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by Sean Axmaker

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The Devil in the Details: “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”

A rickety wedge of a gypsy wagon with walls a couple of stories high wobbles through modern London streets, pulled by a couple of tired horses and carrying a tired old souse playing out the role of the carny showman on pure instinct. These traveling players could have ridden right out of the medieval era on the cobblestone streets that have brought them to the waterfront pub where a rowdy bloke decides to have a little fun with these threadbare dandies, especially the succulent young moonfaced beauty (Lily Cole) he chases through the stage mirror that, like Alice before him, takes him into another world, but this is one dreamscape he’s not prepared to handle. Though it’s not exactly explained, the Imaginarium apparently offers those who step through the mylar gates visions of their own dreams, desires and creative will, but only those who do so with open minds and hearts. This bloke, barreling through with no good on his mind, isn’t coming back. “Gone,” sighs Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) with a weary resignation. “Will we miss him? I don’t think so.”

Step right up to the Imaginarium
Step right up to the Imaginarium

You can see Plummer’s Dr. Parnassus as an alter-ego for writer/director Terry Gilliam, a steampunk fantasist trying to jump-start the imaginations of a modern world with his own little theatrical spectacles cobbled together from age-old theatrical conventions and a magical device called The Imaginarium, which quite literally is a door into the imagination. (The Imaginarium is also Gilliam’s first embrace of CGI as a primary tool for creating images onscreen; like any tool, both are only as good as the mind behind it, or inside it, as the case may be.) His motivations are never fully explained, nor are his wagers with the dapper Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, with a pencil mustache and a wicked smile), the devil to his Doctor Faustus. Plummer brings a mix of dignity and degradation to Parnassus, a man whose pride and hubris has been brought low after centuries of immortality. He’s an impotent God who has given up on everything except his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), which only exacerbates his self-pity. Her soul was wagered to the devil long ago and it comes due on her sixteenth birthday, just days away. So Mr. Nick offers him another wager, and Parnassus plays for the soul of his daughter.

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Good Things in Big Packages: DVD Box Sets of 2009

I’m winding down my year in DVD coverage with this highly subjective survey of the box sets of 2009 that brought new titles to DVD (no collections of previously released titles in new packages here). To be clear, I didn’t see every set that came along, or even every film in those that I did see, but I made an effort to see as many interesting things as I could over the course of my duties as the DVD reviewer for MSN Entertainment. (Conspicuously absent is Criterion’s lavish AK 100, simply because I did not receive a review copy and couldn’t afford to plunk down the purchase price for a set with only four DVD debuts.) Here are the most interesting sets I had the pleasure to see in the course of my DVD reviewing in 2009, in brief sketches. I have written at more length about some of these releases and offer links to those reviews where possible.

10. The Secret Policeman’s Balls (Shout! Factory)

Alan Bennett, Peter Cook. John Cleese and Graham Chapman
Alan Bennett, Peter Cook. John Cleese and Graham Chapman

When Amnesty International needed to raise money and their profile, John Cleese called up his buddies (which included the members of Monty Python, Beyond the Fringe and The Goodies) to help put on fundraiser. And then another. And the rest is history. This three-disc set collects the films made of five of these benefits, beginning with the 1976 Pleasure At Her Majesty’s, part documentary (with extensive footage of rehearsals) and part performance film. Adding to the fun is role swapping: Peter Cook in a Python sketch, Terry Jones joining Beyond the Fringe, everyone belting out “The Lumberjack Song.” Pete Townsend provides acoustic musical interludes in the 1979 The Secret Policeman’s Ball, where Rowan Atkinson (among others) joins the fun. Musical guests became more prominent in The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (1981), including Sting, Bob Geldoff, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and downright dominate The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball (1987), but the skit comedy focus returns in the final benefit film. The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball (1989) opens with Michael Palin and John Cleese doing “Pet Shop” (with a twist punchline) and features Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (in their first live appearance together in years), Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. The set also features a wealth of unseen skits and musical performances and the feature-length 2004 documentary Remember The Secret Policeman’s Ball? among the supplements.

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DVD Discoveries and Rediscoveries 2009

A sexy giallo thriller
"A sexy giallo thriller"

My oh my how spoiled we get. Once upon a time, we cult hounds would hunt through neighborhood video stores to uncover off-brand VHS releases of obscure Italian horror films and dubbed editions of foreign movies, which we would devour no matter how grainy the transfer or censored the print. Now, more than ten year into the DVD age, we have become so… demanding. Uncut prints. Restored masters. Clean soundtracks. And widescreen films should be anamorphic. Otherwise, they look soft and fuzzy when blown up to fill our widescreen HD home theater screens.

