Movies to watch in quarantine: ’20th Century Women,’ ‘Seven Samurai,’ ‘V for Vendetta’

This week, Mark York and Nitish Vaidyanathan review ’20th Century Women,’ ‘Seven Samurai,’ and ‘V for Vendetta’

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Intro: Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every week on Wednesdays. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!

A24

20th Century Women” (Released in 2016; watched by us on June 1, 2020)

A drama by Mike Mills. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

“20th Century Women” is an indie movie, all right. I am tempted to say it is too indie for civilized society. 

Not to say indie movies are necessarily bad — not in the slightest. The underground movie scene has created many engaging stories… but they do have the potential to quickly feel pretentious. YOU know what I mean, dear reader! Very few can tolerate the party-goer who vocally refuses to drink boxed wine because it “isn’t warm enough,” or the snob who refuses to listen to Broadway musicals because “true art cannot persist in the mainstream.” Even fewer want to become that person. And trust me, “20th Century Women” is definitely on that hipster’s movie list. It has that distinct, art-house directorial style, and it makes no apologies about it. So, I felt a sort of survival instinct when watching this movie, pushing me to resist its ways. I worried “20th Century Women” was the gateway film to a lifetime of snobbery. (See Nitish’s identity crisis in his segment for more details.)

With that said, “20th Century Women” is a good movie… when you sit down with it long enough. It is the kind of film that is difficult to like but even harder to reject. In the late 70s, single mother Dorothea Fields is having problems raising her only son, Jamie. He is entering his teens – a pivotal period in his life – amidst a time period she is struggling to relate to. So, she enlists two other women to help raise him: Abbie, a free-spirited tenant in her boarding home, and Julie, Jamie’s best friend. Not that the premise really matters all that much. 

“20th Century Women” is not all that interested in telling a conventional, narratively-succinct story. Instead, it wants to show you how Julie smokes a cigarette, it wants to read to you excerpts of feminist literature, and it wants to tell you what kind of shoes Dorothea likes to wear and why. It also wants you to know when and how Dorothea dies, half way through the movie, then watch her continue to live her life completely unaware of that fate. Filmmaker Mike Mills wants you to know its most pivotal figures, and you will come out of the experience believing that you understand them far better than you understand yourself. 

This initially caught me off-guard. For the most part, it feels as though “20th Century Women” is not going anywhere. The plot (which there is lack thereof) plays out mostly in the background, and the overall movie feels like a series of loosely connected events detailing Jamie growing up and coming to grips with his masculinity. Each character is difficult to describe because none of them seem to stand out that much from the scene – they feel a little too real to think of as simple characters. This adds a stream-of-consciousness effect to the script that in my opinion greatly resembles the works of Virginia Woolf. If you’ve ever read “To The Lighthouse” (I’m looking at you, SLE kids) you will probably have a good idea on what this movie feels like, and whether or not you will like it. 

The film revels in the minor, useless details that make a human. And that seems to be the main point of “20th Century Women”… for better or for worse.

Within the first hour of the movie, I absolutely hated it. Every scene felt too slow and too painful. While I could theoretically appreciate the intimacy behind the character writing, I felt the movie did not give me enough to like or engage me to said figures to warrant the detail. Honestly, I still believe that – but something changed. 

I wish, dear reader, I could tell you what that was. Even I don’t know. For some reason midway through the movie, as I was rolling my eyes and playing “Animal Crossing,” I began to feel sort of hypnotized by the way each character spoke, and the way each shot was composed. I felt nestled in the thoughts and minds of its pivotal figures, and I couldn’t look away. This is exactly what happened when I read “To The Lighthouse” and, gosh darnit, I didn’t know what was happening then either. It just eventually started to work for me. 

Not to say the movie is lacking in genuinely brilliant moments. While I would argue it has its share of boring scenes, there are some excellently written monologues thrown in the mix. Its depiction of the late 70s, too, is authentic, highlighting what about those fickle few years was so important. It’s just… this movie is an acquired taste, and I am not sure if the film’s feats are going to be worth its more lacking elements for most movie-goers. I am personally mixed… though I’m glad I saw “20th Century Women.” Maybe that in of itself is worth considering? 

