why don’t you play in hell (dir. sion sono, 2013)

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

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“Give me a Japanese girl, small and strong. Bare arms and naked blade. Hair in her eyes. Blood on her cheek. Don’t worry. She can still see well enough to separate you from your heart.” (scribbled in a boy’s notebook after watching this one film of which you are about to read a review)

I don’t know where this began. This desire for a woman both deadly and cute. Maybe it began with Buffy. Maybe it began that one afternoon in the aisle of a grocery story in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee when a man told my mom she had such a cute daughter and I felt this rush of confused shame. Maybe I am always searching in art for the redemption of some shameful part of myself. People say they want to see themselves on screen, but I don’t know about that. Some of us never saw ourselves in the mirror, and so, when we watch movies the last thing we want to see is someone who looks like us. We want to see someone who feels like us.

Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is a Sion Sono film. In an early scene, a group of young film obsessives (The Fuck Bombers) runs into a group of warring yakuza gangs. The Fuck Bombers, led by their fearless leader Director Hirata, don’t bother trying to break up the fight. Nor do they do the sensible thing and run the other way. Instead, they film it. At first, the yakuza are annoyed. Then confused. And then, finally, compliant. They take direction as to how best to murder each other in front of the camera. Hold your sword here. Swipe like this. Yes. Fantastic. Cool. Ready? Roll tape. Action.

Sion Soho’s film concerns itself, as many of his films do, with love and perversion. In a Sono film, characters are defined, for the most part, by whatever all-consuming obsession warps their reality. Earlier of his films have seen him explore incest, religious cults, suicide, rape, upskirt kung-fu, and murderous hair extensions. This film does not really deal with that sort of thing. For the most part, the characters in Why Don’t You Play in Hell? are perverted not in their love of themselves or others, but in their love of celluloid. They are perverted by their desire for a life that feels like the movies.

The film begins with a commercial for toothpaste that features an irresistible jingle. You can watch it here. Its star is Mitsuko. Mitsuko is the daughter of a yakuza boss. Her career as a child star gets sidetracked when her mom is arrested for murdering a bunch of yakuza who dropped by their house hoping to kill Mitsuko’s father. Later, we encounter Mitsuko as a young woman tied to a chair, surrounded by a group of thugs. It turns out she has a habit of running away. Possibly because her father has attempted, throughout her life, to turn her into a film star. Her entire childhood has been spent in a movie her father has been trying, and failing, to make. She has grown up trapped in the stories her father wants to tell about her.

In a madcap turn of events, Mitsuko manages to escape, for a time, and she tries to elude detection by asking a random man on the street to pretend to be her lover. This works about as well as you can imagine. He definitely falls in love with her. She definitely still gets discovered and recaptured and now her faux boyfriend is on the chopping block for having supposedly aided in her escape. Mitsuko tells her father, though, that this man is actually a super amazing director and he will make her a star if only he might see fit not to separate him from his head. Of course, this guy isn’t a director. But. Never fear. Through more madcap hijinks, the Fuck Bombers—as older, though no less deluded folk—find their way back on the scene. All the pieces come together for a finale in which a real-life yakuza battle is fought in order that it might be filmed as a film in which Mitsuko might emerge an action star.

Some have pointed out that the director character in Sono’s film bears a passing resemblance to Quentin Tarantino. It’s also true that in the action-packed finale, in which the warring yakuza gangs fight for the benefit of the Fuck Bomber’s cameras, Director Hirata asks that the yakuza forego their guns for samurai swords and their subsequent fighting—in which fountains of blood are spilled and Mitsuko, at one point, decapitates an entire ring of gangsters with a single mighty swing of her sword—bears more than a passing resemblance to those fantastically bloody bits of Kill Bill set in Japan.

This is Sono’s most straightforwardly delightful film, and I think this is probably because, in the end, it’s all about looking good. Films—particularly certain Japanese samurai and yakuza films, as well as, yes, the many films of Tarantino—have a way of turning violence into something beautiful and admirable. Sono wants to explore the horror of this. And, in so doing, he has produced a film that looks and feels amazing, even as it constantly reminds you of its own stupidity. Mitsuko tells a character at one point that she was born stupid and will die stupid, but she has always wanted, at least once, to shine in a big way. At another moment, she also admits that she has always wanted, at least once, to really kiss someone. Not on screen, but in real life.