The following films are not the necessarily of the finest video or audio quality, but they are all much appreciated releases of forgotten, unavailable or otherwise enigmatic foreign rarities and cult items with irresistible (credentials). Some of these films I knew by reputation only, some I had never even known of, until the DVD release introduced me to the glories of these films. There are surely many other films that slipped by me this year, but these were my discoveries of 2009. This is why I love DVD.

5. Lookin’ to Get Out: Director’s Cut (Warner) – Hal Ashby’s 1982 gambling comedy, directed from a script co-written by star Jon Voight, was a critical and commercial flop on its original release. Seen today, in a longer cut than was originally released (Ashby was pressured to edit it down by 15 minutes by the studio), it’s hardly a lost masterpiece but it is a revelation of sorts, a shaggy dog gambling caper with characters whose eccentricities are so passionately embraced by the performers that they come to unexpected life. Voight is Alex, a hopeless gambling addict with unflagging optimism in his own abilities who sets off to Vegas with his schlub of a best friend Jerry (Burt Young) for a “big score” to settle a gambling debt. Alex is flamboyant, effusive, a perpetual motion hustler racing with out-of-control momentum. Jerry is constantly worried and unceasingly loyal, but at root he’s a good-hearted romantic who takes everyone at their word until they prove their word isn’t worth anything.

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TV on DVD 2009 – The Great, the Rediscovered and the Timeless

What I love about TV on DVD is the sense of discovery, of rediscovery and celebration of great television from all eras. You’ll not find Lost or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or even The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency on this list. Those shows and other hit series and cult shows and top-notch special presentations, as superb as their DVD presentations may be (and yes, Lost and Terminator are beautifully produced DVD and Blu-ray sets), are well represented and don’t need me to draw attention to them. Here’s a collection that includes classic drama, contemporary comedy, timeless non-fiction, stand-out science fiction and various points in between. Not necessarily “the best” of TV on DVD, it’s a selection of shows, old and new, archival and ephemeral, that been given a new life on DVD and a whole opportunity for audiences to discover them.

Sesame Street
Sesame Street

10. Sesame Street: 40 Years Of Sunny Days (Genius) – Celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the longest running children’s television show in history with a combination video scrapbook and greatest bits compilation. After an intro that eases us into the cultural flashback with snapshots from each season we join Gordon leading a child onto Sesame Street, promising that it’s a street like no other, for the show’s debut episode. Ernie sings “Rubber Ducky” and Kermit sings “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” there’s an orange Oscar the Grouch (he went green later; apparently, it was easier for Oscar to be green, the color of mold), and Alistair Cookie (Monster) introduces Monsterpiece Theater’s production of “Me Claudius,” all in the first half hour.

There’s a greatest hits of musical guests from Diana Ross and James Taylor to Destiny’s Child and Alicia Keyes (plus the crazy quilt of guest stars imploring Ernie to “Put Down the Ducky”) and Muppet skits (spotlighting the great comedy chemistry of Ernie and Bert and the surreal humor of Jim Henson’s crew) sprinkled through the programs. Pop culture flashbacks—R2D2 and C3PO help Big Bird to count, The Fonz teaches us the difference between on and off in his own inimitable way and the Cookie Monster discos—place the show unmistakably in its various eras. And touchstone moments of the street portion of the show are revived, including the day the grown-ups finally see the Snuffleupagus, the marriage of Maria and Luis and the birth of their daughter, and most touchingly the discussion with Big Bird as they try to explain the death of Mr. Hooper (after the real-life actor, Will Lee, passed away). That’s the draw this show has for baby boomers who grew up on the show. For the current crop of tots, we get closer to the present with the first appearances of Elmo and Abby Cadabby and the contemporary guest stars, from Robert DeNiro explaining his own brand of method acting to Elmo to Neil Patrick Harris singing and dancing as The Shoe Fairy. The nostalgia factor is pretty irresistible for adults and playful approach of education and gentle tenor of its skits makes it perfect of children of any generation, making it one of the few kids DVDs that adults may enjoy just as much as (if not more) than their kids. The two-disc set also includes a half-hour of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews (which can be accessed while watching the show or viewed as a separate supplement), an optional pop-up trivia track and a few bonus bits.