Nitish:

A few minutes into this movie, I texted Mark that I was fearful of the possibility that I would like it. You see, it was just too indie–following a vaguely middle class white nontraditional family in California during the eighties, slick cinematography and a pulsing score. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young boy who learns to be a man by reading feminist philosophy. It’s the sort of movie that people in movies watch when they’re being performatively quirky, the kind of movie that people in this movie would watch and then say something profound about. And yet, about twenty minutes in, Mills’ writing had reeled me in. I texted Mark again, with steadily growing worry that I was liking it. And now that I have finished the movie, I have to confess: I loved it. “20th Century Women” is a wonderful tale about growth and learning, and it features strong writing, acting, and direction. 

This movie is strangely hypnotic. Sean Porter’s bright cinematography features a rich color palette and little bits of technicolor-motion-blur when cars travel long distances. Mills’ direction unspools itself in stages, with characters that seem too particular and quirky to be real but are given warmth and depth as the film progresses. The direction in this movie is smart, and Mills manages to capture some wonderful shots. The film is set in Santa Barbara, and there’s a sunniness that permeates every inch of every frame that feels warm but not too overwhelming. 

The plot of this movie, if you could call it that, features Annette Bening’s Dorothea asking two of her son’s female friends to help raise him to become a man. I mention their gender because this movie has a lot to do with and a lot to say about gender. A pretty significant thread of “20th Century Women” is Jamie’s education in feminist philosophy. It’s hard for me to describe, but Jamie’s transformation from a boy into a man is enabled by the titular women in a way that interrogates conceptions of masculinity. 

But this movie doesn’t make the mistake that many similar movies make: oftentimes, movies about young men treat women as plot devices, opportunities for growth or obstacles to overcome. While the various “20th Century Women” have significant impacts on Jamie’s life, they’re not used for the narrative, and are given plenty of space to develop by themselves. This movie, as you might guess from the title, features several wonderfully written female characters. Elle Fanning’s Julie and Greta Gerwig’s Abbie are each neatly characterized, but it’s Dorothea that’s the best character here. She’s tough as nails, a product of her childhood in the “Great Depression,” but she’s also warm and funny and an excellent mother. At the end of the movie, Jamie tells us that he is unable to adequately describe her, and I don’t think I can either. 

Ultimately, I think this movie is about that quality of indescribability. The people in this movie feel realer than they do in any other movie that I’ve watched. They’re not pixels on a screen but flesh and blood. And Mills does this magic trick by eschewing traditional conceptions of narrative. He delivers these characters to us by merging us into their lives, taking the crutch of time away from us. We remember these characters like they were people that we loved and lost. Mills’ greatest achievement in “20th Century Women” is how intensely personal it feels the whole way through. 

I loved this movie. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, but now that I’ve watched it, I can’t imagine having lived life without it. It feels part of me somehow, as if the characters and I lived in the same building for the same crucial period of our lives. That probably feels like ridiculous hyperbole, but I encourage you to give this movie a try. I hope that you feel the same way I did.

TOHO

Seven Samurai” (Released in 1954; watched by us on June 3, 2020)

An epic drama by Akira Kurosawa. We watched it on Kanopy (Stanford provides all students with a subscription)!

Mark:

Whoops! It’s “Rashomon” director, Akira Kurosawa, once again – I swear this wasn’t intentional. It was already on my movie bucket list, and I just found out Kanopy was a thing! 

“Seven Samurai” follows a humble mountain village, which is plagued by bandits. They send representatives to recruit seven different samurai, each with their own distinct pasts and ambitions, tasked with banding together, putting aside their differences, and quelling the evil threat. I am beginning to think this is what Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” was based on. 

Our ronin consist of wise and experienced leader Kambei, his inexperienced pupil Katsushiro, the loyal and lax Shichiroji, the less skilled but silver tongued Heihachi, the cool and prodigious Kyuzo (Nitish’s personal favorite), strategic archer Yoshio, and the arrogant and temperamental rogue Kikuchiyo. I realize I just dropped a lot of names on your lap, dear reader, and you don’t need to memorize them of course. I just thought it was worth highlighting because this cast makes this story a classic. It would’ve been so easy to make the heroes of “Seven Samurai” indistinguishable, fighting machines, but each of the seven samurai stand out and catch my interest – each can be humorous, emotional, and kickbutt in their own distinct ways. This is some phenomenal character-work, which I was accustomed not to expect from action films such as this… especially one so old. Once again, this is a reminder that good, fun storytelling can come from anywhere and at any time. (It reminds me of an anime, if you don’t mind me getting dorky for a little bit.)

