Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
Sunday, May 1, 2011
We've avoided saying certain things. Why bring them up now?
I went through an intense Antonioni phase about a decade back, so I hope I can be forgiven for skipping most of IU Cinema's "Antonioni and Vitti x 4" series, which started on Thursday with L'Avventura and concludes tomorrow with Red Desert (which I actually saw at a repertory screening at International House in Philly). Really, the only one of the four I was interested in seeing again was 1962's L'Eclisse, which paired up Antonioni's muse, Monica Vitti, with rising French film star Alain Delon to great effect.
It's a while before they share any screen time, though, because the film opens with a scene that takes place the morning after Vitti has told Francisco Rabal (veteran of a number of Buñuel's films) that she has fallen out of love with him. Rabal is slow to react to the news that her decision is final (in fact, he spends a good part of the scene in a state of near-catatonia), and by the time he rouses himself enough to fight for her it's already a lost cause -- not that that prevents him from hounding her all the way home.
Once Vitti has ditched Rabal, she seeks out her mother (Lilla Brignone) to give her the news, but she's distracted by the chaotic scene on the floor of the stock exchange, which is only interrupted for a minute of silence in memory of a fallen colleague. It is there that Vitti meets her mother's broker (Delon), an energetic go-getter who immediately makes a play for her, but their halting relationship barely has time to develop before Vitti sabotages it. I guess she just wasn't ready to be picked up on the rebound.
Monday, May 2, 2011
What's keeping me interested is all the invented conspiracies.
To date, Peter Greenaway's most recent feature is 2007's Nightwatching, the first in his "Dutch Masters" series (the second entry, Goltzius and the Pelican Company, is currently in production). It can also be seen as a semi-sequel to The Draughtsman's Contract since it's about an artist who accepts a commission that ultimately reveals the details of a murder plot. In this case the artist is Rembrandt van Rijn (who's brilliantly portrayed by Martin Freeman) and the commission turns out to be The Night Watch, one of his most famous works. In Greenaway's conception, Rembrandt did the painting at the behest of his pregnant wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle), whose main interest appears to be providing for their unborn child's future. However, he becomes more engaged in his work the more he finds out about his subjects, a group of rich merchants playing at being soldiers for their group portrait. For Greenaway's part, he was so taken with the story behind The Night Watch that he used it as the basis of a companion film, the documentary Rembrandt's J'Accuse, released the following year. Netflix willing, I hope I don't have to wait that long to see it for myself. Knowing Greenaway, I'm sure his arguments are most persuasive.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
What happens when a school fails a kid?
It's not often that I tear up during a documentary, but that's exactly what happened while I was watching Waiting for "Superman" tonight. I'm not now, nor do I ever expect to be a parent, but I couldn't help getting caught up in the stories of the five children director Davis Guggenheim followed as their parents and guardians tried to make sure they're getting the best education possible. For all of them, that means getting out of the public school system, which Guggenheim shows to be fundamentally broken on a number of levels. Whether it's overcrowded and outdated schools, high dropout rates, bad teachers that can't be fired because they have tenure, intractable unions or bureaucracies that impede reform, the problems seem insurmountable -- and there's only so much charter schools can do if getting into one literally comes down to the luck of draw.
Of course, I would have liked to have heard more from those on the front lines. My younger brother is a public school teacher and I'm sure he could have talked Guggenheim's ear off about the onus of working under No Child Left Behind, which hasn't done a whole lot to prevent failing schools from leaving children behind. Holding students and schools to higher standards is all well and good, but if they lack the time and the resources needed to meet them, then all you're left with are empty words and broken promises. Sure sounds like business as usual, doesn't it?
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
It's already hard enough to open your heart in this world. Don't make it any harder.
Two months later and I'm still playing catch-up with last year's Best Picture nominees. Tonight I put the eighth (and probably final) notch in my belt with The Kids Are All Right, a tart comedy-drama which had an ad campaign that highlighted the comedy and Oscar clips that stressed the drama. Not a terribly surprising dichotomy (as I recall, the Academy chose the most serious clip they could find to represent Best Supporting Actor nominee Kevin Kline's comedic tour de force in A Fish Called Wanda), but both approaches only serve to shortchange what is at its base an understated and perceptive film about imperfect people and the kinds of messy lives they lead. That's a lot harder to boil down to 15 or 30 seconds, though. And it's also not easy to squeeze into a couple paragraphs, but I'll do my best.
Co-written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko (who shared a Best Original Screenplay nod with Stuart Blumberg), the film explores how the nontraditional family of a lesbian couple (uptight doctor Annette Bening and novice landscaper Julianne Moore) is shaken up when their children (college-bound Mia Wasikowska and 15-year-old athlete Josh Hutcherson) seek out their biological father. As it turns out, the once-anonymous sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) is a motorcycle-riding restaurant owner with a co-op farm and a way with the ladies -- and a great many conflicting impulses when he's brought into the family's orbit. Bening and Ruffalo were the ones who received Oscar nominations for their work (in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor categories), but the entire ensemble deserves to be recognized for breathing life into these characters. And to her credit, Cholodenko doesn't give any of them an easy out. Instead, she opts for a more bittersweet -- and truthful -- conclusion. How refreshing.
Friday, May 6, 2011
The Rijksmuseum is currently the scene of a shooting. The relevant authorities should investigate.
Leave it to Peter Greenaway to make a film about the commissioning of a painting and then turn around the following year and produce a documentary about the painting itself, using scenes from the first film to illustrate many of his points. Then again, I expect he considered Nightwatching and Rembrandt's J'Accuse to be both sides of the same coin and interwove them accordingly.
Essentially a filmed art history lecture -- with Greenaway himself as the lecturer who periodically appears in a small box in the center of the frame -- Rembrandt's J'Accuse illuminates 34 of the mysteries contained within The Night Watch (a number presumably chosen because it matches the number of characters in the painting), leading the attentive viewer to draw the same conclusions about it that he does. In addition to the excerpts from Nightwatching (which are the only scenes in which Martin Freeman's Rembrandt appears), Greenaway also interrogates a number of the performers in character, which gives the actresses playing his wife (Eva Birthistle) and mistresses (Jodhi May and Emily Holmes) more of a chance to speak their minds. And the sad fate of the innocent-looking young girl in the painting (Natalie Press) is matched only by Rembrandt's own downfall at the hands of the odious merchants he sought to expose. Which only goes to show, you fuck with the rich and powerful at your own peril.