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Ten DVD Releases That Made 2009 Great

I’ve done my “Best of 2009 on DVD and Blu-ray” list for MSN, which features the usual mix of films old and new and packages creative, lavish and otherwise really, really cool. Here I’d like to do something a little different. This isn’t about the greatest transfers, the most splendiferous supplements, the coolest commentaries, the biggest box sets or the latest, most lavish edition of some perennial collectible (be it The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind or The Seventh Seal, all of which were rereleased on DVD in impressive new editions in conjunction with their stunning Blu-ray debuts). This is all about the movies themselves, those long awaited releases of classics, landmarks, auteur oddities and cult favorites. And yes, quality is an issue, but not the issue.

I’ll be tackling box sets, cult oddities and silent releases in separate features but I begin with ten films that made their DVD debut this year. Not necessarily the most important or the greatest, but those unheralded releases that make my job such a joy. In no particular order, I count them down starting with my own modest contribution to the year in DVD…

The Exiles
The Exiles

10. The Exiles (Milestone/Oscilloscope) – In the interests of full disclosure, I was involved in the DVD release of this amazing American indie, almost forgotten until Thom Anderson featured it in his documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. I play moderator on the commentary track with author/filmmaker Sherman Alexie and I interview Alexie for a separate audio-only interview on the second disc of the collection. That said, this is arguably the great archival release of the year. Kent Mackenzie’s independently produced 1961 drama (when independent cinema was the realm of mavericks and dreamers working in the margins, rather than studio subsidiaries and major actors looking for a challenge) chronicled the lives of urban American Indians (all of them non-actors drawing from their own lives) on the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles over one long, alcohol-lubricated night.

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Lisandro Alonso: Space, Time, Cinema

It’s surely dawned on Seattle cineastes that program director of Northwest Film Forum, Adam Sekular, has an affection for films that are minimalist portraits in time. Think back to the retrospectives of Pedro Costa and Albert Serra, as well as numerous defiantly non-commercial films on calendars past that are uniquely individual, resolutely observational and more concerned with the texture of scenes (from the ambiguous and guarded emotions of impassive performers to the way time passes on screen) than the narrative movement of story.

I’d say that’s a good description of the cinema of Lisandro Alonso, whose four features are showcased in Northwest Film Forum’s series “At the Edge Of The World: The Cinema of Lisandro Alonso” (November 11-20). I wrote an essay on Alonso and his films for The Stranger, but wasn’t able to get in everything that I was thinking about, so consider this a companion piece.

Alonso keeps company with Lucretia Martel (whose The Headless Woman just finished a run at NWFF) as the most exciting filmmakers to have come out of Argentina (is it the New Argentine Cinema or the New New Argentine Cinema?). Both are immersive directors with cameras that observe their subjects intently with little exposition and no commentary. Critics talk of cameras as microscopes. These directors are more like naturalists shooting fictional documentaries of subjects in their environments, but where Martel explores the thickets of messy lives at their most tangled and murky, Alonso prefers isolated subjects and lonely landscapes. And by isolated, I mean from other people.  These are not men (and Alonso’s protagonists are all men) who explain themselves. They are content in their silence as they sip mate or swig vodka from a bottle.

It’s about space, with and without people, and the passing of time, both subjective and objective. In La Libertad, his debut film, the spaces are all outside, in the forest, on roads, and the changing of the light from morning to afternoon to  dark of night is an essential element of the environment; in one shot, we see the late afternoon light dim until it turns dusk while he does his evening chores before settling down for dinner, his day literally keyed to the rhythm of the turning of the Earth. In Fantasma, those spaces are interior, from the emptiness of a vast modern theater lobby (it looks more like the foyer of a modern office tower designed not just to impress but to intimidate) to the emptiness of a theater auditorium where, at most, three people arrive to watch the movie. (I love how they all gravitate to clump within a couple of seats of each other, as if drawn to comfort of society, but never actually interact or even acknowledge on another.)

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“I like horror movies that look like horror movies” – An Interview with Dave Parker

As big-screen horror becomes increasingly focused on remakes and endless sequels, I find that the most interesting horror films on the small screen. Of course there’s a lot of the entrails of horror movie waste to wade through to get to the meaty specimens, but Dave Parker is one name that I’ve been on the lookout for ever since The Dead Hate the Living, a labor of love tribute to Italian giallo with an American sensibility released straight-to-video in 2000. It was the culmination of his love of horror films and his apprenticeship at Full Moon Entertainment under Charles Band, the king of direct-to-video horror and sci-fi in the nineties.

