Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
My hesitation to watch Grave of the Fireflies stems from reports of its brutality, so much so that it is regularly referred to as the "saddest film of all time". I can now confirm that these descriptions are valid, if not understatements. Isao Takahata's story about a boy and his younger sister struggling to survive the firebombing of Tokyo towards the end of World War II is a psychological endeavour in tragedy and devastation. It is hard to believe that the same studio that released My Neighbour Totoro in the same year could possibly produce a film which creates a lasting painful pit of despair in one's stomach. Because of streaming limitations, I watched the film with an English-dub rather than subtitles (which is never my preference). Fortunately, this did not hinder the film's drama or clear message of pacifism. I was particularly impressed by the lead vocal performance of J. Robert Spencer as the exhausted boy-hero Seita. The film so effectively portrays the destruction of war on the wellbeing of children as to essentially render any other anti-war film redundant.
Todd Haynes has proved himself to be a master of melodrama, continuing the legacy of the "Women's Picture" from the 1930's-1950's while turning the tropes of the genre on its head. In Safe Haynes demonstrates his understanding of the unspoken mental discomfort and overwhelming experience of womanhood. In Haynes first collaboration with the brilliant Julianne Moore, he tells the story of Carol, a Southern California housewife whose routine life of complacency becomes overturned by her sudden sensitivity to household and industrial chemicals. As Carol's health rapidly deteriorates, she is introduced to a new-age wellness group that promises a respite from all that plagues her. Her body can no longer take its environment as Carol's mind can no longer take her stagnant position within society. With spot-on production design and cinematography that expertly nails the consumeristic nature of the 1980's, Haynes presents a horror film disguised as a melodrama that considers the stress of performance, socialization, class division, and femininity. Almost three decades later, the film seems especially relevant after the social dissolution of the COVID pandemic and the modern conversation around the performance of gender. While the film's first half outshines the second, Haynes' skill as a storyteller is evident in his construction of character and a world that is at once both familiar and alien.
Like Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri tells the same story from differing perspectives, once from a feudal lord's counsellor, and once from an old ronin. The story: a young man appears at the gates of the Iyi estate asking to commit Harakiri (the act of self-disembowelment) in the presence of the counsellor and the court. Why he does so is methodically revealed by the ronin to uncover a thrilling and compelling story of fate, misfortune, and honour. The wisened ronin is played by Kobayashi's frequent leading-man Tatsuya Nakadai, who fully comprehends his character's power as a possessor of information. Featuring a calamitous backstory and unflinching depictions of brutal violence, the film calls to mind the fateful Shakespearian tragedies of Titus Andronicus or King Lear, as we watch a noble man's life totally crumble around him for no reason besides bad luck.
My score: 9/10
The Wedding Singer (1997)
Adam Sandler's movies are not for me. I am aware of this, and I am at peace with it. That is why I was so surprised to find myself enjoying The Wedding Singer with friends at a free outdoor screening in Stanley Park, Vancouver's preeminent green-space. Sure, the film features its share of cringe-worthily sexist comedy that was par-for-the-course in the 1990's, but the film is otherwise charming and even sweet at times. The casting of Drew Barrymore as the female lead can only be described as a stroke of brilliance, as her presence shines throughout the film. She is irrepressibly loveable, rightly carrying on her family's legacy of undeniable screen presence. The film is overall well-paced, and the comedic beats hit right on cue, leading to a surprisingly enjoyable viewing experience for an admittedly skeptical audience member.