Saturday, May 7, 2011
When there's turmoil, human beings are so feeble.
According to Wim Wenders on the commentary for Fassbinder's The Merchant of Four Seasons, the thing to keep in mind while watching his immediate follow-up, 1972's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, is that Petra is Fassbinder. This certainly adds some shading to the story of a successful fashion designer (Margit Carstensen, who had previously appeared in the television films The Coffee Shop and The Niklashausen Journey) who's in the habit of running roughshod over her devoted underling (Irm Hermann), but completely falls apart when a young model she's spent six months grooming for success (Hanna Schygulla) abruptly leaves her. Of course, this also has something to do with the fact that Carstensen fell head over heels for Schygulla, very likely at first sight, while Schygulla fell in love with the idea of being taken care of and not having to work very hard. With an arrangement like that, it's a miracle their relationship lasted as long as it did.
In a way, this film is like Fassbinder's The Women since it features no male characters whatsoever (in fact, the only man who appears onscreen is Fassbinder, who's in a newspaper photograph). That doesn't prevent the women from talking about the men in their lives, from Carstensen's abusive ex-husband to the wayward baron her friend (Katrin Schaake) is unhappily married to. And then there's the matter of Schygulla's estranged spouse, who wasn't a threat as long as he stayed in Australia, but the moment he calls and says he's in Europe she goes straight back to him without a second thought. That sets up the entrance of the film's other two characters -- Carstensen's daughter (Eva Mattes), who stays at a boarding school, and her mother (Gisela Fackeldey) -- who pay a visit at her lowest point, which just so happens to coincide with her birthday. Sounds like perfect timing to me.
Fortune smiles on the brave and spits on the coward.
The first time I saw Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, it was on a double bill with Deliverance. Kind of hard to top that, but the film is more than capable of standing on its own. Made in 1972, Aguirre is about the search for El Dorado and is centered around a group of conquistadors who go out of their collective gourds along the way. Of course, what can you expect when the man in charge of the expedition is none other than Klaus Kinksi (starring in the first of many films for Herzog)? Actually, Kinski's wide-eyed Don Lope de Aguirre was second in command, but he's quick to undermine the authority of the more level-headed commander (Ruy Guerra) and install the highest-ranking nobleman (Peter Berling) as "Emperor of El Dorado" -- but once he's crowned the man literally lets the title go to his head.
All the while, their progress (or lack of it) is logged by their dutiful priest (Del Negro), whose progressively despairing journal entries provide the basis for the narration. Also watching from the sidelines as greed and madness consume the soldiers are two women who couldn't seem more out of place in the inhospitable jungles of South America: Guerra's consort (Helena Rojo), who can do nothing to stop Kinski from getting rid of him, and Kinski's 15-year-old daughter (Cecilia Rivera), whose mere presence in the party is never adequately explained. (I guess he just couldn't leave home without her.) In the end, Kinski and his men prove to be no match for the forces of nature or the poison-tipped arrows fired upon them by the cannibalistic Indians shadowing them the whole way down the river. Sure, the bowmen could be there to protect the legendary City of Gold, but more than likely they just appreciate it when the food is enterprising enough to come to them.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Sometimes we know the object of our desire. Sometimes we don't.
In 1967, Jean-Luc Godard made three films, all of which contained a certain amount of political content and biting social commentary. The first was 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, with the "Her" of the title being the city of Paris, which is in the process of transforming itself (or maybe it just seems that way because Godard keeps cutting to various construction sites). Another possible "Her" is his leading lady, Marina Vlady, who plays a mother of two who prostitutes herself to make extra money for her family. Her husband, mechanic Roger Montsoret, doesn't appear to have any problem with her vocation and may in fact have encouraged her to take it up. This film is far from a domestic drama, though. In fact, it can't even be said to have a conventional plot, which might put some viewers off, but those attuned to Godard's wavelength are likely to be enthralled by his brand of cinematic experimentation.
One way to tune in is to listen to the narration, which Godard whispers over the interstitial shots of the city, some of which slip by silently, while others are overwhelmed by noise. He also periodically has Vlady and some of the other actors address the camera directly and respond to unheard questions, all the while remaining in character. Furthermore, he's not above including a scene that takes place entirely in Vlady's imagination where Montsoret chats up a stranger about the meaning of talking. And if anyone has any doubts about where he stands on the Vietnam War, Godard has Vlady's son relate a dream about North and South Vietnam reuniting, and later on Vlady and an acquaintance have an assignation with an American war correspondent staying in a fancy hotel who makes them do degrading things like parade around with duty-free shopping bags over their heads. All in a day's work, eh?
First society gets careless with the criminal, and then the criminal gets careless.
The exploits of John Dillinger were still fresh in the public's imagination when Monogram set about committing his story to celluloid in 1945's Dillinger, the film that gave Lawrence Tierney his first starring role. Directed by Max Nosseck and written by Philip Yordan, whose original screenplay received an Academy Award nomination, the film breathlessly whisks us through the major events in Dillinger's criminal career, starting with the petty crime that gets him sent to the state prison where he's placed in a cell with bank robber Edmund Lowe. After his release, Tierney holds up a movie theater and then makes time with the pretty ticket seller (Anne Jeffreys) when she declines to finger him. (I guess that counts as "love at first sight" in criminal circles.) Then he engineers the escape of Lowe and his associates (Eduardo Ciannelli, Marc Lawrence and Elisha Cook Jr.) and together they pull a series of daring bank robberies.
Over time, Tierney starts to take charge of the gang, which Lowe resents, and makes his way onto the FBI's Most Wanted list. I don't know how much of the film is embellished (or, indeed, how much of it has been whitewashed), but I do know that his capture in Tuscon, Arizona, when he goes to the dentist with a toothache has to be true because that's too mundane to be made up. His subsequent escape, which he effects by carving a gun out of a block of wood and covering it with shoe polish (a trick Woody Allen would attempt to emulate in Take the Money and Run), may be more of stretch, though. As for the end of the story, that's telegraphed when Jeffreys convinces Tierney to take her out to the movies and he compliments her on her new dress, saying, "You look good in red." That's not his last line of dialogue, but it might as well be.
