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

GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (1959, NOBUO NAKAGAWA)



Funny how things change. In 1949 Shintoho was producing prestige films like Akira Kurosawa's STRAY DOG. Ten years later they were producing scores of everything from lurid melodramas to nationalist war movies to cheap gangster flicks to kaidan period horror movies like this. Two years later, in 1961, they declared bankruptcy and closed shop, the first semi-big studio in postwar Japan to do so. Nobuo Nakagawa, along with Teruo Ishii who graduated from the film noir of the Chitai series into full blown sleaze and torture 10 years later, was one of those prolific studio filmmakers responsible for many of their kaidan pictures. His biggest call to fame is JIGOKU from the following year but this is an ample showcase of both the good and the bad of Shintoho film-making.


Based on the classic story by Nanboku Tsuruya about a conniving lowly samurai who is haunted by the ghost of the wife he murdered, a lot of the drama is hackneyed, the characters simple caricatures of good and evil, innocent and scheming, the dialogues delivered on-the-nose. Iemon, the murderous samurai, is played and depicted as the worst villain possible. No grey areas here, nothing morally ambiguous, the movie is melodrama played to the back of the house. And yet, the first appearance of the ghost sent chills down my spine. Ringu and Ju On didn't invent the pale-faced ghost that creeps along the edge of the frame. It was there 50 years ago and in Kabuki theater before that.


With the eye of a stylist, Nakagawa orchestrates a vision of hell on earth, ghosts rising from the ground or peering down from the ceiling, and it's all very stagey and theatrical probably to appeal to an audience already familiar with the story from Kabuki theater and as much creepy/atmospheric as it is graphic, certainly more graphic than American horror would dare to be for the next 10 years (we have blood gushing from wounds, facial deformities, and even an amputated limb), and while the whole is never as good as the parts, those parts should appeal to the horror fan who likes his lighting bright red and torquoise and his ghosts slow-moving and disfigured.
6/10

PORTRAIT OF HELL (1969, SHIRO TOYODA)



No one does 'descent into madness and despair' better than Tatsuya Nakadai. And when it comes to theatrical lighting, expansive settings, and slow-fi supernatural poetics, no one does them better than the Japanese, who had the benefit of a few centuries of kabuki experience before Mario Bava and Roger Corman got there with their cobwebs and color filters. All the elements are in place then and Shiro Toyoda delivers with utmost impunity. In part a not-so-distant cousin of the kaidan genre of spooky ghost stories that proliferated all through the first half of the 60's in Japan, complete with deformed ghostly apparitions that come and go as they please, yet also a bit of a prestige film that can afford beauty for beauty's sake without having to cram plot points in the short running time of a second-bill film, this reflected in the stars of the film (Tatsuya Nakadai and Kinnosuke Nakamura) and the lush sets Toho Studios put in Toyoda's disposal, the vivid colors and accomplished camerawork that suggest a director more talented than his nonexistant reputation in the West implies, all these elements coming together to create a dramatically unsubtle, not really horrifying but tragic and macabre, parable on the unyielding monomania of a perfectionist. A Korean painter is summoned by his Japanese lord to paint a portrait of Buddhist heaven. The Japanese lord becomes smitten by the painter's daughter and takes her for his concubine. The Korean painter pleads for his daughter, this coming across as more the whim of a possessive father than genuine love. Finally he settles for painting a portrait of hell. You just know Tatsuya Nakadai's face is gonna be a mask of utter despair and torment by the end and it's worth the ride getting there because the conclusion is truly ferocious.


Πέμπτη, 15 Οκτωβρίου 2009

BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948, ROBERT WISE)


You can see the film noir lurking behind the western in this western noir in the first plot twist. Behind the facade of a typical western conflict between cattle owners and homesteaders lies a distinctly noirish crime setup, "the big con", and yet it's exactly that kind of inconistency that prevents BLOOD ON THE MOON from reaching the greatness parts of it faintly suggest. Because the conflict foreshadowed in the first act between cattle baron (usually the bad guy in a western) and the conniving leader of the homesteaders is abandoned in the third act so Robert Mitchum's drifter character can hole up in Walter Brennan's shack and exchange shots with the hired guns of his former employer. Because the perenial world-weariness of Mitchum's droopy face is undercut by a Hollywood ending where everything is tied up neatly with a ribbon on top. We're still in good guys/bad guys territory and director Robert Wise opens his cards about who's what way too early, so that the rest of the film and the promise of the good first 30 minutes is squandered in people running hither and thither, to do this or that or prevent those from happening. Gorgeously photographed and watchable throughout, but more of a missed chance than the bonafide western noir classic it should have been.
6/10

Τετάρτη, 14 Οκτωβρίου 2009

KIRU (1962, KENJI MISUMI)


On paper, this may seem like another in a long line of Daiei starvehicles for their leading box office draw, Raizo Ichikawa. Misumihimself had already directed him in a few of those potboilers (theSATAN'S SWORD trilogy). I dunno if it should be ascribed to thezealousness of a young director eager to break free from theconstraints of studio production-line film-making, if Misumi intended itas a calling card that would help him graduate into the A-list clubthat included Masaki Kobayashi and others, or if, concerns about statusbe damned, it should serve as exhibit A in the case many of us havebeen trying to make about Misumi as a righteous auteur with adirectorial voice all his own separate from the bulk of genrefilmmakers, but Kiru screams stylized masterpiece even from its openingprologue and it's obvious it was pieced together with great care andsuperior craftsmanship.

The slow deliberate pacing and eliptical minimalist storytelling onewould sooner find in an art-house film than a chambara is broken bysudden bursts of violence, these emphasizing not bodycount and arterialsprays but beautiful choreography between camera and characters, withthe killings often as not taking place off screen. In filtering hischambara dynamics through a meditative mood, in giving more weight onthe preparation rather than the fight (with duels edited in a Leonefashion a few years before Leone, tight closeups of eyes and bodies etal), Kiru soars above anything else Daiei was producing at the time tooccupy the same stylized moody genre space others like Jean PierreMelville would arrive years later. The gloomy fatalism and visualgrammar is all Misumi's though and it would continue to show up in hiswork in the coming years, although stunning shots like the circularoverhead shot of Ichikawa opening doors in search of his boss wouldrarely be repeated

Misumi may never get the critical acclaim and Criterions other of hispeers who created in genre filmmaking like Yasuzo Masumura (also in Daiei), Masahiro Shinoda (in Shochiku) and Seijun Suzuki (inNikkatsu) have enjoyed because he never got on board the Japanese NewWave wagon, but Kiru is proof enough that he was one of the masterdirectors of his generation.


PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975, PETER WEIR)


I love movies that can be appreciated intuitively on different levels without necesserily shifting into "now I'm reading the movie on a symbolic level" mode. Where the different possibilities for meaningful interpretation are left at the perimeter of the mind's eye never to be fully rationalized, hazy and elusive but nagging the viewer with a presence that can be felt, like glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog, bits of vivid and vanishing detail giving no connected idea of the general aspect but suggesting a vague outline. When Miss McCraw speaks about the volcanic rock they're visiting ("quite a recent eruption really, only a million years old. silicious lava forced u from deep below"), I can't shake off the impression that she's talking about the formation of something other than rocks, that it has nothing to do with the rock itself.
There's no solution offered to the mystery of the disappearence of two young college girls and their governess in a picnic in the eponymous hanging rock in turn-of-the-century Australia but Peter Weir offers us something better than a solution. The memory of its absence. We've all heard as children a mysterious/weird story with no definite conclusion ("and nobody knows what happened to him/her") and most of us probably stomped our feet wanting to know the end. The mystery is never allowed to be drawn to the arena of the conscious mind to be subjected there to the laws of reason. It lays there like a gapping black hole threatening to devour everything in the small Australian community. A question left unanswered threatens the stability of the town, as though the mystery of the missing girls is an affront to each one personally and an indictment of civilized man. The unspeakable remains unspeakable. With theories springing up among the townfolks to explain it (a lot of them indicating violence, suggesting rape, or worse), we can see the formation of taboo in society out of pure unblemished innocence.
The juxtaposition of Victorian values and the uncanny alien landscape against which they must fail is interesting on a scholarly level but not of personal value to me. What I like most is the pure mythical symbolism Weir uses in painting a picture of pure innocence (the girls reciting poems of love in their dorm and getting ready for the picnic) before sending it off to an ethereal otherworldly doom. The girls disappear inside the rock without violence or force, seemingly out of their own will, as though in trance or seduced by the rock itself. It reads like a modern parable of some ancient creation myth. All things enter the world pure and innocent but inadvertently have their innocence corrupted by the knowledge of that world. "All things end at the right time".
Despite what the unresolved ending would suggest, instead of the fleeting meaninglessness of life, it's that sense of teleological fatalism I get from Picnic. Some things have answers and some don't but the absence of us knowing the answers doesn't intimate an absence of design. Therein lies the power of Picnic because it's not narratively incomplete but only gives the appearence of being so, because it lingers and haunts while suggesting with a few strokes of the brush broader pictures that cannot be put in words or their magic evaporates, there the power of Weir's symbolism (even at its most hackneyed "swan-for-innocent-girl" metaphore) in never losing track of the archetypal while never allowing it to spiral out of touch with direct reality, in orchestrating a mystical ethereal trance of a movie that mystifies as much as the rock mystifies the girls.

Κυριακή, 11 Οκτωβρίου 2009

DAGON (2001, STUART GORDON)


I like the way Gordon photographs the remote Spanish village and I like all the rain and squalor and general damp dingy blue-ishness of the movie. Decent acting and forgettable dialogue aside, I don't like the silly conclusion and the whole ***SPOILERS*** "I'm your father ZOMG!" plot contrivance which is handled in a soapy manner. As long as the movie remains geared towards "unspeakable horrors/secrets", it's a moody gripping gothic horror affair, the moment we get flashbacks explaining those horrors and see CGI Dagons and fishtails, that edge is mired in too much explicitness. Rumored to be one of the best Lovecrafts, I'll have to watch The Resurrected and The Haunted Palace and see how they match.


Πέμπτη, 8 Οκτωβρίου 2009

GIALLO (2009, DARIO ARGENTO)


The high point in the film comes midway in the form of Adrian Brody's childhood flashback: the camera heaves this side and that inside an amber-lit room as though floating in the air while a music box lullaby that brings back memories of Goblin's School at Night theme from Profondo Rosso chimes in the background. Other than that, the movie might as well have been called "Routine Slasher" because there's nothing that recalls the glorious days of the Italian giallo here, no wink or homage or black-gloved killer stalking distraught heroines in kitsch/chic apartments countryside villas and medieval architecture and certainly none of the Technicolor phantasmagoria Argento and his peers conjured on celluloid 30 years ago because anyone who has followed Argento's career knows he has been working in dark muted DV canvases for the past 10 years, this absence of style flooded with wooden acting bad English from non-English speaking actors and a script the sum of plot contrivance happenstance and logic jumps. Some will argue these have been staples of Argento's career and I will disagree because their place has always been peripheral to a certain grand guignol aesthetic by whose outrageousness, stylistic or otherwise, they have been always relegated to the margins. If Mother of Tears was a bold step in the direction of Phenomena's schizophrenic conclusion, this is a step backwards to the undistinguished workmanlike nature of Il Cartaio and Ti Piace Hitchcock. Everything here is generic. The score sounds like Batman Returns throwaways (Claudio Simonetti's absence is sorely felt), the villain is a curious mixture of pathetic and creepy, Argento's stylized violence is conspicuously absent. This is a serial killer movie trying to balance between crime procedural and slasher such as one may find in Lionsgate's STD catalogue. If you're looking for the giallo homage the title promises, you'll find it in Sleepless. This is a routine affair not worthy of the maestro's name or his fans' time and money and I say this with the affection of a longtime ardent follower.

Σάββατο, 3 Οκτωβρίου 2009

DRAG ME TO HELL (2009, SAM RAIMI)


Imagine a group of unsuspecting honest godfearing citizens and their meek housewives invited for a test screening of Drag Me To Hell in a remote suburban theater, doused in acid, and forced to watch the movie in a humongous screen that occupies their entire vision, surrounded by a wall of speakers 20 feet high, sound booming out on all directions in the levels of a Jumbo Jet taking off. No quarter asked and none given. No escape, no bejesus left in the end. This is the perverse pleasure I take from Sam Raimi's latest. The gleeful satisfaction of being scared out of your skin and watching others being scared out of their skins along with you. I'm talking shivers and palpitations and your guts relocating in your urethra, pure bodily reactions like only porn, fierce substance abuse, and meeting a gang of drunken Hell's Angels in the middle of a raping spree in a dark alley can elicit. And good horror. INLAND EMPIRE did it for me but Inland Empire is subversive and hallucinatory whereas Drag Me To Hell is a celebration of horror in its purest generic/traditional form, at once a homage to Sam Raimi's movies and those he grew up on and a beast that feels completely fresh and modern. Raimi throws every trick in the old horror book but does it with such conviction ferocity and sheer deranged pleasure you'd think he was locked up in an attic after EVIL DEAD for 25 years without food and water and no release until he came up with something to chill the bones of the worst sonofabitch out there. And this is what he came up with. A sheer act of cinematic vengeance. While former horror pallbearers like Romero scratch their heads trying to figure out what made their movies work 30 years ago while their fanbases evaporate in apologetic frustration, three Spider Mans later and Raimi positions himself ahead of the game. The first 30-40 minutes are pure ecstatic horror bliss. The spirit of Jacques Tourneur and NIGHT OF THE DEMON lives side by side with modern horror hijinks, loud jump scares around every corner, curtains blowing in the wind and iron gates rattling, old gypsy curses and Baphomet shadows swirling around, the faces of old women cackling maniacally, pure hellish armageddon, no quarter asked and none given. Raimi orchestrates a symphony of terror playing in a feverish pitch. Even the occasional comedic relief required to break the nerve-wracking intensity and make the movie watchable is nothing short of blood geysers, toothless jaws oozing slime, anvil-smashed faces and flying eyeballs. Awesome.


