Movie review: Our Little Sister (2016)

What struck me most about Our Little Sister was how much food was involved. As the movie wound through the lives of four sisters, scene after scene depicted them eating and the centrality of food in their lives.

Our Little Sister is not a movie about food—though perhaps it could have been. The movie follows three sisters who live together and experience the death of their long-estranged father At the funeral, they meet their previously unknown half-sister.

The movie is dominated by women. It is a storyline about women and how women are important in each other’s lives. The three sisters bring home their younger sibling to live with them. Respect is shown at the family shrine, where tales about Grandma are shared. Great Auntie appears and even the long-absent mother who abandoned the sisters years earlier reappears in their lives. A woman business owner of a local restaurant frequented by the sisters during their lives is central too—to their lives and the story.

Men fill supporting roles—from the deadbeat father who is also absent in the movie to the erstwhile boyfriends. Men are of little consequence, perhaps reflecting the relationship dynamics that have been playing out in Japanese society for the last several decades.

The sisters dance around painful truths. In essence, they were abandoned by both parents and learned to live together and rely on each other in a house that their mother owned. As adults, they are strong, independent women though one seems to renounce her boyfriend-seeking obsession later in the movie. Family relationships make things difficult and force negotiations about who can discuss who to whom.

The teenage sibling that the three sisters adopt into their home is the product of their father and the woman he abandoned them and their mother for. At the funeral, the young sibling was living with her step-mother, another woman that their father married after things ended between their father and the woman he left his first wife for. (It’s never explicitly stated that the second wife died but assumed since she never appears in the movie or is discussed.)

The younger sibling knew their father in ways that the older sisters didn’t. She had discussions with him and fishing expeditions. The older sisters express an interest in hearing about their father and learning what he was like.

Her presence though is a painful reminder to everyone about how the father failed them, or as the sisters describe it, was “useless”. He was a kind man, to woman after woman after woman, leaving behind broken relationships. The younger sibling reminds everyone, just by her existence, of the painful reality that he left them—the older siblings and the first wife and mother of the older siblings.

Throughout the movie, the sins of the father are manifest. In a scene near the end, the eldest sibling and the youngest are walking to a secluded spot overlooking a bay. The eldest would go here with the father and then later after he left she would go by herself. She screams into the wind about him.

The youngest follows suit but with a twist. Into the wind she screams about her mother, the woman that the father left his wife and daughters for. The pain that the other woman caused, even carried by her daughter, is finally acknowledged. Not only do the siblings need to talk about the father, but they need to talk about the other woman, Suzu’s mother. That fact is finally acknowledged and invited into discussions.

Family relationships can be messy. Our Little Sister shows that, as well as the bonds among women. Men are almost an afterthought but definitely the source of lots of pain.

Movie review: The Favourite (2018)

Not exactly a pick-me-up, The Favourite does makes one’s life seem not so bad. The royalty and elite in early 18th century England were a bit…immoral. The intrigue, backstabbing, and disregard for human life as portrayed seems extreme.

The movie focuses on two women close to Queen Anne—Sarah Churchill (Duchess of Marlborough) and Abigail Masham. The two women are cousins but Abigail lived a rough life. She fell from a position in elite society when her father sold her to pay for gambling debts, but then by chance, she ends up delivering a message to court and crossing paths with her cousin Sarah, who is the queen’s confidante (and, if one believes, lover).

A conniving and powerful woman, Sarah sort of takes Abigail under her wing. This isn’t all altruism and family loyalty. Abigail enters the ranks of employment at court as a scullery maid but is quickly pulled from this lowly spot when she helped heal the queen.

The queen is in poor health, suffering from grout among other things. After Abigail realizes that the queen is in pain from sore on her legs, she borrows a horse to go into the forests in search of herbs. Then she has the audacity to place the herb poultice on the queen’s legs as the queen sleeps.

Sarah orders that Abigail be whipped for her audacity, but after the queen’s favorable reaction to the poultice, Sarah orders that Abigail be made her own servant instead.

Abigail quickly learns from the intrigue surrounding her. She ingratiates herself with the queen and seeks to drive a wedge between the queen and Sarah. Eventually, Sarah is banished and Abigail takes her place at the queen’s side.

The broad strokes of the story are historical, but I am too ignorant of the details of early 18th century English court to comment on the details. Positions and fortunes at court shifted quickly depending on the whims of the queen and others’ conniving. Excess was everywhere…from the overeating by the queen to the duck races that the political and social elite engaged in.

The Favourite is a well-made movie that offers a glimpse into the court and personal life of Queen Anne. But the point of the movie? I am not sure. Perhaps that the life of the English court (and 18th century England in general) was so capricious. These times were definitely not the good old days.

Movie review: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow of the Vampire is a creative story about the filming of the famous 1922 silent film Nosferatu. The movie takes quite a bit of liberty with the facts but has an engaging and somewhat spooky storyline.

