(On Cable TV, February 2019) Considering that Sayonara is a late-1950s film about Japan, it’s inevitable that it would be somewhat romanticized—although, notably, not as whitewashed as it could have been. A rather annoying Marlon Brando is featured in the lead role as a very stereotypical American getting seduced by the Japanese way of life (and, obviously, a Japanese woman). Much of it becomes a romantic drama heavily playing off social expectations with the unsubtle style of the time. From today’s perspective, Sayonara isn’t much to talk about: it’s long, melodramatic, plays into some strong clichés of interracial relationships and has a mumbling Brando. It’s very much an adaptation of the James Michener novel, better suited to the page than the screen. While it’s better than many other Hollywood movies of the period in having ethnic-appropriate casting for the white men and Japanese women, it does have Ricardo Montalban play a Japanese man … oh well. And so on. But if you dig down into that the film represented in 1957, then you can understand why the film was nominated for a few Oscars: At the time (and for a few more years afterward). It was one of the few sympathetic and compassionate representation of Japan and to fairly represent interracial relationships. Miyoshi Umeki became the first Asian (and, to date, the only) Asian actress to win an Academy Award, while comedian Red Buttons got an Oscar of his own for a very dramatic role. It has aged, but as a compassion-driven film it had aged far more gracefully than other, more hate-driven ones. While the result definitely feels trying today, Sayonara is a film worth putting in context. I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but those trying to complete their list of all Oscar-nominee pictures … but it does have its strengths.
(Second viewing, On Blu-ray, October 2018) Now this is how you make a Star Trek movie. Learning from the lessons of the infamously slow-paced Star Trek: The Motion Picture, here comes Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to set things right. From better uniforms to a pair of great space battles to a memorable antagonist to a thematic exploration of character flaws to zippy pacing and reasonable odds, this film still stands as one of the most-improved sequels in Hollywood history. Writer/director Nicholas Meyer wraps surprisingly dense (and appropriate) thematic concerns in a relatively short running time. I hadn’t seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in a long time, and I had forgotten that the film is efficiently contained to, essentially, a bridge set and a handful of other locations. Kirstie Alley shows up in an early role as a young officer, the innovative CGI sequence still looks good, the actors are comfortable with their characters (with William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban free to scream as much as they’d like), the film builds upon the existing series mythology and we do get the feeling of a story slightly too big to fit in an hour-long episode, but well aligned with the rest of the franchise. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is still a really good movie by anyone’s standards, but it also remains a particularly good Star Trek movie, perhaps still the best one so far.
(In theaters, July 2003) As a confirmed aficionado of Robert Rodriguez’s entire oeuvre, you won’t catch me saying anything overly negative about this last instalment of the Spy Kids trilogy. But it’s certainly not a betrayal if I simply state that this is the lesser film of the series and that its interest mostly lies in its 3D gimmick. As someone who wasn’t around in theatres in the early eighties for the previous revival of red-blue 3D glasses, there’s a definite curio factor in seeing such a film. Thanks to modern advances in computer animation technology, Rodriguez can essentially do an ultra-cheap CGI-packed 3D film for the pure fun of it. While the story in interesting enough in its typical Rodriguez hyperactivity, the cool CGI and unbeatable sense of fun are no match for the energy and heart-felt nature of the first two films. Oh, it’s good enough, no doubt about it: Ricardo Montalban and Daryl Sabara turn in good performances, we get to see Salma Hayek in 3D (with pigtails! woo!), Sylvester Stallone doesn’t embarrass himself, there is a great opening sequence with Juni as a private investigator and just about every Spy Kids character of note is back for the finale. The fun is infectious; the movie works rather well, but please, Hollywood, don’t use this as an excuse to make other 3D movies. One each twenty years is more than enough. As a 3D technology, red-blue glasses have to be the cheapest and the muckiest. Unless you’re willing to use polarised glasses, don’t bother.
(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2004) Definitely the lesser of the Spy Kids trilogy, but certainly not an uninteresting film. Hailed more for its single-handed revival of 3D in theatres than its actual plot, Spy Kids 3D is still a great action film in its own right. Sure, the plot (and even the cinematography) is meaningless without the 3D. Or is it? One of the many qualities of the DVD edition is to present a colourful 2D version of the film, and it still holds up as a piece of entertainment without the silly glasses. Aficionados of writer/director/auteur Robert Rodriguez already know that his DVDs contain plenty of supplementary content and this one is no exception, with a consistently interesting audio commentary, plenty of documentaries and yet another amusing “ten-minute film school”. Fun, fun, fun.