Σάββατο, 7 Νοεμβρίου 2009

THE AGE OF ASSASSINS (1967, KIHACHI OKAMOTO)






This is a comedy first and foremost in the farcical European sense of the term. Tatsuya Nakadai's character is a naive meek teacher with a skin rash in his feet and a Renault Deuxceveau that farts smoke like Mr. Hulot's car in Jacques Tati's movie and for some inexplicable reason he becomes the target of an organisation called the "Japanese Population Control Agency" which sends wave after wave of quirky assassins his way. This group is led by the halfmad director of an insane asylum who is a fanatic of war and murder, an ex-Nazi who switches between Japanese and German for most of the movie and wears black gloved hands and a grotesque smile. In some ways all this recalls Peter Sellers' character from DR. STRANGELOVE and the movie has some of that crackerjack/gonzo ambience.

It's all a bit inconsequential plotwise and the movie never develops the grim gravitas of Okamoto's better works because it must sprawl across a dozen different locations, from Tokyo's subways to a holiday resort in Mt. Fuji, and it must pause for Nakadai and his henchman to be shelled by the army before it can move on to its destination. A Spanish knife standoff between Nakadai (who in the process of the movie is turned from naive happy-go-lucky teacher to suave and sly, a Japanese version of Alain Delon which is oddly fitting for the kind of movie Age of Assassins is trying to be) and mad ex-Nazi scientist in a hall made up of brilliant art nouveau decorations and a dazzling whiteness that looks like something out of a Hiroshi Teshigahara movie. This is less of a Japanese New Wave film than Okamoto's subsequent THE HUMAN BULLET which marginally touched the outskirts of the niche occupied in the late 60's by the likes of Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima. It does share, however, a similarity in the avantgarde sets, stylish setpieces, and general ironic absurdity, with Seijun Suzuki's idiosynchratic early 60's films leading up to BRANDED TO KILL, yet from the Pink Pantherish animated opening credits to the broad, sometimes goofy, humor, it is also closer to the Eurospy extravanzas and James Bond ripoffs of the 60's than the typical Japanese noir made in the early 60's in studios like Nikkatsu and Shintoho. In the same time it's a sendup of all that with typical for Okamoto jabs at militarism and war.

Everyone is looking for a gem called the Tear of Cleopatra but it's a Hitchcockian McGuffin, an opportunity for Okamoto to take us on a tour through a series of elaborate images whether they be footage of Hitler rearprojected through a car window or the severed head of a doll used by a hypnotist as an illuminated pendulum. It doesn't amount to much in the end but it's visually inventive and fun to watch.
7/10

Παρασκευή, 6 Νοεμβρίου 2009

HALLOWEEN (1978, JOHN CARPENTER)



Household classics everybody has seen except you. We all have these and this was mine. I had avoided it for the longest time because many of the most iconic moments in it were spoiled for me in various horror docus and also because every other Carpenter classic I've seen I find disappointing (ESCAPE FROM LA is my favourite) but four days ago was the right kind of day, the stars were in all in the right places, so I figured what the hell. I can always summon an angry mob at my doorstep by admitting to not having seen THE FLY.

I've steered clear of Halloween threads for years so I'm not familiar with the criticisms usually leveled at the film but by reading a few of the negative reviews here, about how the dialogue is banal and how nothing important happens for long stretches of time and how Carpenter is content to plaster his own simplistic score over every other scene, I must say "what a crock of sh-t".

Hawksian (Howard Hawks of RIO BRAVO and THE BIG SKY) in how a string of main events is relegated to the margins of a story allowed to breathe and expand without Carpenter feeling the need to flood those expansions with incessant plotting, Halloween is the kind of film that tries to break free from the generic baggage associated with the type of film it is and yet in a stroke of irony it's a success because of those expansive qualities that elevate it above genre. Carpenter's imitators removed those elements by which the horror is allowed to seep in the background of a movie because moneyhungry producers have apparently decided that horror must be literal and obvious and beat audiences over the head with cheap jump scares but this is ferocious filmmaking unmatched in the slasher field to this day.

