Friday, September 7th, 2012

I’ll be talking about two movies this week–Takashi Miike’s new drama Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (opening today in the screening room) and Lauren Greenfield’s latest documentary, The Queen of Versailles (opening on one of the big screens today).

Takashi Miike, best known for some of his more gruesome work–Ichi the Killer, Audition–returns to the screening room this week with his second samurai film in a row. His last samurai outing was 13 Assassins, and had one of the most sustained fight scenes in movie history, lasting almost a full half of the movie. It was pretty incredible–I still have the poster hanging in my living room. This outing, a remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 masterpiece Harakiri, is 92% drama, 3% fight, and 5% pure Miike. You’ll know exactly which 5% when you see it.

Hara-Kiri, in some ways, reminds me of Audition, considered by many to sit near the top of a list of the most disturbing films ever made. Audition was a slow burning film, that simmered with menacing implication until it exploded near the end. Hara-Kiri is similarly structured, but instead of inspiring horror, it’s an expertly woven tale of human drama. It simmers with implication, but in this film, the foreboding it builds is linked directly to questions of family, honor, and justice. Well paced and beautifully shot, Hara-Kiri is a moving look at love and desperation during a time when warriors were cast into the wind as a consequence of peace. Bring a tissue or two into the screening room with you. You’ll need it. Also be prepared to look away at least once. It wouldn’t be a Mikke film if you didn’t have to.

Moving along to The Queen of Versailles, a documentary that follows Jackie Siegel (wife of time-share mogul David Siegel) from the planning and construction of the largest home in America, to the financial crisis of 2008, and the resulting financial fallout for her family. This film is horrifying. Pre-financial meltdown, the Siegels represent such extreme excess that it is incredibly difficult to think of them as people. They seem more like insatiable black holes who can only consume, consume, consume, and the symbol of their excess is the home, inspired by Versailles, that they begin to construct. A whopping 90,000 square feet, the property was to feature a bowling alley, skating rink, tennis and basketball courts, a baseball diamond, 17 bathrooms, 10 kitchens, a “wing” for the children, servants quarters and on and on, on. Jackie’s friend, upon receiving a tour of the work in progress, mistakes Jackie’s closet for her bedroom. You get the picture.

When asked why build such a huge home for 10 people (the Siegels have 7 children and a niece who lives with them) his response was a simple, “Because I can.” It’s smug. It’s souless. It’s horrifiying. But, because Siegel’s business in selling time-shares is dependent upon getting his buyers easy credit, the financial meltdown of 2008 shattered his business. And let’s face it–banks selling off risky mortgages like the ones Siegel’s firm specialized in securing for their buyers was a big part of the financial collapse to begin with.

There are moments when you will feel sorry for Jackie and her plight as she flys coach and shops at Wal-mart, and has to dismiss all but 5 (FIVE!!) of her servants. One of the most telling scenes in the  movie occurs at a car rental desk. But a moment after you begin to pity her, she will do or say to erase all the goodwill she’s earned. Even so, I found myself, if unable to pity Jackie, liking her despite my best instincts. She trys. Sometimes that makes up for a lot, and I think, is at the heart of the film’s success. I can’t say Queen of Versailles is fun or entertaining, but it will make you contemplate the idea of wealth and capitalism in a new way, no matter what your view on them now. It’s also worth mentioning here that there’s a lot of shit in the film, which becomes a fitting metaphor for the consequences of excess. To be clear, shit in the previous sentence is not a metaphor. It refers to a shocking amount of actual feces. Seriously. There’s poop in the movie. A lot of it.

Bottom line, no matter how much money you have, or what your political philosophy, the film will make you really think about the accumulation of wealth, and the rampant waste associated with it in a time when so many people can’t afford even basic health care or to eat three squares a day.  Sure, David Siegel earned all that money, and Jackie married into it. But what has it done to their humanity?