Kobayashi, Cassavetes, Hathaway, Clouzot, Hill, and Naruse

12 10 2009

Satsujin kyo jidai (Kihachi Okamoto, 1967)
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This restored my faith in Tatsuya Nakadai after the disastrous Human Condition. Okamoto’s absurd comedy-spy thriller is the perfect antidote to Kobayashi’s didactic melodramatic mess. Nakadai plays an unassuming psychology professor who lives alone. His peaceful existence is interrupted when a hit is placed on him by a ex-Nazi “mad scientist” looking for a long, lost diamond. Along the way, Nakadai teams up with the alluring Reiko Dan and the goofy Hideo Sunazuka. From there, hi-jinx ensues, which makes the movie sound kind of terrible, but Okamoto’s comedic style resembles Bunuel’s absurd humor and works on the same type of bizarre level. It’s somewhat telling that this was made the same year as Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? as it manages to parody Japanese action films in a similar fashion. Ultimately, Okamoto’s effort has a lot more to offer on a cinematic level. Simply stated, the widescreen black-and-white is outstanding. It manages to strike the perfect balance between the static and more “mature” feel of Japan’s previous generation of directors while still indulging in some ATG-era stylization. In that respect, Okamoto’s visual tone resembles Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships, an apt comparison considering how that film also achieves a perfect balance between the absurd and downright hilarious.

Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970)
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Yes, it’s great. I still probably like Mikey & Nicky more but this isn’t too far behind. It’s kind of the exact same thing, except the single night turns into a three-day drinking binge and instead of two old friends, we have three buddies ankle-deep in grief. Of course, the power of this film doesn’t come from the situation Falk, Cassavetes, and Gazzara are thrown into, at least not in the sense of a dramatic structure, but rather from the awkward and painful sequences they share with others. I watched this with my roommate, who is certainly no film snob and he absolutely loved it. It’s telling too, because a week earlier he got profoundly drunk and spent the entire evening texting/calling an ex-girlfriend as well as the girl he is currently in love with to tell them that he was going to kill himself. That’s kind of what this, though the movie never really goes that far. Most of that stuff is just implied, which is, of course, what makes Cassavetes so brilliant. The ending is also amazing, in the sense that it isn’t even an ending at all. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a more open-ended conclusion in any other film. That’s kind of a problem too, because while it is 150 minutes long, it does ultimately feel a little too short. Maybe it’s because my viewing got interrupted a few times, but maybe it’s because drunk people are just so damn riveting. I would love to see Ozu make this since he and Cassavetes are probably the very best at photographing drunk people.

Garden of Evil (Henry Hathaway, 1954)
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One’s overall enjoyment of this film is directly related to one’s fascination with Richard Widmark. I could watch him in anything, especially when he’s as great as he is here. Even though he doesn’t (or didn’t) get top-billing, he is (at least in my mind) unquestionably the star. Without his would-be hero martyrdom, Gary Cooper’s happy ending would never work. His character here is so fun to watch. It’s almost as though it is the screenwriter putting himself into the story. In other words, Widmark seems to understand everybody. If not, then he’s at least closer than Hayward or Cooper. He almost immediately recognizes everything that is going to happen, how it will happen, why it will happen, and so on. He’s basically the most inexplicably intelligent character in any western. On the other hand, there is a reason he didn’t get top-billing. He’s not in the movie enough. I still stand by my statement of him being the legit star, but there’s too much typical heroism bullshit from Cooper. Still, a pretty good movie, better than Rawhide anyway.

Les diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)
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This was alright, pretty good by the standards of 1950s “horror” cinema. I will give it credit for one thing, it’s far better than any American Hitchcock film I’ve seen, which should count for something. On the whole though, I think I’m past the phase when I would have found this stuff interesting. Sure, there’s a great vibe present throughout the entire movie and the photography is pretty nice too. I especially like how the lighting is sometimes too dim to even see anything. Still, though, a picture like this only mildly fascinates me. It’s easy and fun to watch, but ultimately a little hallow and meaningless, but I guess most movies of this type are? The ending is completely silly, too, but I like the fact that Clouzot hints at the whole triviality of the entire narrative. It’s good escapism-type entertainment and I’d like to see more of this stuff from time to time (at least when it’s done in an artful manner such as this) but nothing close to mind-blowing.