This is a film where the viewer is not called to identify with the characters because they mouth off their likes and dislikes but simply and more importantly because he's allowed to inhabit their environment for the duration of the movie, yes even those quiet uneventful moments where nothing happens and a girl is outside doing laundry and kids watch THE THING FROM OUTER SPACE on TV (Hawks again) because this is suburban life between the cracks and Halloween is all about the invasion of this quiet peaceful normalcy. And unlike Mario Bava's BAY OF BLOOD from '71, a prototype slasher usually mentioned by afficionados as the first modern slasher flick perhaps in an effort to take something away from Halloween, Halloween does domestic invasion in its own elusive shadowy way.

Flawed though it may be, I like Halloween so much because it lingers in the memory, because it conjures up an image of a sleepy suburbia after dark where trick-or-treating kids dash fleetingly before the camera and neighbors refuse to open the door to distraught victims and then violates this image of white fence quiet for the sake of meanness or maybe no apparent reason at all. I like it for the slow steadicam shots through lines of houses and front lawns and for how closed space is distorted by widescreen lenses and for its blueish late-night atmosphere. I like it for the sparse killings and how Carpenter doesn't allow it to become a bodycount movie.
For a slasher cornerstone it's amazing how it never veers far from the fundamentals of classical horror and how atmosphere remains its strongest card. The closet scene in the end is a good example of this: it's haunting not because of any actual violence or visceral jolt but for the simple brilliance of the mute masked killer and the hysterical victim, for the closed space and the light swinging from side to side. It's all dreamlike/theatrical in a weird roundabout way that makes sense in a guttural level. And then, as if on cue, Lauri rises at the same time with Myers out-of-focus in the background and the pieces click into place and instead of this feeling contrived, it feels just right. It's a choreography for camera and killer.
Myers stands behind the camera and looks at his victims and then goes away. He stands with the bedsheet over his head in the doorway for a full minute without saying a word. He nails a guy on the wall with a knife (it can't happen but it's a great image to care about realism). It's all a bit unrealistic if you think about it and choreographed in the sense that people play against the camera to create beautiful tableauxs. This is slasher theater in the Japanese sense of the term.

Or take the scene where Dr. Loomis is driving to the insane asylum to check on Myers. Most of it is shot from inside the car and we get liberal splashes of yellow lighting under the dashboard for no reason at all (it looks cool!) and we see strange white figures in the night behind the fence and then Loomis is saying to the nurse driving the car something like "what are they doing outside?". Did the inmates break out? There's a *beep* of possible terror mystery and suspense just over the fence but Carpenter's genius never allows it to be drawn to the center of the movie so we can process it logically. It remains in the periphery of our vision, a nagging suspicion that "something is seriously f-cking wrong, man", a possibility of horror vaguely hinted and shown but never fulfilled. It's not really frightening but the scene haunts me four days later.
9/10

THE HUMAN BULLET (1968, KIHACHI OKAMOTO)


In the days after the events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a Japanese soldier in the closing days of WWII becomes assigned to a suicide squad training for the Final Fight, the desperate plan and huge manslaughter prepared by unyielding Japanese generals against an Allied land invasion of Japan. You'd be forgiven for thinking this is a grim-as-can-be downbeat war movie in the vein of FIRES IN THE PLAIN. Kihachi Okamoto may be most well known in the West for his SWORD OF DOOM, one of the darkest most nihilistic chambaras in movie history, but that's more of an exception than a rule in Okamoto's oeuvre. A streak of bleak dark humor and biting satire runs through his work, not always in subtle ways but never done without a certain taste and affection for the absurd and the tragic, and The Human Bullet is no exception. When it veers close to anti-war sermonizing ("when kids hold grenades it's hopeless, you should be getting an education") it grates with the rough edge of too much explicitness and not enough subtext, but it becomes an exhilarating movie when it's allowed room to breathe and play around in its own comedic absurdism without taking itself too serious as a satire that must hammer home some political point. When it's allowed the sheer pleasure of painting surreal images like that of a man in a bucket strapped next to a torpedo (see screenshot above) or a foxhole buried in a sand hill in the middle of nowhere and affords for itself the narrative freedom of no concrete urgent plot to drive forward but instead the loose interconnectivity of a vignette structure, a series of encounters between the Japanese soldier and a motley crew of bizarre characters as he trains himself for the coming Final Fight, these perhaps giving the film a slight handicap of repetitiveness because the film's point is made with enough clarity in the opening scenes where the starving soldier caught stealing food from the army's granaries is forced by his sergeant to go around naked to show everyone he's a pig, but it remains a pleasant breezy watch.
This is a low-budget movie (when a plane attacks the soldier in the torpedo we only see the ripple of its fire and most of the movie is shot outdoors with a small cast) with a raw unpolished edge, lots of handheld shots and experimental non-narrative cutting that in a way places The Human Bullet in the outer perimeters of the Japanese New Wave map (although Okamoto was and would continue to be a studio filmmaker working for Toho first and foremost). In its combination of fierce antiwar satire, bleak humor, sardonic wit, and irreverent attitude, reminiscent of DR. STRANGELOVE, yet with a more homemade feel than Kubrick would ever allow for one of his movies, The Human Bullet is one of those cult movies in search for an audience. Like most cult movies it's not perfect or ever truly aspires to that kind of formally accomplished filmmaking, but it makes sense in a "let's get on with it" level. This is the kind of movie that doesn't allow realism to distract it too much from its overarching aesthetic, a movie that doesn't allow its viewer to be concerned with the fact that a man holed up in a bucket in the middle of a sea can survive ten days without water and remain freshly shaven because more outrageous images are soon to follow.
7/10

