The 202nd Soundtrack of the Week is Ennio Morricone's Matchless.
This is the Japanese CD, not the recent Italian release which has three additional tracks.
First is "Donna e Amori", which begins with weird bubbling noises, then an ascending line for brass. Electric bass guitar comes gooving in and the piece takes off, with some flourishes reminiscent of Morricone's spaghetti western music.
"Tre Sogni in Uno" is a Mancini-esque lounge piece for strings. "Corsa Verso Lei" begins with tension but ends up being another lounging kind of cue, with Morricone's famous writing for wordless vocals.
"Rincorsa Prima" is distinguished by high energy jazz drumming throughout, punctuated by odd statements from horns and chorus.
"Pensiero Stupendo" is a beautiful piece featuring wordless vocals again, presumably Edda dell'Orso.
Then there's a shake, "Vocette Ostinate". Morricone wrote a lot of these great kind of pop-psych rock pieces with wailing vocals and interesting instrumentation.
After that comes "Pensiero Stupedo" again, followed by "Lei Verso Lui Sta Correndo", which is appallingly chirpy and upbeat, like music from educational films from the 1950s.
"Drammatico Grottesco" sounds like its title: suspenseful, unsettling, ominous. Then there's "Rincorsa Seconda", which is similar to "Rincorsa Prima" but has an interesting electric guitar part Like "Donna e Amori", it also echoes some of Morricone's spaghetti western work.
"Ma Non e' un Mitero" has the same bass line from "Donna e Amori" but a different, tenser atmosphere surrounding it.
After that you'll hear "Pensiero Stupendo" again and, for the last track, a reprise of "Donna e Amori".
Something for the Birds (1959) by Amber Dean (Amber Dean Getzin on the copyright page) is a quite good read about a heist gone wrong. It plays as something like "Richard Stark for ladies".
The first line is "Larry Witt lay wrapped in the twisted sheets on the oversized davenport".
Larry is nervous because he's about to rob a bank in Buffalo, NY, with Frank, the leader, Gladys, Frank's girlfriend, and Roy, a very large and very stupid tough guy.
Things go wrong from the start when Roy doesn't show up. Frank and Larry handle the job themselves but Roy shows up about halfway through. They try to ditch him at the bank but he catches up to them at their rendezvous point. They try to get rid of him again and fail again.
They end up laying low in a town along the Genesee River, and this is where things really go wrong. Gladys had the idea of mailing the money to themselves there, which would have been fine if the woman who runs the local post office hadn't given the package by mistake to Peri Bryant, housewife and avid birder.
Frank goes after Peri and her friend Dotty Cobb and tries and fails to kill them. Meanwhile Larry ends up clashing with a woman who works at the inn where he's staying and Gladys begins to develop feelings for Ernie, a nice guy who owns the farm where she and Frank are staying.
It's a page-turner and the scenes of sex and violence are presented quite effectively, the former more obliquely than the latter. At times the brutality of the male gangsters approaches the nastiness of Jim Thompson.
While a crime novel, much of it plays as a domestic drama, with the main characters being the three women, Peri, Dotty and Gladys, and the plot revolving around how they cope with crises that involve the men in their lives. It's a very entertaining synthesis of crime, action and romance—and birds, who also figure prominently in the plot, thanks to Peri and Dotty's dedication to the Genesee Ornithological Society.
Ballard's unique writing style, a combination of the clinical and the fantastic or fantastically depraved, reaches a higher level in Crash. While The Atrocity Exhibition was a scattered display of small pieces, Crash is a distillation, examination and exploration of one of Atrocity's most important motifs, bascially the human fascination with new technology (though this is an absurdly inadequate description).
A character named James Ballard, who works in advertising, loses control of his car and crashes into an on-coming car, killing the driver and injuring the driver's wife.
This event, as banal as it is tragic, activates something mysterious in the two survivors, perhaps causing them to to take a further evolutionary step, one in which the sex impulse requires car crashes.
There's a lot of sex in Crash, pretty much all of it explicit, but I can't imagine it was meant to arouse readers. Crash might be Ballard's Lolita, a book that centers around sex but isn't actually about sex (though there are many people who are unable or unwilling to see or look beyond sexual content). There's also a lot of drug use, including a memorable and impressively written LSD episode.
The tone is matter-of-fact and detached. The old erogenous zones are replaced by new ones: the scars and wounds caused by car crashes. Ballard becomes linked to the dangerous Vaughan, who has thrown himself into the new world of car crashes with abandon.
You could try to make the case that Ballard and Vaughan are the same people, or two sides of the same person, as in Fight Club, which is probably indebted to Crash. There's nothing explicit in Crash to suggest this, but it's a thought worth considering, just as is the thought that Kinbote and Shade, in Nabokov's Pale Fire, are in some ways not two different people but mirror reflections of each other. For instance, the Ballard character is working on a television car commercial with Elizabeth Taylor while Vaughan is obsessed with crashing into Elizabeth Taylor's car.
Albert Camus's The Stranger is another sympathetic novel and Camus is one of the world's most famous car crash victims. He's mentioned in Crash and he's probably mentioned in The Atrocity Exhibition. It's amusing to compare the first lines of Crash (the title itself seems in harmony with "Camus") and The Stranger.
Crash: "Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash."
The Stranger: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know."
Remember the long tracking shot of the traffic jam in Godard's Weekend? The movie didn't live up to the brilliance of that scene, or to what came before it, which involved traffic accidents and road rage.
Crash descends dispassionately into an underworld indicated but avoided by Weekend. Like many other Ballard characters, the Ballard of Crash and Vaughan embrace apocalypse and attempt some kind of mysterious communication through ritual and symbols. "The world was beginning to flower into wounds," as Ballard puts it in the beginning of Crash's sixteenth chapter.
The 201st Soundtrack of the Week is Akihiko Matsumoto's music for Odoru Daisosasen: The Movie, the first of several successful feature-film spin-offs of the Japanese TV show Odoru Daisosasen, known in English as Bayside Shakedown (though I read somewhere that the title translates literally as Dancing on the Line of Inquiry).
This is not the kind of music I usually listen to, but I love it. It is, I guess, dance music, a mixture of house, techno and world beat stuff.
I picked up the DVD for this movie on a whim, probably about ten years ago, while browsing in a Chinatown video store. (Most of them are gone, by the way. I still visit P-Tune on Christie Street pretty regularly.)
I loved the movie from the start. It shows cops on a stake-out and the viewer expects them to nab a dangerous criminal. It turns out they're actually on a mission to escort a departmental VIP to a golf game. The main character, Aoshima, cheers the bigwig's tee-off but turns his cheer into a put-down.
Then the opening credits rolled and I was hooked.
The music has pounding beats, what sounds like a looped sample of a Mexican pop song, and an awesome melody. Like all of the material here, it's been creatively and thoughtfully arranged and constructed. It's called "Rhythm and Police" and has two distinct parts, the second part being a jaunty sort of wrap up to the intensity of the credits sequence.
That's the second track on the CD. There's an intro which loops a section of the series' signature song, "Love Somebody", performed by heart-throb Yuji Oda, who also plays Aoshima. They make it sound like an old scratchy record, add some other weird noises on top, and have a bit of a spoken intro by this guy Future Funk Sound System.
After "Rhythm and Police" comes "C.X.", which combines another crazily infectious dance groove with classic orchestral dramatic scoring, sort of like a hip-hop version of the Back to the Future. There's a great, vaguely Middle Eastern female vocal part, and a surprising shift to a more subdued and pensive bridge.
Then comes the bright "Ding Dong" which combines a chirpy female voice chanting something that sounds a bit like "Ding ding ding dong" with numerous other elements, like hand-clapping, strummed harp or zither, percussive male vocal utterances, thudding house drum beats, electronic noises and a melody line that shows up every so often to soar over everything else. Just when you think it might be over, there's a break into a totally different feel.
"Life" starts out with the groove being set down by rapidly strummed acoustic guitar. It's joined by percussion, then Future Funk Sound System ("F.F.S.S. in the house!") and then some heavy beats. It fades out after about a minute and a half, making way for a version of the hit "Love Somebody". Yuji Oda doesn't sing on this. In fact it's a dance remix that goes through a few different moods, from the ethereal to the frenetic.
"G-Groove" is the theme for Muroi, a stone-faced, strict police officer who is Aoshima's superior but also partner in a strategy to reform the corrupting hierarchy of the police force. Aoshima will stay in touch with the reality of officers on the street while Muroi climbs the ladder of promotion, one effecting change from outside, the other from inside. Muroi's theme is an intoxicating blend of menacing distorted guitar, pounding drums and piano, thudding bass and swirling melody.
I find "Moon Light" to be a hauntingly beautiful piece. It has a simple melody, played mostly by piano and eventually accompanied by female backing vocals. There's the usual driving beat but above it flutter all sorts of small sounds that create layers of feeling.
"Search Out" is a tough funk piece with Future Funk Sound System rapping about police and justice and getting busy, occasionally joined by back-up singers. After this comes "Stoker", a short piece of pure menace, a reminder that there's a serious crime in the midst of all this toe-tapping.
"Red" continues with the gravity established by "Stoker" but you can tap your foot again. The beat is in your face while the music alternates between suspense and a more romantic figure.