Dave Parker and Sophie Monk
Director Dave Parker with "The Hills Run Red" star Sophie Monk

It took almost ten years for Parker’s second solo feature, but in the meantime he continued working within the business as an editor, writer and director of documentaries created as DVD supplements for genre films such as The Usual Suspects, X-Men, Spider-Man 2 and Superman Returns. It was like a second apprenticeship that paid off with The Hills Run Red, the first original title from the direct-to-DVD Warner Premiere line. Are they undiscovered horror masterpieces? Not exactly. Parker is less sure with actors than he is with a camera and even in The Hills Run Red, his unknown leads deliver rather generic performances in the face of sassy sexpot Sophie Monk and wily veteran character man William Sadler, one of the criminally unsung actors of the past couple of decades.

But Parker overcomes the weakness of the performances with an onscreen camaraderie between the characters that adds a touch of authenticity to their enterprises and an affection that makes us care. That affection extends to all levels of his direction: both films feel lovingly created, full of details that make the most of limited resources. In The Dead Hate the Living, a film about young filmmakers creating their own low budget horror, his limitations become the defining elements of their resources. The Hills Run Red makes two-for-two for Parker in films about horror movie buffs whose own moviemaking efforts get tangled with real horrors directly related to their film. Clever homages abound in both, but they’re more subtle and savvy in The Hills Run Red. Most importantly, it’s fun watching his films, and fun is exactly what’s missing from so many of the horror movies on screens big and small nowadays. [Read my review of The Hills Run Red here.]

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DVD Tricks and Treats: Small Screen Halloween Picks

Instead of the usual “best of” countdown of familiar classics, here’s a look at some of the more interesting horrors that have arrived on DVD within the last year. (Reviews originally published on seanax.com)

The Hills Run Red
The Hills Run Red

Direct to DVD:

The Hills Run Red (Warner) is the rare self-aware horror by an unabashed fan of the genre that works on its own terms. Dave Parker’s first feature, his sadly underappreciated love-letter to Italian horror films and giallo buffs The Dead Hate the Living!, was made ten years ago. In the meantime he honed his technical skills on movie documentaries and featurettes for DVDs. As a result, The Hills Run Red—which sends another horror buff on the trail of a lost movie with a camera, a small crew and the lost girl-turned-junkie stripper daughter (Sophie Monk) of the mysterious, long dead director and into a real-life continuation of the film—is leaner, tighter, more assured in its direction and less obvious in its references. His male leads are a bit thin—Parker creates likable characters but not particularly vivid or memorable heroes—but Sophie Monk takes a big bloody bite out of her part and William Sadler makes the mad movie director into a real gone guy, an obsessive lost in his delusions of suffering for art. Other people’s suffering, that is. “Everybody is expendable for the good of the movie,” is his mantra. “Everybody.” The signature villain, Babyface, is as visually distinctive a figure as you could hope for (it has eerie echoes of a creature escaped from a Quay Brothers nightmare) and the shake of a baby rattle as he runs after his victims is a nice touch.

You can find echoes of Psycho, Peeping Tom, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project and Theodore Roszak’s cult cinephile novel Flicker in the script (which was significantly worked over by The Crow screenwriter David J. Schow) and imagery, and there’s a timely meta-textual debate on the aesthetics of modern horror cinema that is played for grisly humor between warring art-killers. While one argues for the importance of context and emotional resonance, the other makes the case for shock value and upping the ante on sadism spectacle: “Nobody cares about that subtext shit.” But the film works on its own merits. Parker knows what he wants and he gets it. He plays with the contrast of movie-movie gore (the idea that what we’re seeing is a special effect) and the “real” gore assaulting our characters by shifting our perspectives time and again, and he blurs the line between on-screen and off-screen reality, at least for these characters. Features commentary by Parker with writer David J. Schow and producer Robert Meyer Burnett and the shot-on-location featurette “It’s Not Real Until You Shoot It: The Making of The Hills Run Red,” which is a bit disorganized but captures the excitement of the creators (like Parker, they create trailers and DVD featurettes for other people in their day jobs) getting to make their own feature.

