Tuesday, 01 January 2008
Happy New Year!
I watched 403 movies in 2007. These were some of my favorites, in order of viewing.
Things To Come (1936) The opening sequence is a great demonstration of the art of editing. H. G. Wells adapted his own novel for the screen, about how we bomb ourselves back into the stone age. The special effects are very impressive and the apocalyptic mood is genuinely disturbing. You can read Wells's film treatment here. "If we do not end war—war will end us. Everybody says that, millions of people believe it, and nobody does anything."
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) I wouldn't recommend this to most people I know but I have a real weakness for this kind of mid twentieth century Americana. Jimmy Stewart plays a stressed-out office worker who takes his family on a vacation which for him is more torture than leisure. The Cinemascope photography is beautiful and Henry Mancini's score is great. I even like the "Cream Puff" song, though it will make most viewers today scramble for the "fast forward" (or "stop") button on the remote. One of the things I appreciated about this movie is that it's surprisingly melancholy. The characters are more anxious, depressed and defeated than anything else. Somehow this is combined (successfully, in my opinion) with comedy and corny teen romance (Fabian). Also stars Maureen O'Hara and John Saxon.
The Host (2006) A giant monster movie as Samuel Fuller might have made one. No coy build-up, no dragging human interest; we see the monster immediately and we see it a lot. A deranged American scientist pollutes the Han river and a giant, mutant carnivorous amphibian is the result. The government exploits its citizens fears to cover up the incident and causes more deaths. Director and co-writer Boong Joon-ho also made the excellent Memories of Murder, also with star Song Kang-ho.
Gamera the Brave (2006) Gamera dies by way of nuclear self-destruction, apparently the only way to save people from attacking monsters. Thirty years later, a young boy finds a turtle egg which hatches a new Gamera. Monsters attack again, before Gamera is fully grown and able to defend itself, let alone anybody else. Children, who have always had a special bond with Gamera, work together to help the struggling turtle. With great special effects and a great story, this new Gamera film for younger audiences succeeds despite its departing completely from the tone of the excellent 1990s Gamera movies.
Dinner at Eight (1933) Ah, New York in the '30s! I was entranced by this melodrama and didn't want it to end. Shipping magnate Lionel Barrymore and his wife Billie Burke plan a dinner party for visiting diplomats. Among the other society types invited are an especially saucy Jean Harlow, predatory business rival Wallace Beery, alcoholic John Barrymore and old flame Marie Dressler. By turns funny, touching and sad.
Each Dawn I Die (1939) I heard a lot about how stunning it was when Sean Penn cried in Mystic River, but I was much more affected by James Cagney in this movie, such as when he returns to his prison cell after a visit from his mother or cries in despair at a parole hearing. He's a reporter who's been framed by corrupt politicians. In jail he forms a bond with ruthless gangster George Raft and each makes sacrifices to help the other. The first few minutes of this movie, which have no dialogue, are photographed (by Arthur Edeson, who also shot Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and many others) to superb atmospheric effect.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961) Cléo breezes around Paris, consumed with anxiety and thoughts of death as she awaits the results of a medical test which will show whether she has cancer. (I imagine this was an influence on Wings of Desire. Cléo, a famous pop singer, is like an angel floating through the Paris streets, mingling with and observing random human beings living their lives, always wonderful no matter how quotidien.) Eventually, in a development perhaps inspired by the Judy Garland movie The Clock (1945), she meets a soldier on leave from serving in Algeria. He lives with the probability of sudden, premature death every minute of the day but is interested only in life.
The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) A French silent adaptation of the Poe story, with fantastic special effects and great images. The “living painting” effect is brilliant and so simple! Great work with multiple exposures and models also. Usher paints his wife’s portrait and she dies as she is painted, as if her life’s blood transmigrates from her to the canvas. This film might have been where Paul Auster got the idea for Book of Illusions, or at least for the silent film he describes near the end of that book.
Memories of Murder (2003) A great police drama about a serial killer in a small town in South Korea. The local cops are slow to recognize the serial nature of the murders and have policing skills which don’t go beyond torturing suspects into making false confessions. A detective from Seoul arrives to help solve the case. The story is very suspenseful and relentless. This is not an exploitation film: we never see the killer doing anything more horrible than watching or bending over his victims. The grim but satisfying ending is the kind that most movies aren't allowed to have.