PERFECT BLUE (1998, SATOSHI KON)



In its combination of fractured female psyches, trauma, and perverse show business glamour (in this case pop singing and Japanese TV) reminiscent of David Lynch, although predating Mulholland Dr. by a few years, Perfect Blue is another take in the always compelling 'woman losing her grip on reality' niche. You've seen before in films like The Stunt Man the meta-narrative tricks of using scenes and lines from a movie inside the movie (in this case a Japanese soap crime thriller) as a tool in showing the protagonist's reality being undermined, but they work marvellously here. There's point where I couldn't tell exactly WHO the protagonist was (pop singer turned soap actress, strip dancer living a wish fulfillment fantasy to cope with post traumatic stress disorder caused by rape) any more than she did. A bit haphazard opening and awful closing line but Japanese animeister Satoshi Kon throws a nice Argento homage in the finale complete with blood gushing from glass shard wounds. I have anime associated with nauseating teenyboppery in my mind but this is superb adult stuff, mindbending with a surreal edge and a directorial eye for detail and style. I wouldn't be surprised if it was a major influence for 00's Lynch.


Παρασκευή, 2 Οκτωβρίου 2009

THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST (2002, AKI KAURISMAKI)


A man beaten half to death in a random act of street violence wakes up with amnesia and drifts to a languid existence at the outskirts of Finnish society. It's not without good reason if the movie seems to be the most widely seen Kaurismaki film, not because it's the fierce white hot culmination of everything he worked towards in his career but for the summation it provides of all those individual quirks and idiosynchracies that make up the Kaurismakian mythos, not the towering elephantian masterpiece that can only be approached in its own terms but the polished user friendly introduction to Kaurismaki's world. A world populated by laconic expressionless faces and grimy locations, stiff dialogue wooden acting and deadpan humor, mullets and mustaches, glacial minimalism and American-bred rock'n'roll, using as vessels stoic characters picked from the mid-lower class not for the reason of parting with some particularly cutting insight into human nature and the workings of the world because Kaurismaki's films never delve deeper than distanced observation but to present the life of the alienated and disenchanted, the anonymous misfits inhabiting the margins of society for whom there's no glory to be had and no real sense of tragedy or triumph to make their mundane lives into big drama even for a short while, and to do this in a poetic way. We see the squalor of Helsinki's poorer districts but only fleetingly and in a smooth romantic glow. Gone are the harsh/drab colors of THE MATCH BOX GIRL. The emphasis here is not on the social/collective but the individual. Not on grand incisive remarks but small passing observations. His characters barely utter a word to each other. They don't have the uncanny ability of Bergman's protagonists to psychoanalyze themselves with such eloquency, and as such, the film is one of pauses and glances, small gestures and few lines. In THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST, Kaurismaki reworks his auterial work of a lifetime but in a more accessible way. Newcomers who pick the thread here are well advised to drift down towards the exhilarating TATJANA YOUR SCARF and ARIEL. Kaurismaki's is a minimalism unashamedly cool, funny and poetic in a low-key way.

Σάββατο, 26 Σεπτεμβρίου 2009

RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947, ROBERT MONTGOMERY)


Weird, off-beat, and dark even by postwar noir standards, RIDE THE PINK HORSE is the definite cultish item, a film of some other order that happens the way it does either by accident/inexperience on the filmmaker's part or from some kind of intuitive design, a basic way of saying "everyone makes films this way but what if I take out these little parts and see how it works". Knowing that Robert Montgomery helmed LADY IN THE LAKE, a Raymond Chandler adaptation shot entirely from Marlowe's POV seemingly for novelty's sake, I'm inclined to think it's the second, with the first factoring somewhere in the process. For all Montgomery know, the result could've been a muddled incoherent mess. But it's not. For some reason, it's mysterious and elusive, oddly captivating and nightmarish even when it doesn't make a whole lot of sense (or perhaps because of it), because the characters are left incomplete and indecipherable, the way real people are most of the time, doing what they do out of some sense of obligation or skewed honor they can't even explain to themselves. Hollywood usually explains that motivation and in doing so turnes people into plot devices created to move the story forward or halt it long enough for the necessary exposition. Montgomery opens the film with his protagonist, a disillusioned GI blackmailer, wandering in a small New Mexican town the day before a fiesta and doesn't bother explaining why's there or what's he there to do until we're 20 minutes in. In the meantime, he has soaked up enough eerie smalltown atmosphere and sense of impending doom, Mexicans giving him false directions to his hotel, a weird wideyed girl giving him strange charms to ward off bad luck, that when the plot kicks into motion we've established so much mood that the story need not be anything more than a skeleton. The second half is not as great as the first because the potboilerish noir aspects of the story take hold, something about a blackmail scheme and characters trying to outwit and deceive each other while a government agent stalks in the perimeters trying to arrest the blackmailee, but it's not for too long. Soon we get dingy Mexican taverns and the fiesta pouring through the streets, a crane shot that rises to meet the Zozobra figure towering above the town, we get a great set piece in a merry-go-round from which the movie takes its bizarre title, stabbings in the dark, our knifed protagonist staggering in the dark around town automaton-like, the government agent showing up at just the right time to bail him out or tell him things he needs to be wary off, rumbling monologues against flag-waving and working 9 to 5 that reveal a movie as disillusioned with the postwar American dream as its own characters, all wrapped in a structure that has an odd mystical/mythic quality about it. And of course, we get Pancho, the merry-go-round owner, and his pearls of wisdom such as "when you're young, everyone sticks knife in you". A true delight for the cult movie afficionado and the film noir fan who always cared more for BLAST OF SILENCE than THE MALTESE FALCON. Don't miss it.

Δευτέρα, 21 Σεπτεμβρίου 2009

EXTREME PREJUDICE (1987, WALTER HILL)



You know the movie. Drugs across the Southwest border, Texan desert landscapes, sweaty faces, dusty gas stations in the middle of nowhere, money exchanging hands and gone missing somewhere along the way, maybe a bank robbery. It's that distinctly American type of crime movie given character and come alive by the beautiful western setting, a modern update of sheriffs and Mexican outlaws and doublecrossing between old friends now on opposite sides of the law that goes as far back as Boetticher's films, done with a focus on high-octane no-holds-barred action cut straight from Sam Peckinpah's school of blood squibs and slow-mo gunfights. The story isn't half-bad but Walter Hill has always been an action nut first and foremost and John Milius was never Cormac McCarthy, so you'll forgive Extreme Prejudice for not quite being NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. It's still a good movie, not very surprising plot-wise truth be told, with a WILD BUNCHesque finale and some nice dialogue exchanges along the way, a crabby Rip Torn as the old sheriff mentor and Nick Nolte looking mean and badass for most of the film, and if it's let down in the acting department every now and then when some emoting is required, that's because both Michael Ironside and Powers Boothe playing the villains were never the greatest of actors. The low 6.2 rating the movie has on IMDb as of this posting tells me the movie has suffered at the hands of sleepy viewers catching it randomly on late night TV in crappy pan-and-scan versions or indifferent video club patrons renting it on VHS for the vaguely familiar hovering heads on the cover and the promise of things exploding. This is not THAT kind of movie. It's an action film but it has character and style that will be appreciated more by that niche audience comprising of fans of action movies and 70's gritnik crime cinema, the kind of substratum Walter Hill proudly inhabited in the 70's with films like THE DRIVER. Watching the remastered widescreen copy I saw, I think that audience will have very different things to say. Hell, just take a look at that poster up there and tell me it doesn't look like it belongs to a 70's movie.