Monday, May 9, 2011
I rob banks for a living. What do you do?
The movie business was very different when screenwriter John Milius made his directorial debut with his own, far more violent Dillinger in 1973. For one thing, the onscreen killings could be a lot bloodier. For another, the criminals were allowed to be more sympathetic. (Call it the Bonnie and Clyde effect.) One thing that was still the same was the importance of having the right actor in the lead and Milius hit the jackpot with veteran tough guy Warren Oates, who earned his stripes in a number of films for Sam Peckinpah and demonstrated his acting chops in Monte Hellman's The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop. If anyone could make John Dillinger into a tough son of a bitch that you still cared about, it was Oates.
Milius skips the preliminaries and plunges us headlong into Dillinger's bank robbing career, in which he's aided by the likes of Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis and Frank McRae (a murderer he springs from prison during his wooden gun-aided escape), and later on joins up with Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly) and the trigger-happy Baby Face Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss) to form the Blind Faith of Depression-era gangs. No wonder G-man Ben Johnson (another Peckinpah regular who narrates the film) is so keen on taking them down and has no preference for whether he gets them dead or alive. As for the women in Dillinger's life, we spend the most time with his half-Indian girlfriend Michelle Phillips (of The Mamas & the Papas) and hardly any time at all with Romanian madam Cloris Leachman, who's told she looks good in red, because I guess that's a line that works its way into all films about Dillinger. I have no doubt that some variation on it appears in 1979's The Lady in Red, which would be next on my hit list if I could locate a copy. Instead, I'll have to make do with a more recent retelling...
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
I always enjoy a good joke as soon as I know about it.
I'm putting my Dillingerfest on hold momentarily to mark the 50th anniversary of Beyond the Fringe's first appearance on the West End stage. While the revue had famously had its initial run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (from whence it got its name) the year before, it wasn't until it was brought to London in 1961 that it was seen in its final, polished form. The fine tuning paid off because the show was an instant smash and, from that point on, the lives and careers of Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore -- and, indeed, the whole of British comedy -- would never be the same.
The only visual record we have of the show (other than cast photographs, of course) is a television broadcast of the "gala farewell performance" in 1964, which was directed by Duncan Wood (whose main job appears to have been to point his cameras in the direction of the performers and get out of their way). Not every sketch is as sharp as it once was (the passage of time has a way of blunting even the most biting satire) and I could have done with a few fewer songs (sorry, Dud), but there are still moments of sublime genius like Bennett and Miller's tiresome academics bantering about "Words... and Things," a flustered Cook being interviewed by Bennett about "The Great Train Robbery," an enthusiastic one-legged Moore applying for the role of Tarzan and being let down incredibly gently by Cook in "One Leg Too Few," and Cook's virtuoso solo turn in "Sitting on the Bench" that continue to work like gangbusters half a century on. There's a lot to be said for a bit of unrestrained silliness.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
What is it exactly you do for a living?
Michael Mann's Public Enemies failed to entice me inside a theater when it was released in 2009, but I figured I would get around to it eventually. (That reminds me, I keep forgetting that haven't seen Collateral or Miami Vice yet. I should get on those.) I probably skipped it because I wasn't in the mood for a film about cops and robbers in the heat of summer, but I doubt anyone would consider John Dillinger your typical thief. And neither was he the subject of your typical manhunt. No surprise, then, that Mann gives equal weight to his protagonists on both sides of the law.
Johnny Depp gets top billing as Dillinger, but the more interesting role belongs to Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the G-Man personally charged with taking him down by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Depp gets to show off some of his debonair charm in his scenes with Marion Cotillard (who's first seen in a red dress, but don't let that fool you), but his criminal cohorts (whose ranks include Stephen Dorff and Giovanni Ribisi) are largely interchangeable and the shootouts between them and the police aren't terribly exciting. In fact, the greatest conflicts appear to be internal, with Bale's growing dislike of the sometimes brutal methods he has to use echoed by Depp's discovery that his days as an independent operator are numbered thanks to the growing influence of organized crime. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Mann saw a bit of himself in both of them.
Friday, May 13, 2011
I was a ghost. I didn't see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.
In general, the Cannes Film Festival (which is going on even as I type this) has been good to the Coen Brothers. Their first time at bat with Barton Fink in 1991, they took home an unprecedented haul -- the Palme d'Or, Best Director and Best Actor. Five years later Fargo won Best Director, and five years after that they received the same award for The Man Who Wasn't There (shared with David Lynch for Mulholland Dr.). In between, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers, and No Country for Old Men all screened in competition, and The Ladykillers even received a Jury Prize for actress Irma P. Hall. Not a bad run, all things considered. So naturally I wanted to give The Man Who Wasn't There another look on the tenth anniversary of its world premiere (even if, as one character says, "The more you look, the less you really know").
Just about all Coen Brothers films turn on the commission of a crime, and The Man Who Wasn't There is no different since its protagonist is a small-town barber (Billy Bob Thornton) who decides the best way to get the seed money to invest in a dry cleaning operation is by blackmailing his wife's (Frances McDormand) boss (James Gandolfini) to the tune of $10,000. Sure, they're guilty of having an affair, but if Thornton hadn't shaken him down then none of them would have met their untimely ends. The genius of the Coens lies in making what happens seem inevitable from the moment Thornton first entertains the notion of bettering himself by throwing in his lot with a fast-talking entrepreneur (Jon Polito). Of course, you'd think a barber would know better than to trust a man who thinks he can fool the world with such a bad toupee. When that scheme unravels, Thornton somehow latches onto the idea of managing a piano prodigy (Scarlett Johansson), the daughter of an alcoholic widower (Richard Jenkins), but that proves to be just as much of a dead end -- quite literally, in fact.
Like many a noir hero before him, Thornton narrates his own story, which is helpful because in general he says as little as possible, especially compared to his brother-in-law (Michael Badalucco), who mortgages his barber shop to pay for the services of an expensive lawyer (Tony Shalhoub) when McDormand is arrested for a murder she didn't commit. We know she didn't do it because we follow Thornton when he's called away in the middle of telling us how he and McDormand first met, kills Gandolfini in self-defense, and resumes his story as soon as he returns home. That's exactly the kind of touch that only the Coens could come up with and be able to pull off. And there's plenty more to appreciate since they also rope in UFOs and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Pretty heady stuff for a story about a barber who gets in way over his head when he would have been much better off keeping it down, but that's just how the Coen Brothers roll.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
All this fresh air makes you hungry.
