Donnerstag, 31. Oktober 2013

Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu / Samurai Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

A Samurai's son is forced to marry his son to the former mistress of his lord.

I was already fascinated by the title sequence. The succession of images of roofs and shingles were visually mesmerizing and subtly establish one of the underlying themes of the story: Everybody has to stay aligned to tradition to keep the structure intact.

But Mifunes character is stubborn and his fellow Samurai call him that. Although he flatly refuses his lord to wed his son to the dismissed wife of his lord, he is genuinely impressed when he realizes that the couple has taken a liking to each other. He realizes pretty fast that his own life has been full of ambition but devoid of happiness. So again he starts to struggle to make his son's life better than his.

At some point the reason for Mifune's stubbornness becomes moot and he keeps on fighting for a higher ideal: Feelings of even a simple vassal should be honored even by the highest lord. During this quixotic battle he becomes a hero of tragic but nevertheless heartwarming humanity.

This is only the third Kobayashi film I have seen, but it is definitively a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. The camerawork is pragmatic, yet beautiful. He doesn't use Kurosawa-style choreography, except for the fighting scenes, which come late and are over quite fast. Some of the editing decisions seem a bit outdated, but they are still bold and make their point (resorting to still frames, blur cuts, etc)

Kurosawa talks about the structure of the Koh play, which might be something I want to study in more detail. If this film follows this set-up there is a treasure of ideas to be found there.

The War Game (Peter Watkins, 1965)

A fakumentary about the consequences of a nuclear attack on Britain in the 60s.

The interesting part is how information and the accounts of fictional survivors of a nuclear attack on Britain is mixed. A number of (real?) experts give their opinion on the possible problems that would occur in case of nuclear warfare. This footage is intercut with staged footage of a burning houses, torn up survivors and many vox populi.

It shows to a comforting extent (or to an alarming extent, depending on how you look at it) that despite the advance of the digital age, the mass media, and the advertised rise in general education that the average person in the street is just as clueless today as it was about fifty years ago. Only a few people understand the danger of radiation, and even then, the information is jumbled and irritating.

While watching the film I could feel a certain pull towards sensationalism. The various stories of the war victims were sometimes chopped off a bit abrupt and the voice-over sometimes finds himself somewhere between pure pretense and Wochenschau rhetoric.

I wonder with what intentions this film was made. Part it is moral appeal against nuclear warfare on the other hand it carries a strong public service announcement tone across. Maybe that's the irony of the whole thing but is a bit hard to judge without the context.

Mittwoch, 30. Oktober 2013

When a woman ascends the stairs (Mikio Naruse, 1960)

A bar hostess tries to survive in the Ginko area in Tokyo without losing her dignity.

The film was an amazing watch. Although all the situations were set up in a classical structure, the payoff was totally unexpected and lends the story an incredible amount of realism. The cultural clashes between traditional and modern Japan are just as beautifully rendered as the dilemmas of Keiko: should she descend into prostitution, or live a poor life while at the same time disappointing her family that disapproves of her profession.

The film is perfectly cast with Hideko Takamine. I haven't seen her in films before, but I'll definitively watch out for her. She brings just the right amount of vulnerability, determination and gentleness to the character. It's simply a joy to watch her perform on screen. No wonder she was a star in Japan in the time.

I also liked the camera work: beautifully shot, yet unobtrusive. Naruse has managed to edit the images into a seamless flow, effortlessly moving the story through its various twists and turns. There is not as much formalism that I remember from Ozu or Kobayashi's films but the images feel light and must have looked amazing in a huge cinema.

My favorite scene is where Keiko learns that one of her potential lovers has been lying to her. While the facts are thrown in front of her, two little boys cycle around the two woman in the picture on a small bike with old tins attached. This simple direction gave the scene something incredibly desperate - a genius idea.

Survive Style 5+ (Gen Sekiguchi, 2004)

5 crazy stories in Japan entangle into a even crazier potpourri of action, comedy and brutal murders.

All story lines develop independently from each other. A crazy artist tries to continually kill his wife, but every time he inters her body in the woods, he finds her resurrected when he returns home. And her intentions are revengeful. A frustrated marketing woman tries to take revenge on her chauvinistic lover, a group of burglars with repressed homosexual feelings and a British killer and his translator roam the streets of Japan.

The underlying theme here is acceptance and through all the weirdness of this movie the general motive of everyone is to be accepted by everybody else. In itself a wonderful idea, although I had the feeling that "I'm a Cyborg, but that's OK" handles the same subject much more efficiently and gratifying.