Mitsuko spends this whole movie trapped between a desire for something real and a desire for something that feels more real than real. She never manages to escape the fantasies of others. Sono, for all his skill, never quite brings her to life until the very end. Perhaps, in some way, that’s the twisted point of the whole thing. Mitsuko wanted to shine big and, as the curtains close, she does just that. Sono sacrifices her to the gods of film in a moment both dumb and heartbreaking. Her final words: “I looked good, didn’t I?”

marie antoinette (dir. sofia coppola, 2006)

 

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Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is in such bad taste. It’s perfect. The first time I saw it, I discounted it as a shallow indulgence in style and soft-focus. What a fool I was. To be sure, many people agreed with me. And many, I suppose, still do. But, here’s the thing. Marie Antoinette, love it or hate it, is a masterpiece. It is a vision fully realized. Here are four reasons.

reason one

Film is, first and foremost, a sensual experience, not all that different from a sunrise or a night of fireworks. Marie Antoinette contains scenes of both and more besides! We trundle through glimmering forests in lavender carriages. We race across golden green fields, our hands waving free. We feast upon colorful towers of macarons. We thrill to the mysterious invitation of a fan unfurled across rosy cheeks. Coppola has worked with Kirsten Dunst before, in Virgin Suicides, and she would work with her again later, in The Beguiled, but it’s here, in Marie Antoinette, that she may have captured best the beauty and spirit of her muse. Dunst plays the soon-to-be beheaded queen with a mix of naiveté, recklessness, and a fragile, if altogether willful, joy. Coppola frames her in moments sometime rigid and sometimes loose, sometimes formal and sometimes intimate. We see Antoinette with her hair piled high, her waist cinched tight, her décolletage exquisitely décollated, and we see her also in bed, in despair and wonder, in loneliness and anticipation, sometimes buried under blankets and sometimes all bare shoulders and ruddy legs, giggling at the prospect of some unfettered joy. We know what happens to her in the end, and Coppola knows her job here isn’t to remind us of that fact at every turn. Her job is only to remind us that all this beauty, as much as it might be decadent and escapist and rapturous, also serves as a prison, and it is no less beautiful because of that. That it is so beautiful, in fact, only makes it hurt all the more.

reason two

There are three moments in this film where Kirsten Dunst breaks the sacred etiquette of film and stares straight at the camera and into the eyes of the viewer. The first time happens right at the start, in an opening scene of Antoinette in her home in Austria. She’s in a chair, in repose, among blues and pinks, cakes and plushed velvet. At one side of the screen, a maid in black-and-white, fits on her mistress a shoe. Dunst licks a bit of frosting from her fingers, and then she catches our eye and gives a slight tilt of her head as if to say, “What are you looking at?”

The second comes in her exchange from Austria to France. She is to be married off to the young Dauphin, Louis, so as to cement the alliance between their two countries. We have arrived at this moment after a long, beautifully dull carriage ride. Antoinette approaches the tent constructed across the border. Once inside, they strip away her dog. And then her rings. Her necklace. Her hat. Her shoes. Her socks. They slip off her dress and her underclothes. It is traditional, she is told, for a bride to leave everything behind. Coppola films this scene from behind, from the point of view of Austria. She cuts next to a shot from the French side. Antoinette walks out of the tent, wearing her new costume, right into the center of the frame. The shot is almost Wes Anderson-esque in its suffocating precision, and so it centers us in Antoinette’s experience of being crushed from all sides into a new shape. This shot should do away with the notion that Coppola prefers soft filters and gauzy ephemerality because it’s all she knows how to do. Here she shows how hard and precise she can be when it appeals to her and here it appeals to her because Antoinette has walked out of her childhood and into an unforgiving adult world in which, above all else, she will be put on display. Dunst stares at us in this moment, dead-eyed and uncertain, as if to say, “Well. Here I am. Is this what you want?” Everything of the film is here in this one shot. It’s magnificent.

The third moment occurs after the birth of a child not belonging to Marie Antoinette. We have seen, at this point, many examples of Louis’ indifferent, if not simply ineffectual, affections. And we have seen Antoinette greeted, each morning, by the crowd of onlookers that gather at the foot of her bed. We have heard the whispers that follow her as to her failure to produce an heir. We have read the letters from her mother lamenting the same. And we have just seen Dunst act the hell out of a scene in which she allows only her joy, and none of her sadness, to greet the happy couple and their new baby. But now we are alone with her in her bedroom, and we watch her crumple against the door and proceed to cry. It is a private moment, for a woman allowed no privacy. But, of course, we are there, too. And she finds our gaze and holds it. There is no sarcasm here. No condescension. There is something less and more. There is a woman and she is looking at us. Coppola wants us to be unsettled. And she wants us to never forget that Antoinette, while so often trapped in the gazes of others, is never without her own gaze.