When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) A brilliantly made drama about a Ginza bar hostess. She’s learned the ropes and knows how to take care of herself but life is a constant struggle. The demands of both her family and her customers always threaten to swamp her and if she becomes vulnerable even for an instant, somebody will take advantage of her. The photography, editing, acting and careful use of music are impeccable and demonstrate director Mikio Naruse's perfection of tone and rhythm. Hideko Takamine is fantastic in the lead role and Tatsuya Nakadai is also great, as usual.
A Slight Case of Murder (1938) Very amusing gangster comedy. Edward G. Robinson made a fortune selling illegal beer during Prohibition, but now that booze is legal again he’s going to sell it legit, see? Unfortunately, he doesn’t drink beer and nobody has the courage to tell him that his product, Gold Velvet Beer, is awful, undrinkable swill. His brewery could make a fortune if it brewed real beer, but the bank’s about to foreclose on his mortgage. His daughter is engaged to a state trooper who’s from a very stiff, high-tone family. They come to meet the prospective in-laws while Robinson is having a wild party, complete with bank robbers, dead bodies and all kinds of comic mayhem.
A Man to Remember (1938) Edward Ellis plays an altruistic small-town doctor in this very well made drama. It opens with his funeral, attended by the entire town except for three wealthy and greedy men who are interested only in money the doctor owed them. The lawyer goes through the documents that make up the doctor’s estate, mostly unpaid bills for services rendered to those too poor to afford medical care, and each piece of paper triggers a flashback of an episode in the doctor’s life. As sentimental as the movie is, and as direct in delivering a message of social consciousness, it’s never heavy handed or maudlin. It was a big deal when this played at the Film Forum as it was thought that no print of it existed until one was discovered in a Dutch film archive. Nobody had seen this movie since its 1938 premiere.
Bounce Ko Gals (1997) A freewheeling story of a day and night in Shibuya and the bafflingly complex and perverse teenage female prostitution market. Many of the girls in the movie can earn big money by chaste activities such as going out to dinner, and nothing more, with a client. This is confusing and irritating to the yakuza whose traditional prostitution rackets can’t compete. The main plot concerns a teenage girl who tries to make some quick cash before escaping Japan for New York. The movie also points out the worldwide trend of exploitation of child labor of one kind or another.
Sympathy for the Underdog (1971) Experimenting with the techniques (disorienting editing and camera movements, extreme canted frames), that would reach their peak in his Graveyard of Honor, this is a more straightforward story of vengeance from director Kinji Fukasaku. Koji Tsuruta is a gangster who gets out of jail, reassembles the remains of his old gang and relocates to Okinawa where he grabs turf and sets himself up as the new anti-sheriff in town. When the powerful crime family that destroyed his old gang shows up and tries to take over, it’s a fight to the death. Great music by Takeo Yamashita and photography by Hanjiro Nakazawa. Koji Tsuruta is perfect in the lead role and Tomisaburo Wakayama is riveting as a one-armed but formidable Okinawan criminal.
Memento (2000) Excellent mystery story, told backwards from the point of view of somebody who has no short-term memory but, with the aid of tattoos and constant note- and photograph-taking, is determined to find and kill his wife's murderer. The plot is basically the same as “Revenge”, the first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The unusual way the story is told is what makes it interesting. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on a short story by his brother. I also really liked Nolan's movie of The Prestige.
Death Note & Death Note: The Last Name (2006) These two movies, which follow a popular manga and anime series, are like a wild re-imagining of the “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone. A notebook allows its owner to manipulate death. Write somebody’s name in it while picturing their face and they die. The first movie ends with the notebook’s owner, Light, preparing for a showdown with his nemesis, "L", a brilliant young man who works with the police and suspects that Light is behind all these recent mysterious deaths. The second movie plays like a chess game between these two, with many pawns killed and several painful sacrifices. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these movies, directed by Shusuke Kaneko, who made the three excellent Gamera movies of the 1990s and 2001's very entertaining Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack.