The ending of two stories is surprising and quite beautiful. I loved the bird man story. It was touching and funny at the same time. The boy, trying to cope with his father's transformation was quite amazing and very convincing.

Other story lines didn't end that gracefully, like Vinne Jones' as the killer. I would have hoped for a better ending for him. And his incessant repetition of his catch phrase "What is your purpose in life?" got a bit monotonous after a while, because I never really understood his motivation to ask that question. So his character (and story) remains flat throughout. Also the marketing woman's story sort of just fizzled out. Would have loved to see more there.

Visually, the interior designs were wonderful, full of crazy colors and strange props. They must have spent a fortune just to set those up. Or the location scout was a genius.

Montag, 28. Oktober 2013

Fires on the plain / Nobi (Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

A sick Japanese soldier is dismissed from his unit during the war on the Philippines and tries to reach the point of evacuation on his own.

As the naive soldier Takamura tries to find his way out of the jungle and back to his fellow militaries he encounters a number of increasingly inhumane men.  He seems to be highly suspicious of the locals, but entrusts his nasty comrades with his life. Very quickly the subject of cannibalism emerges in conversations between the hungry soldier.

The Americans, who have more or less won the war are depicted as an anonymous force. There is much speculation if they are benign to POWs or would simply slaughter them. Our poor hero witnesses a botched attempt of a surrender and decides to proceed on his own. When he descends into the bottomless swamp of savage-like soldiers-turned-zombies he tries to hold on to his last remains of human dignity.

His journey is also a spiritual one, as in his naivete he strongly believes that the Fires on the plain and their billowing smoke stacks are the symbols of salvation. But his fear of a trap never lets him approach them.

In many ways, the movie is also funny - the laconic depiction of the banal things that become very dangerous in a combat situation, like crossing a road or entering a hut. The overwhelmed of expression on Takamura's face sometimes renders it comical.

There are many memorable shots in the film, but what caught my ears was the stunning theme song. It sounded very much like a western theme with a haunting melody and a beautiful arrangement. I assume that the director wanted to tell a western in that sense.


Sonntag, 27. Oktober 2013

The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)

The coming-of-age of a teenager stuck in a rutting Texan village in the 50s.

The story in the movie revolves mostly about relations in the small town. Some of the relations are of a sexual nature, or about sexual discovery. The adultery committed by the wife of the school coach (who is secretly homosexual), all the women in the movie live in warped relationships - Jacy's mother has had different lovers, and Genevieve seems to be happy in her role as a cafe "mum", I'm not quite sure about her relationship with Sam.

The other relations are forged to secure vertical social mobility - Jacy, who seems very unsure about her own sexuality is already deeply influenced by the pragmatic approach that her (unhappy) mother has had towards marriage and relationships in general. Duane, who is definitively on the lower end of the scale - the Jackson's house is more of a shack - cannot comprehend this, at least on an emotional level.

There is one thing strangely lacking from the setup - the family relations. It is kind of ironic that in such a small town, none of the characters seem to be related in any way - and except for two scenes, where Sunny actually meets his estranged father, and Jacy's mother - a reflection of a younger self, there don't seem to be any kind of blood relations between the principal characters. This gives the characters even more isolation to the loneliness of this middle of nowhere town.

The photography is gorgeous and the close-ups have a very interesting quality to them, that I can't quite place. The stock seemed grainy, although very detailed at the same time, giving the film a very distinguished look.

The fight scene between Sunny and Duane is quite amazing, the scene was rehearsed in cuts already, so everything plays out very precisely. Some interesting angles there.

Dienstag, 8. Oktober 2013

West Side Story (Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, 1961)

Romeo and Juliet meet New York, Bernstein and a lot of hair spray.

The musical numbers are as earwormy as expected and the story quite beautifully told. I wonder how the (racial) stereotypes were put down in the film: "Polish-Irish" vs. "Puerto-Rican/Spanish". The white guys with their 50s make-up and their baseball jackets are inherently funny to look at and give the film its beautiful Americana vintage look.

On the other hand, the Puerto-Ricans look like a caricature of a pool overseer and animator in a Club Med resort. Their skins appear to have been sloppily painted on with an early prototype of a car finish airbrush and their hair towers are marvels of construction - they must have hired a static engineer on set to keep those quiffs staying upright. Maybe it has to do with how the film reacted to the pigment, but it seems more like a minstrel show to me.