reason three

Coppola scores this film, for the most part, with a procession of 80s bands like The Cure, New Order, Aphex Twin, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. In a film where so much care and expense has been paid in order to achieve such a period-perfect look—all those hats! every scene shot on location in France, in Versaille, or Chantilly, and so on—why deign to wake us from this dream? Why take us out of the moment? Why shatter the verisimilitude? I think because, as in those moments when Dunst stares out at us, the inclusion of dated pop electrifies these proceedings. They provide a shock of life, of rules broken, for good or ill. And, so, their presence helps ensure that the spirit of Antoinette shines out among the aforementioned hats and palatial beauties. Whatever else she is, or was, Antoinette is a girl whose heart, however excessive in its desire and however chained by its place in history, is her own. As those meta moments of wall breaking remind us that her gaze is her own, the soundtrack reminds us that her emotions are her own, as well.

As well, there is, I think, the fact that Coppola wants us to imagine Antoinette, herself, as a kind of 1980s pop star, and to imagine the time of her reign in France, as a gilded mirror held up to that decade, what with all its excess of greed and lust and the inevitable crash to come. And so we have this Antoinette caught in the prison of her own privilege. She is always on display. She is always the center of gossip. She is beloved and hated as the emblem of a regime she had no part in building. She is Madonna. Not the holy mother, but the wicked pop star. She is a symbol, for some, of all that’s wrong in society, and for others, for all that’s beautiful and empowering. In one way or another all of Coppola’s films deal with women trapped in the gaze of others, who nonetheless posses a gaze and beauty all their own. So it is here, too. Antoinette is never wicked nor role model. She is, for better and worse, only herself.

reason four

In The Beguiled, as here, we have a group of people seemingly cut off, and protected, from history. In one, a seminary of girls hidden by the Virginia woods from The Civil War. In the other, a queen and her court sheltered away in palaces and retreats from the mob calling for their heads. In both, the narrative turns on how the world that shelters them also imprisons them, and in some cases, dooms them. Marie Antoinette, in this film, only visits Paris but once. She is a palace girl. She is a diva out of necessity. What else can she do? She could speak out, of course. She could empathize with the mob. But who has ever empathized with her? Who has ever taught her by example? None. How could she look at a mob of people and not just see another mass of humanity, like all the others, looking at her and seeing whatever they want to see? Another set of eyes, for her, only means another set of demands. Some may accuse Coppola, I think, of trying to have her cake and eat it, too, calling on us to care for a woman of privilege, and to bask with her in the decadent and destructive nature of the beauty of her world, while only cursorily calling it all into question. But I don’t think so. Coppola doesn’t let Antoinette off the hook. Nor does she let us off the hook. She simply stages the hook in the wings. She trusts that we can see it for ourselves, even if we never see it. She trusts that, at the end, as the carriage takes Antoinette to her fate, we see what we must. A girl, with her face against a window, watching the world fall away. “Admiring the view?” her husband asks. “No,” she says. “I’m just saying goodbye.”

 

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

 

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captain america: winter soldier (dir. anthony and joe russo, 2014) + chloe bennett

 

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Captain America: Winter Soldier took me by surprise. I was not expecting the closing credits to be my favorite part.

chloe bennet lip syncs to hamilton on instagram

Chloe Bennet, one of the stars of the television show Agents of Shield, posted this post in which she, and co-star, Jeff Ward, lip-sync to the song “Satisfied” from Hamilton. It is amazing. You should watch it. That is all.

chloe singing with parrot

I enjoyed this video of Chloe Bennett singing with a parrot a lot. More than is possibly normal. It is possible I have a crush on Chloe Bennett. It is also possible that watching the video I was in love with imagining Chloe looking at this parrot shaking its head and coming up with the idea of singing along with it. I tend to fall in love as much with ideas as I do with people. Sometimes, in fact, I fall more in love with the idea of people, or things, than with the people or things themselves. Most of my life has been spent correcting for this behavior by listening to other people and things and trying to understand them for who and what they truly are.

 

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

 

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p.s. Here’s a link to David Mack’s blog in which more gifs of those Winter Soldier titles. He was the illustrator and concept art and, together with Sarofsky, put together these amazing titles.

all good art is about something deeper than it admits

Hello, readers.

From time to time, I go back and read old reviews of the films that I love. It reminds me of why I loved those films, and it teaches me how to see those films in new ways.