"Otoboke" is a catchy and humorous piece with acoustic guitar, percussion and what sounds like South American wooden flutes. There are some interesting variations in the rhythmic approach throughout.
"Give Me a Baby" is an up-tempo dance number that features a sample (I guess) of the chorus from "Love Somebody". After this comes another take on "Love Somebody", an almost smooth-jazz instrumental version with saxophone interpreting the melody.
The album closes with an outro that's very similar to the intro. Listening to it makes me want to see the movie again. That's probably intentional.
We went dark yesterday to protest PIPA and SOPA.
Electronic Frontier Foundation
The Varese Soundtrack Club gave Bernard Herrmann a great hundredth birthday party. They released CDs of all of Herrmann's music for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, the complete score for The Egyptian, by Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman (and one of the greatest soundtracks of all time) and, finally, this 14-CD (!) box set of Herrmann's work for 20th Century Fox, covering 18 different films.
There's an astonishing amount of brilliant music in here but I knew immediately what I wanted to hear first. The 200th Soundtrack of the Week is Bernard Herrmann's score for White Witch Doctor.
Robert Mitchum is the callous mercenary who reforms for love of Susan Hayward's missionary medicine woman. It's a fun movie for those who don't mind that sort of thing and it might have aged a little better than Rampage.
It begins with a "Prelude" of pounding drums and frantic strings and wind instruments, a blast of pure excitement with a dash of exotic flavoring to suit the African location. Then it shifts down to a cruising melody with a slightly mysterious atmosphere.
This is followed by "The Necklace", pure romance and drama from a master of mood and color. There are foreshadowings of Vertigo in here.
"The Question" is reminiscent, in places, of Herrmann's beautiful Jane Eyre score, while "Petticoat Dance" is a gentle reprise of the pounding African motif from the "Prelude".
"The Village" and "The Hut" are both cues filled with tension, suspense and subtle dramatic underscore. "The Operation" is a gorgeous, atmospheric piece similar to some of Herrmann's outer space music for The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Twilight Zone.
The Leopard uses the serpent, a weird reed instrument, to suggest lurking menace. It recalls some moments of Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Other highlights include the quintessentially Herrmann "Elegy", the long and lovely "Nocturne", the piano-driven "The Abduction" (also similar to some of Herrmann's music for The Day the Earth Stood Still), the achingly tender "Morning" and "The Past" and the eerie "Thirty Seconds", which features the organ.
At the end there's a bonus of three takes of "Goodnight" with studio chatter. I love that kind of fly-on-the-wall stuff.
My chronological survey of J. G. Ballard continues with The Atrocity Exhibition, which I read a few months ago.
An author's note actually suggests not reading the book from cover to cover but flipping through it until a paragraph catches your eye. Read that paragraph and see if any others around it also interest you. The note concludes by noting that if you do that, "you will be reading the book in the way it was written".
Each chapter functions as a miniature novel and each paragraph begins with a boldface phrase. For instance, here's how the first paragraph of Chapter Three, "The Assassination Weapon", begins.
The idea of the spinal landscape first came up in The Drowned World, I think. This is a sedate paragraph by the standards of The Atrocity Exhibition but it conveys a few of the important themes: celebrity and violent death, an inversion of the inner self so that the outer world seems to be part of the body.
The book takes a shotgun approach to these ideas, alternating between recurring characters, who sometimes have different names. One is called Vaughan, a name that will reappear in Ballard's next novel, Crash, along with much else from The Atrocity Exhibition. My edition contains commentary by Ballard, in which he reveals that Vaughan is the same character in both books.
As with a lot of Ballard, I'm not sure what to make of this book. Any attempt to explain it would probably be as glum as the "explanations" of abstract painting, for example.
What's compelling about it is the combination of a clinical writing style—it's no surprise that Ballard studied medicine—with outrageous and fantastical metaphors and similes. Consider some of the deaths that fascinate the character of Travers.
The Atrocity Exhibition seems to present Ballard immersing himself fully in his fascinations and creating a series of works as painters do. Crash will be the fruit of his labors, a mature, distilled and remorselessly composed work, no less outrageous but far more concentrated.
But what's it about? Well, what was Picasso's blue period about? In both cases the title tells you everything worth knowing until you experience the work itself. The chapter titles of The Atrocity Exhibition offer other clues: "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe", "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy", "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race"
Ballard's commentary is also quite enlightening. At one point he notes that he has tried to describe "the psychology" of "the unique vocabulary and grammar of late-20th-century life" in The Atrocity Exhibition.
Elsewhere, in a reflection on Ralph Nader, whom he decribes as "the first of the eco-puritans", Ballard proclaims that "too few things are bad for us, and one fears an indefinite future of pious bourgeois certitudes". In a comment on the same chapter he writes, "Needless to say, I believe there should be more sex and violence on TV, not less. Both are powerful catalysts for change in areas where change is urgent and overdue".
I seem to remember that somewhere, sometime, Ballard responded to fears of nuclear proliferation by saying that there weren't enough nuclear weapons.
Also hidden in Ballard's annotations are thoughts that seem like great story ideas, such as: "During the Apollo flights I half-hoped that one of the spacecraft would return with an extra crew-man on board, wholly accepted by the others, who would shield him from a prying world".
The Atrocity Exhibition strikes me as a collection of related capsules, many of them ingenious and exciting, all of them unusual and quintessentially Ballard.
This is great. Not only do you get NEW TAX BILL MAY BE NEEDED with LIMITED FARM BILL FAVORED but then you get NEW TAX BILL again, in the same movie!
Both shots are from The 27th Day (1957).
The 199th Soundtrack of the Week is Jerry Goldsmith's score for The Swarm.
It begins with some frantically bowed strings, sounding appropriately insecty. Then there's a quick dramatic figure followed by classic Goldsmith writing: driving but not tense, suspenseful but not clenched, a relaxed melody cruising above dangerous ground. Then it becomes very sparsely atmospheric with fleeting and alarming figures popping up in the space. Then the music becomes urgent, indicating danger.
After that cue, "Main Title/Red Two Reporting", comes "The Black Mass", which is presumably a play on words referring not to Satanism but to a literal black mass, a swarm of bees. The music continues the urgent and alarming theme that was at the end of the first track.
This is followed by a short, quiet piece called "What Happened?". This in turn is followed by "The Bees Picnic", a strident cue that conveys terror.
"On Their Way" is very short and quiet, featuring the timpani. Then comes "Get Him Out", a delicately frightening cue featuring the strings and which becomes unexpectedly serene near the end.
"Old Friends" begins as a beautifully dreamy piece with nice use of the harp, develops a conventionally pretty theme and then has some moments of Herrmannesque dread.
"The Boys and the Bees—Part One" also reminded me of Herrmann in places, a bit Cape Fear, a bit North by Northwest and even a bit The Trouble with Harry. "The Boys and the Bees—Part Two", which follows the romantic "Oh Maureen", continues this mood and makes excellent use of the jaw harp.
There's a poignant theme played by the clarinet and then fleshed out by the orchestra, heard in "Oh Walter!" and "The Glasses".
"Burn 'Em Out" and "Get Reinforcements" made me think of James Horner's Star Trek scores.
Great music. Goldsmith has deftly woven together love themes, occasional bits of humor, suspense, terror, action and adventure. I wish he were still with us.
Here are the fifty-two Movies of the Year 2011.
Micmacs à tire-larigot (Micmacs, 2009): After his father is killed by a landmine and his mother institutionalized, Bazil suffers through the rest of his childhood in a brutal Catholic orphanage. He grows up and gets a pleasant enough job at a video store and memorizes Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep, but a random act of violence leaves him with a bullet permanently lodged in his skull. He gets out of the hospital to find that he no longer has a job, a place to live or any of his possessions, except for his hat, which he reclaims from the neighborhood kid who stole it. Eventually he ends up as part of a family of oddball scavengers who live in a junkyard. They include a contortionist, a human cannonball and a calculator woman who can precisely gauge any distance, size or amount of anything just by looking at it. They tell him that he needs a goal, something to live for. Bazil chooses vengeance. With the help of his new friends he intends to ruin two people: the head of the company that manufactured and sold the landmine that killed his father and the head of the company that manufactured and sold the bullet in Bazil’s head. What’s not suggested by this sketch of the premise is the movie's dazzling style, ingenuity and sense of wonder. Several sequences compare favorably to Charlie Chaplin or the Marx brothers. And Micmacs is a sweet and gentle movie despite the prominent role of violence in the story.
Cash on Demand (1961): A Christmas Carol crossed with a heist movie. Peter Cushing is an uptight, tyrannical control freak in charge of a bank branch. Two days before Christmas the smooth, smiling and sadistic Andre Morell breezes in and takes over. His accomplices have Cushing's wife and child hostage and will kill them if everything doesn’t go exactly as planned. Before the money leaves the vault, viewers can relish the exquisite ironies in the script and the superb acting by the two leads, consummate professionals who give two of the best performances of their careers. Everything about the movie is perfectly constructed, including camera set-ups and movements that seem to have been meticulously planned. This must be one of the most successful movie adaptations of a play ever made. Fine performances are also contributed by the supporting cast, which includes some familiar faces from British television and film.