Le Corbeau (1943) Twisted story of a small town being terrorized by a poison-pen letter-writing campaign. Who is “The Raven” who knows everybody’s secrets? As the people get more and more desperate to discover and dispose of the informer in their midst, the town gets more and more dangerous. Made during WWII, is this an allegory of informers and collaborators of the Nazi occupation? There is a stirring speech about how good and evil are not absolutes but exist simultaneously in varying amounts in everybody. This is probably something a lot of people didn’t want to hear at the time.
The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963) A droll and charming comedy in the manner of the Ealing films, with Peter Sellers in the lead as a Cockney criminal mastermind who has a respectable front as a French dress designer. The back and forth between these two personalities is the source of much of the film’s humor and Sellers made me laugh out loud about ten seconds into his appearance. The plot concerns a gang of Australian crooks who are distressing both the London police and criminals by impersonating police officers and stealing from both sides of the law. Not only does Sellers’s French pose anticipate Inspector Clouseau, but he has the same problem here as in The Pink Panther, namely that the woman he loves is the spy who’s selling him out.
Two-Headed Cow (2006) Great documentary about Dexter Romweber, guitarist and leader of the Flat Duo Jets and one of my favorite musicians. He had a hardscrabble, abusive childhood which led to a wild adolescence. He started drinking and doing drugs when he was twelve years old. A love of ‘50s rock and roll may have saved his life. It started him doing something else, anyway, playing the guitar and piano, singing and writing songs. With Chris “Crow” Smith, he started the Flat Duo Jets, a guitar/drums duo. (When I was in Dim Sum Clip Job, we played on a bill with them in Memphis.) As he recounts in this documentary, the band crashed and burned after 15 years of hard work. Dexter had a nervous breakdown and didn’t touch a guitar for two years. He eventually returns to performing and the filmmakers cut between then and now shots of Dex, with great effect.
Millennium Actress (2001) This anime starts out straightforwardly enough, with a filmmaker and a cameraman making a documentary about a famous actress, now in her 70s and long retired and reclusive. It becomes a literal journey through her memories, one in which they all participate. It turns out that the director of the documentary worked at the same studio with her and once saved her life. Both of their memories weave in and out of each other and fade in and out of present day. The smoothness, fluidity and imagination of every scene and every transition are very impressive. This movie is impossible to categorize and I can’t imagine that it would work as a live-action film even though there are no scenes that would be difficult to realize as live action. My favorite of Satoshi Kon's movies.
Soldier (1998) An underrated and unpretentious movie with Kurt Russell as a futuristic soldier, conditioned for the job since birth. He’s rendered obsolete by the arrival of new genetically engineered soldiers. Left for dead on a junk planet, he joins a peaceful community of outcasts and becomes their only chance for salvation when the squad of new soldiers shows up to exterminate everybody as part of a training exercise. Great set design and a solid score by Joel McNeely.
Before I Hang (1940) An entertaining Boris Karloff vehicle with good sets and photography, particularly in the fog. He’s a doctor with an idea for a serum that will prevent the body’s deterioration in old age. It requires blood from the living, of course, and Karloff tries the formula on himself. He uses blood from a killer, though, and becomes one himself, in a Jekyll & Hyde sort of way.
Grandma's Boy (1922) Harold Lloyd plays a coward who learns to be tough. Highlights include a scene where he’s courting Mildred Davis and kittens are swarming around his feet trying to lick goose grease off his shoes and another scene where he and his rival for Mildred's affection try to hide the fact they’ve eaten mothballs which they thought were candy.
Jane Eyre (1944) Rebecca’s Joan Fontaine returns in a similar role, and Rebecca’s cinematographer, George Barnes, is back also. The photography in Jane Eyre is much more exciting than it is in Rebecca, perhaps because the filmmakers allowed themselves to get carried away. This is a movie that seems to be more painted than photographed. Bernard Herrmann’s passionate score, one of his best, works hand in glove with the film’s imagery and movement. Orson Welles is shamelessly and gloriously “in character”.
Linda Linda Linda (2005) Serene and thoughtful movie about Japanese high-school girls who have three days to assemble a new rock band to play a song at a school festival. They’ve lost two members, so the keyboard player picks up the guitar and they pick at random a Korean exchange student to be the singer. Like Give It All! (Gambatte Ikimassho!) it’s a touching, down to earth, believable story about a modest achievement which seems all the more triumphant because the stakes are low and it’s being done for the sake of doing it. This is a kind of film which seems to be made best in Japan.