Since I polished off my final "Chilling Classic" last October I haven't been too eager to return to my other Mill Creek 50 Movie Packs (with one holiday-themed exception), but this month's Kryptic Army Mission is all cannibal movies, all the time, and there's one each among the "Nightmare Worlds" and "Drive-In Movie Classics," so I guess I'm back in the Mill Creek business. Accordingly, I've decided to knock them both out today. (And I've recently acquired a fourth set from Mill Creek for reasons which will become clear in a few months, so I'll be in bed with them for some time to come.)
First up is 1972's Terror at Red Wolf Inn, which has gone out under a number of alternate titles over the years, including Terror House, Terror on the Menu and, for those not into the whole "terror" scene, The Folks at Red Wolf Inn. Directed by Bud Townsend, who was also responsible for the infamous Nightmare in Wax and Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy, the film stars Linda Gillen as a ditzy co-ed who wins a free vacation at the titular inn and is slow to catch on to the fact that her elderly hosts (Mary Jackson and Arthur Space) are more than a little on the strange side. Or maybe she turns a blind eye because their hunky grandson (John Neilson) seems to be sweet on her, but even he has his moments. Take, for example, his violent freakout when he catches a shark and beats it to death, after which he turns to Gillen, casually declares, "I think I love you," and wanders off.
Gillen isn't the only giggly young woman who's slow on the uptake. Her fellow guests are an aspiring model (Janet Wood) and a black hitchhiker (Margaret Avery) who both get big going-away bashes where they're stuffed silly -- all so their hosts can fatten them up. (You can probably guess where this is going long before Gillen puts it together.) Her only hope is that Neilson really is serious about her, but he's been kept in such a state of arrested development that escape seems all but unlikely. There are some nice, oddball touches throughout (I particularly like the way Space talks to his plants as if they're people), but the film squanders any and all goodwill it might have built up by concluding with the most egregious twist/wink to the audience this side of The Cold. That's a great way to leave a bad taste in my mouth.
Perhaps I should have cleansed my palate before moving on to my second feature, but 1978's Slave of the Cannibal God (a.k.a. The Mountain of the Cannibal God in its uncut form) held the promise of actual stars (Ursula Andress and Stacy Keach), so I heedlessly forged on. In a lot of ways, Slave set the template for co-writer/director Sergio Martino's immediate followup, Island of the Fishmen, which similarly takes place in an exotic locale and substitutes shock and gore for anything approaching real horror (and was also hacked up by its American distributor). In this case, Andress plays a woman who flies to New Guinea (arriving on Pakistan International of all airlines) and recruits a principled scientific researcher (Keach) to lead an illegal expedition to find her husband, who has gone missing in the jungle.
Not only does Andress insist on coming along -- over Keach's objections -- but her asshole brother (Antonio Marsina) also joins the rescue party, which doesn't take long to rack up a body count. First, Keach's faithful assistant goes missing in the middle of the night. Then one of the native guides is attacked by an alligator, another is killed by an animal trap, and a third is beheaded by a masked cannibal (actually one of the better effects shots in the film because it isn't lingered over). When they arrive at a peaceful mission to lick their wounds, Marsina is seduced by a topless native who is subsequently speared by a cannibal, and freelance adventurer Claudio Cassinelli joins the expedition at Andress's behest. Now back up to four, the group sets out in search of the holy mountain where Andress's husband was headed and miraculously finds him unharmed and they all live happily ever after.
I'm kidding, of course. What really happens is an injured Keach is lost through Marsina's negligence, the others are captured by the cannibals, who roast and eat the son of a bitch, Andress is made into a living idol, Cassinelli is tied up and force fed by a midget, and eventually he breaks his bonds and frees Andress so they can escape together. The cannibals give chase and their flight is scored by the same repetitive music that was played over every other action sequence in the film. With those cumbersome masks they must have the field of vision of your average Stormtrooper.
I can't be the only person given to thoughts like that.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
You don't look the scared type at all.
When one thinks of the New German Cinema movement, the names that most readily come to mind are Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders. Since I've spent the past few months digging into the others' early work, I figure it's time I did the same for Wenders, but try as I might I've been unable to locate his debut feature, 1970's Summer in the City. Luckily, I've had better luck with his follow-up, 1972's The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, which is what I caught up with today.
Based on a novel by Peter Handke, who collaborated on the screenplay with Wenders, the film is an oblique affair, filled with lots of brief blackout scenes and opaque characters whose motivations are unknown to us. This is especially the case with professional goal-tender Arthur Brauss, who's at loose ends after a match and stalks a movie theater cashier (Erika Pluhar) who doesn't seem to mind when he follows her home. In fact, she doesn't even introduce herself or get his name under the morning after they've slept together, and he's barely had time to get dressed before he strangles her in her bed and dispassionately removes his fingerprints from the crime scene. From there he takes the bus to the border town where he grew up and keeps tabs on developments in the case through the newspapers (since the 24-hour news cycle is still a couple decades away.)
While he's home, Brauss reconnects with an old friend (Kai Fischer) who now runs the local inn and has a four-year-old daughter underfoot. His murder investigation is contrasted with the story of a missing dumb schoolboy, which results in the arrest of a gypsy, but Brauss walks around free as a bird and doesn't even attract attention when he starts a fight with some drunks and gets the shit kicked out of him. At the end of the film it's still an open question whether he'll be caught or not, but if his plan is to hide in plain sight, he's sure doing a brilliant job of it.
Children don't necessarily grow up the way you want them to.
When I first read about Hirokazu Kore-eda's 2008 film Still Walking I was intrigued by all the comparisons critics made to the works of Ozu. Now that I've seen it for myself, I can confirm that they are most apt indeed and the praise heaped upon the film exceedingly well-deserved. The story is centered around a grumpy retired doctor (Yoshio Harada) and his long-suffering wife (Kirin Kiki) who play host to their grown children and their families on the anniversary of their eldest son's death by drowning. Their other son (Hiroshi Abe), a struggling art restorer, is a disappointment to Harada because he didn't follow in his footsteps, and his marriage to a widowed single mother (Yui Natsukawa) has also raised some eyebrows. Meanwhile, their daughter (pop singer You, who played the absent mother in Kore-eda's Nobody Knows) is married to a layabout (Kazuya Takahashi) and keeps dropping hints about moving back in so she can take care of them. Harada and Kiki choose to cling to their independence, though.
