For Reel

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
February 7, 2016, 4:16 pm
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Director(s): Joel & Ethan Coen
3.5 Stars
O Brother, Where Art Thou?The Coen brothers’ folkloric shaggy dog tale about three convicts (George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro) on the run has not retained the same critical enthusiasm as their best works, but it nonetheless persists as an unshakable entertainment, a reprisal of Depression-era kitsch for a new generation. It showcases the filmmakers in their most broadly archetypal mode, involving supporting players like boisterous politicians (Charles Durning and Wayne Duvall), threatening sheriffs (Daniel von Bargen), and even resurrections of legendary figures like Baby Face Nelson (Michael Badalucco) and Robert Johnson (Christ Tomas King). While these supposedly frivolous efforts are often pitted unfavorably against the Coens’ more ambitious fair, O Brother, Where Art Thou? deals with some of their more persistent themes, including Clooney’s scientific reason challenged by the seemingly mystical forces that set him on an increasingly unlikely path. For all of its lightly-amusing capriciousness, the film doesn’t miss the chance to have Clooney pause on the image of a cow on a barn roof, allowing a moment for the character to consider the mysteries of the unknowable. This climactic scene is met by at least half a dozen more memorable episodes–Roger Ebert brilliantly described the Klan rally sequence as Busby Berkeley meets Triumph of the Will–and, if the whole does not quite equal the sum of these parts, O Brother, Where Art Thou? succeeds as a pop-nostalgia portmanteau.

A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies (2000)
January 11, 2016, 11:23 pm
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Director: Hisao Kurosawa
3 Stars
A Message from Akira Kurosawa - For Beautiful MoviesAkira Kurosawa, like many of his contemporaries, was notoriously difficult in interviews throughout his life. He reportedly saw filmmaking as something more akin to a craft than an art and therefore not worth discussing in the intricate detail that scholars tend to devour. This documentary, released just two years after the great director’s death, rectifies some of his caginess by involving interviews that he gave in the last years of his life, mostly regarding the films Rhapsody in August and Madadayo. Of course, Kurosawa fans are bound to be slightly disappointed that the documentary better serves Kurosawa’s late period, however the way that Hisao Kurosawa (Akira’s son) frames the documentary is as a masterclass in filmmaking, with his father discussing elements such as lighting, production design, and storyboards in distinct chapters. It would be a useful tool for young film students, even if a slightly more critical and theoretical analysis would have strengthened the portrait. What the documentary argues about Kurosawa is that he considered directing to be a reflection of humanity. In discussing a scene in which an old woman’s umbrella breaks in Rhapsody in August, Kurosawa muses that he can’t explain why audiences found the scene so emotional, but that it is the sort of moment that he only achieves a few times per movie. This aggressive pursuit for “cinematic essence” was Kurosawa’s driving force, and if For Beautiful Movies is largely a surface-level examination of Kurosawa’s career, it does offer the rare chance to hear him discuss filmmaking techniques in detail.