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Dragons and Tigers at VIFF 2009

header-viff09

Seattle boasts the biggest film festival in the United States, in terms of both audiences and films shown. But Seattle filmgoers are also lucky enough to be within easy driving distance to the Vancouver International Film Festival, one of the five biggest festivals in North America. Coming on the heels of Toronto, it boasts a sampling of highlights from Toronto and Venice as well as a spotlight on Canadian cinema, an annual spotlight on French Cinema and the Dragons and Tigers series, one of the best collections of new Asian cinema in North America with a special focus on young talents and new filmmakers.

Thirty features and documentaries were screened in the “Dragons and Tigers” sidebar, with eight of those films in competition for the “Award for Young Cinema.” The competition can be a mixed bag, but it almost always offers promising talent and fresh filmmaking ideas that otherwise would be unseen on North American screens and it’s my priority every fest. Most of the films are scheduled for the first week, which due to unusual conflicts (yes, there are some things more important than movies) I missed this year. But I did catch up on a few re-screenings including the winner of the Dragons and Tigers competition.

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The Reckless Moment: Max Ophuls’ Masterpiece of Middle Class America

The thirty-second year of the Seattle Art Museum’s annual Film Noir Cycle, “the granddaddy of the world’s film noir festivals,” opens with one of the most unheralded masterpieces of shadowy American melodrama: The Reckless Moment (1949), directed by continental stylist Max Ophuls (shortened to “Opuls” for his American screen credits). Known for his visual taste and elegance, his ravishing style and his delicate portraits of impassioned, impossible love in a world of fickle lovers and social barriers, the Austrian director came to America (like so many European artists and intellectuals) in the early years of World War II and (again, like so many fellow film artists) struggled to find his place in the Hollywood system. He only directed five films in his ten years in America (one of which he was fired from before completing). The Reckless Moment was his last before returning to Europe.

Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper in her suburban home
Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper in her suburban home

Set in post-war suburbia, in a seaside bedroom community outside of Los Angeles, The Reckless Moment is a mix of crime drama and what Hollywood once called a “women’s picture,” a label they applied to almost any film that took a woman’s perspective. One-time ingénue Joan Bennett makes a confident transition to the role of Lucia Harper, a wife and mother holding her family together (two teenage children and a retired father-in-law) while her husband is working overseas. She’s a modest woman but a defiantly protective mother who doesn’t flinch when confronting the oily gigolo who has seduced her increasingly assertive and independent minded daughter, Bea (Geraldine Brooks), and puts herself in harm’s way to cover up the man’s death and a potential scandal. When that only brings on blackmailer Martin Donnelly (James Mason), a darkly attractive and quietly menacing Irish thug who demands thousands of dollars for incriminating love letters, she discovers that she is essentially powerless in this society to secure a loan or to get money without a husband at her side.

Ophuls shot the film on an obviously small budget (Bennett’s star had faded and it was only Mason’s third American film) for Columbia, which specialized in the budget-minded first run picture. The film is rife with strains of “goony” dialogue, unnatural exclamations, one-sided phone conversations whipped through at a sprint and other conventions of studio pictures. Ophuls masterfully shapes it all into a portrait not just of suburban middle class security shaken into chaos when it collides with big city corruption, but of the social prison of middle class family.

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Grizzly Man: The Overwhelming Indifference Of Nature

It’s easy to see why Werner Herzog was so fascinated by Timothy Treadwell, the former beach bum turned self-made wildlife activist and grizzly bear guardian who spent thirteen summers living amidst the grizzly bears of the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska until he, along with his girlfriend and traveling partner, Amie Huguenard, was mauled, killed, and devoured by his beloved cause.

Timothy Treadwell: Grizzly Adams as new age surfer dude
Timothy Treadwell: Grizzly Adams as new age surfer dude

As his documentary Grizzly Man suggests, Treadwell saw himself as a new-age Grizzly Adams with a video camera and a quest to save the habitat from humanity. He could be a real life folk version of the dreamers from Herzog’s dramas, less manic and not as prone to epic gestures but no less obsessed. Treadwell relentlessly videotaped his sojourns and the magnificent footage that he left behind captures a serenity and savagery of the wilds at times reminiscent of Herzog’s best films.

