Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An Appreciation: Takeshi Kitano

Violent Cop (1989) ***½ - Kitano’s debut emerges with a flurry of themes and ideas that will be processed and revisited over the years- from Kitano’s caricature of his slouched-shouldered, deadpan police detective to the subliminal editing style that cuts hard on gunshots, knife wounds and kicks, “Violent Cop” has it all. Beginning as a comedy of sorts as Kitano chases down criminals with his car and slaps a young boy into submission of owning up to his crimes, it quickly turns relentlessly bleak and ultra violent when police corruption, yakuza hit men and drug shakedowns overtake the narrative. As a debut film, its remarkable… as the introduction to an exciting new talent in Japanese cinema, it’s a watershed event. And the score, which feels like it belongs in a spaghetti western, continually brings a smile to my face. Now OOP on DVD.

Boiling Point (1990) **½ - A gangster film with a decidedly disjointed feel, Kitano arrives in the second half of the film as a sadistic yakuza member who (sort of) takes untalented baseball player Masaki (Ono Masahiko) under his wing after the young man stirs up trouble with local yakuza. Fully written and directed by Kitano, “Boiling Point” continues Kitano’s fascination with fatalistic overtones and deadpan editing. It also curves his very dark humor into some surprisingly disturbing moments, especially in a night of drinking that turns sexually ambiguous. Now OOP on DVD.

A Scene At the Sea (1991) ***½- Kitano’s ode to the silent film.. And a sweet love story at its core. A deaf mute trash man finds a broken surfboard and immediately becomes addicted to surfing. With his girlfriend in tow, Kitano’s patient film observes the small community that forms along the beaches as Shigeru (Claude Maki) teaches himself to surf. With a beautifully understated score, “A Scene At the Sea” begins to reveal the depth of feeling that Kitano can surface in his films. It’s such a sweet moment when his girlfriend lovingly folds up his clothes on the beach or the small tear that runs down her face when the two shortly break up. And the finale…. Flashing images of the actors posing for the camera or enjoying themselves on the beach is a transcendent idea of real life over fictional cinematic tragedy. Not available on DVD.

Sonatine (1993) **** - Turning back to his yakuza flicks, “Sonatine” assembles the longueurs and comedic bits that dotted his previous films and creates an entire work out of them. Kitano stars as a mid-level mob boss sent south with his clan to clean up a turf war, but ends up the target of the war itself. Forced to hide out on the beach, the men create games, play jokes on each other such as enticing each other into hidden sand traps on the beach and, for Kitano, falling in love with a woman he saves from sexual abuse. It’s all wonderfully paced and enchanting until the violence kicks in again, which imbues the ending with a magnificently crafted sense of doomed obligation. Up until this point, it’s Kitano’s most fully realized piece of filmmaking that would influence so much of his later films.

Getting Any? (1994) *½- Structured like a television sketch comedy, and with laughs that are just as varied, “Getting Any” is Kitano’s waltz back into popular Japanese TV culture with less than distinguished results. A not-to-bright man (Dankan) dreams of getting laid, and he goes about it in all the wrong ways. Poking fun at movies as diverse as “Ghostbusters”, “The Fly” and his own yakuza flicks, “Getting Any” is absurdly great at times and jaw-dropping bad at others.

Kids Return (1996) ***½- At times reminiscent of Hou Hsiao Hsien in the way it charts the progress of a small group of high school students into various life choices after school, “Kids Return” feels like an intimate epic. Narrowing its focus on two childhood friends, the film watches as Shinji (Masanobu Ando) begins a promising path into boxing and Masaru (Ken Kaneko), continuing his bully tactics from school, gets tangled up with a local yakuza gang and rises through the ranks. There are some peripheral (and equally sad) comments on several other students, but the narrative thrust of “Kids Return” stays with Shinji and Masaru as life deals them the blows. Characteristics of Kitano’s sensibilities pop up now and then, but “Kids Return” ultimately presents both lifestyles with humble authenticity and straightforward storytelling.

Fireworks (1997) ****- Kitano’s first real international success, garnering a full write up in “Film Comment” and having both this film and “Sonatine” crop up on numerous critic’s lists. The attention is well deserved. “Fireworks” (or “Hana-bi”) is a moving examination of the yakuza lifestyle juxtaposed against the irrevocable consequences of said life. In his previous films, Kitano has treated violence as something built into the daily routine of his various cops and gangsters. Here, there’s a weight given to the outcome of these choices and its handled superbly in the way Kitano spends time with his dying wife (Kayoko Kishimoto) and paralyzed partner (Ren Oshugi).