It all sounds pretty cut-and-dried, but the way Kore-eda orchestrates the action you never feel like you're being told something just for the sake of exposition or as a means of advancing some subplot. In fact, his naturalistic approach helps ground the characters in specific behavior (like all the activity that goes into the preparation of their meals) and universal emotions. There are even a few surprise revelations that are underplayed to such a degree that it's easy to miss their significance if you're not paying close enough attention. In the end, the film is most knowing about the ways people deal with death and the grief that can linger long after a loved one has passed on. As Natsukawa tells her young son (Shohei Tanaka), who's constantly reminded of his own father's absence, "Even when they die, people don't really go away." Depending on how you look at it, that's not necessarily a comforting thought.
Monday, May 16, 2011
It'll be just like in the movies. We'll pretend to be someone else.
For my second Cannes 2001 flashback, I chose David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., which not only netted him Best Director at the festival, but an Oscar nomination in the same category to boot. Not bad for a failed pilot that was expanded to feature length -- and beyond -- with the help of French financing. This, of course, meant that Lynch didn't have the luxury of parceling out the weirdness over the course of a television season, but rather had to encapsulate everything in the space of two and half hours. Accordingly, he winds up leaving several strands dangling and a number of characters (most notably Robert Forster's police detective) appear once and are never seen or heard from again, but that only adds to the film's kaleidoscopic vision of Los Angeles, a town where nothing is ever quite what it seems.
This is only my fourth time seeing the film, but I feel confident in saying that I now have a clear idea of what it's about. I wouldn't say I understand everything that goes on (that would be foolhardy), but if you look at it from a certain angle the pieces can't help but fall into place. On its face, it appears to be about an aspiring actress (Naomi Watts), newly arrived in town, who meets an amnesiac accident victim (Laura Elena Harring) and helps her try to piece together her identity. Meanwhile, a headstrong director (Justin Theroux) runs afoul of the Castigliani Brothers (Dan Hedaya and Lynch's regular composer Angelo Badalamenti), who threaten to shut down his film if he doesn't cast their choice for the female lead. These plots only cross paths once, and then only fleetingly, so it's tantalizing to imagine the ways Lynch would have had them intertwine had he been given the time to develop them organically. Instead, he takes the story in a decidedly surreal direction, revealing the layers of hidden meanings that have been lurking beneath the surface the whole time.
The WTF moments start coming fast and furious in the home stretch, but there are plenty of bizarre scenes and off-kilter characters to go around. Some of my favorites include the monster lurking behind the Winkie's on Sunset Boulevard; the mysterious (and apparently all-powerful) Mr. Rogue, who's played by Twin Peaks's resident dwarf, Michael J. Anderson; the most fucked-up hit in the history of cinema, which is carried out by bungling hit man Mark Pellegrino (known to me as the malevolent Bishop on Syfy's Being Human); and Theroux's ominous meeting with "The Cowboy" (Monty Montgomery), who gets his point across without ever raising his voice. I can still recall the audible gasps in the cinema when he reappeared later on. That is the sign of a true master at work. It is my fervent hope that Lynch won't keep us waiting long for the next surprise.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
What kind of animal would throw its prey into a garbage dumpster and then take off in a truck?
Another month, another Full Moon Feature. This month's selection is 1989's Night Shadow, a film I had never heard of before, but it came in the four-movie pack with Howling IV (along with Raging Sharks and the priceless Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep) and helped me justify shelling out the $3 for it at HorrorHound. I knew the film couldn't possibly live up to its cover image -- which depicts a man with a howling wolf's head and hairy shoulders who's wearing pants that have slipped down to reveal his underwear, which I assume he'll break out of when the transformation reaches his midriff -- but a werewolf movie is a werewolf movie is a werewolf movie...
Unless, of course, that werewolf movie is Night Shadow, which sends up its first red flag during the opening credits when it's revealed that it's "based on a concept and creature designed by Mark Crowe." Not that I have anything against Crowe and his creature design work, mind you, but if this movie got made simply because he had a werewolf suit lying around, that's not a good enough reason. I guess it was sufficient for writer/director Randolph Cohlan, though, who killed two birds with one swipe of the claw by making Night Shadow both his directorial debut and swan song. It was also one of the last films for veteran character actor Aldo Ray (as Gene Krebelski, novelty fish product salesman), and it was the first and last for Rick Scott, who got the role of a lifetime -- literally -- as the bearded drifter with the gnarly fingernails who (shock! horror! puzzlement!) turns out to be a werewolf. (I often wonder why low-budget movies bother "introducing" actors if they're only going to fade back into the woodwork.)
Actually, the star of the film is Brenda Vance, who plays a successful TV anchorwoman who chooses to spend her vacation in her sleepy hometown and finds that she's being stalked by a real creep (guess who) who seems to have some kind of a psychic connection with her -- that is, when he isn't killing old men for their pickup trucks. While she's home, Vance checks in with her brother (Dane Chan), a kickboxing handyman in a half-shirt, and make time with an old flame (Tom Boylan), whose job as sheriff is complicated by the vicious mutilations that get dropped into his lap. Meanwhile, Chan pulls pranks on and with his two asshole friends (Kato Kaelin -- yes, that Kato Kaelin -- and Orien Richman), who are marked for death when they steal the drifter's diary out of his stinky motel room.
Now, there are some people who will say it's worth tracking this movie down just so you can watch Kato Kaelin get a metal pipe shoved through his chest by a hairy werewolf. Let me assure you, these people are wrong. If there's any entertainment to be wrung out of this tedious monster movie, it can be found in the performance of Jeannette Lewis as the unflappable county coroner. Not only does she deliver the requisite werewolf movie dialogue ("All of the victims were mutilated in exactly the same way. There are definite signs of an animal attack.") like a champ, but she also says one of the funniest lines I've ever heard in any werewolf movie: "The woman's head is missing, making identification very difficult." I tell you, that's Academy Award material right there.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
The best plans can be wiped out at any moment by what we call fate.