The Black Room (1935) Another great Karloff movie. This time he's twins. The one who is Baron is evil and venal, feared and hated by the townspeople. His younger brother, whose right arm is paralyzed, is kind and gentle. The evil brother cedes authority to the good brother, then kills him and pretends to be him. This is an extremely well made thriller — check out the camera move when the evil Karloff has to sign a document using his left hand.
Never Give Up (1978) A very unusual movie, part First Blood, part Red Harvest. First Blood was probably what they were going for, with Takakura Ken as an ex-soldier who belonged to a secret army. He adopts a young girl who was the only survivor of a secret massacre. As the mystery of this past crime threatens them, the present gives them trouble also, in the form of a powerful crime syndicate that’s killing everyone who opposes their new construction project. Ken is great as usual, and the movie is surprisingly gory and unpredictable.
A Dirty Carnival (2006) This crime drama is about a low-level gangster whose life gets complicated as a result of reuniting with two old schoolmates. One is an aspiring filmmaker trying to make a gangster movie, the other an old flame. The gangster is desperately struggling to get ahead and, in a vulnerable moment, opens up to the filmmaker about his troubles. When the filmmaker makes a hit movie out of the gangster’s story, the gangster has to run from the cops while the filmmaker runs from the gangsters. Beautiful photography and lighting. The accordion music for the score is good but not enough. A greater variety of music would have made this movie better still.
The Wicked Lady (1945) Margaret Lockwood is thrilling as a selfish, lustful, rapacious troublemaker, a nineteenth-century juvenile delinquent, loving, stealing and killing … for kicks! She starts out by stealing her best friend’s fiance. He turns out to be a bore, though, so she becomes a bandit, sticking up carriages at night. She meets up with notorious highwayman James Mason, they throw off sparks like dynamite and start doing it all — and I mean all — together. Fun!
Mr. Brooks (2007) Kevin Costner is Man of the Year to the Portland Chamber of Commerce, the Thumbprint Killer to the police and media. He goes to AA meetings where he identifies himself as “an addict” in an effort to stop from killing. William Hurt plays the murderous part of his personality. Costner and Hurt work very well together, making good use of a few synchronized movements and other pieces of business, but never overdo it. Demi Moore plays a cop who’s after him while being pursued by another serial killer she arrested years ago. Costner’s character is troubled both by a blackmailer who wants to be his apprentice and by his daughter who may have inherited his addiction. Extremely entertaining and well done right up until the very end where there are two flaws, the major one involving Moore’s character. I loved it until then. I'm glad that a big star like Costner will take a role like this instead of restricting himself to bland, mainstream pap. There are some similarities to Darkly Dreaming Dexter.
The Quiet Earth (1985) Very similar to The World, The Flesh and The Devil, but The Quiet Earth is actually good. This New Zealand movie is yet another last man on Earth story and, as usual, he’s not really the last man on Earth. As in The World, The Flesh and The Devil, he finds that he shares the planet with one woman of his own race and one man of another race. Sexual and racial tensions once again come to the surface but in The Quiet Earth they’re handled with restraint. The screenplay and acting are excellent, and the movie itself is well paced and absorbing, intelligent and satisfying, with a great ending.
Exte (2007) I thought this movie about haunted hair extensions was going to be ridiculous and more or less bad, but it’s actually excellent, the best “body horror” film I've seen since Cronenberg’s early movies. A murdered woman’s vengeful spirit causes her hair to grow after she’s dead. It grows and grows and a hair-obsessed morgue attendant, already in the habit of stealing corpses’ hair to sell to beauty parlors as hair extensions, takes her body home and starts distributing the beautiful undead hair. Once you add it to your own hair, though, it takes on a life of its own, with gory and disturbing results. There are fantastically squeamish scenes as the hair penetrates orifices, grows from all sorts of places on the body and expands to take over whole rooms like The Blob. A pleasant surprise!