But the footage also serves his self-made mythological identity—”the lone guardian of the grizzly”—by constantly and pointedly placing himself in every shot, like the host of a non-existent nature show/nature reality series. His footage is accompanied by grandiose stream-of-consciousness running commentary, a mix of naturist idealism, poetic romanticism and a kiddie-show host blissing out on the wonders of mother nature. He speaks of the isolation of his solo forays into the wilds, even though he was accompanied and assisted by female partners/girlfriends on practically every trip, and is careful to never mention their presence, let alone allow them to share credit in his adventure. Amie, the girlfriend who was killed with Treadwell, is only glimpsed only twice in the background of footage Treadwell left behind, and even there is barely present.

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Nikkatsu Noir – DVDs for the Week

Nikkatsu Noir

Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest film studio, was the home of Japan’s wildest crime dramas and gangster thrillers of the sixties. Whether or not the five Japanese gangster films in the Nikkatsu Noir box set from Eclipse are true noirs is debatable, but they are lively B-movie artifacts from the wild and weird era of Nikkatsu’s glory days of crime movie programmers, when the mob movie rats (like Seijun Suzuki) ran wild through the genre.

Nikkatsu Noir on Eclipse
Nikkatsu Noir on Eclipse

It’s no surprise that the Suzuki contribution to the set is the most visually and stylistically dynamic, which is not necessarily to say it’s the best. Take Aim at the Police Van (1960) has a great title, a dynamic opening scene (which, no surprise, begins with a police prisoner transport bus sighted through a rifle scope) and a thoroughly routine detective plot that Suzuki turns into a hot-blooded crime conspiracy thriller featuring kidnapped girls, punk snipers, a stripper killed with an arrow to the breast, a paroled criminal tossed off a cliff, faked deaths, hidden agendas and a prison guard (Michitaro Mizushima) turned dogged investigator trying to piece it all together. In classic crime movie fashion, the bad guys don’t just shoot the good guys, they tie them up in the cab of a gas tanker, let the brake off and send it down a hill trailing gasoline, and light a match to the trail. Given the incendiary dimensions of the scene, I’m particularly impressed that the victims use a lighter to try and burn through the ropes before the fire catches up to the tanker. Mizushima has a real straight-arrow presence amidst the cast of crazed killers, colorful small-time crooks and wild girls, but he has the personality to hold his own and Suzuki packs a lot into 79 minutes of black-and-white Nikkatsuscope craziness.

In fact, all the films in the set are B&W widescreen with the exception of the Koreyoshi Kurahara’s moody I Am Waiting (1957), the earliest film in the collection. The tale of an optimistic bar owner with dreams abroad and a beautiful runaway singer with a painful past (“I’m a canary that’s forgotten how to sing,” she explains) has an atmosphere that recalls the grim beauty of the Jean Gabin French poetic realist films of fog-wrapped port towns and pitiless villages. It’s the outskirts of Yokohama here, where handsome, helpful ex-boxer Joji (Yujiro Ishihara) rescues a pretty girl (Mie Kitahara) from a rainy coast storm and gives her a place to stay in his colorful dive of a dockside bar. They’re both walking wounded, licking their wounds from careers cut short, but it takes another shot to knock the dreams out of Joji and set him on the trail of his brother’s killer, which just so happens to lead to the gangster who has made a claim on the girl. The fog, the night scenes and the grimy port town atmosphere do wonders to keep the budget down and the mood up, but it all gets less dreamy and more tawdry as Joji goes up against the gangster thugs and battles it out in a nightclub with a floor that lights up. It’s easily the most restrained film in the set, more mood piece than action movie, which gives it a little more class than the more aggressively explosive films that follow. And a great bluesy theme song crooned like a lament.

A similarly regret-laden saloon song is crooned over the credits of Toshio Masuda’s Rusty Knife (1958), which is otherwise more gangster thriller than shadowy noir, complete with a Naked City-style opening narration explaining the culture of crime and corruption ravaging the city. As an arrogant crime boss laughs off every arrest with a hearty cackle, a crusading District Attorney pressures a former criminal (Yujiro Ishihara) trying to put his past behind him to testify, to no avail. At least not until it becomes personal, a matter of honor and revenge. There’s plenty of blackmailing and double-crosses and suicide and Jo Shishido (pre-plastic surgery, just before he became a genre icon with the puffy cheeks) gets tossed off a train, and sure enough a rusty knife is pulled out for a bout of poetic justice. Conventional all the way, to be sure, but the juvenile energy of young thug high on hush money and the city streets and abandoned lots shrouded in night give it a perfectly shadowy atmosphere.