Yet, what surprised me most of all was how oddly self-aware this movie seemed to be about the samurai action genre. It gets odder when you consider that “Seven Samurai” was one of the first samurai action films… they hardly had a genre to subvert. 

Excuse my vaguer language, dear reader, I would prefer not to spoil the details. But there does come a point when “Seven Samurai,” which before maintained the front of a fun sword fighting folk tale, suddenly feels a lot more real. With a war, there are casualties… even in victory. Kurosawa makes sure the losses sting, even amid an otherwise happy fairytale ending. This highlights the samurai’s courage by giving each swing of the sword that much more emotional weight. The movie’s conclusion absolutely blew my mind! Not only does this more skeptical look say a lot about the inherent sadness of the samurai and the many sacrifices they must be prepared to make, but it speaks to the nature of storytelling too. While narratives end, lives linger about, and in real life people have to live with trauma and consequences. The scope of the lens becomes so much more limiting when you think of it like that. 

Then again, my mind could just be racing. “Seven Samurai” has evoked a lot of thought in me; what’s more, it is a fun and gripping action flick that managed to catch my attention for over three hours. That, in of itself, is impressive. “Seven Samurai” deserves its place as a classic, and I more than recommend you watch it… given you have the time for it. 

Nitish:

“Seven Samurai” is yet another masterpiece by the timeless Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa. While Rashomon is an overtly philosophical film about truth and justice, “Seven Samurai” disguises its philosophy under a classic team-up to fight the bad guys story. But honestly, I’m less interested in the philosophy here (gasp) than I am in the movie’s enormous cultural impact. Have you watched a movie where good guys team up to fight bad guys? Any of the “Avengers” movies? “Lord of the Rings?” Then you owe thanks to Akira Kurosawa. This movie wrote the script for so many other movies, and I have yet to see one live up to the original. 

There’s too much to praise in “Seven Samurai,” but it’s 12:40am in finals week, so I’m just going to pick some of the highlights. The direction is incredibly good. There are some clear restraints that Kurosawa faced due to relatively underdeveloped technology at the time, but the way he films this movie is nothing short of genre-defining. The camera moves with the motion, and there’s one take near the end of this film (it involves a guy moving with his sword aloft in the rain, you’ll know it when you see it) that is totally breathtaking. The introduction of Takashi Shimura’s Kambei stands out. Kambei has to save a baby who’s being held hostage by a bandit. Kurosawa showed admirable restraint in this scene, knowing that we didn’t need to have too much information to pick up what was going on. Kambei shaves his head in order to disguise himself as a monk; it shows a willingness to disguise and humble himself that many of the samurai we meet lack. The actual saving of the child is off-screen, but without going into too much detail, I wouldn’t have it any other way. We get a deep sense of his character in a few swift shots–Kurosawa’s accomplishment here is incredibly difficult to match. 

Another thing that I love about this movie is the way it depicts badassery. Seiji Miyaguchi’s Kyūzō has to be one of the coolest characters in fiction. His introduction, where he bests a proud fool in a duel to the death, is ridiculously cool. The fight scenes are filmed generously, with these flowing long takes that catch the actors’ movements perfectly. Kyūzō disappearing off into the fog in order to grab guns from the enemy is one of the most badass shots in cinema. But Kurosawa is incredibly adept at creating three-dimensional characters, and I gained the most respect for Kyūzō when he sacrificed a bowl of rice for a villager. 

What I want to highlight for you though is a feeling that I’m sure you’ll feel when you watch this movie: deja vu. You’ll predict the same plot elements, because you’ve surely seen dozens of lesser directors shamelessly crib Kurosawa’s masterpiece for inspiration. You’ll have seen similar depictions of characters, you’ll have felt similar things. But despite the sense of familiarity that you have with “Seven Samurai,” a familiarity earned by the fact that half of the Western movie-making industry solely tries to remake it, the movie will still feel fresh. This is because Kurosawa is just better. Things that are now industry tropes and cliches were literally invented in this movie, and Kurosawa’s masterpiece manages to surpass all of them. 