Also, I love reviews, both reading them and writing them. There’s a sort of alchemy in the way the best reviewers learn to conjure both the spirit and the truth of their subjects.

Here are some of my favorite reviews.

Stephanie Zacharek, reviewing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The essence of romanticism, said the German writer E.T.A. Hoffman, is “infinite longing.” With the marvelous “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” J.K. Rowling’s work has finally gotten the romantic filmmaker it deserves.

Roger Ebert reviewing Shawshank Redemption. The last paragraph is a revelation.

Darabont constructs the film to observe the story, not to punch it up or upstage it. Upstaging, in fact, is unknown in this film; the actors are content to stay within their roles, the story moves in an orderly way, and the film itself reflects the slow passage of the decades. “When they put you in that cell,” Red says, “when those bars slam home, that’s when you know it’s for real. Old life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.” Watching the film again, I admired it even more than the first time I saw it. Affection for good films often grows with familiarity, as it does with music. Some have said life is a prison, we are Red, Andy is our redeemer. All good art is about something deeper than it admits.

Anthony Lane, god bless him, reviewing in the same review both Brokeback Mountain and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

“Brokeback Mountain,” which began as an Annie Proulx story in these pages, comes fully alive as the chance for happiness dies. Its beauty wells from its sorrow, because the love between Ennis and Jack is most credible not in the making but in the thwarting.

And, if there is Deep Magic, as Lewis called it, in his tale, it resides not in the springlike coming of Aslan but in the dreamlike, compacted poetry of Lewis’s initial inspiration—the sight of a faun, in the snow, bearing parcels and an umbrella. That is kept mercifully intact in Adamson’s movie, its potency enriched by the shy, unstrenuous rapport of his two best performers: Georgie Henley, as Lucy, and James McAvoy, as Mr. Tumnus the faun. The dark joke is that Mr. Tumnus invites Lucy to tea only because he must turn his guest over to the enemy. Thus does Lucy, over toast and honey, learn the lesson known to the heroine of every horror flick: Don’t answer the faun.

 

Happy Wednesday, readers.

 

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on mad max and my possibly mad mom

on mad max and my possibly mad mom

Hello, readers.

Welcome to another week. This one’s way better than last week which was so three minutes ago.

Before that, when I was a kid, my mom introduced me to Mad Max, a dusty trilogy of post-apocalyptic westerns. I don’t remember the how’s, or the why, I just remember my mom had a crush on Mel Gibson and would often shake her head at the oddity of a woman seemingly so gentle, and against violence, finding such joy in films that carved bone from flesh.

Guess I’m just crazy, she said, and she was, and that could be quite frustrating, at times, but in her love of certain things I think her presumed insanity was really just a cover for enjoying things that, perhaps, she wasn’t supposed to enjoy.

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But, here’s the thing with those Mad Max films. They were not a mindless celebration of violence, so much as a celebration of the fight, and, in fact, the very fast running away to avoid fighting. There was, amidst the so-called psychopathic violence, some bit soul, some moral compass, to those films. The world was a scorched, weary, violent place, and here was this man, made mad by the loss of those he loved to a world grown increasingly more violent, who was left just trying to survive.

I think my mom found something, whether she knew it or not, in the story of a man with the weight of a lost world on his shoulders, carving a lonely path, the weight of his past holding him back even as it pushed him forward.

I think she loved the love Max sought, and sometimes discovered, in the wake of having lost everything.

That was, at least, part of Mom. She could be gentle, and she could be mad, and it did very much seem like, from time to time, the weight of some lost world would visit her shoulders.

Later this week, I’ll be seeing Mad Max: Fury Road. I’m so excited and so full of thoughts of Mom and what she would make of a Max not played by Mel. I think, considering what people are saying, she would have loved it. I think she would have found its rebellion led by women something to cheer. I think, perhaps, she might have developed a crush on Tom Hardy, or, who knows, Charlize Theron. We’ll see.

Here’s something A.O. Scott said of this most recent version of Max.

Even in the most chaotic fights and collisions, everything makes sense. This is not a matter of realism — come on, now — but of imaginative discipline. And Mr. Miller demonstrates that great action filmmaking is not only a matter of physics but of ethics as well. There is cause and effect; there are choices and consequences.

This captures, a bit, of what maybe Mom, and certainly I, have grown to appreciate in Miller’s post-apocalypse.

The weight of things.

Of the past, of action, of consequence.

It’s a mistake a lot of action movies make, allowing their pace, and their explosions, and their BAM/POW to escape gravity when really it’s the gravity of things that holds it, and us, all together.

Happy Tuesday, readers.

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