Memories of Matsuko (2006) A brilliant subversion of Disney’s colorful, sugar-coated treatment of fairy tales, it brings back the cruelty and sadism that drove those original stories. Matsuko is a Cinderella character whose life is ruined by a series of abusive and selfish men. (Could there be seven of them? They are certainly small.) One of the most visuallyimpressive movies I’ve ever seen. It opens with Matsuko’s death and, a la Citizen Kane, explores her life in a series of flashbacks as her nephew encounters various people who knew her. Great music as well as photography. I had some of the numbers stuck in my head for days after. (”Love is bubble, love is trouble!”)
Le Mans (1971) If I were teaching a class in film school, I would use this movie to demonstrate the wide vocabulary of cinema, the craft and technique, the decisions that must be made to tell a story visually. This probably isn’t art — there’s nothing inside — but it is a dazzling tour de force of photography, editing, camera movement, use of sound, freeze frames, helicopter shots. There are a couple of zooms too many but it’s astonishing to watch how Katzin, who could have learned quite a bit about visual story-telling from directing episodes of Mission: Impossible, puts it together. You could watch this over and over to study and appreciate the choices made: how to cut, when to cut, when to have sound, how much sound, slow motion, etc. One memorable scene cuts between two perspectives of a driver running away from his wrecked car, one camera slow motion, the other not. It’s a dreamlike and hallucinatory moment. There’s no plot to speak of. McQueen is a race car driver who was in an accident at Le Mans last year and is racing in it again this year. There’s a rival, a widow, a young up-and-coming driver, a driver racing for the last time. The formula hasn’t changed much since Howard Hawks’s The Crowd Roars, made in 1932 with James Cagney, but Katzin’s technique is exhilarating. Michel Legrand’s Gil Evans/Miles Davis-inspired score is pretty good, too, though there’s some unforgivable musical mushiness at the end of this otherwise unsentimental, hard-hitting picture.
Near Dark (1987) Visual poetry about particularly American vampires, almost like an Edward Hopper or Norman Rockwell nightmare. Nobody ever uses the word “vampire", which is one of many gratifying subtleties. The vampire leader, played magnificently by Lance Henriksen, fought in the Civil War, on the Confederate side. The hero, a salt of the earth cowboy type, loses his cowboy hat when he becomes a vampire but gets it back after he's cured of vampirism. Like any Western hero, he then arrives on horseback to save the day. As the vampires suck blood from people, oil wells in the background suck metaphoric blood from the earth. This is an America of highways and gas stations, trucks and road houses. The film moves from craving to craving, and from consumption to consumption. Great music by Tangerine Dream.
Face of Another (1966) Haunting and surreal story of a man whose face is horribly burned in a laboratory accident and mind altered by the prosthetic replacement. This is not a genre piece like The Face Behind the Mask or Eyes Without a Face, though. It's a study of mental and spiritual deterioration; anger, bitterness, jealousy and paranoia consume the main character, played perfectly by Tatsuya Nakadai. His literal loss of face results in unconquerable alienation. Could be an allegory for Japan's defeat in World War II. Stunning images and a fantastic score by Toru Takemitsu make it an unforgettable experience, another successful collaboration between director Hiroshi Teshigahara and writer Kobo Abe. I suspect that the striking imagery of the sets for Blind Beast was more or less stolen from this film.
The Horse's Mouth (1958) A portrait of the artist as a visionary madman. Guinness plays a crazy genius painter on a constant quest for artistic fulfillment. He dreams of painting a mural of the rise of Lazarus. After accomplishing it, he needs to create a larger mural of the last Judgement. This too he accomplishes, but on the wall of a chapel about to be demolished. Guinness’s realization of this character is a splendid achievement of its own — only once or twice are there Guinnessisms such as a certain sly peripheral glance — and the film ends as a tribute to those who abandon everything to pursue an impossible ideal.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) “The Driver” and “The Mechanic” travel the country in a customized Chevy, always looking for the next race — usually illegal — where they can make some money. They encounter “G.T.O.” and bet him they can beat him cross-country. On the way, though, the goal disappears and they — along with “The Girl” who got into the car at some point — lose themselves in the moment, the experience. Sometimes they seem to have achieved a kind of nirvana while at others they seem like addicts in need of a fix. Some viewers will find it a kind of masterpiece, others a pointless exercise in boredom. I'm one of the former. No surprise that Warren Oates is great in this, but that James Taylor and Dennis Wilson are also excellent is something I didn't expect.