Nosferatu was F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece, a German film about vampires that took Bram Stoker’s Dracula as its inspiration. (Stoker’s widow would not give Murnau the rights to make a movie based on the book.)

In Shadow of the Vampire, Murnau is an egomaniac, driven to make the perfect film no matter what the cost. And the cost, it turns out, is huge. He keeps his cast and crew in the dark about some scenes, locations, and most importantly, the actor playing Count Orlok (his movie version of Count Dracula). Orlok, he pronounced, will be played by Max Schreck, a certain actor that no one else knew. Schreck would stay in character the entire time, never coming out of character even when no filming was taking place.

People thought Schreck/Count Orlok odd, but no one thought much of it. Not even when cast members had to be replaced because Orlok was attacking them to drink their blood. This is not to say that the cast and crew weren’t weirded out by Orlok—they were. But no one really thought anything was amiss.

And then during one drug-induced bout of honesty, Murnau confides in some crew members about Orlok’s true nature, where he found him, and what he promised him. The crew members who heard the truth were horrified. But not horrified enough to try to prevent the inevitable from happening.

The film follows many of the shots and scenes in the original Nosferatu. Murnau shoots Gustav approaching the castle, Gustav and Orlok looking over and signing the contracts, and Orlok attacking Greta. The original story is spooky enough but the storyline of the new movie adds a new layer on top, more horrifying than scary.

Once the crew is in the know about the truth—that Murnau made a deal with Orlok—they go along. That is almost more horrifying than the deal that Murnau made—if Count Orlok acts in his movie, in the end, Murnau will give the vampire Greta, the female lead. In the end, those in the know become victims of the vampire too. All the while Murnau films—one death after another—until the vampire is killed by the rising sun.

Shadow of the Vampire truly sports an unusual storyline and is populated with outstanding actors. If you are a fan of Nosferatu, the vampire genre, or horror, you will likely enjoy this movie. The horror revolves around how far one man will go for glory and others will go as passive enablers. The movie resonates with history. Just a decade or two after the movie takes place, Germans would be passive enablers of Hitler. Horror indeed.

Movie review: Elle (2016)

Elle is a rather disturbing movie that reveals the complexities of life and motivations. The relationships and lives of those in the movie are not neat and tidy. Some aspects about their lives can be envied. Some rejected. Some motivations seem rational. Others not so much. In other words, Elle reveals the lie that the lives of others are perfect. We see the messiness.

Michele is a successful, powerful business woman. She is rather no-nonsense, whether it is dealing with employees, her son, or lovers. But she also seems a bundle of contradictions. A strong woman who won’t take attitude from anyone but submits to violent rape. A strong woman who seeks boundaries with lovers, but then acquiesces. A woman who juggles different lies but then reveals them one evening.

After a violent rape in her house, Michele does not go to the police but rather gets on with her life. The rape ultimately does not seem to bother her. She tells family and friends and that’s that.

Later her reasoning for not reporting the rape is made clear: she did not have a good past with the police. When she was 10 years old, her father committed mass murder. As a child, she was paraded through the media. Now decades later, her elderly father is up for parole again. A TV special about the murder is being aired.

Could the rape have something to do with the mass murder of her father (who is still hated by the public)? Or could it be the hatred felt for her at work? At her company, which produces video games, someone produced a rape scene with her visage on the victim. This scene went viral in the office.

Michele receives text messages from the rapist, as if he is taunting her. Where is he? Who is he?

Michele ultimately discovers that he is someone she knows. And yet she not only does not report him, she goes out of her way to interact with him. After a car accident when no friends or ex-lovers were available to help, she turns to her rapist. She flirts with continuing a consensual rape relationship with him.

In the end, for reasons unknown (or at least unfathomable), she decides against the relationship. She informs him that she will go to the police. He attempts one last rape.

Michele’s motivations and life are not the only ones that are messy. Those of her family and friends are too. Why does her son remain with a woman who is abusive and gave birth to a son who is clearly not his (though he attacks anyone who says otherwise)? Why did the wife of her ex-lover, best friend, and sometime lover reconcile with her and plan on moving in with her? Why did the ultra-religious wife of her ex-rapist/lover accept Michele’s relationship with her husband? Life is messy—not the enviable neat and tidy façade that people typically show us.

Elle is not for the faint of heart—the movie includes some violent scenes. But it offers a fascinating look at the complexities of motivations and relationships. We are not rational but are the product of the past, which shapes our motivations.

Movie review: Mahabharata (1989)

I was a bit taken aback by this film adaptation of the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic that talks about ancient views of duty and what is right. The story centers on branches in a family that vie for the throne (Pandava and Kaurava).

Pandu gives up the throne to his blind brother Dhritarashtra and retreats to the forest with his wives. His wives give birth to five sons through the gods. Meanwhile, Dhritarashtra’s wife gives birth to a hundred sons. After Pandu’s death, the cousins end up growing up together. An intense rivalry develops that results in a game of dice, banishment, and ultimately war. The god Krishna—the human form of the god Vishnu—appears as a go-between and a counselor to Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers.