Κυριακή, 20 Σεπτεμβρίου 2009

CAIRO STATION (1958, YOUSSEF CHAHINE)


My first Egyptian film. I don't really agree with another IMDb reviewer who claimed it "one of the greatest films ever made" or that its visuals are "stunningly orchestrated" (1958 was TOUCH OF EVIL's year, let's not forget) but it's a neat little film. It has that very basic, almost primitive, shooting style and editing which in some ways reminds of me Greek rural romance melodramas from the same time yet the perverse content sets it worlds apart from that kind of populist cinema which I suspect was as popular with lower/middle-class audiences in Egypt as it was in Greece. I liked that Chahine makes the titular railway station a stage for contrast between the old and the new. Between fashionable swinging Egyptians and the traditional Muslim conservatives. Between a lady president dressed in a modern pantsuit and destitute girls selling soda to the passengers. Between the old feudal faction of porters and the new one trying to assert its working rights by forming a union. This sociopolitical contrast touching on contemporary changes in Egyptian society (which, other than what the movie presents, I know nothing about but seem to be almost identical with the anxieties that surfaced in Greek screwball comedies of the same time) reflected in the movie itself, out of a typical melodrama of thwarted love for his crippled newspaper selling protagonist Chahine dragging a dark noirish thriller with psychosexual undertones and an almost slasherish turn in the third act replete with knife-wielding crazies chasing beautiful women around that predates PSYCHO by a good two years. In borrowing the generic aspects of a programme picture for the finale of his character-driven piece and portraying his mentally imbalanced protagonist with sympathy and humanity, Chahine succeeded in making a movie more wholesome than its 73 minute duration would suggest. Banned in Egypt for 20 years and nominated the same year it came out for the Golden Bear in the Berlin Film Festival, Cairo Station is that rare beast: a film both violent enough to shock the establishment but also with enough heart and pathos to appeal to film audiences despite (or perhaps even because of, ) its violence.

I AM CUBA (1964, MIKHAIL KALATOZOV)


Few movies are as legendary as Soy Cuba in how ahead of their time they were, prophets bearing visions from a cinema almost unthinkable at the time in the US for anyone whose name wasn't Welles (and, by the time Soy Cuba came out, Welles had been all but banished from the US and forced to pine for his movies in Europe), few such faith-restoring Holy Grails for the sheer visual power of cinema. My usual problem with Kalatozov, this time amplified by the propaganda nature of a film comisssioned by Castro's Cuba from its newfound Soviet allies and filmed by Soviet crews from Mosfilm Studios on location in Cuba, is that his subject matter keeps me at a distance. But at the same time, what dazzling displays of cinematic fireworks his movies are! No one films a clouded sky like his DP, Sergei Urusevsky, with that pristine quality dreamlike and supine, and no one has ever made a camera seem more alive dynamic and freewheeling than you'll find in Kalatozov's movies. There were times the movie made me wonder in awe with jaw agape as to where the camera was mounted, how it seemed to float in the air above a crowded street, having already tracked up four stories and across the street and through a room and out the balcony, hovering suspended in the air as though by an act of sheer cinematic will, amazing if just for the blocking and coordination it would have required. As someone who's indifferent/opposed to Communism on a practical level, Soy Cuba's best case for the power of collective strength does not come through in the agitprop subject matter, the onedimensional depiction of hard edged patriotic Cuban guerillas fighting against all odds and oppressed peasants having their land stolen by rich landowners and student radicals rioting in the streets against the fascist police and being shot down by them, this in itself borderline succesful not because it imitates real life because a propaganda piece cannot replicate real life but because it imitates melodrama we're already vaguely familiar from other movie plots; Soy Cuba's best showcase of Soviet will comes in the amazing cooperation it must have taken to make the camera move the way it does. If Soy Cuba is a celebration of Communist ideals, a failure as a narrative because of the intellectual dishonesty necessary in concocting a propaganda film, it's also a celebration of amazing cinema, a success despite itself, not for plot drama or characters, but for the simple joy of staging beautiful elaborate images, for the amazing camerawork, for the stark black and white cinematography, a lot of it self-indulgent, the camera moving for the sake of movement and the joy of it, the actors treated as little more than walking props the camera can circle around and play against. In many ways, Soy Cuba is a study in choreography for camera and blocking. When Kalatozov introduces a blurry dreamlike flashback it seems to swim out of the head of the character who experiences it. When the same character torches his own cane field, Kalatozov orchestrates a vision of hell, the camera itself dancing through swirling flames and billows of black smoke. I can't really praise the visuals enough. As with other Kalatozovs, the story prevents me from tenning it, but from a technical standpoint, this will blow your mind.

Κυριακή, 6 Σεπτεμβρίου 2009

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009, QUENTIN TARANTINO)




IB is a difficult movie for me to criticize because it does nothing Kill Bill didn’t do first and yet I loved Kill Bill. It does what Death Proof and its talky riot grrl trashy aesthetic did but does it better and yet clocking at 150 minutes it’s more tiresome than Death Proof. It’s a man’s movie done by a gleeful adolescent. It has interesting characters like Aldo Rain and Colonel Landa but wastes them in the wrong movie. It’s a movie about QT’s wild feverish love of cinema and yet it’s a love of cinema reduced to incognito winks and nods and references aimed to satisfy the hardened cinephile who can smirk at himself bemused at identifying Emil Jannings and Antonio Margheriti instead of a love of cinema for its ecstatic combination of images and sounds, for that transcendental sum so greater than its individual parts which QT himself praised in Leone’s GBU.

The movie vacillates between the banal (a Basterd shooting a wounded Nazi prison guard after he groans) and the tedious (the love subplot between Jewish girl and Nazi war hero) capping that off with wild explosions of violence. It is outrageous as much for its irreverent cartoonish treatment of a horrible war as it is for expecting the viewer to accept every improbable silly plot twist (Hitler Goering Goebbels and Bormann all attending a movie premiere in occupied Paris, Landa’s defection) for the very reason they’re cartoonish and irreverent. Much like a dead baby joke, IB’s clever set up requires you to accept its silly outrageous premise for the very qualities that mark it as such, otherwise you’re not in on the joke. And much like a failed dead baby joke, IB fails in that aspect because it doesn’t push the boundaries of decency far enough, because this is a movie about a band of US scalphunters facing off with a charming but horrifying Nazi villain in occupied France saddled with a lifeless heroine who polishes Henri-Georges Clouzot’s name in the marquee of her cinema and needless distracting Mike Myers cameos stretching out the tightness of the plot, because it must stop on its tracks to explain how inflammable nitrate stock is (dramatize dramatize dramatize!) and drop references to Hollywood moguls Louis B. Mayer and David Selznick, because IB is a movie about QT making a movie, insulated from reality archetype or myth, vicariously presenting love grief and loss not through real life but through other movies about love grief and loss, because unlike the best of cinema IB’s parts are greater than the whole, set pieces lovingly constructed, their verbosity undercut with slow-burn suspenseful tactics, strung together to support a flimsy plot.