In the near-future, the A.V. Club will be adding the "non-shitty version" of Dutch filmmaker George Sluizar's The Vanishing to its New Cult Canon, so tonight I gave it a look-see and found it to be most non-shitty indeed. (Scott Tobias had to specify which version because the shitty American remake from 1993 was also directed by Sluizar, who blazed the trail that Danish director Ole Bornedal would follow a few years later with the redundant remake of his 1994 thriller Nightwatch that he photocopied at the behest of Miramax in 1997.) Based on the novel The Golden Egg by Tim Krabbé, who also wrote the original screenplay which was adapted by Sluizer, the 1988 version of The Vanishing stars Gene Bervoets and Johanna ter Steege as a Dutch couple on vacation in France and Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu as a weirdo who abducts ter Steege at a rest stop, leaving Bervoets scrambling to find out what happened to her. Seems straightforward enough (one can see why a Hollywood remake was a given pretty much from the get-go), but Sluizer throws the audience a curve by keeping the abduction offscreen and staying with Bervoets as it slowly dawns on him that something is very, very wrong.
From there, the film jumps back in time to follow Donnadieu as he makes his preparations and rehearses his plan, while also letting us in on the fact that he has a wife and two daughters, which automatically marks him as not your average, ordinary criminal. Then it flashes forward three years and finds Bervoets still doggedly putting up missing posters and chasing down leads whenever he receives a postcard from Donnadieu, who arranges meetings but never shows up for them. The need to know what happened drives Bervoets's obsession and drive away his new girlfriend (Gwen Eckhaus), who's indulgent but not infinitely patient. It's only after she leaves him for good that Donnadieu approaches Bervoets and makes the irresistible offer: "Come with me to France and you'll know everything." Naturally, it's up to Bervoets to play audience surrogate and go with him, otherwise the movie wouldn't have much of an ending -- and the one it has is pretty damn great. I don't even want to think about how the remake must have fucked it up.
Friday, May 20, 2011
A writer writes from his gut. His gut tells him what's good and what's merely adequate.
Twenty years ago, the world bore witness to the de facto coronation of the Coen Brothers when the jury at Cannes awarded their fourth feature, 1991's Barton Fink, the Palme d'Or, Best Director and Best Actor -- an unprecedented sweep. Alas, that did not translate to big box office at home or any little gold statuettes (despite three Oscar nominations), but for those in the know, Coen Country was unmistakably on the map.
I'd rather not go into a whole lot of detail about the plot of Barton Fink since it's probably their most picked-over film, but it's one that makes for suitably apocalyptic viewing on the eve of the Rapture. (Another good choice would have been Michael Tolkin's The Rapture, which also came out in 1991.) Born out of a severe case of writer's block the Coens came down with while working on Miller's Crossing, the film is about an painfully earnest playwright (John Turturro in a career-defining performance) who's obsessed with writing for and about "the common man" but allows himself to be talked into going to Hollywood for what his agent assures him will be a "brief tenure." There he's steamrolled by the fast-talking studio head who's bought his services (Best Supporting Actor nominee Michael Lerner) and who's "taken an interest" in injecting the "Barton Fink feeling" into a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. Hardly Oscar material.
Throughout his Hollywood sojourn, Barton meets an array of colorful characters, starting with Chet (Steve Buscemi), the enthusiastic desk clerk at the cavernous, seemingly deserted Hotel Earle, where Barton takes up residence next door to a boisterous insurance salesman (John Goodman) who would seem to be his lifeline to the common man if only he would shut up long enough to hear his stories. ("I could tell you some stories," is one of Goodman's repeated refrains.) He also make the acquaintance of a dessicated Southern author gone to seed (John Mahoney) and his personal secretary/enabler (Judy Davis), but mostly he's bedeviled by distractions (mosquitoes, peeling wallpaper, the stifling heat) that prevent him from getting down to business. And having just seen them in The Man Who Wasn't There, it's fun to see Jon Polito and Tony Shalhoub pop up as Lerner's whipping boy and the harried producer put on Barton's Wallace Beery picture, respectively.
And speaking of pictures, this was the first time the Coen Brothers used cinematographer Roger Deakins (replacing Barry Sonnenfeld, who had gone on to a directing career of his own). Based on his work in this film (which includes some incredibly complicated camera moves), it's no surprise that he would become an integral part of their team from this point on. (The only film of theirs that he hasn't shot in the past two decades was Burn After Reading, which must have been the result of a scheduling conflict. 2008 was something of a busy year for him.) This was also the first film since Blood Simple where they got to work with profoundly irritable editor Roderick Jaynes, whose introduction to the Barton Fink & Miller's Crossing book from Faber & Faber is a must-read. Definitely gives you a different perspective on their working methods.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
We need to confront vague ideas with clear images.
One of Godard's most political films, if not the most, is 1967's La Chinoise, which is about a cell of Maoist students who take up residence in the Paris apartment of one of their members while her bourgeois parents are away for the summer. They listen to Radio Peking, study Mao's Little Red Book, lecture each other about the meaning of Stalin's death and Vietnam, and pose questions like, "Why is being American intolerable?" I suppose it doesn't occur to them to ask why being French is any better.
The core of the cell is made up of two couples: Anne Wiazemsky (star of Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar) and Jean-Pierre Léaud (as a fanatical actor), and Juliet Berto (who was raised on a farm and is fanatical about cleaning) and Michel Semeniako (who is declared a revisionist and excluded when he rejects the formation of a "combat unit"). Also hanging around is the suicidal Lex De Bruijn, who never seems to have much to say and can't even be persuaded to give up his life for the cause. More radical than their politics, though, is Godard's penchant for showing his camera and sound equipment (and their operators) and even including a number of production slates, just in case his audience was in any danger of forgetting that they're watching a film. Mission accomplished, comrade.
A revolution takes place only when there is no other way out.
After winning the Palme d'Or with The Go-Between at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, Joseph Losey's next project was 1972's somewhat less well-received The Assassination of Trotsky. It was a film that reunited him with his Boom! star Richard Burton, who played the title role, and introduced him to Alain Delon, who would return as the title character in 1976's Mr. Klein. In this film, though, Delon is a Spanish Communist mercenary who poses as a Belgian importer/exporter so he can infiltrate Trotsky's well-guarded compound in Mexico City and kill the exiled revolutionary. It's a part I know well having essayed it in the David Ives play Variations on the Death of Trotsky, but I must say Delon's approach is much more sober than the one I used.