Πέμπτη, 29 Οκτωβρίου 2009

THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969, NARCISO IBANEZ SERRADOR)



60 minutes in the beautiful Christina Galbo tries to escape the isolated boarding school she's brought to at the beginning of the movie. Is she running from some kind of fate too horrible to contemplate, a monster, black-gloved killer, or supernatural evil? No, she's running from a bunch of bullies. For the OTHER 40 minutes that follow, various figures walk around the school in the dark holding candelabras and looking alarmed or distraught, which doesn't say much in itself perhaps because great movies have been made about just that but if you're going to have characters walking around corridors and staircases you better be Alain Resnais or you better know how to light that staircase in bright apple reds and purples like Mario Bava. We know a killer stalks the perimeters of the school but his body count is pitiful and sparse and in the absence of the visceral horrors one expects to find in the giallo, we get no sense of sinister mysteries/unspeakable secrets festering behind a facade of order and piety and rightness which is the kind of movie La Residencia wants to be but doesn't quite know how to do it. We know something is off because girls are reported missing but we never get the foreboding mysterious atmosphere that says "something is seriously f-cking wrong here, man". When Serrador tries to comment on the sexual repression of the female students, he does so with quick-cutting hysterics and detail closeups of eyes and parted lips while high pitched "this-is-shocking" music blares in the background. None of the aetherial beauty and longing of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK to be found here. It's all a bit clumsy and aimless, with no real sense of urgency or direction. A number of people are presented as suspects but there's little reason to care for the identity of a killer that goes unnoticed by the characters inside the movie. I like the first kill, the image of a knife hitting target superimposed over the anguished face of the victim as a lullaby chimes in the background, but the rest is too inconsequential for my taste. I have to say Serrador did much better with the killing children and paranoia du soleil of WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?

4/10

THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS (1974, PETER WEIR)



One hour into this movie and I wasn't exactly sure what kind of movie it was trying to "be". It starts off as a smalltown horror mystery of sorts but Peter Weir saddles it with so much absurdist black comedy the mystery all but evaporates and we're looking at something that is more weird/awkward than mysterious/surreal, more slow-ponderous than slow-absorbing, large parts of it reminiscent of Aki Kaurismaki and his static shots, cynical humor, deadpan delivery, and smalltown squalor. By the end of it however, the movie seems to emerge as some sort of societal parable, an allegory to the repression of a close-knit society that values appearances and tradition more than anything else and which must bury secrets in its own backyard to do so, but there's so much distraction and incoherence the point is never made with any clarity or force.

At one point the score turns Morricone circa ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and we get a showdown in the street and young men dressed with cowboy hats. We get Carmageddon-style cars circling the statue of a cannon like Comanches painted for war. We get the vague promise of a subplot about car crash survivors turned vegetables who are kept in the hospital of the small town and who later turn up in a ball masque dressed in hoods and carton boxes (a nod to Shock Corridor?), but it never goes anywhere. Peter Weir went on to make such remarkable films as PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and THE LAST WAVE, and while this never reaches the hypnotic levels of those films, it's intriguing in its own quirky awkward way. It's like a movie struggling with itself, a cult classic trying to break free from the confines of a forgettable eccentricity.