Le convoyeur (Cash Truck, 2004): This French crime drama is an excellent example of how to tell a familiar story so that it resists recognition and is instead mysterious and suspenseful. In a haunting and riveting performance, Albert Dupontel plays Alex, a middle-aged man who takes a job with an armored car company. The company is about to be taken over by an American company and everybody expects a much tighter ship to be run after the transition. Meanwhile, three armored cars have been robbed, in each case with no witnesses allowed to survive. Alex hardly seems like the right man for this job. His anxious and uncertain demeanor suggest an inner torment, he has no experience with firearms and he has epileptic seizures, a detail he hides from his colleagues. He’s taking meticulous notes on all his fellow employees and is very interested in the robberies. What's he up to? The filmmakers took care to make all of the various characters interesting and realistic and the screenplay includes just the right amount of humor. (There's a scene where Alex and two other guards smoke pot in the back of the armored car while out on a run, using their shotgun as a bong.) The tragic elements of the story hit hard when they’re revealed. Le convoyeur is slightly indebted to Death Wish and more significantly influenced by Taxi Driver, which is referenced in at least one scene and was perhaps a key source of inspiration for the movie. Note that the name of the armored car company is Vigilante.
Le dos au mur (Back to the Wall, 1958): Jeanne Moreau is Gloria Decrey, the wife of a rich industrialist named Jacques. She’s having an affair with Yves, a broke artist and old flame. The film starts with Jacques disposing of Yves’s corpse and in a long flashback we learn what happened before. When Jacques comes home a day early from a hunting trip, he discovers Gloria and Yves together though they don’t realize they’ve been observed. Instead of confronting his wife, Jacques decides to torture her and her lover. He begins blackmailing them, using a fake identity to send them letters that threaten to reveal Gloria’s infidelity if she doesn’t come up with large cash payments. Jacques gets a sadistic thrill out of the various excuses Gloria uses to ask him for money, and enjoys his cat and mouse game. Things develop in ways Jacques doesn't predict and lead to a tragic conclusion. The photography and composition of the images are brilliant, executed so smoothly that it's as if Max Ophüls filmed an adaptation of an EC crime comic. Music and sound are used in startling ways and the performances, particularly Jeanne Moreau's, are excellent.
Két félidö a pokolban (Two Half-Times in Hell, a.k.a. The Last Goal, 1962): John Huston's Victory was the Hollywood remake of this WW2 movie. Allied prisoners agree to play a soccer game against a Nazi team in exchange for more food and being excused from work to train for the match. The American movie is quite enjoyable but ridiculously sunny. Nobody in the POW camp appears to be suffering and the ending is as triumphant as the title of the movie. The Hungarian movie is a harrowing drama of complex characters in extreme situations. Many of the prisoners are not admirable; they steal from each other, attack each other. The camp commander is a master of psychological and emotional sadism. The real victory comes when those not on the team, jealous that they still have to work and starve while eleven "bootlickers" go off to play and entertain their captors, begin to cheer for the Hungarian team. As for the players, they learn that they’re to be executed after they play, so it’s a little hard for them to work up team spirit at first. There’s almost no music and the conclusion is not going to leave anybody smiling—though the very last moment is extremely touching, involving one character reaching out in love and in death to one he used to hate. The camerawork is very good and includes at least one extraordinary shot. The camera is sitting on top of a felled tree that the laborers are carrying through the woods. When they get where they’re going, they drop the tree and it rolls down an incline—but the camera does not.
Wolfsburg (2003): Philipp is a car salesman on his way to a business meeting when his girlfriend, Katja, breaks up with him. He turns the car around and hurries home to stop her from leaving. He drops his cell phone and bends down to pick it up—which is when he plows into a boy on a bicycle. He looks around and doesn’t see anybody else, so he just keeps going. He stops Katja from leaving but realizes that he’s done an awful thing and prepares to turn himself in. He goes to the hospital and begins a confession to the boy’s mother, Laura, a single mom whose supermarket job barely makes ends meet, but he’s interrupted when she’s called to her son’s bedside. Philipp overhears that the boy is conscious, remembers that he was hit by a red car and will probably be okay. So Philipp proposes to Katja, whose brother is also Philipp's employer, and the two lovers go off to Cuba to get married. When he returns he finds out that Laura's son has died from his injuries and Laura is searching everywhere for the person responsible for the hit and run. Philipp tries again to confess, this time to Katja, but she cuts him off, not wanting to be a dumping ground for his guilty secrets. So Philipp goes to Laura and starts to get to know her, tries to help her, falls in love with her. The two characters are on a collision course now, but will the crash bring redemption or revenge—or both? Whatever happens, it's clear that Philipp's guilt has given him something to live for, and that his life was empty and pointless before. Wolfsburg is one of the quietest movies I’ve ever seen. There's practically no music at all, just a minute or so of very faint source music and one bit of underscore near the end and under the end credits. In this atmosphere, the sound of a turn signal clicking on is as powerful as an air-raid siren. The actors all underplay their parts effectively, letting you become familiar with their characters gradually instead of throwing personal information at you. The script is subtle and gently ironic—Philipp is stunned, practically devastated, when, after his hit and run, another young boy’s mother angrily tells him to put out his cigarette while her child is nearby.
There's Always Tomorrow (1955): Fred MacMurray is the owner of a successful toy manufacturing company. His wife and three children hardly notice him when he comes home, though, and are too busy to spend time with him. He feels neglected, bored and depressed—and he's even fallen so low that he puts on an apron to warm up his own dinner when he’s left home alone after a hard day at the office. (In an American movie from the 1950s, it's a big danger sign when a man puts on an apron. All of James Dean's problems in Rebel Without a Cause were caused by his father's apron.) But then Barbara Stanwyck, an exciting, successful career woman jetting between New York City and Los Angeles, comes into his life. They had worked together twenty years ago and she had been in love with him then, though he didn’t realize it. Now it's his turn to fall in love with her without her realizing it. This Douglas Sirk movie is reminiscent of Ozu movies, and in its bleak portrait of the healthy, middle-class, American nuclear family in the suburbs it looks forward to Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. Both films are about a parent whose pursuit of happiness is sabotaged by selfish, ungrateful children and malicious gossip. Though in All That Heaven Allows the main character is truly innocent, There’s Always Tomorrow is a movie about adultery, generally always indefensibly immoral in movies of this period. (1960's Strangers When We Meet is an interesting exception and a likely influence on Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes’s homage to Sirk in general and All That Heaven Allows in particular.) There's Always Tomorrow is beautifully photographed in black and white, but color works better for Sirk. It's also a peace-time Casablanca with the male and female parts reversed. Barbara Stanwyck is Humphrey Bogart and Fred MacMurray is Ingrid Bergman. Joan Bennett is Paul Henreid and the married couple's family is the Resistance. "Blue Moon" takes the place of "As Time Goes By" and this time Bogart flies away on the airplane.
La doppia ora (The Double Hour, 2009): A quiet, understated drama that cycles smoothly through several genres: love story, crime story, ghost story, dream story and, finally, guilt story. It suggests that we haunt ourselves, that guilt and remorse are restless spirits living inside us; ghosts, apparitions that manifest themselves externally, are much the same thing. Sonia has come to Turin from Ljubljana and works as a chambermaid in a hotel, where all the other maids are freaked out by a creepy regular guest named Bruno. (Sonia's friend thinks Bruno has his wife’s dismembered corpse in his luggage.) Sonia meets several unappealing men at a speed-dating session but the last one, Guido, is interesting and attractive. He’s an ex-cop, a recovering alcoholic and a widower, currently employed as a watchman at a rich person's opulent mansion, where he indulges his hobby of making audio recordings of nature sounds. (Shades of Blow Out, of course, but we also learn that he was a wiretap and electronic eavesdropping expert when he was on the police force.) One day he takes Sonia to show her where he works and …. That's enough. You really shouldn't know any more than that. The Double Hour is an intelligent suspense drama and character study. It might be just a tad too understated for its own good in the end, but it's always refreshing when movies err on the side of subtlety—much preferable than the alternative error.
Ankokugai no kaoyaku (Tales of the Underworld: The Big Boss, 1959): This early Kihachi Okamoto movie is a stunningly designed yakuza story with one of Akira Ifukube's signature gloomy and beautiful scores. The colors of the sets and the compositions of the TohoScope frame are always eye-catching and Okamoto’s genius for startling camera angles and bold editing choices are apparent in almost every scene. The story begins with an assassination. A sixteen-year-old girl, a waitress at a ramen place, sees the man driving the hitman's getaway car. The driver, instead of hiding out as he's been ordered to, is instead becoming a local heart-throb by headlining as a singer at High Teen club in Shinjuku—near the ramen joint where his witness works. His older brother is a valued lieutenant of the big boss, and is instructed to get the aspiring pop star to cool it. But the younger brother won't listen, not to his reasonable sibling and not to the other lieutenant, a brutally violent thug who handles everything with force. The older brother is also the single father of a handicapped son, which puts him in an increasingly vulnerable position. Sooner or later, he might have to choose between his brother and his son. Sooner or later, the witness from the ramen joint might go see what all the fuss is about at High Teen. The best yakuza movies do a great job of showing characters under pressure, then more pressure, then more pressure until something or somebody explodes. This is no exception. Toshiro Mifune also has a small part, playing against type as the cowed owner of a garage that the gangsters use for all sorts of unsavory purposes.