The biggest hurdle for the musicals I have seen so far is to keep the story interesting. Very often, the music halts the flow of the story and usually the choice is to cut to a new scene. This means that you need a new exposition after every song or dance number. West Side Story is not much different than others, but it manages to keep the story moving.  One obvious trick is to have the music at the dance hall. Another is when "walking" towards a fight.

Visually, the colors are lush and bright and the sets appear beautiful and just as colorful. Many scenes used vivid foreground costumes to highlight the character, to a point where the person seems cut out from the scene. Some of the imagery has been inspired by religious examples. And the credits by Saul Bass are simply amazing.

Samstag, 5. Oktober 2013

The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)

An quirky nun has to take care of seven aristocratic kids and falls in love with their father.

Two or three of the musical numbers of this film immediately stuck: The title tune, and the "Maria" song. Friends and me have discussed which of the other songs deserves to be called great. But nevertheless, the whole movie is upbeat and happy - even the Nazis don't look too sinister in it.

The camera work is simply astounding. Starting with the wonderful opening shots, flying over the Austrian countryside and the amazing sets, there are many beautiful and very colorful pictures to marvel at. The use of a soft diffusion filter was a bit over the top, more of a zeitgeist thing from the 60s.

I have never read into Julie Andrews' career but she works well for this film, with her boyish, slightly naive straightforwardness. I must have seen her films on television, because despite being presented this film on a glorious screen, I couldn't get rid of the feeling that I was watching the TV on Saturday afternoon, while eating stolen cookies. Undoubtedly this is as sweet as a memory can get and the movie fits the sentiment nicely.

Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)

A killer tries to track down his older self from the future.

This one is really an enjoyable sci-fi. It is safe to say, that all time-travel based stories need to set up a premise that the audience has to be willing to go along with. This film used simple voice-over technique and surprising imagery to describe the situation the protagonist is (caught) in.

What I really liked about this film is that they've tried to avoid cliched situations. And many small, carefully designed details show that - the introduction of the 'bad guys', the way the 'forward'flashes explain the story, bold use of typo if necessary, the extremely late introduction of the woman in the story, etc.

There are two or three moments that didn't quite fit in - Bruce Willis' slaughtering the baddies and the love scene seemed a bit stapled on to the whole - but thankfully these were really short. The boy was quite an amazing cast, you can really feel the anger and desperation boiling inside him. I felt uneasy, every time his face was on the screen. Levitt put on some special make-up to make him look more like Bruce Willis, but that wouldn't have been necessary - his acting is convincing enough.

Overall entertaining and surprisingly smart at the same time. My favorite dialogue (p'phrased):
"I'm going to France." - "No, you're going to China" - "France!" - "I'm from the future. You're going to China"

Parkland (Peter Landesman, 2013)

The stories of some of the bystanders of the Kennedy assassination after the event is explored.

Watching this made me realize that many things can go wrong in a movie. Unfortunately, the whole film felt like a documentary-reenactment for TV with many of the big names just being in it to up their Imdb star-meter ranking.

Biggest problem of the film is that for some reason the makers assumed that there is a general emotional level of shock about the assassination they can build upon. I don't have that, and neither did anybody in the audience. So most people sat through it, obviously bored and desperately trying to attach themselves to at least one of the characters. But nobody stays on the screen long enough that we can really understand what problems they are developing. At one point it becomes comical, but nothing suggests that there might be irony in this film. (Trying to get the coffin into Air Force One is bizarrely funny, but it just doesn't work)

Most of the time the poor sods depicted are shown in a state of utter disbelief, aggravated shock or in tears. Side characters do the talking for them, stating the obvious, mostly. The over-sentimental music does its best to exaggerate these scenes. Oh, those poor poor righteous citizens - at one point I was wondering if the producers were trying to stir anti-American sentiments by releasing this film. Yes, it was that annoying. People left the cinema swearing and head-shaking. Somebody called it the 'most expensive masturbation' on the big screen they had ever witnessed, and, 'a Republican wet dream' (?). Too bad, Gore Vidal isn't alive anymore. He would have had a field day on reviewing this one.

For me, the worst was that the script misses a fantastic opportunity: The complicated situation that Lee Harvey Oswald's brother is faced with and how he tries to deal with his dysfunctional family, while at the same time his brother is possibly the most hated person in the world. As we learn at the end of the film, he never changed his name. But I've really would have liked to know, what he and his wife and kids had to endure in the years to follow. The actor James Badge Dale (who was really good in the little room they gave him here) could have had his big chance with this character. Now, that would have been a great movie.