One Missed Call (2003) Excellent nail-biter from Takashi Miike, similar to The Ring but going further and deeper. People's cellphones get calls that sound like their own painful deaths, a few days in the future. The receivers of the call die in just the same way, right on time. It’s a vengeful spirit, as usual, but there are some unexpected twists at the end as well as a frightening background story involving child abuse. Very well made and effective. A Hollywood remake is coming this year and I can imagine so many ways that it's likely to suck.
The Ox-bow Incident (1943) This nightmarish story of a lynch mob should remind us of unpleasant members of our own society, now more than ever. Blood lust and abuse of power are results of people’s own failings. Henry Fonda is one of two drifters who hesitate to give full voice to their opposition to the abandonment of due process as there’s a good chance theyd be included among the accused. A moral stand is often hard to take but shown to be worthwhile.
The Thirteen Assassins (1963) Director Eiichi Kudo deserves to be as well known as Kobayashi, Okamoto and Shinoda. Each image in this film is composed artfully and serves a world-weary perspective on politics. A low-level government appointee, the shogun’s half-brother, is vain and sadistic and leaves a trail of rape, murder and other outrages in his wake. When he is promoted to a position of real power, various parties panic and plan his assassination. So begins a chess game between two old friends and comrades, one sworn to protect and the other sworn to kill the unworthy officer. There are echoes of Seven Samurai here as the thirteen assassins prepare a check-point town for an assault on hundreds of trained warriors charged with protecting the official. The last scene, which conveys the absurdity and wrongness of the whole enterprise, is haunting.
Them! (1954) This classic has been mined for material by any number of filmmakers. It still stands as a model to aspire to. The atom bomb tests at Los Alamos have the unforeseen side effect of creating huge, mutant ants. If the nests of the queens aren’t found and destroyed, humans will become extinct. There is an excellent build up and they don’t keep you waiting very long at all before revealing the ants themselves. The stakes are gradually raised and impressive set pieces are delivered one after another — the one at sea is especially memorable.
Le Silence de la mer (1949) Jean-Pierre Melville’s first feature-length movie is part war story, part character study. An old man and his niece, both French, are forced to share their house with a German officer in 1941. Every night the officer talks to them as they sit by the fire, the old man smoking his pipe and the young woman knitting. They do nothing to indicate that they are aware of his presence. The German is unseen and unheard as far as their outward appearance is concerned. They secretly warm up to him and are touched by his one-sided conversations. The German officer is kind and cultured, loves France and believes truly that the war will be to the benefit of all the nations of Europe. He sees La Belle et la Bête as an allegory for France and Germany — and for the young woman and himself. His sincereity turns out to be equalled by his naïvety.
The Silent Partner (1978) A great performance by Elliott Gould as an apparently dull and mild-mannered bank teller anchors this superior cat-and-mouse thriller. Christopher Plummer is a sadistic, violent bank robber — perhaps modeled on the character played by Mitchum in Cape Fear — whose robbery of Gould’s bank goes smoothly, except for the fact that Gould knew it was coming and took advantage of the opportunity to squirrel most of the money away in his lunchbox. Plummer therefore gets peanuts while the lion’s share is in the hands of the teller regarded by everyone around him as an inconsequential drone. The rest of the movie is a dangerous chess game between the two robbers who, as partners of a sort, have a strange connection that isn't easy to break.
Cockfighter (1974) Warren Oates plays a professional cockfighter who has taken a vow of silence until he wins the Cockfighter of the Year Award. The movie starts with his bottoming out and follows his single-minded struggle to get back on top. As with director Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter is an exploratory movie, more about textures of living and mood than plot or character. I suspect that if his movies had been made in Europe by European casts and crews, he would be hailed as an arthouse hero, a rival of Antonioni.
The Great Duel (1964) Another grim tragedy from Eiichi Kudo, similar to his Thirteen Assassins but more ambitious and assured. As in the earlier film, a group of rebels is trying to fight corruption in high places. The resistance is almost completely smashed and members tortured to death as the government tries to find out who the leader is. Eventually they decide their only chance is a suicide mission to assassinate the father of the next shogun. Things are complicated by the cowardice and treachery of one member of the resistance, and the venality of another — a priest, ironically. The film opens and closes with the violent politicization of uninvolved innocents. There is a clear message that to do nothing is a kind of collusion with the oppressor, and no guarantee of safety. The composition of images is brilliant, particularly in how Kudo divides the frame and uses handheld cameras. The use of sound is also very well done.