Di Renjie (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2010): Shortly before the coronation of Empress Wu, who has been leading on behalf of the young crown prince, two officials die from spontaneous combustion. Their mysterious deaths take place after each disturbs religious talismans on the almost completed 200-foot-tall Buddha statue the Empress commanded to be built. Acting on advice from the imperial chaplain, who takes the form of a talking deer, Empress Wu summons Detective Dee to solve the case. Dee had opposed her ascension to the throne eight years ago, since which time he’s been rotting in prison for treason. Once released, Dee does his best to solve the case but finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between the palace, the military and hordes of assassins under the command of an unknown third party. A new Tsui Hark movie is always an event for me, and while Detective Dee might have benefited from a quicker pace and a shorter running time it’s the best movie Tsui Hark has made in years. The story is interesting and it’s nice to see Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Tony Leung Ka Fai again. Sammo Hung choreographed the action scenes, which are fun, and every shot in the movie looks really nice. Tsui Hark still has his knack for light, color, movement and cutting. Certain scenes make the movie seem like his response to Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes and other recent fantasy movies such as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy adapatations.
Kokuhaku (Confessions, 2010): Tetsuya Nakashima was already one of my favorite filmmakers because of two strange and dazzling movies, Kamikaze Girls (Shimotsuma Monogatari) and Memories of Matsuko. Confessions is a macabre masterpiece, a twisting tale of vengeance that has some trace quantities of Crime and Punishment, Lord of the Flies and the Leopold & Loeb murder case. Yuko Moriguchi, a middle-school teacher, tells her class that today is her last day as a teacher, news that her students receive with pleasure. Before she goes, however, she wants to tell them something. Her four-year-old daughter, whom she was raising by herself, died recently. The police investigated and concluded that the death was accidental. But Moriguchi announces that it was not an accident, that her daughter was murdered by two of the students in her classroom—and now she intends to get her revenge. This simple premise has a complex execution. The confessions of different characters unravel the narrative thread, which often doubles back to show us the same scene from different points of view, sometimes revealing the dishonesty or ignorance of a previous confessor. Several characters can seem at first beyond redemption and then sympathetic, or the other way around. Mass media and their consumers—what passes for "society" these days—are found guilty to a degree also, by having an insatiable appetite and strong preference for ghoulish spectacle. Nakashima’s fondness for his own brand of pop-art style and gallows humor are given free reign by the at times hellish environment that young adolescents inhabit. (At one point all the kids dance and sing "That’s the Way I Like It".)
Trolljegerna (The Troll Hunter, 2010): Another movie that uses the device of pretending the audience is watching the found footage of filmmakers missing, presumed dead. (Cannibal Holocaust is the first movie I ever saw that did this, but The Blair Witch Project was the one that achieved mainstream commercial success with the idea.) The Troll Hunter benefits from assuming our familiarity with the gimmick. It doesn't waste time trying to hammer the idea into our heads, it doesn't go on too long and it doesn't take itself too seriously. University students think they're on to something big when they start following a mysterious man who might be a bear poacher. The story is much bigger than they thought, though. He's a member of Norway's Troll Security Team, a secret organization that hunts down trolls that escape from their remote, northern territories, where they're supposed to be held by electric fences. The trolls are huge, from the size of trees to the size of skyscrapers, yet practically nobody sees them, and the damage they cause is always explained by natural disasters or rampaging bears. The government's efforts to cover up troll damage are the subject of several jokes. The actor who plays the troll hunter is very good and the troll effects are excellent. It's not very substantial but it is very amiable entertainment with more thrills and laughs than most.
Yao a yao yao dao waipo qiao (Shanghai Triad, 1995): Suisheng is a country boy whose uncle brings him to Shanghai to be a servant to the mistress of a powerful crime boss. The movie covers the first seven days of the boy's new situation and it's a busy week. He seems in over his head on the first day, not knowing what a cigarette lighter is and dismissed as a moron by the demanding woman he's supposed to serve. He hates her, hates Shanghai and wants to go home—but that's not an option. Then the eruption of a gang war causes the boss, the mistress, the boy and a few others to seek refuge on a small island that's home to a peasant woman and her young daughter. And just as the bustle and dazzle of the city are replaced by the peace and simplicity of the rustic environment, Suisheng's feelings for his boss change from acrimony to love and devotion. This sketch of the story doesn't hint at the surprises in the plot, the impressive extent of the character development, the profound performances by the cast—especially Gong Li in the central role, on whose shoulders the movie rests—and the beauty of the camerawork, sets and costumes. The pace of the movie is perfect: smooth, relaxed, unhurried yet compelling, irresistible and unflagging.
Fate Is the Hunter (1964): When a Consolidated Airlines flight crashes and no mechanical error is found to be the cause of the accident, the pilot, Jack Savage, is made the scapegoat. Stories of his general recklessness surface, and witnesses report seeing him in a bar, ordering drinks just hours before the flight. Of the 54 people on board the flight, all but one—a flight attendant played by Suzanne Pleshette—died in the crash. But Glenn Ford is the Consolidated Airlines man who hired Savage, his old Air Force buddy, in the first place, and won't admit even the possibility that pilot error is to blame. With his job on the line and no more than a couple of days before he has to give testimony at the investigative hearing, he searches for another explanation for the tragedy. There wasn't just one thing that caused the crash, it seems, but several things, all unusual and in an almost unique combination. If it wasn't sabotage, mechanical malfunction or human error, could it have been fate? This is a square-jawed procedural drama with an engrossing story and some unexpected turns. Glenn Ford is the usual Glenn Ford character: straight-shooting, admirable, upright, responsible, damn near humorless but somehow likeable. Milton Krasner's photography is crisp and the black-and-white CinemaScope picture always looks good. Jerry Goldsmith scored the movie very sparsely and very subtly—with the exception of the main title sequence, which jumps off the screen and grabs the viewer's attention. Jane Russell appears as herself, entertaining the troops in a World War 2 flashback.
The Fallen Sparrow (1943): John Garfield comes to New York City to find out who killed his best friend. Everybody else seems satisfied that the death was an accident, a fall out of a window, but Garfield knows it had to be murder. Complicating his task is the fact that he’s still recovering from a combination of nervous breakdown and post-traumatic stress: he had been a prisoner of the Nazis in Spain where they tortured and interrogated him for two years. They wanted information from him but he managed to escape before they got it. He's not too steady on his feet, though. He's still tormented by audio hallucinations, particularly the dreadful sound of the dragging footsteps of a limping man who would come from Berlin once a month to think up new ideas for Garfield's torture. Garfield never saw him—but he still hears him. Will he be able to keep it together long enough to solve the case? It's going to be tough. On his first outing in NYC he goes to a party where a creepy old Norwegian guy in a wheelchair goes on and on about exotic methods of torture…. Great music by Roy Webb and excellent photography by Nicholas Musuraca—one of the great film noir cinematographers—enhance this entertaining espionage drama.
Autoreiji (Outrage, 2010): After several interesting and unexpected films, including a Zato Ichi movie and three difficult, provocative and probably unlovable meditations on art and commerce, Takeshi Kitano's latest starring, writing, editing and directing vehicle is another yakuza movie, the genre that made him an international star. The last yakuza movie Kitano made was the execrable Brother, made for Hollywood. Maybe it was this experience that drove him, upon returning to Japan, to make the aggressive "art" movies that followed: Takeshis', Glory to the Director and Achilles and the Tortoise. Outrage does not find Kitano in a better mood, though the movie is bound to please more people, since it contains several scenes of brutal violence presented in a laconic, elliptical fashion. The story concerns the manipulation of a hierarchical system of power by the people on top, with the goal of seizing power and money from the people below them. The system is the modern, corporate-styled world of Japanese organized crime. The chairman, who holds authority over the different families who control different territories and rackets, pits family against family, blithely ordering them to betray each other despite oaths of brotherhood, truces and pacts, all the better to get a bigger cut of the profits. Kitano plays the head of the Otomo family, an extremely violent man who's accustomed to doing dirty work for the heads of other families who have risen higher than his has. In the hands of any number of other directors, Outrage would be a hundred minutes or so of deceit and horrific violence and so what? Takeshi Kitano is an artist, though—a talented and accomplished painter in addition to being a superb actor, writer and director—and Outrage isn’t so much a return to his earlier yakuza movies as it is a transplantation of his earlier yakuza movies to the terrain of his more recent ruminations on ambition, sincerity and commercialism. The gangsters' world is like one of Dante’s circles of Hell in its ceaseless savagery and inevitable back-stabbings.
Du bi quan wang da po xue di zi (Master of the Flying Guillotine, 1976): Not only one of the best kung fu movies ever made, it's also one of the most violent and most inventive. Starring, written and directed by Jimmy Wang-Yu as a sequel to his One-Armed Boxer (itself a follow-up to his excellent One-Armed Swordsman movies), Master of the Flying Guillotine (also known as One-Armed Boxer Meets the Flying Guillotine) is a non-stop fight-fest featuring martial-arts masters from around the world. There are the yogi from India, undoubtedly the inspiration for the Dalsim character in the Street Fighter video game—the game itself probably used this movie, with its central kung fu tournament, as a template—a samurai-looking guy from Japan who uses tonfa that have hidden knives in them, a barefoot fighter from Thailand and various others. The one-armed boxer himself is running a martial arts school but otherwise trying to keep his head down as he's a dissident who has been marked for death by the ruling dynasty. The master of the flying guillotine is after him not only because it's his job to kill rebels but also because the one-armed boxer killed the flying guillotine master's two disciples in the previous movie. The master of the flying guillotine is blind but nonetheless a formidable opponent. For some reason he wears a prominent swastika around his neck. He'd be creepy enough without it but there's no denying that it makes his appearance that much more terrifying as he goes around using the title weapon to decapitate every one-armed man he sees. The movie is very well photographed and edited, with artful compositions of the images in every scene. The special effects are also excellent, including the yogi’s arms that can extend to about six feet and the master of the flying guillotine's ability to rotate his head a full 360º. It's a reminder that special effects in the digital age just aren’t very special.