The film opens on May Day in 1940, the year of Trotsky's death, and quickly establishes the circumstances of his exile, which isn't so lonely for him since he's constantly surrounded by supporters, including his faithful wife (Valentina Cortese) and a young idealist (Romy Schneider). In fact, Schneider is the one who unwittingly facilitates Delon's entry into Trotsky's inner circle, in spite of her nagging doubts about his identity. (Heck, you'd think she would have dumped his ass after he takes her to a particularly brutal bullfight and doesn't bat an eye at the gruesome display.) For her part, Cortese also has her suspicions about Delon, but they come far too late to prevent her husband from getting an ice axe in the skull. At least Losey has the good sense not to beat the audience over the head with the unsubtle symbolism. One bullfighting allusion is plenty.
In war, life is so simple. It's only afterwards that complications arise.
Lars von Trier may currently be "persona non grata" at Cannes (a ridiculous situation that will likely blow over about as quickly as this whole Rapture nonsense did), but 20 years ago his film Europa made a big splash at the festival, winning the Jury Prize, Best Artistic Contribution (whatever that means), and the Technical Grand Prize (which he had previously collected with The Element of Crime in 1984). The final part of von Trier's "Europa Trilogy," Europa is set in postwar Germany and follows newly arrived American pacifist Jean-Marc Barr, who lands a cushy job as a sleeping-car conductor with Zentropa thanks to his irascible uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) and gets inextricably tangled up with the family that owns the company.
Barr first comes to the attention of prodigal daughter Barbara Sukowa, and is soon invited to dinner by her father (Jørgen Reenberg) and meets her petulant brother (Udo Kier), who has quite the chip on his shoulder. He's also confronted by the existence of the Werwolf -- domestic terrorists who aren't ready to give up their Nazi ties -- and is asked to watch out for them by American colonel Eddie Constantine (appearing in one of his final films). Sounds pretty straightforward, but von Trier wraps it all up in transparently artificial imagery, making frequent use of back projection, and freely alternating between black and white and color stock, much as his characters switch back and forth between English and German without warning. He also gets the most mileage I've ever seen out of an omniscient narrator (Max von Sydow), whose mastery is unquestioned from the first frame to the last. This is audacious, virtuoso filmmaking and a sure sign that the man behind the camera knows what he's doing when he breaks the rules. Perhaps those who wish to censor him should keep that in mind.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
You're dealing with a devious, diabolical mind.
When I first saw Basic Instinct back in 1992, I must have thought it was oh, so sophisticated. Now, not so much, but that's mostly because I have more perspective on Paul Verhoeven's career. Sure, I still have a couple of his '70s films to catch up with (and, umm, Showgirls), but Verhoeven played the erotic thriller game so much more effectively (and more interestingly) one decade earlier in The Fourth Man. Of course, that film didn't boast a screenplay by Joe Eszterhas (who staked out similar territory in 1985's Jagged Edge), but there's a reason why Verhoeven considers Basic Instinct to be a loose remake of that film.
In the Renée Soutendijk role of the sexy blond siren who leads the main character (in this case, volatile homicide detective Michael Douglas) astray, Verhoeven cast Sharon Stone and effectively made her a star with a single scene (that would be the infamous police interrogation where she uncrosses her legs and reveals -- to anyone who cares to pause the DVD -- what her vagina looks like). Stone may never quite convince as a successful author with a degree in psychology or even as a part-time lesbian (whose partner, Leilani Sarelle, is one of a number of suspects the film throws our way for the gruesome ice pick murder it opens with), but she can sure wrap her lips around a cigarette. The film also features George Dzundza as Douglas's crude partner, Jeanne Tripplehorn as the police psychologist he's seeing (and who used to see a lot more of, if you know what I mean), Wayne Knight as the assistant district attorney who gets an eyeful during the aforementioned interrogation scene, and Stephen Tobolowsky as the psychological profiler who tells Douglas exactly what he's dealing with. Not that this prevents him from essentially taking his life in his hands by hooking up with Stone. Then again, this wouldn't be much of an erotic thriller if he didn't.
Whether one buys the story or not, it's impossible to argue that the film isn't well-mounted. For one thing, it reunited Verhoeven with cinematographer Jan de Bont for the first time since 1985's Flesh + Blood -- and just in the nick of time, too, since de Bont was about to move into the director's chair with Speed. It also saw him team up for the second time with composer Jerry Goldsmith, who had a way of elevating every project he worked on. As for Verhoeven's working relationship with Eszterhas, that would continue three years later with the ill-fated Showgirls. Whether I like it or not, sooner or later I'm going to have to bite the bullet and watch that. On the other hand, I'm sure I can skip Basic Instinct 2. They may not be well-defined, but even I have my limits.
Monday, May 23, 2011
I don't know how much longer I want to play this game.
For my final Cannes 2001 flashback, I watched Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, which was awarded the Grand Prix (the second-highest prize at the festival) and Best Actress and Actor. As anyone who's seen the film can attest, Isabelle Huppert definitely deserved it for diving headfirst into the role of a deranged music professor who enters into a sado-masochistic relationship with a student (Best Actor winner Benoît Magimel) whose aggressive nature both attracts and repels her. Of course, it doesn't help that she has the worst stage mother this side of Barbara Hershey in Black Swan, which is all the more pathetic when you consider that Huppert is clearly in her 40s and therefore has little chance of being "discovered." Not only does she still live at home, but her overbearing mother (Annie Girardot) is constantly checking up on her, which probably accounts for why she has so many sexual and emotional hang-ups.
As is frequently the case in Haneke's films, it takes some time for Huppert to reveal the depths of her psychosis. Much like the main character in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the camera dispassionately observes her in uncomfortably long takes while she engages in erratic behavior which becomes increasingly dangerous, both to herself and others. Her passive-aggressiveness even compels her to destroy a student's chances of playing professionally just before an important recital. Little wonder, then, that Magimel tells her, "It's totally sick what you're doing here." That's as may be, but it doesn't prevent him from coming back for more.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Your mother's going away for a little while.