Watching IB reminded me of how I got my first movie ideas: I would drive around listening to rousing music (Morricone often enough) and I would imagine scenes to go with the music, set pieces, cool shots, openings and closings. But writing a story requires to turn off the music and put pen to paper, not to fill the mouths of your characters with fancy dialogues, but to layer and structure and hold back when necessary and invest in subtext and dramatize not with regards to small climaxes every twenty minutes of splinters of wood exploding, gunfights in basement tavers, and cinemas erupting in flames, followed by whole slabs of exposition (like the Basterds introduction), but one slow and steady climax of character and action.

This vacuous patchwork of quirks and eccentricities reflected in the title itself, rightfully INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and not Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France as QT intended it to be at first, because in Sergio Leone’s OUATITW, the patchwork of film references created by young cineliterate writers Argento and Bertollucci is subordinate to the story, layered inside, used as tools to expose myth and archetype, whereas in IB they’re applied externally as quirks independent of the story. QT did the same thing in Kill Bill but there he had the wherewithal to reward both the genre fan who picked up on the Lady Snowblood/Sex and Fury homage and the casual moviegoer who didn’t with great cinema, because he introduced Sonny Chiba as Hattori Hanzo (after the famous TV series) but made him a believable character. Occasionally funny, with a good opening sequence, an outrageous climax, and a charismatic scene-stealing villain, IB suffers because there’s too much QT in the movie. If every movie is a ride through the artist’s world, IB is a carnival tour through QT’s bedroom because he never left it to see the world, with QT as host pointing out at his one obsession: his love of movies.

As it is, I rate Enzo G. Castellari's original INGLORIOUS BASTARDS higher than QT's homage, not necesserily because it's a better movie, but because it holds up better as a whole. Still, QT's ferociously publicized name guarantees IB will be one of the movie events of the year.

Τρίτη, 1 Σεπτεμβρίου 2009

GEORGE WASHINGTON (2000, DAVID GORDON GREEN)


Synopsis tells us GW is a 'delicately told and deceptively simple story of a group of children' but what I saw was a coming-of-age slice of minimalist Americana too deliberate to resonate with true emotional gravitas and too restrained and artificial to examine the children as anything else than vessels for whatever fancy monologues DGG put in their mouths, every pause and glance of the movie calculated to emulate a specific type of film, I won't say arthouse because I don't consider Terrence Malick whom DGG seems to be channeling an arthouse filmmaker and I won't even say southern gothic because DGG lacks the affinity for the gothic that made TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD such a good movie (the parts of it that don't have Gregory Peck giving courtroom speeches that is) or Flannery O'Connor's children characters so alive and vivid. Filling the gaps with quirks (argh!!) and lacking the truthfulness and honesty the material deserves, for all it has going for it (a sense of pace and framing, which to me, like I said above, seems a bit too coldly calculated which is not surprising given DGG's age when he made it), Green's debut can be in turns good, amusing, annoying, and embarassingly bad. But then I remind myself it's the debut of a 25 year old director. While directors who worked in the studio system 50 years ago (in the US, Italy, and Japan) got their chance behind the camera only after painstaking tutelage as assistants and technicians in various posts and got to make plenty of bad-average programme films before they hit their stride, young directors these days are called to succeed on their first film, get a good festival run and maybe a DVD deal if they're lucky, wash dishes to repay credit card debts for the next 10 years if they're not. I don't know what to think about DGG though. UNDERTOW showed significant progress as long as it remained geared towards a taut Night Of the Hunteresque southern-fried thriller and before it regressed back to Green's feeble GW shenanigans for the final act. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS has none of whatever mark these two films taken together would suggest. Although a less ambitious debut, I think his friend Jeff Nichols eclipsed him with (the DGG produced) SHOTGUN STORIES.

Πέμπτη, 27 Αυγούστου 2009

DANZA MACABRA (1964, ANTONIO MARGHERITI)


It's the Samhain and a young journalist meets up with Edgar Allan Poe in a London tavern and agrees to spend a night in a haunted castle from where no one comes out alive for a wager. True to its title, this is a macabre dance as the journalist staggers around the castle with a candelabra at hand and meets up with a variety of characters that may or may not be ghosts, including a seductive Barbara Steele in a nightgown, a creepy bearded Dr. Carmus whose name recalls Camus the writer but whose appearence has something of Ze Do Caixao/Coffin Joe, and a shirtless buff guy who seems to have wandered off a Maciste set. There's not much plot to speak of (in a script co-written by Sergio Corbucci no less, a director who'd go on to have a great career in the spaghetti western field, where Margheriti also dipped later in his career with AND GOD SAID TO CAIN) and whatever plot thereis is deliberately handled in the manner of a spooky story told at midnight around a campfire, the details intentionally vague and simplistic and with only a semblance of reality as is often the case with oral stories that pass from mouth to mouth for and have to be easy to tell and remember for that reason. I like movies where characters wander through weird/surreal/eerie architecture (MARIENBAD, THE TRIAL) except DANZA MACABRA sabotages that hypnotic quality with goofy shenanigans such as candelabras being knocked over to the sound of cymbals and the character tripping over stairs. Whatever the movie has going for it comes from those very qualities that mark it as an Italian gothic horror film. The eerie dreamlike atmosphere and b/w cinematography capturing images of cobweb-strewn catacombs and skulls. Passable but not a patch on BLACK SUNDAY.

Τρίτη, 25 Αυγούστου 2009

UNDER THE FLAG OF THE RISING SUN (1972, KINJI FUKASAKU)


If Japanese war films are snubbed in the West, if they have been consistently ignored when they were not quasiromanticized mythic affairs like RAN, that's not done on any political grounds. After all, the Japanese are not only the first to condemn the rigid militarism that brought them to the brink of complete destruction in WWII but the only ones to offer that condemnation against Emperor and Generals in such a scathing manner. If you won't find films like this or THE BATTLE OF OKINAWA mentioned in the same lists as their disillusioned American Vietnam-war counterparts like APOCALYPSE NOW, it has to do with the same cultural reasons that keep Japanese (or French and Italian) crime films in the shadow while Scorsese, Tarantino and their cohorts reap all the glory.