This is a true all time great movie, and I would definitely recommend that you watch it. It’s worth watching for itself of course, but it’s also interesting to watch for the impact that it’s had on the rest of the industry. Kurosawa has maybe had more impact on the medium of film than any other director, and if you like movies, it’s worth understanding why. “Seven Samurai” is a genuine masterpiece, and it will be the gold standard for as long as people tell stories. 

Warner Bros

V For Vendetta” (Released in 2005; watched by us on June 5, 2020)

A dystopian thriller by James McTeigue and the Wachowskis. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

I admit, dear reader, I struggled to find a good beginning to this review. To be frank, I’m still not sure if I found one… but I’ve spent an hour on it already, and I need to get this thing published. 

When I decided to pick “V For Vendetta” for today’s movie, I thought of one of my English classes, where my teacher showed us a scene from the film for… some reason (my apologies, Mr. Kash). I was in the mood for a good dose of escapism, and a goofy, 2000s action movie seemed like it would do the trick. Oh boy is it 2000s-y. 

But, the joke was on me. This movie is far from dated. Despite having the over-the-top flair of the Wachowskis all over it, “V For Vendetta” is more thought-provoking now, amid widespread national protests (of varying degrees of severity) and recurring cases of police brutality. The mood is not helped when one stops to consider that there is a pandemic going on right now. The story brought up a lot of difficult thoughts I (and I’m sure, a lot of other people) are grappling with. And here I thought I was just going to talk about a funny masked guy stabbing people in multiple different angles. Why couldn’t I have picked “Deadpool” instead? 

I will not spend the bulk of this review discussing “V For Vendetta” in a modern context. This is a topic that deserves its own review, and more fully baked thoughts – this is also not what you were promised with the headline, though it would have been irresponsible to talk about a rebellion movie and ignore the elephant in the news completely. This context does, however, inform what specifically intrigues me about this film. One can see “V For Vendetta” now as a political message; but if the same viewer was to see the movie at some other time, it would simply be a gripping dystopian flick, not too distinct from any other. There is an amazing adaptability to stories like these that has the potential to immortalize them. Apparently McTeigue and the Wachowskis (and let us not forget the original comic limited series) have cracked the code. 

I’ve dawdled long enough. “V For Vendetta” takes place in a dark, dystopian future, where the U.K. has been taken over by a facist regime. A mysterious figure simply known as V, clad in a Guy Fawkes mask, promises to rile up the citizens and spark a rebellion in one year’s time. An initially unassuming young woman named Evey gets dragged out of her life of normalcy and ends up roped up in V’s mission. 

The first, and most important thing that helps “V For Vendetta” stand up to differing times is simple: it is simply a well-plotted narrative. The story is structured perfectly to highlight everything the audience needs to know about how the facist U.K. operates and how the rebellion eventually happens without bogging down the pace. The writers also ingeniously use V as the movie’s static icon for revolution – leading to some stellar imagery and poignant symbols to take away – while using Evey as the protagonist who changes and develops, sort of like an audience stand-in. 

I believe this split structure also helps create differing experiences within different audiences. By focusing on Evey, you will primarily get a narratively satisfying story. By focusing on V, you will prompt numerous questions about the importance of his revolution, how he manages to execute it, and in some cases, whether everything he’s doing is moral. To what extent is V his own person, and to which extent does he persist simply as a symbol? How should we see him? These multiple different plot lines work together to create one, full narrative, but separately they create entirely different experiences. This is some masterful, Cirque du Soleil level storytelling acrobatics. 

Of course, “V For Vendetta” is not a perfect commentary for the George Floyd protests – I am well aware that a movie about a bunch of white people standing up to corrupt authorities and getting away with it is not exactly the kind of story a lot of people are itching to see right now. In fact, I would argue this movie isn’t really saying anything real and concrete at all. 

But, that is not exactly what I’m trying to argue, either. “V For Vendetta” is a movie that manages to hold up through different perspectives, contexts, and lenses – it has, at least, brought some issues to mind I had before preferred to ignore and allowed me to personally reflect on a modern time that it has long preceded. I don’t know if this was intentional… I still think this was supposed to be a superhero flick at first. Accident or no, the symbols by themselves struck me as poignant, and that, in of itself, I think could be valuable. But, “V For Vendetta” is also a brilliant movie by itself, and for that alone I think it is worth seeing. 

