. It is presentational, procedural, and often familiar. But under the surface lies a deeply emotional quest for vengeance. Hasegawa brings incredible depth to the leading role, and it makes for an entrancing, layered piece of cinema.

Films Left to Watch: 823

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L.A. Confidential (1997)

Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential (1997)

“Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven’t got any wings.”

Good crime movies are a well-oiled machine. The complexity lies in the screenplay, a careful puppet show where strings are pulled left and right and every character wants one thing badly. L.A. Confidential feels like a movie that should be studied for how well it works the formula. It’s a film that juggles an ensemble of players, situations, and themes, and it packs hard-hitting surprises. Backed with a knockout cast of actors, the film is perfect. I think there are plenty of better crime movies, but aside from the obligatory misogyny, there isn’t much room to complain. It’s a well-oiled criminal epic that chugs along perfectly.

The top L.A. crime boss has been brought down, and now it’s anyone’s game. Someone new is planning a rise to the top, and a multiple homicide at a diner may be the key to it all. The burden falls on three cops (Kevin Spacey, Russell Brand, and Guy Pearce), and their methods differ wildly. In a wild thrill ride of betrayal, sex, and ambition, each man chases what he desires while a ruthless villain hides in plain sight.

The direction by Curtis Hanson adds a fun tone to the film. An opening narration by Danny DeVito is cheesy, but it lifts the tension that the beginning of a movie must always overcome. The early scenes ease the viewer into a world where comic violence is just part of the job, and then it drops moral ambiguity and complicated decision-making into the mix. It makes for a fast, fun movie that surprises you with how invested you’ve become by the halfway point.

The characters are well-written and driven by objectives that define them. Guy Pearce is a standout as the less glamorous but integral role of Ed Exley, the straight-laced detective who finds more opposition in his own police force than from any criminal on the streets. It’s a part reminiscent of Ethan Hawke in Training Day, with a similar degree of tension. Kevin Spacey gives his standard performance as a sleazy sell-out cop connected with local tabloids, and Russell Brand is the run-away star as a muscle man striving for something greater if he could only be “smart enough.” The film’s women are also complex characters who drive the plot in a meaningful, progressive way. Just kidding, they’re written as sex objects.

There isn’t a lot of new ground to cover with L.A. Confidential. It’s a film that covers old ground, but it does so really well. The script is layered and surprising, hitting the genre beats with enough fun details and sharp twists that you never feel too sure about its direction. I’m not the biggest fan of cop movies, but L.A. Confidential is pretty great for a cop movie.

Films Left to Watch: 824

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Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

“What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.”

Picnic at Hanging Rock is in a world of its own. It seems to exist outside the plane of regular cinema. Not better or worse, but different. It seems to share a world with its sister film The Virgin Suicides, another film about death and femininity. These films are lulling, sexually charged death traps shrouded in beauty. Whatever planet these movies come from, I wouldn’t plan on visiting any time soon, for it seems so easy to get lost in it all and lose your head.

A strict girls school takes a field trip to the geological wonder of Hanging Rock for a picnic. Once there, something compels a small group of the girls to take a walk into the woods from which they do not return. We learn about the young women that stayed behind, the women who run the school, and very little about the women who went missing among the rocks and deadly creatures of the forest.

My clearest observation was how director Peter Weir masters world-building in this puzzling film. He supposedly placed a piece of bridal veil in front of the camera to create the mystical shots of the picnic. Perhaps the bridal veil was symbolically, perhaps it was practical, but it’s a great story. It fits with the broader themes of femininity. Men are placed strategically throughout the film to complement the depiction of the female experience. Sex is a driving factor, though not often named, as the film takes a subtler, visual approach to its storytelling. To the chagrin of early audiences, Picnic at Hanging Rock is more about what’s currently on the screen than what anyone says or does. It feels almost like a gallery of paintings, telling a loose story that you can’t quite articulate but feels complete nonetheless.

The performances are strange in a way that works to the film’s favor. Many of the women, particularly smaller roles, were dubbed over. There’s something not quite right about the viewing experience, and it’s little details like this that enhance the uncertainty of the ensemble. It feels like the camera is doing the heavy lifting, and the women work to lull and disorient the viewer with their charms, anxieties, and tragedy.

I love movies that I can’t understand. The plot is deliberately unsatisfying, but the construction of the movie is similar. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a mystery in just about every way, and it buzzes in my mind like a fly that you just can’t seem to swat. There’s no box in which to file away this movie. The film is slow and challenging, but I see myself returning to its mysteries again one day. It leaves an aching feeling that you and the film have unfinished business, and that’s rare and awesome.

Films Left to Watch: 825

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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“I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.”

Again, it seems like every Western I see becomes my new favorite. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a step back from genre to take a look at masculinity. The elevator pitch: “John Wayne meets Jimmy Stewart”, and sure enough, it delivers.

In the frontier town of Shinbone, the intelligent Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) is robbed by outlaw Liberty Valance while passing through. The town offers no help, only a bumbling sheriff who fears Valance more than anyone. Stoddard is soon integrated into the town, teaching literacy to the townsfolk and building a strange friendship with Doniphon, a familiar John Wayne character who stands up for Stoddard and teaches him that things are different out west. Stoddard grapples with the notion that his books might not have all the answers, and eventually, someone shoots Liberty Valance.

The core tension of the film is that of East vs. West. The law vs. law and order. Pistol vs. paperback. It’s a wonderful exploration of what a lawless West actually means for someone who lives in the comfort of rules. While a simple Western would put John Wayne against Liberty Valance, this film substitutes Mr. Smith on his way to Washington. Jimmy Stewart is a delight in this performance, certainly one of his best, and it’s satisfying to see one of my favorite actors of the time dropped into a different world that I also adore.

The film handles literacy with great care. The town benefits from Stoddard’s teachings, and the classroom scenes are some of the strongest. Ford uses the film to comment on the progress of the nation with nods to the advancement of African Americans and the work of Lincoln. In the almost comically fake Hollywood soundstage, where most of the movie takes place indoors, Ford works mise-en-scène masterfully to make visual suggestions about equality and progress without forcing them into the script too heavily.

I couldn’t recommend The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance more highly. It’s a mature film, clearly one of the later Westerns. It handles masculinity and the changing American West as well as any film could, and it punches hard. This is one hell of a film, and I’d call it essential viewing for the genre.

Films Left to Watch: 826

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