Deadline at Dawn (1946): A sailor thinks he might have murdered a woman and stolen money from her when he was blacked out from drinking too much. But the murderer could have been a blind piano player or one of the dead woman's blackmail victims. With the help of a dance hall girl and a taxi driver, the sailor tries to find out what happened in the few hours before dawn, when he has to catch a bus out of New York City to join the fleet in Virginia. This mystery drama has some of Nicholas Musuraca’s best photography, great sets, and a terrific screenplay by Clifford Odets, who adapted Cornell Woolrich's novel and probably took from it many of the movie's great lines. It suffers a bit from the love story angle, which feels tacked on and suggests that this was meant to be a film noir version of The Clock.
L'orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock (The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, 1962): In nineteenth-century London Dr. Hichcock is a brilliant surgeon whose new anesthetic, which slows the heartbeat and other functions, allows him to perform miracles on the operating table. Hichcock has a quirk, though. He wants to have sex with corpses. In the first scene of the movie he knocks out a gravedigger so he can get at a fresh female corpse. Lucky for him his wife is into this and enjoys being given his anesthetic so she can play dead for him—until the day he gives her an overdose by mistake and she dies for real. Heartbroken, he leaves London and returns twelve years later with a new bride, Barbara Steele. His old longings return too, leading to some close calls when his colleagues walk in on him in the autopsy room. As if this weren't enough, his creepy house seems to be haunted by his wife's ghost. A great Italian horror movie, enjoyably perverse and unusual with colorful photography and an effective score. Barbara Steele is awesome, as always, and the various references to Hitchcock movies are amusing.
Dans Paris (Inside Paris, 2007): Paul returns to Paris to live with his father and younger brother after his relationship with Anna, a woman with a young son with whom Paul had been living outside of the city, falls apart. Paul returns home a suicidal wreck and is not especially comforted by either his freewheeling younger brother or his crusty pensioner father. Eventually it becomes clear that Paul takes after his father while Paul's young brother, Jonathan, is more like their mother, a younger, happier person than their father. The tragedy in all their lives is the shocking suicide of Paul and Jonathan's sister Claire, of which everybody is reminded as Paul and Jonathan's father has brought a Christmas tree into his apartment for the first time since her death twelve years ago. We see Jonathan reading Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and then an Alice Munro book, and Dans Paris perhaps seeks to emulate the poignancy and subtlety of those authors' works.It wears its ambitions lightly, though, and deftly pulls off some risky self-reflexiveness. Very nice use of music, especially when Paul and Anna sing to each other over the phone, great camerawork and very rewarding playing with structure and editing.
Went the Day Well? (1942): This tense World War 2 thriller is based on a Graham Greene story. The premise is that 60 Nazi soldiers enter a small English village disguised as British soldiers. They make contact with their deep cover agent there and begin preparations crucial to a planned invasion of Britain by sea and air. The first half of the movie exploits the possibilities for irony while the second half is almost pure nightmare. Deaths in the movie are very personal and very tragic. You know these people by the time you see them get killed and much of the violence is brief but horrifying and indelible. Certain scenes are as haunting and harrowing as anything in Night of the Hunter. The village children go from seeing war as a sort of game that isn't very real to being confronted suddenly with the real thing right in front of them. Their trauma is apparent. The movie performs an interesting balancing act, which seems like classic Greene, of mocking wartime propaganda while at the same time serving as exemplary wartime propaganda. The original story was shockingly bitter about the human cost of war and didn't cheer the deaths of enemy soldiers.
Reykjavik-Rotterdam (2008): The tax on alcohol in Iceland is high enough that there’s money to be made by smuggling it in from Rotterdam. Christopher used to do that but he got caught and went to jail. He’s struggling to pay the bills with his job as a night watchman. A rich friend and former partner in crime is grateful to Christopher for taking the rap for both of them, and helps out—but is he perhaps too interested in Iris, Christopher’s wife? Iris's no good brother bungles a bootlegging operation and gets into serious trouble with some violent and dangerous people. In addition to that, Christopher and Iris are broke and about to lose their home. So Christopher is desperate enough to make another booze run to Rotterdam, despite the fact that he’s known as a smuggler to the ship captains and customs officers. This was a great, complex movie, more deserving of the term "neonoir" (which I’ve never liked) than most such films. It's what Samuel Fuller would have called, approvingly, a hard-hitting, action-packed melodrama. It achieves just the right blend of pathos, fear, humor, suspense, action and contrivance.
Denso Ningen (Secret of the Telegian, 1960): The police are baffled by a series of bayonet murders. The solution lies in a crime committed during the last days of World War 2 and involves a teleportation device, gangsters, a volcano, a military-themed night club and a fortune in gold. This is an excellent movie, in the tradition of classic pulp fiction, comic books and radio shows as well as being a precursor to such things as the Avengers episode "The Positive-Negative Man" and Japanese TV series like Kaiki Daisakusen and Galileo. Part crime movie, part horror, part science-fiction, it has great music and spectacularly colorful widescreen photography.
Sbatti il mostro in prima pagina (Slap the Monster on Page One, 1972): The editor-in-chief of Il Giornale, a Milan newspaper with a strong right-wing bias,uses his newspaper to smear a left-wing activist group that might ruin the election chances of his powerful friends. When a local schoolgirl is raped and murdered, Il Giornale publishes a serious of baseless articles incriminating one of the activists. Gian Maria Volonté is brilliant (as usual) in the role of the editor-in-chief, a man without morals, scruples or even politics. He lives for power and thinks anybody with beliefs is an idiot. In one gut-wrenching scene, his wife watches him speak on television and tells him that she agrees with what he said; he calls her a moron and disparages her "civil servant mentality". An excellent drama of corruption, and a great newspaper movie, with terrific music and effective use of footage of actual demonstrations. The central metaphor of the corruption of the media—a timely subject today—is a river of garbage flowing unremarked through the center of the city.
Bakuto Ichidai Chimatsuri Fudo (A Gambler's Life: The Massacring Fudo, 1969): Raizo Ichikawa, in his last film, plays a chivalric yakuza tormented, in the usual way, by his own steadfastness to the yakuza code of honor. This one is more densely plotted than most and has a beautiful visual sensibility, both in terms of color and composition, as well as great music by Hajime Kaburagi. When a man steals money to pay for her sick wife’s medical treatment, Ichikawa attempts to retrieve the cash and offers the thief a chance at redemption. The man attacks him instead and Ichikawa kills him in self-defense. When Ichikawa finds out why the money was stolen, he lets the man's sister keep it. Having sworn to come back with the money, Ichikawa attempts to win it by gambling. He blows it, though, ending up in debt to an older man, who kindly lets him off the hook. Ichikawa turns himself in for manslaughter and does six years. When he gets out he discovers that his younger brother has become a vicious thug working for a bad crime family that's trying to derail the succession of another boss to the top position among the families. The boss in line for the promotion is young but honorable and adhere to the yakuza code as Ichikawa does. Complicating things are the fact that the young boss’s chief lieutenant is the older man who pardoned Ichikawa’s gambling debt, thus saving his life, years earlier. The sister of the man who stole the money is there, too. Ichikawa won’t be able to do right by everybody. A great example of the old school yakuza film.
Kong shan ling yu (Raining in the Mountains, 1979): King Hu's Buddhist parable has some of the intricacy of a Shakespeare play as well as his own signature editing style and painterly compositions. When the abbot of a Buddhist monastery, a powerful figure, prepares to announce his successor, several different parties hope to influence the abbot’s choice. More importantly, they hope to get their hands on a priceless scroll hidden in the temple. If they can't get it from the successor, who's promised it in return for their support, they’ll just steal it. One of the scroll-hunters has therefore shown up with Xu Feng, who plays legendary thief White Fox. At the same time, a man convicted as a thief has bought his way out of exile to become a monk at the monastery. The abbott puts him in charge of guarding the room where the scroll is. Another person after the scroll is the corrupt official who framed this man for robbery in the first place, and murdered his brother. King Hu draws out the tension to a startling extent. There are incredibly long sequences of Xu Feng sneaking around the temple, trying to break into the treasure room. In the end it seems clear that these characters’ obsessions with worldly concerns are counter-productive and backward. The life of the devout—and not all of the monks are devout—appears more attractive.