Kikujiro (1999) ****- What I wrote about this film way back in early 2001 still rings true: “Takeshi Kitano’s masterpiece, austere and picturesque. Kitano is in full visual command of the medium. Comical, tragic, serene… it’s a film that will restore one’s faith in lots of things cinematic- the road movie (although it barely covers approximately 90 miles), the children’s fantasy film and especially the silent days of filmmaking. “Kikujiro” deserved much better from an audience standpoint. Released here in Dallas for only one week during the summer, I think it’s his most accessible and enjoyable film to date. It’s not often that a man steeped in the violent yakuza tradition of a generation steps out of his realm and creates such an honest ‘family’ film.”

Brother (2000) **½ - At some point, Kitano’s first feature shot and co-produced in the States becomes a highly stylized satire of his own films. Banished out of Japan after a turf war wipes out a majority of his clan back home, Kitano quickly finds his half-brother and drug dealing partner Omar Epps and promptly builds his own empire in Los Angeles. Along the way, Kitano guides his Latino, African-American and Asian thugs as they wage war with numerous groups, pulling out all the violent stops in skirmishes that range from the quiet bathroom stabbing to the strobe-lighted machine gun battle underneath an overpass. It’s clear Kitano is having fun, yet “Brother” meanders a bit towards the end and fails to fully realize the potential that a setting such as L.A. could have brought to the effort. It also features some very bad acting at times and its emotional connection between Kitano and Epps feels strained.

Dolls (2002) **½ - It’s amazing how moving a simple slow zoom can be, and Kitano uses that optical movement to full effect in “Dolls”. Weaving three stories about love being deaf, dumb and blind, Kitano’s desire to create something mature works well in spurts. The most prominent of the three tales is the first story concerning a man whose unwise choice to leave his girlfriend and marry the boss’s daughter results in her attempted suicide. To atone for his act, he binds himself to the mentally challenged ex girlfriend and lives out a wandering existence around Tokyo. The second tales, about unrequited love (and stalking) of a pop singer and a yakuza’s fateful trip down memory lane feel less acute and almost forced. The narrative concerning a woman dutifully waiting with lunch everyday on a park bench for her estranged lover is especially maudlin…. Something one would discover in a Nora Ephron rom-com. “Dolls” doesn’t gel as a cohesive whole, but its still an interesting effort from Kitano.

Zatoichi (2003) ***½- Based on the classic Japanese tale of a traveling blind swordsman, Kitano takes this antique story and gives it his own post-modern and highly entertaining spin through brilliantly staged sword fights and some gory CGI bloodshed. Weaving together several tales- Zatoichi (Kitano himself) wandering into town and making friends with an old lady, a young gambler who becomes his sidekick, and two geisha girls hellbent on violent vengeance- the film zips along. And years before “Slumdog Millionaire” ended on an upbeat and self-reflexive dance number, Kitano uses the same trick with zest and color.

Takeshis’ (2005) *** - This is perhaps Kitano’s “8 ½”. Or maybe his “Mulholland Drive”. Whichever, “Takeshis’” is a unique and puzzling experience as Kitano plays two separate (?) men living in Tokyo… one a quiet convenience store clerk with dreams of yakuza grandeur and the other himself, pop star actor Beat Kitano. Opening with the boredom of Beat Takeshi on the set of his new film jokingly titled ‘Hell Beat“, he meets his look-alike in the hallway and signs an autograph for him. The look-alike clerk returns home and begins to fantasize about hit men running into his store, stealing guns and morphing into an invincible yakuza gangster ala the “Sonatine” years. Blending elements from all his previous films and with characters that emerge and then re-emerge as someone else later like a fever dream, “Takeshis” is a real mind screw. There are hints at the end of it all being an actual dream, but I personally love the aspect of it being an absurdist Takeshi extravaganza that replays itself in your mind long after its over. Not available on DVD.

Glory To the Filmmaker! (2007) **- The cheekiness of Kitano continues. Following up the self reflexive nature of “Takeshis”, Kitano returns to a sketch comedy free form cinema more in tune with his mid 90’s “Getting Any”. Again playing himself, the first half of “Glory To the Filmmaker!” shows us the director at a critical crossroad in his career…. Unable to devote himself fully to any project. Instead, we get snippets of failed projects including “Noh Theater”, a horror film and “Retirement”, a sly black and white tribute to the films of Ozu. The second half of “Glory To the Filmmaker!” shows us the film that Kitano settles into- a wild, weird mixture of religious cult brainwashing, sumo wrestlers and a mad scientist. In between all this genre-hopping, Kitano turns into a wooden doll whenever the troubles in life get too heavy. As a parody, “Glory To the Filmmaker!” occasionally hits its mark and taken with “Takeshis”, its evident Kitano has his knives sharpened against not only himself but the entire Japanese film industry. As a stand alone film, though, “Glory To the Filmmaker” is all over the map with a screeching sense of humor and satirical jabs that seem to be lost in translation. Not available on DVD.