And even when the spotlight falls on the individual rather than the collective, the lowly Japanese soldier haphazardly trained in a few weeks time and sent with meager provisions to conquer New Guinea, the Philippines, or Indonesia in the name of the 'Motherland', the focus is not on a heroic celebration of courage and valor because these men where not heroes and what courage they showed in the face of death was instilled in them by the fear of worse things like malaria and malnutrition or even worse, the fear of their superiors executing them for cowardice, but rather on grim endurance beyond all hope and glory with nothing else to look forward to but returning home to a ruined country and American occupation. The chaos squalor and misery of postwar Japan Kinji Fukasaku knows firsthand. It's the place and time he grew up in and the memory of that misery would resurface regularly in his work as a bleak backdrop to the yakuza films through which he became known and for which he never received the acclaim he deserved.

This is the greatest success of UNDER THE FLAG OF THE RISING SUN. Not the narrative maze of the script (written by Kaneto Shindo of ONIBABA and KURONEKO fame no less) carrying echoes of RASHOMON and CITIZEN KANE that shows the wife of an executed soldier trying to piece together the life and death of her husband in WWII New Guinea through the conflicting memories of his surviving comrades and superiors. It's the hopelessness and despair of men trying to survive like savage beasts in a hostile jungle, the memory of that despair relived in and contrasted against a booming 1960's Tokyo by the miserable survivors, that visceral gutpunching quality of man's tragic struggle for survival in a world that bears him false witness, for which there is no glory to be had which, sets apart films like this and Kon Ichikawa's FIRES IN THE PLAIN from their American counterparts. Major battle scenes and historic events are in the background, presented in Fukasaku's trademark quick montages using stock photos. Like the best of Southern literature, the Japanese war film is fueled by the memory of defeat, by loss and pain and destruction. If it sometimes seems exceedingly grotesque, it's only because it's realistic.

Κυριακή, 23 Αυγούστου 2009

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977, STEVEN SPIELBERG)


US Army evacuates a 300 square mile area in Wyoming so they can play the casiotone to a giant chandelier. The things Spielberg shoots with a straight face....

NEW GRAVEYARD OF HONOR (2002, TAKASHI MIIKE)


Who said only Americans had the right to remake, defile or reinterpret, their crime classics? By adding a new 40-minute third act on Kinji Fukasaku's original 1975 film Takashi Miike firmly leans towards the second option. A reinterpetation faithful in spirit and gritty hardboiled realism to the original yet still as much a Miike film as anything else he's done, this reflected in the Japanese title of the movie ('New' Graveyard of Honor), in itself perhaps a tribute to Fukasaku's sequel series 'New' Battles Without Honor and Humanity, and the numerous gonzo stylistic flashes that fully complement the handheld hyperkinetic style Fukasaku pioneered and which Miike here reintroduces, not in an attempt to ape the original film and not to the extent that Fukasaku used that style nor with the same deftness, but as a visual technique Miike makes his own for the duration of the film. As with the original film, the emphasis here is not on a Scarface-like rags-to-riches arch but on downfall, one long unbroken fall from grace, an ode to self-destruction and alienation as only the Japanese know how to do them. The brooding yakuza protagonist finds himself in a vicious endless cycle of violence as meaningless as the catalyst that kicked it into motion (a two-hour visit at the dentist by his boss) and there's no bottom or depth low enough for him to sink to. Miike follows all this in a sombre distanced way, allowing the brutal stabbings and shootings to take place without either glorifying or shying away from them, this helped to a good degree by a languid jazzy score and a lack of depth or dimension to the supporting characters or indeed the protagonist. We don't know these people. We don't know any more about the protagonist after two hours than we did after he first stops a yakuza hitman by breaking a chair on his head. He goes about killing people and shooting dope, stopping only long enough to rape his girlfriend or signal to the cops that he's out of bullets. Miike being Miike, the movie is still crazy and OTT, as though he doesn't want us to take it anymore serious than we need to. I'm a big fan of yakuza pictures and Miike's Graveyard remake ranks highly among them, quite possibly the best of the several he's done. More than two hours long, the movie feels epic without ever calling attention to itself as such. Miike is not doing THE GODFATHER any more than he's doing SCARFACE. Curiously for a remake and especially compared to slick Hollywood gangster movies or quirky crimedies, Graveyard is original above all else. If I have a problem with it, is only in the hard edge of the video look on which Miike (probably for reasons of budget) insists on shooting, and that 15 minutes could've been trimmed for tightness.

Πέμπτη, 20 Αυγούστου 2009

INTO THE BADLANDS (1991, Sam Pillsbury)


I love finding offbeat half-forgotten gems where I wouldn't think to look for them. And I wouldn't think to look for them in the 90's because it's generally a pretty bad decade for westerns and certainly not in the field of made-for-TV horror western hybrids because most of their kind wield their western part as an exotic backdrop against which are played the same generic horror cliches. And I love offbeat gems even more when they're rough and unpolished and full of flaws. Everyone can love a masterpiece but it takes a little something to love a movie like INTO THE BADLANDS. A lot of the dialogue is awfully stilted, characters seem like they're reading verse from a page, the love story between outlaw on the run and worldweary whore in the first segment is produced on demand, the grey paint slapped on the faces of the saloon patrons on the last segment that makes them look like zombies adds a needless horror hijink too literal and cheesy it almost detracts from the actual menacing situation. And yet through all this rides Bruce Dern in his ghostly cart, the blackclad Bounty Hunter tying together the three segments of this anthology. And with him comes a love for vivid colors, cool blues and hot yellows, and fluid camerawork; a love of stylization as an end in itself; a love for pure western iconography (for eerie ghost towns and strange horsemen riding into town and open prairies and funerals in small weedy graveyards) and gothic atmosphere galore; an affection for old EC Comics style supernatural twists. All this geared not towards a realistic gritty western but a cinematic gothic horror fable that takes place in the Old West.

Δευτέρα, 17 Αυγούστου 2009

THE BETRAYAL (1966, TOKUZO TANAKA)