Red River (1948): A lot of people remember John Wayne as a simplistic, right-wing buffoon, and not without reason, but in a number of movies he gave powerful and intense performances as complex and tortured characters. Red River is one of these, a large-scale story of a massive cattle drive which, like The Searchers, begins with Indians killing the love of Wayne’s life and ending with Wayne obsessed with killing the only other person he ever loved. Contrasting with The Searchers is the fact that Wayne’s personality is responsible for the opening death. By the end of the movie he’s a seemingly unstoppable force of pure malevolence, intent on killing the man who’s been a son to him, played by Montgomery Clift in his movie debut. These two are on a collision course and likely to kill each other. Nothing could stop them, except maybe Colleen Gray, the kind of woman one often sees in Howard Hawks movies but practically nowhere else. During an Indian attack she throws herself into the fray and doesn’t care at all when she gets an arrow through the shoulder. Later on her sling is a handy place to hide a derringer and she’s the only character in the movie who isn't scared of John Wayne. The other things you expect from a Howard Hawks movie are here, too, the beautiful compositions and brilliant camerawork—there's one long, circling shot, accompanied by gorgeously eerie music by Dimitri Tiomkin, that I had to watch a second time, right away, as well as some astonishing tracking shots with the horses and cattle—and of course the rapid-fire approach to dialogue and the refusal to talk down to the audience. Nothing is labored over or made too obvious. Based on a story and with a screenplay co-written by Borden Chase, Red River is one of the great Westerns.
Convoy (1978): In between Vanishing Point, with its Christ-figure outlaw road racer on the run from cops and its black prophet brutalized by white bigots, and Smokey and the Bandit, with its sophisticated woman destined not to get to a wedding because of her fascination with a rogue trucker, lies Sam Peckinpah's Convoy, almost certainly the best movie ever based on a song but also the forgotten Peckinpah, a brilliant movie dismissed, perhaps, for its wit. (One of the art commandments is Thou Shalt Not Be Funny.) Kris Kristofferson is Rubber Duck, a trucker who ends up leading an insurrection against corrupt and abusive authority, incarnated here by Ernest Borgnine, partly an imitation of Jackie Gleason's Smokey and the Bandit role but with elements of Borgnine's role in Emperor of the North Pole, another movie about freewheeling spirits versus The Man. There’s not much story to Convoy. Trucker Kristofferson and cop Borgnine have two things in common: they're independent (averse to unions) and there aren't many of them left. But Borgnine uses his institutional power (which the truckers lack) to entrap and shakedown the truckers. When it looks like one of the truck drivers is in danger of missing the birth of his first child, Kristofferson and the other drivers (including Burt Young, who was also in Peckinpah's The Killer Elite) rally to save him from being jailed on false arrest. After a truckstop brawl—similar to the bar fight in Peckinpah's Junior Bonner—they take off, four or five trucks heading for the state line between Arizona and New Mexico. Borgnine calls in the New Mexico police but the Governor of New Mexico, played by Seymour Cassel, sees that the convoy has more support from voters than the politicians do, and since he wants the voters to send him to Washington, DC, as their senator, well….
Kiba okaminosuke (Samurai Wolf, 1966): This early, presumably low budget Hideo Gosha film is extremely satisfying, thanks to Gosha's excellent direction, superb camerawork, brilliant Tsushima Toshiaki score and a story that's somewhere in between Yojimbo and The Road Warrior. The title character stumbles upon a small town where the local government official is trying to steal control of the postal service from the blind woman who owns it. (She's also an awesome koto player.) Hired swords have been murdering her couriers and stealing shipments. Now she has an assignment to escort a fortune in gold for the government, a sink or swim situation. The Wolf signs on to help her, for a fee, and soon finds himself in the middle of several melodramatic plot lines. There's the deaf mute assassin with a pet monkey always on his shoulder, the prostitute living only for revenge, the demonic swordsman with a mysterious connection to the blind woman…. It's pulp art that anticipates Gosha’s classic Goyokin. Many of the fights are presented in slow motion with only the sounds of the swords as accompaniment .
The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story (1996): Al Hirschfeld (1993–2003) was a great artist—a really great artist. While famous for his illustrations of scenes and personalities from the worlds of theatre, cinema and music, he was also capable of dazzling watercolors, lithographs, etchings and work in various other media. In fact he started out as a sculptor and it's typical of his understated and bemused demeanor that he shrugs off sculpture as a drawing that you fall over in the dark. At some point in this movie somebody marvels over Al's sedentary existence, spending 10 hours or so a day working at the drawing table, sitting in his barber’s chair—the greatest and most functional chair ever made, according to Al: it goes up and down, spins around, leans back—but his early life found him in Paris in the 1920s and also visiting the Soviet Union and Bali, where he spent a year. (He didn't have the money to leave Bali until Charlie Chaplin arrived and bought a bunch of his art from him. Chaplin had been one of Hirschfeld's subjects years earlier.) Hirschfeld's habit of hiding "Nina" (his daughter’s name) in his work led to the Pentagon's using his drawings to train pilots to identify camouflaged targets. But the most rewarding parts of the movie are when you see Hirschfeld's work and, even better, are able to look over his shoulder as he makes his art. (Those were also the best parts of Crumb.)
Big Wednesday (1978): Somewhere in between American Graffiti and Bullet in the Head, both chronologically and conceptually, is Big Wednesday, John Milius's movie about three surfers whose bond of friendship withstands formidable challengers both internal and external over a series of years. The movie is divided into four seasons, each with a different year and a different series of waves. First is "The South Swell: Summer 1962", then "The West Swell: Fall 1965", "The North Swell: Winter 1968" and finally "The Great Swell: Spring 1974". Like many of my favorite movies, Big Wednesday is more textural than plot-driven. It's also admirably subtle. There's no surf music in the movie and when the Vietnam War arises as a crisis in the young men's lives, there’s no "Purple Haze" or "For What It's Worth" either. While there are some pop songs of the period ("Loco-Motion", "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" and others) the music is for the most part provided by Basil Poledouris, who wrote a stirring and lyrical score of remarkable grace and beauty. (It was our 173rd Soundtrack of the Week.) The camera work is assured and elegant; naturally, there are impressive surf sequences. While a movie about three surfer guys who don't much want to grow up could easily be obnoxious, Milius (who based the movie in part on his own youth) bravely relies on understatement and restraint in his presentation of the matieral. Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt and Gary Busey are all great in the lead roles.
The Night Digger (a.k.a.The Road Builder, 1971): Patricia Neal plays a middle-aged woman who lives alone with her blind but domineering adoptive mother, who has a heart condition. A young man on a motorcycle arrives, claiming to be a friend of their neighbor’s nephew, and offers to repair their large house and garden, which have fallen into disrepair, almost ruin. Neal doesn’t want the man there, so her mother takes pleasure in insisting that he join the family. She even tells people that the man is a relative of hers. About halfway through the movie we learn that the man is a serial rapist and murderer who has left a trail of bodies through the country. Soon he's butchering the women in the area and burying their bodies under roads that are about to be paved over. The real story, though, is the changing relationships of the three characters, as Patricia Neal grows to love this young man and her mother reacts to this. Bernard Herrmann wrote a terrific score for this movie, featuring the harmonica and viola d’amore, perhaps recalling some similar territory covered in Psycho. (The movie also has much in common with 1937's Night Must Fall.) The script, by Neal’s husband Roald Dahl, who adapted his own novel, is typically nasty, mean-spirited, intelligent and sadistic. Neal, like her character, had recovered from a stroke. It’s an excellent Gothic drama, at times extremely unpleasant and creepy, with excellent photography.
The Green Slime (1968): Very low budget—you can see strings aplenty—but an excellent story, briskly told, that recalls The Blob and contains the seeds of Alien and Armageddon (and probably other movies too). An emergency mission to destroy an asteroid that’s about to destroy Earth succeeds, but the astronauts return to their space station with a speck of green matter on a space suit. The matter grows into a hideous, one-eyed, tentacled monster that feeds on energy. Soon there are scores of them, inside and outside the space station. The bright and cheap look of the movie prevents any of this from being horrifying, but the potential is there. Eerie music by Tsushima Toshiaki, though it sounds like some cues were used over and over again. Director Kinji Fukasaku keeps things moving along briskly as usual and indulges his taste for interesting compositions and canted frames. With a bigger budget this could have been mind-blowing. As it is, it's quite good.
Dark of the Sun (1968) Rod Taylor and Jim Brown lead an army of mercenaries into the jungle of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to rescue people from a rebel group known for its savagery and brutality. Actually, their real mission is to get the fifty million dollars in diamonds still in the mining town with these potential victims. Adding to the difficulties are attacks from the UN forces in the area and a wild-card member of the team, a sadistic Nazi psycho. Things go wrong, as they usually do, but things really go wrong in this movie, which has an intelligent screenplay and some interesting similarities to The Wild Bunch. It has scenes of violence that are actually shocking and necessary to the plot. It has a colorful, vibrant, confident look and feel to it, no surprise as it was directed by the brilliant cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The Morricone-esque music by Jacques Loussier is also excellent (and was our fourth Soundtrack of the Week). Here's a kind of movie they don’t make anymore. Smart, tough, uncompromising—a "hard-hitting, action-packed melodrama", as Samuel Fuller might say. The great Andre Morrell appears in a few scenes, once again fully realizing a complex character with a few deft and precise touches.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010): The story of a transplanted Frenchman with a vintage clothing shop in Los Angeles who becomes obsessed with video cameras and starts filming everything, indiscriminately, until he stumbles upon the world of street art and makes it his focus and obsession. Soon he’s documenting art stars like Shepard Fairey and even the elusive Banksy (who made this documentary, in an interesting turnaround). What nobody expected this recorder of street art to do is to decide to become an artist himself, beginning by placing stickers and moving on to larger pieces and finally betting everything on a massive gallery show, a make or break spectacular that will either ruin him or make him rich and famous. It’s a great movie, well made with excellent music and amazing footage of great street artists in the act of creation—always the best part of any documentary about an artist. I was already a Banksy fan and I like him even more after watching this.