5/10

Σάββατο, 24 Οκτωβρίου 2009

THE BIG RED ONE (1980, SAMUEL FULLER)



Like most artists, Sam Fuller made movies about personal things he knew firsthand. About the press in Park Row, about pulpy crime stories like those he wrote in Crimson Kimono, about war in a dozen of his movies. The Big Red One may be the most personal of all because he fought with the actual Big Red One in WWII. Those who have a passing knowledge of Fuller's persona will recognize him in Pvt Zab chewing down the end of a cigar throughout the movie. Sam Fuller himself appears as a newsreel cameraman later on. Lee Marvin, aged though he may have been for his role, was another WWII veteran and he was shot in the Pacific in much the same way he's shot in the movie. Now all the jigsaw pieces start coming together to reveal what kind of movie this is.

If it appears a bit anachronistic for its time, in its bland score and vivid bright colors that seem to have escaped from a 60's movie, two years later than Apocalypse Now, five years before Full Metal Jacket, that's because it is. It's not a movie made by young people and it doesn't set out to deconstruct the war movie or search for the primeval archetype behind war the way Coppola did in the jungles of the Philippines. It's wholesome in its own episodic way, a journey of sorts that takes us from the deserts of Algeria to the landings in Sicily and Omaha beach to the heart of the beast. In its own way, it's a journey towards the heart of darkness. The scope is broad (WWII in all the different battlefields of Europe) but the focus is narrow (on a small company of four young bucks and their scruffy sergeant who's haunted by demons he first met in WWI).

In all the various set pieces we're taken through the emphasis remains on the buildup, the suspense and the waiting to kill or be killed rather than the outcome. Fuller experienced war firsthand and he knows war is more about nerve-wracking waiting than spectacular action. Being a director of the old brigade, he stuffs the movie full of everything. Action and humor, drama and suspense, yet nothing feels out of place, even the raid on an insane asylum takes a curious poignant turn by the end when an inmate grabs a semi-automatic and starts firing wildly at the walls. The question the movie asks is simple enough: in war do you murder or kill and is there any difference between the two?


And even though we never become as intimate with the small group of soldiers as we do with the privates in the PBR boat in Apocalypse Now or the platoon in Full Metal Jacket, by the end, when a private discovers a Nazi hiding in a crematorium and Lee Marvin's sergeant takes a Jewish child branded in some concentration camp in his shoulders, the movie emerges as poignant an indictment on the madness and despair of war as any that came before or after. Fuller made several great war movies (The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets! best among them), but this may very well be his masterpiece.

8.5/10

Τετάρτη, 21 Οκτωβρίου 2009

PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009, MICHAEL MANN)



And what looked like it was gonna be another slick overbudgeted gangster movie glorifying a bunch of cutthroats turned out to be unexpectedly great in the hands of Michael Mann. I was never a big fan of his work (I think Heat is merely okay) but this stylized DV-noir bliss, the best use of the medium I've seen, not as a substitute for film but as a canvas of its own, since Inland Empire. The plotting is minimal and the romance between Depp and Cotillard mostly by-the-numbers, and both Depp and Bale unremarkable in their roles, but the moody hyperrealism of hand-held shots and hard lighting, the movie swinging between golden browns and yellows and drab blue grays, underscores a brilliant contradiction/complimenting between Depression-era mythologizing and gritty docu-crime. But for a few details, the movie could be taking place in the 00's. The Japanese term for the new breed of docu-realistic yakuza pictures that replaced the traditional/romanticized ones in the 70's was jitsuroku, which means 'true account'. I don't know (nor do I care much) about the actual historical details of Dillinger's case and how close Public Enemies adheres to them, but the term applies here. It feels like a 'true account' crime movie, gritty and violent, which at the same time doesn't fail to present Dillinger in the bittersweet afterglow of the antihero, of the rebel who did things his way and never backed down. Whether or not Mann falters in this display of sentimentality and how much Depp's puppydog face makes that inescapable is up for debate I guess, but the gunfights are an absolute (literal) blast, a curious mixture of stylized and raw, and the scene in the theater playing a 30's gangster movie where Clark Gable on the big screen seems to speak to and for Dillinger and the way Mann cuts it together is a minor triumph. In the end I like Public Enemies because it's closer in heart and tone to the moody low-key noir of The Driver than the swinging glamour of Goodfellas.


8/10