Achilles and the Tortoise (2008) ***- The last film in Kitano’s gentler period traces the life of a below average painter from his tragic childhood to married with children. Kitano takes upon the lead role himself, imbuing the film as more a humanistic comedy than drama, choosing to give the limelight to his own weirdly inspired paintings. If one doesn’t take the film too seriously, its probably the closest we can come to having an autobiography of the great artist. Not on DVD.

Outrage (2010) ***½ - It’s best to give in and go with the flow of Kitano’s return-to-gangster-form with “Outrage”. The first 75% of this film is head spinning in the way it shuffles between nameless yakuza hitmen and mob bosses wheeling and double dealing each other to take over territory. The final third of “Outrage” culminates in a series of violent vignettes as each man meets his bloody fate. There are bathroom stall shootings, chopsticks to the ears, dental drills to the face…. And of course good old fashioned gunfights. At one point, “Outrage” resembles Alan Clarke’s nihilistic and angry “Elephant” as the bodies pile up in quick, gruesome set pieces with little regard to identification or motivation. All of this sounds like a bad idea, but Kitano’s violent yarn is liberating in a way. There are subtle streaks of humor, but “Outrage” is mostly serious stuff. I understand Kitano is working on “Outrage 2” which, in and of itself, will be a miracle since no one is left standing here. Not yet available on region 1 DVD.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What's In the Netflix Queue #33

1. Strange Circus (2004)- Filmmaker Shion Sono is someone I'm very interested in since his cult following on the festival circuit with films like "Love Exposure" and "Cold Fish".... both of which I'm told are punishing, extreme works. After loving "Suicide Club" and feeling mixed about "Noriko's Dinner Table", I'm not sure what to expect of this film about family incest and sexual abuse.
2. Hobo With a Shotgun (2011)- I've had this in my queue before, removed it, then put it back in. I'm so over the faux-70's grindhouse aesthetic of Tarantino, Rodriguez et al and this looks like more of the uninspired same. Open mind though!
3. Suburbia (1984)- Penelope Spheeris' mfictional mid-80's look at the Los Angeles punk rock scene and the ensuing ennui.
4. Prince of Darkness (1987)- One of my very favorite John Carpenter films and a bit of a warm up for the upcoming October viewing schedule full of blood, death, zombies and Lucifer himself.
5. Drama/Mex (2006)- Another filmmaker recently thrust into the festival spotlight is Gerardo Naranjo. Being a huge fan of his previous film "I'm Gonna Explode", I'm finally going back to explore this earlier work which sounds more subdued.
6. A Screaming Man (2010)- This African film is described as follows from Netflix: "Adam (Youssouf Djaoro) was a security guard at a posh Chad hotel until its new owners replaced him with his son (Dioucounda Koma). In this nation torn apart by civil war, citizens are called upon to help. But Adam only has one thing to give, forcing him to make a devastating choice. Emile Abossolo M'bo and Djénéba Koné co-star in this powerful drama, winner of the Jury Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival."
7. Exte: Hair Extensions (2006)- More Shion Sono.
8. The Magician (1958)- I'm guessing this early Ingmar Bergman slipped onto Blu-Ray with little fanfare. Regrettable, I've seen so few of Bergman's smaller films so I'm looking forward to this Max von Sydow starring effort.
9. Your Highness (2011)- Skipped this medieval stoner comedy on release this year....
10. The Human Factor (1975)- No itsamadmadblog list would be complete without one cheesy 70's flick on it, so here it is. "When terrorists kill his beloved family, NATO computer expert John Kinsdale (George Kennedy) fights back by using his technical know-how to track them down and make them pay. Trying their best to keep Kinsdale from dispensing vigilante justice are his friends (John Mills and Rita Tushingham), a U.S. military commander (Arthur Franz) and a police inspector (Raf Vallone). But when an ordinary man is pushed over the edge, reason falls on deaf ears." And its directed by the great Edward Dmytryk!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

70's Bonanza: The Black Windmill

The unfortunate aspect of Don Siegel's 1974 low-fi thriller "The Black Windmill" is that it came so late in his career and, more importantly, after the zeitgeist-capturing greatness of "Dirty Harry" just three years previously. Relegated to scarce TV showings and limited home video distribution, "The Black Windmill" deserves better than that.