Jo Shishido has barely a few minutes of screen time in Rusty Knife but takes the lead in the final films in the collection, with his now distinctive chipmunk-cheek look in place. (Chuck Stephens writes a bit about the curious – and strangely successful – plastic surgery that Shishido undertook to give him those puffy cheeks and set him apart from the rest of the pretty-boy action starts in the accompanying notes). Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story (1964) drops an American B-movie heist blueprint very much like The Killing (along with flourishes of both versions of The Killers) and a romantic criminal code into a world of corporate crime bosses and dishonorable thugs. Togawa (Shishido), sprung from prison early so he can run the heist for a big business gangster leader, has reservations about the job and for good reason. He and his reliable second-in-command are stuck with a sneering junkie and a punch-drunk boxer a few knocks away from brain death. Shishido’s Togawa is a cool customer, pensive and still, always sizing up the situation, which serves him well when the perfect armored car heist hits a glitch. It’s telling that they hole up in a former American military base, now a decaying slum of rotting buildings; the American influence hovers over the entire film, a classic American crime movie in a Japanese idiom. “I need payback,” Togawa demands, just before he’s grabbed by thugs who would like nothing better than help him metes out his revenge without mercy. The brassy score powers it along with a driving beat, down into the sewers and back up into a thoroughly nihilistic ending.

Jo Shishido is a cool killer
Jo Shishido is a cool killer – but what’s with those cheeks?

The set ends in 1967 with Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport, though if I’m not mistaken it’s actually a Baretta that is assassin Shuji’s (Shishido) handgun of choice. For his hit on an aging crime boss he uses a high powered rifle, but the killing is the last thing that goes right on this job. With the airports and docks covered, Shuji and his partner hole up in a port town truck stop while awaiting new travel plans. Once again, Shishido is the cool customer in a world of easily corruptible crooks and civilians. He trades his own life to rescue his partner, but in this world it’s apparently just fine to arm yourself to the teeth and shoot it out at your surrender. Shuji is a pretty far sighted guy; he has a second brake hidden in his getaway car and even digs himself a shallow grave for the final showdown, but he’s got other plans for it. The great spaghetti western-inspired score adds familiar Japanese instruments and jazz inflections as it progresses, becoming a real genre symphony, and Nomura pulls out all stops for the mad shoot-out in an abandoned quarry: this film’s answer to the desert plains of a spaghetti western. It ends the set on a high note and I was left high on crazy crime movie fumes. None of these are masterpieces but they are all inventive little nuggets of genre fun with energy, attitude and style, and in moments–such as the wild finale here–it’s just plain delirious.

Eclipse is Criterion’s budget-minded line of box set so there are no supplements, but Asian film expert Chuck Stephens provides brief essays with each film. Stephens has a rather overripe writing style, more expressive of his love of the films than of the films or the genre itself, but he does offer some context and background on the films and filmmakers and on the youth culture that brought younger and younger faces on to the screens.

The transfers are all fine, the earliest showing a little wear, the later ones sharper and with strong contrasts. Only Take Aim at the Police Van shows any noticeable flaws: in the master shots the image has a soft pocket in the center right, but only for long shots. Close-ups and medium shots look fine, which leads me to believe that it’s an issue with the master materials. Regardless, it’s a very minor issue and does not distract from the film. The soundtracks are strong, with only minor hiss, and the music comes through strong and clear. All in all, a real treat.

Published in conjunction with seanax.com.

Honda’s Sci-Fi, Cassavetes’ Husbands, Tati at Play – DVDs for the Week

Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection

Though his name is conspicuously absent from the cover, the Icon of Sci-Fi celebrated in Sony’s three-disc set is Ishiro Honda, the prolific director of the original Godzilla and a legendary run of giant monster movies. This collection from Sony highlights his science fiction output with the stateside DVD debuts of three films, a mere fraction of his genre filmography.

The H-Man (1957) is not a man at all but a gooey radioactive slime (the original Japanese titles translates to “Beauty and the Liquidman”) that slurps into Tokyo, starts oozing up legs of gangsters and digesting them in seconds flat. It’s a monster movie horror within a cop crime drama, with detectives investigating a drug ring where all the suspects keeps getting dissolved. Motivation for the hungry, hungry puddle is vaguely suggested by a scientist who reads a headline about a missing suspect and immediately suspects radioactive hanky panky, but it still doesn’t quite explain why it invades the nightclub where all the gangsters hang, unless it absorbs the instincts of its victims as well. At least it that would explain its obsession with nightclub singer Chikako Arai. There are some great ooze effects of the gelatin spill going up walls and some dummies that deflate in place of victims being boiled into mush. The optical effects with freeze frames and animated slime are far less effective and for some reason they periodically turn into big green ghosts.

