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).