Tokuzo Tanaka will most likely never be mentioned in the pantheon of Japanese directors. For someone who started out as an assistant director to Kenji Mizoguchi, he doesn't seem to have carved out his own niche or acquired those qualities that would mark him separate from the legion of bread-and-butter directors that slaved away in the Japanese studios of the time. Whatever passing popularity the most well known films in his oeuvre have enjoyed is mostly a byproduct of the marketable name franchises he worked in, yet THE BETRAYAL suggests
a strong classicist gloom one usually expects to get from directors of Masaki Kobayashi's calibre. Indeed it is Masaki Kobayashi the opening of the film brings to mind, an evocation of that particular gloomy kind of ancient Greek tragedy transposed in a Tokugawa Japan setting where social injustice is allowed to be perpetrated by a caste of people who can afford to hide the injustice behind a rigid samurai ethos, a skewed code of military honor that can't afford to be proven wrong or found guilty because that would negate that very semblance of honor which sustains it, because a samurai vassal can privately say "we were wrong, you are not the killer we've been looking for" but can't admit the same publically for fear of dishonoring his own clan. As good as the central premise of the film is (a samurai vassal agrees to take the blame for a murder he didn't commit for the sake of his clan and exile himself from his home and wife but in the condition that his name will be cleared in one year), as simple and brilliant and classic and lending itself to the combination of gripping revenge drama and scathing anti-samurai critique that made SEPPUKU such an astounding film, the middle of THE BETRAYAL is a bit too disjointed and scattershot, despite the occasional bout of swordfighting spread a little too thin and allowed to sprawl over a dozen different places and encounters that more often than not happen because the plot must be forwarded along. A convincing reason why the exiled samurai takes a peasant as his sidekick for example is never given. He just tags along for the ride so that he can betray Judas-like his master in the end. When the samurai is wounded, a beautiful woman magically comes along to heal him back to life, and whereas this kind of episodic nature is to be expected in a Nemuri Kyoshiro b-movie, the kind of pulpy chambara Raizo Ichikawa and Tokuzo Tanaka knew all too well, it fails to milk the brilliant premise to its full potential. The drama between hunters and hunted is never allowed to gestate and mature past a quick swordfight. Even when the exiled samurai, now hunted by his own clan too, has to face off with his sensei, the outcome lacks the dramatic punch of a Kobayashi or Okamoto, not the dialogue or action but the silent gloomy calm before the storm. In the end Tanaka almost redeems himself for every opportunity missed by staging one of the most gigantic swordfighting spectacles in chambara history, a giant set-piece that involves Raizo Ichikawa single-handedly cutting down three armies of extras, a fight that were it not for its lack of blood and nihilism would rank up there with the best in LONE WOLF AND CUB. The most telling moment of what's good in the film happens in that fight. Having disposed more than 100 enemy soldiers, Raizo's sword breaks and he's been clutching the grip for so long and so hard that he has to unlock his fingers one by one so he can pick another sword.

Πέμπτη, 13 Αυγούστου 2009

INTENTIONS OF MURDER (1964, SHOHEI IMAMURA)



Also known as UNHOLY DESIRE, this marks my seventh Imamura film and my appreciation for this Japanese titan continues to grow unabated. To think Hollywood has only recently been appropriating what Imamura was pioneering back in the 60's and that Imamura's film has a scarce 195 votes on IMDB I believe is almost unethical. In the wise words of H.I. McDunnough* "there's what's right and there's what's right and never the twain shall meet". That a loveless housewife married to an abusive husband who cheats on her should fall in love with the thief who breaks in her house one night and rapes her and the resulting movie is neither played for laughs or reduced to hokey melodrama is a testament to the creative force at hand.Imamura's uncanny ability to find the absurd in the mundane, the blackly comedic in the serious and the humane in the bleak and hopeless, this curious heady mix, eccentric but not for the sake of it, with which the director as sympathetic anthropologist handpicks his characters from the lowest strata of society, observes their trappings struggles triumphs and follies (like the shots of mice running aimlessly inside their cage he uses in the movie - animals, which Imamura is always very keen to use as metaphor in his movies, if not very subtly), not with the detached amused air of the cynic (like the Coens tend to do), not as quirks to amuse a sophisticated intelligenzia too inhibited to even aknowledge those trappings in itself, but truthfully, honestly, with a hint of sadness but never without humour to admire their downfall when they succumb at the last to their animalistic desires.Beautifully filmed as usual, daring in its New Wave experimentation, its dynamic shots (the camera peering from improbable angles, through doorways, inside tunnels, along with moving trains), its great use of the widescreen canvas, its sound design. Recommended for fans of the director's work and anyone interested in Japanese New Wave cinema.



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INSECT WOMAN (1963, SHOHEI IMAMURA)




INSECT WOMAN seems to be Imamura's trojan horse in the world scene. Not the stunning debut of a young up and coming director that catches everyone unawares because Imamura had quite a few films under his belt by that point and not even the film that cemented his reputation because if critical recognition and prestigious awards predate rather than follow public awareness then Imamura is only in the past 10 years beginning to earn his due. But with INSECT WOMAN he emerged not only as a preeminent auteur and bright hope of the Japanese Nuberu Bagu movement, a director who would be twice decored with the coveted Palm D'Or in later years, this perhaps a status that is often subliminally associated with notions of a haughty intelligenzia hermetically removed from the populus whose struggles and follies it purports to address, but also an artist equal parts humane and cynic who picks his characters from the lowest strata of society and examines their lower instincts with care and affection. Indeed moral judgement is absent from the film. The life and misadventures of a poor farmer's illegitimate daughter who travels to Tokyo and becomes first a prostitute then the owner of a call-girl service is observed in a matter of fact way. He never allows the movie to careen in melodramatic shallows and moralistic histrionics. If Imamura has a case to make and premise to prove, it's of a political nature. Spanning almost half a century of Japanese history, the story of Insect Woman parallels the rise and fall of Japan in the years leading to and after WWII. The rise from humble beginnings to power and the subsequent fall with the bitter feeling of having been betrayed by everyone. Like other Imamura movies, INSECT WOMAN can be tedious at parts, not because nothing happens because the movie is filled with characters and minor episodes but because little to nothing meaningful happens. Sprawling in nature and rarely stopping to examine motives and psychology, INSECT WOMAN even at its most intimate moments places a certain distance between viewer and film and in doing so allows for an often comedic tinge to seep in. As such, the film doesn't have some deep insight into human nature to depart but it's mostly pleasing to watch and Imamura's filmic language feels amazingly fresh and vibrant even to this day. The man was 20 years ahead of his time and his films have aged in all the right ways.

Τετάρτη, 5 Αυγούστου 2009

THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980, DAVID LYNCH)




Although different from what Lynch has been largely known for, the surreal mysterious and uncanny, THE ELEPHANT MAN's reputation as a plaintive character study based on the life and times of John Merrick preceeds it. It's possibly the closest Lynch will ever come to acceptance by the cinematic status quo for which never had much use for. What I find most striking about it however is not that Lynch's tugging on the heartstrings is barely noticeable at all in a film that seems to scream for it, not that he lifts THE ELEPHANT MAN from what one would expect to be its natural habitat, the soapy mournful tearjerker that brings the house down in sobs and tears, the kind of suffocatingly dour dirge that is REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, and in doing so gives it room to breathe, to gestate through the course of two hours not a violent catharsis (not a bang) but a soft expiring release; what I really find commendable about THE ELEPHANT MAN is that Lynch (I won't say sabotages although I 'am' tempted because that would mean a certain amount of cynicism one expects to find in a movie the director feels is beneath him and Lynch approaches his material in earnest) undercuts the sombre material with orgiastic avant-garde brushstrokes, dazzling intermezzos of surrealistic bravura that seem to have been dragged kicking and screaming from ERASERHEAD or THE GRANDMOTHER, these distilled through the prism of gothic horror not only in the atmosphere of a monochromatic London steeped in squalor and misery but also in the tribute he pays to German Expressionism. Lynch seems to broadcast the movie straight from the heart of the defunct Weimar Republic, from the old dusty studios of UFA . Certainly the idea of a repugnant creature treated or used as a monster by people (the real monsters) echoes such epochal German movie monsters as the Golem and Dr. Caligari's Somnambulist. The idea on the other hand that such a monster could still be a kind being striving for acceptance and understanding reminds us of Universal monsters like Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. Out of this long tradition of gothic horror emerges THE ELEPHANT MAN not merely as a pastiche of homages but as an accomplished movie which stands on its own, made by a young director who doesn't compromise his personal vision but rather finds in the material his own small obsessions (midgets would feature prominently throughout his career and one cannot underestimate how much Lynch seems to have been influenced by Tod Browning's FREAKS).

