The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: Kenji Fujishima

Kenji Fujishima
Some of the first things about Total Recall I latched onto as a young cinephile were its dazzling production design and special effects, its breathless action sequences, its over-the-top violence—in short, its surface....Today, though, my appreciation for Paul Verhoeven's mind trip goes beyond simple nostalgia, and hinges on how its seductive look and immediate visceral pleasures are wily in their concealment of grand themes.

Contributed to: Slant Magazine, The Daily Targum, In Review Online, The Wall Street Journal, The Home News Tribune and The L Magazine.

Influences: Pauline Kael, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Matt Zoller Seitz, Armond White, Fernando F. Croce, Dave Kehr, Richard Brody 

Born in Queens, NY and raised in East Brunswick, N.J., Kenji Fujishima (December 4, 1985-) has slyly become one of the most reliably logical and easily digestible critics in the US. Soft-spoken, kind and gentle, his unfailingly pleasant demeanor conceals a ravenous intellect and a style that effortlessly dances a step ahead of the reader. 

In his own words: "My interest in cinephilia and film criticism came relatively late in the game compared to many of my colleagues. I was much more into music—classical, for the most part—than movies early on, and when I started playing the piano and the violin during my elementary-school years, I initially thought I’d be pursuing musical performance when I grew up. In those years, though, I also read The Newark Star-Ledger’s film reviews pretty regularly…and then, probably sometime during middle or junior high school, I borrowed a copy of Pauline Kael’s final collection of film reviews, Movie Love (1991), from my local library in East Brunswick, N.J. That was when I had my first film-criticism “eureka!” moment, when, upon her recommendation, I decided to give Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets a shot on VHS and not only found the film to be a quietly mind-blowing experience, but found her ecstatic review of it to beautifully mirror my own feelings. Not only was I hooked on her criticism, but thanks to the Internet, I was able to discover other crucial voices on my own: Jonathan Rosenbaum (especially for introducing me to the work of world-cinema auteurs like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami and Béla Tarr), Matt Zoller Seitz (for his focus on finding meaning in technique), Armond White (for simply his fire-and-brimstone polemical style, whether or not I agreed with his stances or not), Fernando F. Croce (for his lyrical economy of expression), and others."

"Still, it wasn’t until after my sophomore year of my undergraduate college education at Rutgers University—after an initial two years of agonizing over my choice of major—that I decided to focus my energies on film criticism. Technically, I ended up majoring in journalism with a minor in cinema studies—but I became active with Rutgers’ daily newspaper, The Daily Targum, writing film reviews for them before becoming the film editor of its weekly Inside Beat entertainment section. One year, for the Targum, I decided it might be fun to get a film critic’s perspective on the year’s Oscar race; it is for that reason that I decided to reach out to Matt Zoller Seitz, then Newark Star-Ledger television critic and New York Press film critic. In some ways, that feature opened the door for my entry into The House Next Door when Seitz decided to open up what was initially his own personal blog to various outside contributors…and essentially, that’s how I got my foot in the door of this business we call film criticism."

And we can all be grateful he did. Since his debut, Kenji has kept to a handful of outlets, releasing one sturdily written piece after another. Like the classical music he loves so much, there's a grace to his diction. His sentence structure, especially his interplay of verbs and adjectives, move with a ballerina's seemingly effortless flow. Look at this sentence in his review of Onur Tukel's Summer of Blood: "'s becoming apparent that Onur Tukel is developing a distinct on-screen persona: that of a cynical motormouth whose disaffected hipster veneer masks a core selfishness." The meter is delectable, reading as smoothly in one's head as it does out loud. There's an old world construction to it. You'd expect to read something with that confident rhythm from one of the romantic poets. Read this passage from his review of Quiz Show and feel it tugging you down like a steady river current: "Though the film’s vision of capitalistic exploitation is damning, thankfully the filmmakers don’t forgo the flawed, wounded human beings at the heart of this sobering tale in favor of political point-making." Easygoing but with such urgent force behind it. He's a conductor, compelling the proper dynamic from the orchestra at his fingertips. 

On Dinosaur 13
To some extent, Petersen's use of a wide aspect ratio and Morton's emphatic score takes its cues from Larson's passion—the expansive frame more given to exuding an openness to natural environments, the music expressing perhaps more than Larson himself is willing to outwardly show (he remains a generally stoic camera subject throughout). Perhaps that's why its final shot—of Larson going back out into the desert, pickax in hand, in an extreme wide shot—is as surprisingly affecting as it is. Larson may not have ended up with exactly the outcome he desired (and the film vehemently argues that he deserved better than the outcome he got), but his love of fossil-hunting at least remained thankfully undimmed through it all.

On Sunshine Superman
Boenish’s infectious enthusiasm generally tended to spread to the people around him—and damned if it doesn’t get to us as well. Perhaps the sheer preponderance of Boenish’s self-shot footage is key to the effectiveness of Sunshine Superman. It’s one thing to hear Boenish spouting inspirational platitudes about thinking outside societal boxes and following your bliss; it’s quite another, however, to see the man himself putting his philosophies into mad practice, and moreover, to see his own filmed results as thrilling illustration. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much that the reenactments can sometimes be cheesy, the pacing in the second half somewhat lumbering, the hagiography occasionally oppressive. Such doubts are bound to be swept away when faced with the spectacle of real people momentarily suspended in air, engulfed by their surroundings, experiencing the intoxicating freedom of defying the laws of society and nature. Sunshine Superman may not inspire anyone to climb up and fall from a tall building, but the underlying liberating ethos behind such devil-may-care behavior comes across resonantly and passionately.

On Cinderella

Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella is, for the most part, a straightforward retelling of the fairy tale, and the Walt Disney Pictures imprimatur ensures that the filmmaker forgoes the more violent moments in the Brothers Grimm version of the story (no one cuts their toes off here in order to fit into Cinderella's glass slipper; to see that, you'd have to turn to Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods). Which isn't to say that the film doesn't have its own distinct virtues. Dante Ferretti's color production design and Sandy Powell's wide-ranging costumes (the black-with-green-stripes design on wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine's dress offers an expressive contrast with Cinderella's initial plain pink dress) are so intoxicatingly colorful that every shot has the immersiveness of a dream. But it's the emotional reality with which Branagh, screenwriter Chris Weitz, and his cast ground this Cinderella that makes it as affecting as it is. 

Branagh fully understands the societal critique underlying the tale, and brings it out into the open: The world that surrounds Cinderella is one in which surface appearances matter more than inner beauty, class status is a kind of mental prison from which only a few are able to break free, and climbing up the social ladder is believed to be the only sure route toward happiness....
....Most of all, though, this Cinderella resonates as an ideological battle between Cinderella's (Lily James) natural optimism and Lady Tremaine's (Cate Blanchett) viciously calculating pragmatism. While the former ultimately wins out, Branagh isn't above occasionally giving the latter perspective its due. Even as Blanchett generally plays her character to the delicious black-hearted hilt, she does offer fleeting glimpses of the painful life experience that has shaped her appalling current behavior. And though the film sprinkles in those intermittent moments of bitter adult wisdom, Branagh, as with the film's main character, never allows Cinderella to sink into heavy-spiritedness. A sense of play reigns over the proceedings, perhaps encapsulated most amusingly by Helena Bonham Carter's Fairy Godmother, played with a kind of jokey, no-nonsense gleam in her eyes that nevertheless feels completely sincere rather than snarky. That just about sums up the film in a nutshell: It may not reinvent any wheels, but it's been made with enough care and belief in its material that it manages to refresh our relationship to the iconic tale, reminding us of why its message, of kindness triumphing over evil, has endured for so long.

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