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We interrupt this Musashi series to bring you SS’s maiden review: Keeping up with the Joneses

The Joneses focuses on a foursome whose job is to pose as a family in wealthy suburbia in order to sell, to their neighbors, their picture-perfect luxury lifestyle and the accoutrements it requires. This phony stealth “marketing unit” is led by veteran mom Kate (Demi Moore) and includes rookie dad Steve (David Duchovny), slutty daughter Jenn (Amber Heard), and milquetoast son Mick (Ben Hollingsworth), all of them employed by KC (Lauren Hutton) to push high-end products to the various demographic groups in which they mingle.  They can’t tell anyone what they’re doing, of course. That would defeat the purpose. Instead, they must cultivate “friendships” with the people they’re subtly advertising to. They’re salespeople whose goal is to market themselves, and director Derrick Borte promotes this fantasy with enough electronics-and-dishware fetishism to slyly indict his audience’s own materialist hunger.

In their new ritzy enclave, the Joneses wow the locals and befriend a couple, Larry Symonds  (Gary Cole of Office Space) and Summer (Glenne Headly), who desperately need to keep up with their new neighbors and become integral components of their community.  Summer is a salesperson, too, the old-school kind who hosts parties to sell a line of beauty products. She’s not very good at it, but she’s so focused on it that she has no time for Larry, who adores her. Larry, following Steve’s lead — Steve and Kate seem so happy! — buys baubles for his wife.  But take a closer look at the situation and you’ll start to see something ominous lurking just beneath the surface. It’s only when the Joneses are confronted with the unexpected suicide of Larry that they finally discover who they really are beneath the glossy veneer of consumerism.

Yet lonely and unhappy in their downtime, the false family is so obviously and tamely positioned as embodiments of American consumerism-run-amok and the sham joy derived from purchased things that the film quickly telegraphs the sermon to come. Come it does, via the type of predictable tragedy one can see a country club away, though not before Steve subtly convinces men to buy fancy golf gear, Kate covertly hawks frozen dinners and beauty care products, Jenn and Mick advertise perfume and videogames to the local teens, and an equally foreseeable subplot plays out involving Steve’s desire for a real nuclear family and Kate’s developing feelings for her fake hubby.

As a modern satire of the nouveau riche, The Joneses offers a reflective look at the status seeking upper middle class: their shallow pursuit of the latest gadgets, designer clothes and other goods and shows that although on the surface they may seem successful, they are no better off than the middle or lower class. They are living hand to mouth on a different scale. The only difference is the number zero on the bills going out every month. They fall prey to the same flaws of vanity narcissism and they have the same insecurities about who they are in life, like their neighbor who had all the trappings of wealth on the surface but in the end the self-destruction drove him to suicide.  They are all trying to display their lack of real wealth but expensive cars and clothes.  When it comes down to it, your real wealth is not what is in your bank account. Feeling wealthy is the cause of your demise, because no matter what you buy, the bill is in the mail and at some point it will come home to roost.  Trying to keep up with the Joneses, you can charge $30,000 worth of clothes, but you will still never keep up with them.  It says something about society: we have these multinational companies telling us “we designed jeans which cost $200 per pair” even though a pair of Levis cost $50 and the $200 pair does not use four times as much denim. They create an illusion and when the consumer buys it becomes real. It is all about status — you can get as much status as your wallet can afford or at least fake it and hope you make it.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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Harakiri (1962) or How I learned to love the bamboo sword.

Harakiri is the commoner’s was of saying “seppuku,” which in Japan is the formal term for ritual suicide by disembowelment.  Harakiri is the common term, which literally means “stomach cutting.” It was an integral part of the bushido code of conduct and was ordered by a superior as punishment to redeem some offence, or chosen over a dishonorable death at the hands of an enemy.  To the samurai, it was a sign of honor, courage, loyalty, and high moral character of the individual. Except when performed on a battlefield, it was a very formal ceremony, requiring certain etiquette, witnesses and considerable preparation.  This ritual only makes me think that the Japanese really needed to take things down a notch or two.  There are countless stories where samurai or even lords commit seppuku with a letter or an appeal to a higher authority in order to make sure its contents were taken seriously.  That had better be a pretty serious letter.  Harakiri is a particularly painful and rather messy way of ending one’s days. In this ritual, the “performer” opens his abdomen, starting from left to right and then finishing from top toward bottom. But there is so need to be left for hours contemplating one’s entrails. Another swordsman, acting as a “second,” stands by to decapitate the person at a pre-arranged moment in the ceremony.