Battle in Outer Space (1959) is a visually splendid and narratively pedestrian space opera, short on character and plot but full of great miniatures and dramatic effects in a film packed with spectacle. It’s not just ships zapping each other with lasers in the dark void of space; there’s a caterpillar surface transport crawling over the rocky volcanic moonscape, a shoot-out with a fleet of flying saucers, a mind-controlled assassin sabotaging a human rocketship and of course the alien assault on Earth landmarks in the final battle. They may look like toys in flight, but they are they best toys a sci-fi geek could behold on screen in 1959, which alone makes it a genre highlight.

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Army of Shadows and the Unforgiving Code of Jean-Pierre Melville

[Originally published in slightly different form on GreenCine in 2006, in conjunction with the American theatrical release of Army of Shadows.]

Jean-Pierre Melville in Breathless
Jean-Pierre Melville in "Breathless"

Jean-Pierre Melville is surely the ultimate cult auteur in the French cinema. Spiritual godfather of the French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard paid tribute to Melville with a generous cameo in his debut feature Breathless), Melville was a maverick in the system from his astounding, independently produced debut La Silence de la Mer (1947), a chamber drama set in the Nazi occupation of France, to his final film, the buddies-turned-nemeses heist thriller Un Flic (1972). He’s a favorite director of John Woo, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann (whose coolly attenuated crime thrillers owe a great debt to Melville), and his masterpiece Le Samourai (1969) was an inspiration to both Walter Hill’s The Driver and Woo’s The Killer.

Yet only in the past few years have his films really become available to American audiences, largely through theatrical rereleases by Rialto and lovingly produced DVDs from Criterion (who have released eight of his thirteen features since 2002). With Un Flic (aka Dirty Money) on DVD from Lionsgate (and earlier from Anchor Bay), that brings the number up to nine. It’s like they are being slowly doled out, like the last precious drops of water on a desert trek.

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The Parallax View: An Introduction

[Originally published on the Turner Classic Movies website on March 2009.]

Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View, a political thriller with an unmistakable resemblance to the Kennedy assassination, was not the first conspiracy thriller to emerge from Hollywood – you can trace the lineage back to The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 – and it was not a hit when it was fitfully released in 1974. But its reputation and stature has only grown in the years since and it is arguably the definitive conspiracy thriller of the seventies.

Warren Beatty as investigative reporter Joe Frady
Warren Beatty as investigative reporter Joe Frady

Warren Beatty stars as investigative reporter Joe Frady, though when we first glimpse him in the film he’s merely a face in the crowd around Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce). He tries to bluff his way into an exclusive gathering for the Senator at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle but is rebuffed and thus left on the ground when the Senator is shot and the gunman killed in an escape attempt. “There is no evidence of a conspiracy,” concludes a panel of judges, who proclaim it the work of a lone gunman. (We, of course, know there was at least one accomplice who slipped to safety.). It’s the film’s answer to the Warren Commission and Pakula shoots the tribunal floating in a sea of shadow, a tiny image that slowly, ominously grows larger as the credits roll. By the end of the sequence, they fill the screen with an image as distorted as their conclusions.

In those first few minutes, Pakula establishes an atmosphere of unease and a distrust of authority that never lets up. When we catch of with Frady three years later, being hounded by the police for his investigations into drug crimes and enforcement, he comes on like a dogged reporter from a thirties newspaper drama with seventies style, a mix of old school and modern sensibility. But even he is dubious of conspiracy claims until fellow reporter and ex-girlfriend Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) turns up dead (a suicide is the ruling, but Frady doesn’t buy it). She’s the seventh of twenty witnesses to the Senator Carroll shooting to die in the three years since, and once Frady takes up the case, he discovers that he is also now a target. With the tacit support of a paternal editor (Hume Cronyn), Frady follows his clues to the mysterious Parallax Corporation and, with the help of a former FBI agent (Kenneth Mars) and a psychologist (an uncredited Anthony Zerbe), catches the interest of a sinister recruiter (Walter McGinn). “If you qualify, and we think you can, we’re prepared to offer you the most lucrative and rewarding work of your life.”

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