(Nitish also makes some good points.)

Nitish:

Huh. I think “V for Vendetta” is a terrible movie, and Mark’s review differs so much from mine that it feels like we watched different movies entirely. It is a series of incoherent ramblings on terrorism, freedom, and dictatorship. It is lazy philosophy, and it does a serious disservice to the very real issues that it is clumsily attempting to portray. It’s just terrible. 

I don’t know where to begin. I’ll start with the more traditional elements of film criticism. The dialogue is painfully bad. Here’s a telling example: “Violence can be used for good.” “What are you talking about?” “Justice.” “Oh, I see.” I’ll hold off criticizing the arguments for now, but this is terrible writing. And it’s made worse by a dispirited and wooden performance from Natalie Portman. Perhaps I could find her transformation more believable if she was capable of maintaining the same very-obviously-not British accent for a few frames, but she feels the need to switch from one bad impersonation to another. The direction is similarly awful and dispirited, and uses a color palette so muted that Zack Snyder thinks it’s a bit too gloomy. The only times that this movie feels the need to put any real color on the screen is when violence is happening, and it comes in the forms of heaps of fake blood. Terrorist attacks in this movie don’t come with orphaned children but instead with fireworks. Villains are one-note caricatures. John Hurt plays Adam Sutler, this movie’s version of Orwell’s Big Brother. But instead of being a menacing manifestation of tyranny, Sutler is a stereotypical mustached villain who clings to power mainly for personal enrichment. In “V for Vendetta” racism and homophobia aren’t deep-seated societal issues but just tools that a ruling class can deploy when needed; when they are killed by poison or blade or firework-explosion, the hate disappears with them. 

My real issue with “V for Vendetta” is that it is a morally cowardly take on political violence. I’m told that the original graphic novel that Alan Moore wrote had plenty of moral ambiguity. But the Wachowskis sand down the uneven edges here, which makes for some ridiculous moments. V is played totally straight, as a tragic hero. Natalie Portman’s Evey is waterboarded by V so that she can stop ‘feeling fear’ and be ‘free.’ And then – after the waterboarding – she falls in love with him! It’s not some brutal take on Stockholm syndrome–it’s played without any kind of nuance. V at one point delivers a lecture, saying that, “While the truncheon can be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power.” Then why does his revolutionary toolkit consist almost exclusively of assasinations and bombings? The end of the movie is just ridiculous: the gunpowder plot succeeds, he kills the leaders in bloody slow-mo, he bombs parliament, he gets thousands of people dressed in Guy Fawkes masks to rush the military. Violence here is nothing more than an act of catharsis by the Wachowskis, where a bombing and some cosplay can somehow magically fix a society in which the LGBTQ community is shipped off to get bioweapons tested on them. 

“V for Vendetta” is a movie about violence for those who are insulated from its costs, a movie about politics for those who would rather draw up conspiracy theories in Youtube comment sections in lieu of actually doing anything that would help protect their fellow citizens. I wouldn’t like this movie under any circumstances, but in the wake of the national protests following the murder of George Floyd, “V for Vendetta” feels downright insulting. The movie seems to suggest that all we need to do to get justice is raid a halloween store and a fireworks store, and then blow up the Capitol building. If only we had sent Guy Fawkes masks to Tiananmen or Daraa. This movie was briefly delayed following terrorist attacks in London, but the movie should have been scrapped entirely. I am genuinely flabbergasted how a movie that turns a terrorist attack into a fireworks show could be produced during the Global War on Terror. The phrase that I’ve seen in nearly every review I’ve read is that “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” But that’s vacuous bullshit that erases any kind of meaningful moral distinctions. This movie gestures at creating a morally ambiguous tale, but it just fails to interrogate its titular character in any meaningful way.

We probably should have picked a better time to watch this movie, and I might soften my stance on this movie when I’m a little less angry. But as my thoughts are right now, “V for Vendetta” is an embarrassment, a total failure not only of filmmaking but of thought by the filmmakers. Even if I rethink some of my angrier points, I will still probably think that they needed to hire a better dialect coach for Natalie Portman. 

If you want to watch a movie that is a lot more nuanced in the way that it deals with bigotry and violence, I would recommend Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing.” It’s an excellent movie, and it’s always topical. 

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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