Zwölf Winter (12 Winter, 2009): This German TV movie is apparently based on real events and concerns two middle-aged ex-cons who perfect a bank-robbing technique. They work out a lot to get into good shape so the witnesses who see the masked robbers leaping over counters assume that the criminals are much younger. The robbers also pull their heists only in the winter, when it gets dark earlier, entering a bank a few minutes before closing, doing the job and making their escape under cover of darkness. They even drive into the woods and use night vision goggles to find their second car. As a special police team struggles to figure them out and bring them down, they change their methods accordingly and do things deliberately to confuse the police, such as using motorcycles for a while but then switching to a car while still wearing motorcycle helmets for the robbery. By the time the police figure out that they should be looking for a car instead of a motorcycle, it’s too late. A very good, no-nonsense crime drama.
Across the Bridge (1957): This movie based on a Graham Greene story goes Hitchcock one better. It's about a man on the run who's both innocent and guilty. Rod Steiger plays a German-born, British-naturalized tycoon who's in New York about to close a deal so big that it might violate anti-trust laws. Unlucky for him, it comes to light that he's defrauded his own company out of millions of dollars, so he hits the road, taking a train to Mexico where he has a million bucks in a bank in Mexico City. It isn't long before his picture is on the front page of all the newspapers and border security prepare to arrest him on sight. So he gets another man on the train drunk, throws him off and steals his identity, changing his hair color and adopting the man's wardrobe and glasses. The twist is that Steiger's victim is even more of a desperado: he’s the murderer of a Mexican governor and there's a huge bounty on his head, dead or alive. This is only one of the many ironies in this movie, and nobody does irony better than Graham Greene. Steiger's performance is amazing. I had to remind myself a few times that it was him and not Gert Fröbe.
Drive (2011): Nicholas Winding Refn is one of the only directors working today with a career worth following. In Drive Ryan Gosling plays the kind of existential criminal you find in Richard Stark books and Jean-Pierre Melville movies. He drives. That’s it. He can do anything with cars but he won't carry a gun, so he ends up being the wheel man for other criminals. Drive is very referential—to Taxi Driver, Thief, Leon (a.k.a. The Professional), Le Samouraï, Point Blank, Kiss Me Deadly, The Driver and others—but is, thankfully, nothing at all like a Quentin Tarantino movie. It's calm, restrained and unpretentious. The photography is especially good and the performances just about perfect. (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman as gangsters are outstanding.) Martin Amis once described Elmore Leonard novels as "The Pardoner’s Tale" with Death disguised as a bag of money, or something like that, and that sketches the plot of Drive as well. Gosling's character has no life outside of driving until he develops feelings for his next-door neighbor and her son. When her husband gets out of prison the whole family is menaced and the driver gets involved to protect them.
The Story of G.I. Joe (1945): This adaptation of Ernie Pyle's Pultizer Prize-winning writings about the general infantry in WW2, is unusually complex and nuanced and offers an unglamorous and occasionally grim view of overseas combat. The soldiers are almost always struggling to survive in terrible conditions while surrounded by a practically invisible and seemingly inexhaustible enemy. The sets are so good that I found myself wondering if the movie was shot on location. It wasn’t; the war was still going on while they were making it, which makes the absence of frenzied cheerleading even more remarkable. While not exactly an anti-war movie, it's definitely not a propaganda film. This was an important movie for Robert Mitchum, who's excellent as the weary and resigned squad leader. One scene near the end , when he gives a speech about writing letters to the parents of soldiers killed in action, is stunning. I would guess that this movie served as a model for Saving Private Ryan, though the latter movie dilutes the strength of its combat scenes with a saccharine Hollywood story.
The Colossus of New York (1958): When a brilliant scientist, a tireless champion for social justice and winner of the Nobel peace prize, is killed in an accident, his father and brother transplant his brain into a giant robot body. The robot man is unhappy about this and would rather die. He ends up going on an insane killing spree, taking on the general assembly of the United Nations. The special effects are awesome; special effects never got better, if you ask me. One of the screen’s best robots. Van Cleave's score, which is mostly for solo piano, occasionally recalls Bernard Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still music, especially Gort's theme. I wonder if this movie was an inspiration for Paul Chadwick's Concrete or for Robocop.
Caught (1949): Barbara Bel Geddes is trapped in a loveless marriage with psycho millionaire Robert Ryan but pines to be with James Mason, a good samaritan doctor working for the poor in New York City's Lower East Side. The melodramatic plot is surprisingly sympathetic to all three characters and even involves that rarest movie bird of all, a competent and admirable psychoanalyst. The real star is Max Ophüls, the director, whose camera glides through scenes, capturing long takes from numerous angles. An early scene in a department store is a masterpiece of choreography as Barbara Bel Geddes juggles two conversations while modeling a fur coat for customers.
Tsuma wa kokuhaku suru (A Wife Confesses, 1961): Part courtroom drama and part women's picture, this absorbing story of a woman on trial for the murder of her husband takes an unexpected turn at the end. The wife of the title is trapped in a marriage with an abusive husband. She develops feelings for a younger man who has business with her husband. The three of them go mountain climbing together, as it's the husband's favorite activity. There's an accident and the married couple fall. All three are connected by a rope. At the top is the young man, straining to hold the weight of the two fallen climbers. At the bottom is the husband and the wife is in the middle. She cuts the rope and her husband falls to her death. Did she do it because the pain caused by the rope pulling on her in both directions left her no choice or did she take advantage of the opportunity to commit murder? This was exceptionally well directed, with a crisp, no-nonsense style. The performances were impeccable and the score unusual and effective.
La Proie (The Prey, 2011): This very entertaining thriller, sort of a spin on The Fugitive, has a great premise and executes it impeccably. Franck is in prison for bank robbery. He's the only one who knows where the money is hidden, much to the frustration of his partner, who's inside with him and paranoid about not getting his share. Franck's wife also needs money, for herself and for their very young daughter, who needs to see specialists for her inability to speak. Franck's cellmate Maurel is a wimpy guy imprisoned for raping a young girl. He protests his innocence and Franck, after reading the man's diary, believes him and protects him from the other prisoners who want to destroy him. Maurel's alleged victim recants her testimony and Maurel is free to go. Franck asks him to look up his wife and give her a message that will reveal to her the location of the hidden cash from the bank job. And here's where everything goes horribly wrong. Maurel wasn’t innocent. In fact he's a serial killer and his wife is as much of a psycho as he is, and forced Maurel's victim to tell the police that her testimony had been false. Back in prison, the other convicts decide to take out Franck since Franck kept them from Maurel. Franck manages to escape and chases after Maurel, while an elite police team, led by a female super-cop, pursues him just as avidly. This is not an especially believable movie but it's too entertaining and fast moving for me to care.
Never Let Go (1960): Peter Sellers as you’ve never seen him before and as you never saw him again, either. He's the villain in this crime drama and as I watched his character fly into jealous and possessive rages over the young woman he's exploiting, I wondered if this role was, in fact, the closest we ever got to seeing the real Sellers on screen. There are countless stories of his behaving in much the same way with his wives, children, lovers and friends. It makes his biographies depressing reading. So perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise that Sellers is so good in this anomalous role. It's also to be expected that we have no wish to see more of this sort of thing. Sellers runs a stolen car gang that employs juvenile delinquents for the actual thefts. When they steal the car that a struggling salesman needs to keep his job and provide for his family, the movie becomes like a JD/crime/exploitation riff on Bicycle Thieves. The salesman’s desperation increases as his situation becomes more urgent and as much as his civilian investigation annoys the police—who don’t care about his car but want to smash the whole car theft ring—it bugs Sellers even more. Actually, at first Sellers views his efforts with amused contempt, but the two men end up frantic to reclaim an important property: for the salesman it's his car and for Sellers it’s the young woman that he’s trying to own. They're both kind of nuts in their own way, and it's hard to avoid thinking that the salesman's real problem is that he's just bad at his job, but one things builds to another so effectively that the momentum carries you along. The black-and-white photography is excellent and the music is by a young John Barry, in the vein of his Beat Girl score.