Helen the Baby Fox (2006) Heartbreaking movie about a lonely boy in Hokkaido who finds an abandoned baby fox. Since the fox can’t see, hear or smell he names her Helen after Helen Keller. It seems the fox is mute also but eventually she cries out for the boy, whom she regards as her mother. The story is simple, quiet, small-scale and powerful.
The Big Gundown (1966) After watching this longer version of one of the best spaghetti Westerns, it seems clear to me that the cuts made to the US version were designed to ruin the movie. The most damaging extraction, revealed by this patchwork of Italian- and English-language prints, comes from the scene which introduces Lee Van Cleef’s character. In the shorter version, he shoots three outlaws dead with little fanfare or build-up. In the longer version, it’s revealed that the outlaws had no bullets until Cleef gave them one each. Much better! The other bits that have been removed also take away from Cleef’s character, specifically his history and political position in the territory. It seems, sadly, that Cleef recorded dialogue only for the short version. Until an official version of the longer cut becomes available, with image and sound quality comparable to the shorter cut (even if we have to keep the Italian in places), I’m afraid the Japanese DVD of the shorter US Print is still the one to watch. Ennio Morricone's score is one of his best.
The Consequences of Love (2004) A quiet and moody drama with elements of suspense films and thrillers, this is an absorbing story about a middle-aged Italian man who lives in a hotel. Everyday for eight years he has sat in the same seat in the bar. Every Wednesday at 10:00 am for 24 years he has injected himself with heroin. He has a wife and children but is divorced and his family wants nothing to do with him. Every so often a suitcase full of money appears in his room and he deposits it in a Swiss bank account. The film gradually reveals who he is and why this is his life. The story involves the disruption of his routine, by various factors, and his reactions to these unexpected developments. I would say it’s a small, quiet triumph, the Being There of gangster movies.
Un Flic (1972) Jean-Pierre Melville’s last film is not one of his best but it’s still great. Alain Delon is a cop but he seems more like a zombie, a living-dead automaton without feelings or animation of any kind. Richard Crenna is his friend and a thief. Catherine Deneuve is their lover. The scenes involving these characters are the most exciting and show Melville experimenting with editing in a way that allows quick cuts between different shots of the actors to take the place of dialogue, creating wordless conversations. I can’t remember having seen anything like it before. The movie itself is sepulchral, filmed almost entirely in a kind of pallor. It opens with a bank heist and closes with a train robbery, both meticulously executed. This is Melville at his twilight coolest, dangerously close to death. Without its being stated, you get the feeling that these characters are no longer at home in the world. Alain Delon seems glum as he pushes the buttons on his new phone and the cabaret dancers at Crenna’s club seem more freakish than exotic.
Face to Face (1967) This belongs on the list of great spaghetti westerns, though not in the top five. Gian Maria Volonté is a prim, prudish, New England schoolteacher whose bad health forces him to move to Texas to take advantage of its hot and dry climate. Tomas Milian is a notorious bandit, completely devoid of scruples and book learning, who has always lived by his wits and the speed of his draw. The two are thrown together by chance and stay together by choice. Gradually their different personalities rub off on each other due to their association. The schoolteacher discovers a lust for power which erodes his morals and the bandit develops a conscience and desire for virtue which remove the ruthlessness from his character. Morricone’s theme for the movie is excellent and the cinematography is also very good.
Branded to Kill (1967) One of the most audacious movies ever made, the Un Chien Andalou of gangster films. (There is a scene with a fake eye which may be an allusion.) Shishido Jo is #3 hit man on an assignment to escort somebody somewhere for some reason. What little plot there is deteriorates into a surreal murder festival. It may not be coherent, and I can sympathize with Nikkatsu’s wanting to fire director Seijun Suzuki after this, but every frame of the movie is visually beautiful and exciting. Movies like this are why movies are exciting. Naozumi Yamamoto’s score is also great.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) Excellent special effects (including color tinting), an intelligent screenplay and assured craftsmanship make this a rewarding British sci-fi picture. The cold war causes the US and USSR to test nuclear bombs at almost the same time, resulting in the Earth’s tilting on its axis. Severe climate change is the result, with temperatures in London rising to well above 100ºF. Eventually scientists realize that the Earth’s orbit was affected also, and the planet is heading toward the sun. The story is told through the eyes of an alcoholic journalist and the newspaper milieu allows for some nice touches, especially near the end when you see the two possible front pages of the next edition: the headline will be either “World Saved” or “World Doomed”.