Based on its premise alone, I knew Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows was going to be a tough watch, especially since Kore-eda took his inspiration from actual events that occurred in Tokyo in the late '80s. It's a film about a single mother of four (pop singer You, who later appeared in the director's Still Walking) who moves her children into a new apartment building and eventually leaves them to fend for themselves, but not before putting the eldest son (Yuya Yagira, who won Best Actor at Cannes in 2004) in charge. The tricky part is he's the only one the landlord knows about since the two youngest (Hiei Kimura and Momoko Shimizu) were smuggled in inside suitcases and the older daughter (Ayu Kitaura) was made to wait until dark so she could sneak in undetected. As far as anybody on the outside knows, the second-floor apartment is occupied by a 12-year-old boy and his mother, who often gets home late from work, so why would anybody notice when she stops coming home altogether?
The first time the mother disappears, she's absent for about a month, but then returns bearing gifts and the promise that she'll be back for Christmas. (Take a guess what doesn't happen.) In the meantime, Yagira tries his best to manage the little money he's been left with and keep his siblings fed, but eventually the gas, water and electricity get shut off for nonpayment and they have to improvise, but ingenuity can only take a group of unsupervised minors so far. Kore-eda finds subtle ways to suggest the passage of time, from their unchecked hair growth to the way Yagira's clothing steadily deteriorates. Then there are the seeds that the children gather during one of their rare outings and plant on the veranda, only to see them spilling out of their improvised planters a few cuts later. The more desperate their situation gets, the more tense the film becomes, which is why the occasional lyrical passages showing the children behaving like children are such a welcome relief. Make no mistake, though, this one's a real heartbreaker.
Friday, May 27, 2011
It's kind of like playing the same scene over.
Two years after baffling audiences with the bifurcated Tropical Malady, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul employed a similar structure for 2006's Syndromes and a Century, which tells the story of two doctors who meet when one applies for a position at a hospital. In both parts Jaruchai Iamaram plays an ex-army doctor looking for a job in the private sector, but only in the first half is he tongue-tied around his interviewer (Nantarat Sawaddikul), who recommends him despite the fact that he doesn't know what DDT stands for. Weerasethakul based the film on his own parents' courtship, so I suspect there's something to that detail, as well the story Sawaddikul tells later on about the orchid grower (Sophon Pukanok) who was once sweet on her, but he never really gives it a resolution. Then there's the separate thread ("subplot" would be too strong a word to describe it) about the staff dentist who moonlights as a singer (Arkanae Cherkam) and how his career path is contrasted with that of a young monk who wanted to be a DJ (Sakda Kaewbuadee).
Syndromes is a deeply meditative film with much talk of reincarnation, so it shouldn't be too surprising when Weerasethakul effectively reboots the story in a different setting -- this time placing the action in and around a more modern, urban facility. After a few scenes that are repeated almost verbatim, though, the story and characters diverge and are allowed to follow their own path. (For example, Iamaram doesn't appear to be romantically interested in Sawaddikul in the second half and they barely interact once their interview is complete.) The lack of a resolution is even more acute the second time around and after a certain point viewers have to give up on figuring out what the images mean and just appreciate them for what they are. With Weerasethakul at the helm, though, that's not much of a problem.
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Your samurai brawls are crazy fun.
This past weekend, while I was on my home turf to attend a wedding, I took the train across the river to take in Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, which opened at the Ritz at the Bourse on the 13th and was only supposed to stick around for one week, but I'm glad it was held over long enough for me to catch it. A fairly serious-minded remake of a samurai film from 1963 (which was itself based on a true incident which took place near the end of Japan's feudal period), it tells the story of a band of warriors who are charged with killing the Shogun's half-brother, a particularly cruel and pitiless lord, before he can attain more power and influence. It's almost certainly a suicide mission, but their leader (Kôji Yakusho) accepts the assignment without hesitation since he's been "wishing for a noble death." Among those he recruits for the mission, the ones who stand out are his nephew (Takayuki Yamada), a gambler who lacks direction in his life, and his star pupil (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who gets to play the part of the total badass. Along the way they're also joined by a hunter who claims to come from samurai stock (Yûsuke Iseya) and proves to be a resourceful ally.
On the other side of the fence are Gorô Inagaki, who's a lightning rod for hate as the evil Lord Naritsugu (who goes so far as to use innocent women and children for target practice at one point), and Masachika Ichimura as his chief bodyguard (and one of Yakusho's old classmates), whose strict adherence to the samurai code compels him to put his life and those of his men on the line even though he knows his master is unworthy of the sacrifice. And the sacrifice is, indeed, great, particularly during the hellacious 35-minute battle that ensues when Yakusho and his men ambush the veritable army accompanying Inagaki on his way to the capital to join the Shogun's council. Itís only then that Miike unleashes the ultraviolence for which heís known -- and the wait is absolutely worth it. (I knew I was in for a more mature Miike when the film opened with a samurai committing hara-kiri and the camera stayed on his face the whole time. Thatís the kind of restraint that would have been unheard of in the Miike films of yore.) Even if it didn't bowl them over at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I eagerly await the arrival of his follow-up, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai.
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
You never know what he'll do. He's a monster!
It's not terribly surprising that Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins had many echoes of the work of Akira Kurosawa -- and I don't just mean Seven Samurai. As a matter of fact, the first film it put me in mind of was 1962's Sanjuro, which was Kurosawa's immediate follow-up to Yojimbo and his first sequel since Sanshiro Sugata Part II two decades earlier. The only character the two films have in common is Toshiro Mifune's nameless ronin (who always picks one based on his surroundings whenever he's asked), who reluctantly joins the cause of nine bumbling young samurai out to expose corruption in their clan. ("I can't watch you blunder your way to your deaths," is the undiplomatic way he puts it.)
As in the earlier film, Mifune is the deadliest guy around with a sword and he also plays both sides of the fence, pretending to join the bad guys so he can get the lowdown on their plans. This pits him against the corrupt superintendent's chief henchman (Tatsuya Nakadai), a sharp fellow and probably his most dangerous adversary. He certainly doesn't have as much to worry about from the superintendent himself (Masao Shimizu) or his two nervous collaborators (Kamatari Fujiwara and Takashi Shimura), who have kidnapped the local chamberlain in an attempt to pin their crimes on him. Leave it to Mifune to figure out how to spring the old man without shedding too much blood -- at the old man's wife's request. Sheesh, lady. Do you want your husband rescued or not?
Back to April 2011 -- Onward to June 2011
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