Observe and Report (Jody Hill, 2009)
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This, on the other hand (is it just me or do I use that phrase a lot?), is a perfect example of something that is superficially “conventional” but is actually completely fucking crazy. There’s a lot to take in here, but to begin, has there ever been such an unabashedly brutal and violent movie in all of Hollywood? The only thing that comes close to having this much intestinal fortitude is Nowhere. Imagine the scene from that film in which Elvis kills Handjob with a soup can and you have a pretty good idea of what this is like. It is just so frank and unromantic in its depiction of violence that comes off as the antithesis to Tarantino. In fact, this is like a Haneke film that isn’t beating you over the head with its philosophy. Instead, it beats you over the head with its physicality. There’s no mystery as to why people hated this movie, it is really uncomfortable for pretty much the entire 84 minutes. It has its laugh, but they all hit on this deep, heartbreaking, cringe-inducing note that I’m sure every 13 year old boy hoping for something “badass” and “hilarious” is going to feel a little bit disturbed afterwards. It’s pretty remarkable how honest and authentic the “action” feels considering Hill’s hyper-energetic type of montage, but it somehow totally works. Mr. Achitoff said a few month back that this is like Gaspar Noe for the multiplex and he’s absolutely right.

Anzukko (Mikio Naruse, 1957)
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It felt good to sit down and watch a Naruse film, especially since I hadn’t done so in a couple months. While this does remind me why I love him in the first place, it is ultimately one of his weaker efforts. It would actually be a very good starting point for those new to the director (Barry, you’d probably like this, too) if only because it is slightly exaggerated example of what he does best. Once again we have a marriage that isn’t the greatest in the world. In fact, I’d argue its the worst, but unlike the mutual compassion present in a film like Repast, we get a complex in which more attention is devoted to a completely unlikable husband and far too little is spent with his wife, who puts up with far too much of his bullshit. The female figure and titular character is played by Kyoko Kagawa, a strong character actress who worked with the very best in the industry. Unfortunately, she doesn’t quite live up to the standards that the main female protagonist of a Naruse film. She’s just a little too nice and obdient, which I suppose is kind of the point. Her husband, played by Isao Kimura — also a strong supporting performer, devotes all his resources and time to his career as a writer. He sees his novelist father-in-law (played by the always excellent So Yamamura) as a rival. In fact, towards the end he refers to him as his greatest enemy. A childish characterization on the part of Kimura’s character, but a perfect representation of the competitive nature with which he sees everything. I have no problems with a film centered on unsympathetic characters, but there’s a difference between a lack of morals and pure stupidity, the husband falls into the latter. To make matters worse, the overarching “message” of the entire story is that Kyoko should stay with her husband because, while she’s lost her chance at happiness, leaving her husband would only take away his happiness as well. Apparently, that would be selfish? This is much different than the central relationship in Repast, in which the passive couple stays together on the basis of mutual respect. Here, it’s just Mizoguchi-type martyrdom tragedy and unlike Mizoguchi, Naruse doesn’t make Kyoko a female Jesus, but instead someone who is doing the right thing. Having said all that, this is still a pretty good movie. Kimura overacts a little bit, especially when he’s intoxicated, but other than that, the performances are pretty much perfect. All the interactions, the dialogue, the little gestures (such an important part of Naruse’s cinema) are all present and they’re all things I’ve come to expect from the man. While this isn’t one of his best efforts, it’s not a problem. I’ll take his mediocre efforts over the masterpieces of most directors.

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Glue (2006)

4 10 2009

Really great for the most part. Yeah, the concept is taken straight from the “stories about alienation” archive, but formally, it is pretty fantastic. Lots of beautiful Korine-esque 8mm cut scenes complimented by bizarre non-sequitors and poetic voiceovers. The photography for the rest of the movie is a little bit ugly. I mean, Dos Santos knows what looks good, but there’s this odd and kind of awful brownish tint to most of the images. The screenshot above isn’t actually a good indication of what most of the movie looks like, but instead, its example of the small instances of cinematic beauty that Dos Santos captures. Outside of the occasionally dull cinematography (which isn’t really that bad) I just feel like most of the movie is too perfect. The whole coming of age alienation thing can still be done right, but everything feels a little bit too right for me. There’s not enough transgression for this to separate itself from every other “sexual awakening teen drama.” There’s a moment where Dos Santos comes close, it’s when the main character and his best friend sniff glue and watch porn, but he definitely needed a few more awkwardly intimate moments like this for me to truly love it. Instead, it’s just a really good example of the sort of movies I love, but I can’t say it’s nearly as great as Gummo or Rebels of the Neon God or any other film from which this takes heavy cues.