Woman in the Dunes (1964) A nightmarish but beautiful work of art, the kind of movie that can be interpreted and discussed again and again. A man from Tokyo is spending a few days off hunting insects by the seashore. He thinks he’s going to spend only one night with a woman who lives in a house at the bottom of a sandpit, but he ends up trapped with her, like one of his insects. The two must shovel sand to survive, to earn their ration from the villagers above them. The beauty of the photography and Toru Takemitsu’s intense score keep this from being bleak, though it suggests a metaphor of society’s imprisonment of individuals. Director Hiroshi Teshigahara, writer Kobo Abe and composer Takemitsu also collaborated on Face of Another.
Hangover Square (1945) In the startling opening scene the camera shows us a murder through the eyes of a killer (Laird Cregar), a brilliant composer who blacks out and commits murder when he hears discordant sounds. He’s led even further astray by a gold-digging singer who gets him to write pop songs when he should be working on his piano concerto. The climax of the movie is when he performs this concerto — “Concerto Macabre”, part of an excellent soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann — and remembers his crimes. Herrmann’s score for this movie is great, and especially good for the black-out scenes. His use of flutes is terrifying, anticipating his aggressive deployment of them for his unused Torn Curtain score.
Typhoon Club (1985) Mysterious and unsettling movie about Japanese teenagers struggling with feelings of repression. Several of them are stranded at their junior high school during a typhoon and let loose their inhibitions. The few adults in their lives aren disappointing, not bad people but depressingly limited and powerless. The camerawork is impressive, very smooth with unusually long takes and an emphasis on compositions that show the children boxed in or obstructed by objects on the screen. 1985 was also the year of The Breakfast Club, a frothy, commercial, Hollywood take on the same concept. Coincidence?
Kantoku Banzai! (2007) Takeshi Kitano’s latest is a tribute to the possibilities available to filmmakers and a humorous scolding to filmmakers everywhere who fail to realize them, preferring to remain within familiar confines of genre and aim for box-office success. The first half runs through half a dozen failed attempts to create a commercial success as Kitano imitates his early gangster films as well as Ozu movies and recent Japanese hits like Always Sunset on Third Street and Owl’s Castle. The last pastiche, about a doomsday asteroid heading for Earth, becomes with a single edit the story of two quirky women roaming Tokyo in search of a way to make some quick cash. It’s gratifying to see that Kitano takes more chances with each movie he makes. Most filmmakers take fewer. This series of vignettes adds up to a movie about movies and could be seen as a tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating response to Godard’s History of Cinema films.
The Unknown (2006) Kseniya Rappoport is riveting in her tour de force performance as a former sex slave from Ukraine now working as a domestic in Italy, mysteriously obsessed with one particular family for reasons which are revealed gradually, one turn of the screw at a time. I had no idea that Giuseppe Tornatore, the creator of Cinema Paradiso, had the potential for something this unsettling and thrilling. Acting, camerawork, editing, script and direction and Morricone’s score are all excellent.
Kamome Shokudo (2006) A perfect example of why I seek out new movies from Japan. Unusual micro-stories about people with realistic goals make for great films when the people involved know what they’re doing. This one is about a Japanese woman who opens a Japanese restaurant — “Kamome Shokudo” means “Seagull Diner” in Japanese — in Helsinki. Two other Japanese women, drifting away from home for different reasons, take jobs at the diner also. That’s basically the whole story. The plot, such as it is, traces their journey from zero customers to one customer to several customers. The more interesting part of the story concerns the characters and how they interact with themselves and others. Brilliant acting from all concerned and perfect, assured filmmaking from writer/director Naoko Ogigami, who adapted this from a novel. I'd love to see more of her work.