Παρασκευή, 31 Ιουλίου 2009

STORY OF A PROSTITUTE (1965, SEIJUN SUZUKI)


Presumably one of the string of "movies that don't make sense" that led Nikkatsu Studios to promptly fire the Japanese director following the debacle of BRANDED TO KILL and in the process turn him into an icon of Japanese cult cinema to be celebrated by the likes of Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura perhaps not for what his work really was but for what it symbolized (a youthful rebellion against a studio system as rigid and oppressive as Japanese society), STORY OF A PROSTITUTE is in the same time a war melodrama, a rather conventional love story that you could see come out in Hollywood in the 50's, but also a Seijun Suzuki film.
A genre director who slaved away from b-movie to b-movie working from scripts that had little difference from one to the next, Suzuki developed, out of artistic frustration with the trappings of cookie cutter studio film-making, an irreverent visual grammar which often existed for the sake of it. In his way however, and perhaps unwittingly, he became a precursor of sorts to the Japanese New Wave of the 60's.Story of a Prostitute shows both facets of his work. A crowdpleasing genre film and a visual tour-de-force. But unlike stuff like TOKYO DRIFTER, or indeed Branded to Kill, films that often appeared to be little more than empty exercises in stylish bravura where the only reward possible for the viewer was a confirmation of Suzuki's bold, audacious approach, Story has a dramatic heart. The director approaches the love story between Mirakami, an orderly to an abusive adjutant who is brainwashed to docile acceptance of military authority, and Harumi, a passionate prostitute working a Japanese camp somewhere in Manchuria in the days of WWII, with sincerity and honesty.In the same time he punctuates the main plot with set-pieces that truly dazzle with their inventiveness. Harumi running through a shellshocked battlefield to an injured Mirakami; Harumi's fantasy of Mirakami rushing in slow-motion through a white-washed scene to save her from the abusive officer. All this filmed in stark black and white, with fast tracking shots around walls and behind wooden panels, beautiful exterior shots of Manchurian landscapes which dwarf the figures walking them, intricate framing in depth and poignant symbolic touches that give an almost existential air to proceedings.
It's true that some of Suzuki's experimentations, jarring cuts and slow motion shots, don't quite work; and it's true that the movie in the end lapses into a kind of didacticism that hasn't aged very well. But for the most part this is, not only a stunning display of visual bravado to please the art-house crowds, but also an excellent war drama that ranks among the best of the decade.
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LESSONS OF DARKNESS (1992, WERNER HERZOG)



Some eastern sea that lay heavily in the dawn, attended in its far horizon by titanic walls of smoke and crowned by spires of fire and hot gouts of burning oil arching in the air. This deceptive sea reflecting the sky above is made of crude oil. Notable enfant terrible of New German Cinema and devoted documentarian of man's quixotic struggles against a world that bears them false witness, Werner Herzog mounts his camera on a helicopter and takes us through the war-ravaged desolate landscapes of Kuwait's oil fields. Yet oddly enough and perhaps contrary to what anyone would assume, there's no politics involved, no topical Gulf War content through which to see the destruction. This is pure Apocalypse stripped of all context and left to sear its awe-inspiring images into the viewer's memory. These oil fires the result of the scorched earth policy of Iraqi military forces retreating from Kuwait in 1991 after conquering the country but being driven out by Coalition military forces. In a truly apocalyptic manner, Herzog simply invites us to "come and see" the works of man. Reciting short passages from the book of the Apocalypse as sweeping aerial shot after sweeping aerial shot expose a land ravaged by war, the earth tarred far as the eye can see, a vast steppe of black tending to the rim of the world, the skies charred by enormous fires and billows of smoke. This is really a documentary on the apocalypse, on some end to the world, the Gulf War a paradigm of all wars to end it with. A truly awe-inspiring spectacle of destruction and abandonment that mirrors man's insubstantiality when measured up against nature in his own power to destroy it. Not a documentary in the traditional sense but mostly a plot less 60 minute expedition in the deep recesses of a wartorn desert that lets the grandeur of its visuals see it through with Kubrickian aplomb. In the end the workers reignite some of the oil wells they previously extinguished. Herzog muses in his voice-over: "Now they are content. Now they have something to extinguish again".



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CINEMASCOPE TRILOGY (1998-2005, PETER TSCHERKASSKY)

Peter Tscherkassky is an Austrian avant-garde filmmaker who works exclusively with found footage. All of his work is done with film and heavily edited in the darkroom, rather than relying on technological modes.

A fragmented glimpse of images pulsating with chaotic rhythm out of all control and reasoning as they fight white margins for room in Tscherkassky's palette, LE ARRIVEE if nothing else at least it can be safely called unique. Mirrored frames being split by white margin and trying to reassemble again like the poles of a magnet, a train approaching station and colliding with itself in white-hot blistering chaos. There's not much else that can be said for the 2 minute short film other than it definitely shows an artist pursuing his unique vision. As a prelimary of things to come, I'd say Le Arrivee is an alluring watch, rough yet oddly compelling.

His second entry in his Cinemascope trilogy plays and feels like a longer version of the previous entry, LE ARRIVEE, except with all the skullfuckery and aural destruction amplified tenfold. It starts off with a mystifying shot of a house bathed in stark noirish atmosphere pulsating and trembling as though with energy of its own, like something culled from a Robbe-Grillet film and pushed through a meat-grinder. A woman enters the house. The house soon transforms into a swirling hell, as though pulled and stretched into another dimension with time and space ripping apart in the seams. At some point we're looking at formless chaos, wave after wave of white noise washing over the screen, rolls of film tortured, an epileptic symphony of power electronics conjuring sheer cacodemony. It is a strange thing to behold, this nine minute short, definitely harsh and uninviting but worth a watch for the adventurous viewer.

Available on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Unw8YYKYZPQ

This is the third short film in his Cinemascope trilogy and is in many ways similar to the previous entry, OUTER SPACE. A woman walking across a carpet, combing her hair, a man enters, grimacing faces superimposed, a woman smiling. At some point Tscherkassky's hands appear cutting up the film in the optical printer. A monochromatic canvas where images with their sense of equilibrium damaged and beyond repair attempt to re-align with their other selves. The closest comparison capturing the same sense of disjointed, jarring mayhem are glitch artist Kid606 with his cutups and sampling (minus the pop sensibilities), the noise of Merzbow or the hydraulic electronic grind of James Plotkin's Atomsmasher.

Available on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pUBm-bMRcw