I expected an Indian cast but discovered that Peter Brook had directed a multicultural cast. Caucasian, East Asian, African, Indian—the members of the families came from all races and cultures. The Mahabharata is the poetical history of mankind through the lens of ancient Indian culture. Brook strove to make the Indian history of mankind universal through the cast of actors he used in his movie.

Originally, Brook and writer Jean-Claude Carrière wrote a theatre production and then adapted the nine-hour (!) production to a six-hour and then three-hour film production. This three-hour rendition of the Mahabharata has been whittled down to three parts: The Game of Dice, the Exile in the Forest, and the War.

The Game of Dice sets the stage for the story, culminating in the fateful gambling that leads to the Pandava brothers, along with their wife (yes, wife not wives), being exiled for 12 years and incognito for another year. Arjuna, the ultimate warrior, wins Draupadi in a contest involving skill with a bow and arrow. Upon telling his mother of his success, she tells him to share whatever he won with his brothers.

Whenever the sacred law of the universe (dharma), which maintains the order of the world is threatened by chaos, then the god Krishna appears to bring order. The rivalry between the Pandava and Kaurava grows, leading to the appearance of the god Krishna.

Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers and a lover of gambling, agrees to gamble with the Kauravas. The stakes are high. One by one, Yudishthira loses everything he owns, even his brothers, himself, and Draupadi. In one final vain play, he agrees that if he loses, the Pandavas and Draupadi will go into exile for 12 years and then disappear for an additional year. If they fail at this, then war will ensue. Of course, Yudhishthira loses and the Pandavas go into exile.

The Exile in the Forest section covers this time in exile during which the Pandavas face challenges. Bhima encounters rakshasa, fierce-looking, man-eating creatures in ancient Indian mythology. One shape-shifts into a woman and has a child with Bhima before disappearing from whence she came (along with the child). Before departing, the child tells Bhima that if he ever needs him, call him and he will save Bhima. (This child makes a later appearance during the war.)

During this time, Arjuna, the ultimate warrior born of the god Indra, encounters the god Shiva while on a hunt. After battling with Shiva, the god of destruction, Shiva grants him the ultimate weapon (pashupatastra), which can destroy all creation.

Both the Pandavas and Kauravas approach Krishna for his blessing in the impending war. Krishna ends up seeing Arjuna before Duryodhana. Ultimately, he promises to be neutral in the war, but take the role of Arjuna’s chariot driver and counselor.

The battle is set. Both sides align. Arjuna rides out to start the war but hesitates. He looks out and sees his relatives. Killing his family is madness. He lays down his bow. Krishna counsels him in the dharma, duty, and morality—in what is the famous Bhagavada-gita, which often stands as a work separate from the larger context of the Mahabharata.

Krishna explains to Arjuna that defeat and victory is the same. He must act but seek detachment from acting. Krishna instructs Arjuna on illusion. “He who thinks he can kill and he who thinks he can be killed are both mistaken.” Krishna advises what may seem contradictory. But what is right is dependent on the person, the time, and the place. Following one’s dharma or duty is the utmost. Preserving dharma preserves the universe. Not preserving dharma leads to chaos and the destruction of the universe.

In the end, Arjuna takes up his bow and an 18-day war follows. As with his pre-war counsel, Krishna’s advice during battle goes against normal feelings of right and wrong. Krishna tells Arjuna to shoot his bow into an undefended Kaurava. Krishna tells Bhima to hit his opponent in one-on-one combat on the thigh. Both pieces of advice break the normal rules involving combat.

The Mahabharata instructs on how to live in the world. Some instruction is easy to see and accept. Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, is consumed by hatred, a weakness that has haunted him all his life. (Do not be consumed by hatred seems like good advice to follow.) But Krishna counseling the following of duty, even if it means killing extended family members, is a hard one to grasp.

Some of the themes are timeless, appearing in later Indian traditions. The stress on action, illusion, and detachment appear in various Indian religious and philosophical strains, though interpreted slightly differently.

Like other ancient works, the Mahabharata contains words of wisdom. Kunti, the mother of the five Pandava brothers states, “If you live with the fear of death, why were you given life?” Krishna notices before the war, “Death is already here observing us.” And later, he speaks to a Kaurava, “No good man is entirely good. No bad man entirely bad.”

At just under three hours, this film version of the Mahabharata is a manageable watch. I found the use of a multicultural cast initially an odd choice, but it grew on me as I watched the film. Peter Brook’s film helps bring the Mahabharata to audiences outside of India, where the epic is a part of national consciousness and informs everyday life. The Mahabharata itself is a huge work; a more manageable entrance into the epic may be the Bhagavada-gita, an excerpt of the war from the larger Mahabharata, which covers Krishna’s discussion with Arjuna about duty.