Akmareul boattda (I Saw the Devil, 2010): It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it but I remember Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as being the most powerful serial killer movie ever made, also one of the least pleasant, which is surely the point. I really thought it was the serial killer movie to end all serial killer movies. After the evil atmosphere of Henry, who would watch a serial killer movie to be entertained? Of course I was wrong. The serial killer movie went mainstream with, I guess, The Silence of the Lambs (which I saw but don’t remember at all) and has, since then, been popular if not especially startling. It hasn’t approached true horror, providing instead an entertaining diversion that assaults the audience with spectacles of pain, blood and whatever nasty business might raise eyebrows and thus serve the marketing strategy. (Mary Harron's American Psycho (2000) was an exception, an effective satire with something to say.) But other countries have added something worthwhile to the serial killer sub-genre. Jaime Rosales's Las Horas del Dia (The Hours of the Day, 2003), for instance, was gratifyingly different and eingmatic. And there have been a few from South Korea. Bong Joon-ho’s Salinui chueok (Memories of Murder, 2003), based on a true story, was an excellent movie about Korea’s first serial killer, who operates in a small town where the local police are out of their depth. Na Hong-jin’s Chugyeogja (The Chaser, 2008) was another impressive nail-biter with flawed police officers always one step behind. Kim Ji-woon's I Saw the Devil (2010) claims different territory. A serial killer's latest victim is the daughter of a retired police chief and the fiancée of an elite special agent. Whoops, he's messed with the wrong family this time. The agent tracks down the murderer right away but doesn't kill him. He tortures him and lets him go. With the aid of a tracking device he finds him again, tortures him again, lets him go again. And so on. But the killer is not one to roll over and take it. It turns out that both of these guys have messed with the wrong people. It’s beautifully and slickly photographed, as were Memories of Murder and The Chaser. The performances are excellent and the story took several unexpected turns. It’s extremely violent, bloody and disturbing, a strangely exhilarating kind of entertainment, vicious and horrific without indulging in the monotony and pandering of "torture porn". It also scores a point for the case against meeting violence with violence.
The Scar (a.k.a. Hollow Triumph, 1948): Here’s a film noir deserving of rediscovery. Paul Henreid produced and also stars in a dual role as an evil psychoanalyst and the opportunistic ex-con who happens to be his doppelganger and decides to murder him and take his place. The only matter to attend to is the scar on the psychoanalyst’s face. The ex-con has no problem giving himself the same scar—but he manages to put it on the wrong side of his face! Interestingly, nobody notices this, a touch that seems incredibly contrived and at the same time exactly the kind of thing that would happen in real life. The story in general, which involves the robbery of a mob-run casino and the unexpected development that the psychoanalyst is being lured to gambling dens by a femme fatale while his tough but golden-hearted secretary carries a torch for him, is contrived, but this can be an advantage in that its improbability makes it less predictable. (Possibly the story was meant to take advantage of the success of Nightmare Alley, another crime drama with a psychoanalyst angle.) And then there’s the ace in the hole, the photography by John Alton, the greatest film noir cinematographer of all time. While Alton did most of his best work for director Anthony Mann, The Scar has a wealth of dark and beautiful compositions and should be included in any Alton retrospective.
Ajeossi (The Man from Nowhere, 2010): A quiet pawnshop owner’s only human relationship is with the little girl who lives next door. Criminals kidnap her to get at her mother and mock the lonely man next door. Bad move. The pawnshop owner is a former military intelligence commando who’s been sleepwalking through life since his pregnant wife was murdered a few years ago. He chases the crooks while the cops chase him. This supremely entertaining action thriller is assembled from the parts of various movies: First Blood, Leon, A History of Violence, U.S. Marshalls and so on. The filmmakers seem to expect that we’ve seen these movies and dozens of others with a similar premise—every episode of The Incredible Hulk, for instance—and don’t waste our time. They make sure we care about the characters we need to care about and they make the action scenes deft and humorous by showing them at an oblique angle or eliding them all together. (The main character's first move against the thugs is brilliantly understated and prompts the same chuckle of surprise and delight as did Tony Jaa's first move in Ong Bak.) It's also very well photographed and zips along at a brisk pace, frequently reminding viewers that really good violent action movies have a lot more to them than just violence. Like I Saw the Devil, this is a great South Korean "you messed with the wrong guy" movie.
Monkey Shines (1988): Allan goes out for a run and gets hit by a car, an accident that renders him quadriplegic. Able only to move his head, he doesn’t think life is worth living anymore until his friend Geoffrey presents him with a capuchin monkey named Ella, who has been trained to serve him. She's very smart and can fetch things for him, change the batteries in his wheelchair, dial phone numbers and so on. She’s actually a little too smart. Geoffrey has been secretly injecting Ella with an experimental formula to boost her intelligence. It causes Ella and Allan to bond mentally and emotionally. Allan finds himself to be losing the social controls of civilization and experiencing primal feelings of rage, feelings that Ella acts out for him, murderously. This makes Ella a sort of monster from the id, and Allan at one point refers to Forbidden Planet, recalling how he wanted to be Robby the Robot for Halloween when he was a kid and now, a prisoner of his mechanized wheelchair and house full of electronic gadgets, his wish has come true in an awful way. The screenplay, by George Romero, who also directed, is quite intelligent. I'd like to read the novel it's based on. David Shire wrote a really good score for this satisfying, unsettling horror thriller whose ending echoes the climax of The Spiral Staircase (1945).
The Window (1949): A young boy sleeps on the fire escape of his New York City tenement building to escape the summer heat. Thinking there’s a bit more breeze higher up, he carries his pillow up one flight to the top floor. In the middle of the night something wakes him up. Peering through the small gap between the sill and the blind of the window he sees his upstairs neighbors, a married couple, murder a man whom the wife had lured home for just that purpose. They take his money and carry him out the window and onto the roof to dispose of the body, by which time the boy is back in his own apartment. He tells his parents about it but they don’t believe him, and with good reason. He's constantly telling tall tales and his parents almost lost their apartment because of his last whopper. The more he tries to convince them the more upset they get, not just angry but also worried that their son might be crazy. The Window is based on a Cornell Woolrich story and it’s here that Woolrich's signature paranoia and terror start to seep in: the boy becomes increasingly isolated from any potential allies and more vulnerable to the upstairs neighbors, who find out that he's a witness. This is an excellent crime thriller with exceptionally good New York City atmosphere. It was directed by Ted Tetzlaff, who was the director of photography on Hitchock's Notorious.
Brief Encounter (1945): A man and a woman meet by accident at a train station when the man, a doctor, helps remove a piece of grit from the woman's eye. Later they meet again by accident, when they end up sharing a table at a crowded cafe. Then they decide to meet again, not by accident. They’re both married to other people and have contented family lives. What they don’t have, except in their stolen moments together, is fun. They fall in love and their lighthearted meetings become something much heavier, romantic and hopeless. It's easy to see why Brief Encounter is the much lauded classic it is. It has beautiful, shadowy photography, an air-tight script and brilliant acting. The story is told almost entirely in flashback: the opening scene is reprised near the end, with devastating results.
Ils (Them, 2006): It’s just a normal Friday night for the young couple living in an old house outside of Bucharest. He's a writer, she's a French teacher, and there’s nothing unusual about them. In the middle of the night they hear strange sounds. They look out the window and see that somebody has moved their car about twenty feet down the driveway. Somebody then steals the car while others invade the house and begin tormenting these two nice people. What had been an ordinary night becomes something they'll have to struggle to survive. The Hollywood remake of this was called The Strangers (2008) and was pretty good but the original is much better. It's remarkable how much tension and dread the filmmakers were able to create with little more than shots of empty rooms and hallways. This is a movie that lets you feel somebody else's fear of the dark.
Hodejegerne (Headhunters, 2011): The hero of this movie is a successful job recruiter who supplements his income by moonlighting as an art thief. Things go seriously off the rails when he tries to blackball a former mercenary who counts on him for securing the top position at a company that makes GPS devices. The headhunter/art thief finds himself on the run pursued by an implacable, bloodthirsty and very experienced killer, and the plot has some kind of unexpected twist or surprise about every five minutes. There were probably about a dozen times during the movie that I found myself wondering "How's he going to get out of this?". Incredibly, as contrived as this series of crises might be, each one is meticulously set up by what happened before, so that what should seem absurd comes across as inevitable as a line of collapsing dominoes. The hero isn't admirable or even especially likable, but he becomes so desperate and forced to take such extreme measures that you end up supporting him. He’s certainly more sympathetic than his nemesis, anyway.
Happy New Year!
We'll kick it off with one of our favorites, Nico Fidenco, whose score for Agente Logan Missione Ypotron is the 198th Soundtrack of the Week.
The music actually lives up to that cover!
The first and last tracks are the title song, a psych/garage rock blaster with some great guitar playing. "It could be a bomb / Or a magic potion / Don't be deaf and dumb / When you hear that name." The rhyme scheme falls apart in places.
The same melody gets a work out from a combo featuring slide guitar and organ as the intro to "The World of Lemmy Logan". Then there's a second theme, then some atmospheric music, then the second theme again.
"Unnerving Waiting " sounds like its title, with some deep, low organ notes that recall Henry Mancini's score for Experiment in Terror. Then it reprises the second theme, in a Joe Meek sort of way.
"Agent Logan on Mission" is an instrumental arrangement of both themes. Other cues that are mostly arrangements of one or both of those themes are "Manhunt", "Logan Shake" and "Logan Strikes Back".
"Brainwash" is more suspense music, similar to some of what you hear in The Prisoner. "Dream or Reality" and "Dangerous Operation" are also Prisoner-like.
"Love's Guitar" alternates between sensitive Spanish guitar and the same Joe Meek/Ventures type groove heard in "Unnerving Waiting". More Spanish guitar playing appears in "Romantic Moment". And there's more of the same in "Love Memory".
"Exotica" is a weird piece for percussion and organ. "Spying the Spies" brings back the familiar second theme but in the context of a mysterious and pensive atmosphere. The same mood saturates "Deadly Challenge".
"Unforgettable Love" is a romantic waltz for organ and guitar.
"Final Confrontation" is an exciting stomp that ends with a reprise of the second theme. It's interesting to hear it with this very different rhythmic feel.