 

Enough with the history lesson and back to the film.  Harakiri is a Japanese film directed by Masaki Kobayashi.  The story takes place between 1619 and 1630 during the popular “Edo period” and the long reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate which put an end to hundreds of years of civil war.  There was a flip side though—countless unemployed samurai or “ronin” wandering the country in poverty.  The movie tells of a ronin, Hanshiro Tsugumo, who was ordered to live so he could care for his daughter, grandson and son-in-law, the son of another samurai who had already committed suicide.  That is a lot of death when there was little war.

 

Our main character, Hanshiro Tsugumo, is trying to find a place to commit seppuku.  One tactic a disgraced samurai tried to use in order to receive a little money, would be request, or threat to commit suicide, with the hope of receiving a handout.  But Kageyu Saito, the senior counselor to the clan, begins to tell Hanshiro what is clearly a warning about another ronin, Motome Chijiiwa, who made the same request, but the house called his bluff and forced him to kill himself. To try and really hit things home, the counselor pointed out that this chap’s sword was a fake made of blunt bamboo, but that didn’t matter as they still insisted that he fillet himself with it anyway, making the death was excruciatingly painful.  In the face of this warning, Tsugumo reiterates his request to commit seppuku.

 

While the proper steps are taken, Hanshiro Tsugumo begins to recite his tale of hard times to the counselor and the rest of the onlookers.  Apparently his lord’s house was a threat to the Shogunate and was destroyed.  His friend and samurai did commit seppuku and left Tsugumo to look after his son, who, it turns out, was the one who had to kill himself with the bamboo sword.  With the responsibility of looking after his family and son-in-law, Tsugumo did not have the option to choose the “samurai” way to end his life, and was forced to live in abject poverty and work at menial jobs far below his status in order to support his family.

 

They were so poor that when his grandson and daughter took ill they could not afford to hire a doctor or any other medical care.  At this point Tsugumo’s son in law went to the clans house hoping to receive charity by threatening to commit seppuku.  But as we know they called his bluff and shortly after his death, his wife and son succumbed to illness and died.

 

As Tsugumo recites his tale, he had, we come to find out, the day before coming to the lord’s house to request seppuku, tracked down their three top retainers who he blames for the deaths of his family.  To really humiliate these three and the clan as well, he does not kill them in combat as he could have but cuts off their topknots—something more humiliating to a samurai that death.  Tsugumo tosses the three topknots at the counselor’s feet and points out the reason those three samurai are not there was not illness as they claim but embarrassment from their unwanted haircut.

 

After finishing his story, Saito orders his retainers to attacked Hanshiro Tsugumo, who fights all of them off alone, killing four and wounding eight while slowly succumbing to his wounds.  Then as a new group of men arrive armed with guns, Tsugumo commits seppuku to avoid being killed by the clan.  The counselor orders his men to cover up this humiliation by sending them to the three samurai and have them either killed or allowed to commit seppuku—and is told in fact that one already has.  The counselor also covers his ass by reporting the damage done by Tsugumo, as the result of “illness.”  Without the cover story, word might get out that a scraggly ronin made them look so foolish or worse “loose face” to the other houses.

 

This film is nothing less than a work of art.  Filmed in black and white, Harakiri’s dark story only becomes that much grittier.  Exposing the façade of the establishments veneer of respectability by their adherence to the “samurai code,” no stone is left unturned to keep the illusion and status quo alive.

 

Harakiri is by far one of my favorite “chambara” (the name given to Japanese action films dealing with the Feudal era of Japan) films.  It is a great movie all around, its story, cinematography and acting are nothing short of superb.  You are missing out if you have not seen this classic.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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