Starring Michael Caine as a variation on his Harry Palmer spy caricature, there's an especially nasty tone to this wonderful film. All is fine and dandy until a couple (John Vernon and Delphine Seyrig) kidnap two young boys playing in an abandoned military field. One of the children turns out to be the son of Caine and the couple's intention is far darker than your simple extortion plan. Caine's superiors- including a mustache twirling Donald Pleasance- don't fully believe Caine's serendipitous predicament since the kidnappers are asking for ransom in the exact amount of fine jewels acquired by the agency just days prior. Caine then breaks chain of command and globe trots to Paris and back to the English countryside with a one-man vendetta to rescue his son. As a thriller, "The Black Windmill" is largely unremarkable. It's far less interesting to recount the plot point than to bask in the funky 70's mood of the entire film. We get the ubiquitous parade of MI-5 and MI-6spooks tapping phones and smoking cigarettes in darkened rooms. Caine plays himself like Michael Caine always does... a bit cheeky (none more so than when he winks at a spook he's just outsmarted in the subway terminal) one minute then determined and focused the next. The beauty of "The Black Windmill" lies in the off-center eye an American director like Siegel brings to the project. Caine and his wife, played by Janet Suzman, are on the outs and this tragedy brings them together. In one scene, Caine goes to see her and she's distraught, wandering outside in their lush garden on a cold day and we get a glimpse of her quickly walking into the bushes. Caine follows and the mood is tense before he finds her.... but the thought that her elusive presence generated through quick editing cold be some sort of spook trick hovers over the scene. Also, the ending as Caine finally tracks down Vernon and his crew in the titular structure begins and ends in cathartic violent fashion after immense build-up. It's an ending that doesn't disappoint, fitting perfectly with the cold and calculated expertise of a trained spy like Caine. I certainly loved his sandbag trick, which has to be seen to be appreciated.

"The Black Windmill", adapted from a novel by Clive Egleton, received middling reviews upon release in 1974. After the commercial and critical favor of "Dirty Harry" and "Charley Varrick", I suppose it would be natural for audiences and critics to expect another genre-breaking effort from Siegel who had been doing that sort of thing in his sleep since "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" in the mid-fifties. While its true "The Black Windmill" is more of a slow burn than an outright actioner spy thriller, it is a marvelous metaphor for Britain's swinging 60's excess coming home to roost at the highest echelons of power. And it features an exploding briefcase that would make James Bond jealous.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Revisiting the Faves- The Spanish Prisoner

"The Spanish Prisoner" ranked as my number 12 favorite film in 1998.

In every David Mamet film, there's a line of dialogue that becomes its rallying cry or its fateful line of demarcation from normalcy into the con job such as the punishing overuse of "where is the girl?" in "Spartan" or the nonchalant way in which Gene Hackman mutters "it happens" in "Heist". When Steve Martin appears on screen and coolly announces, "I'll give you a thousand dollars for that camera", we fully understand the game has been set afoot.

"The Spanish Prisoner" takes its name directly from an ancient con, as explained by Mamet stalwart Ricky Jay in the film, and its sights are set on meek inventor Campbell Scott. Like a majority of the twists and turns within the film, the very thing (called 'the process') that fuels the narrative is obfuscated. All we know is that inventor Scott has created something that will make Ben Gazzara's company very, very rich. There are talks of "the Japanese" trying to steal it and the FBI on the trail of something or somebody. Mamet's razor sharp dialogue that, like Michael Mann, abhors contractions usually dances around telling the truth. The worst part of all is that we never know who to trust or when. There's soft-spoken and beautiful Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) who seems like an ally and then does things to question her loyalty... just like the best femme fatale. Is the aforementioned Ricky Jay, as Campbell Scott's friend, business partner and lawyer really sick or is there something more insidious about him? Which brings us to Steve Martin in an icy performance that ranks as one of his all time best. He befriends Scott on a vacation island and then continues the friendship back in New York with the promise of setting him up with his sister.... an engagement that never seems to materialize. In all honesty, the film pretty much signals that Martin is the bad guy, yet it continually usurps our expectations in every other sense. "The Spanish Prisoner" is another brilliant con movie in which Mamet excels his three card monty-like attitude with cinematic flare.

Becoming a quiet sensation at the Sundance Film Festival that year, the reviews were mostly favorable for "The Spanish Priosner" despite the seemingly awkward performance of Mamet's wife Pidgeon. While her stilted line readings and formal rigour do ring untruthful at times, it doesn't ruin the film. In fact, I took her performance to be a secondary delight... as if she was trying to re-enact a 1940's femme fatale or maybe playing the role as if her character were being forced to do certain things she had never done before. Regardless, "The Spanish Prisoner" is a wickedly entertaining intellectual thriller. Just feel the subtle tension built up around a brown paper wrapped gift or the terrific moment when the camera slowly pans across an airport X-ray screen to reveal a gun hidden in a possession. And maybe it was the Japanese after all.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Summer catch-up

The Guard

Brendan Gleeson can do this type of thing in his sleep. Portraying a crude, racially insensitive and hooker-obsessed cop in a sleepy Irish seaside town, “The Guard” works largely due to his terrific performance. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, the film works as a comedic companion piece to his brother’s film (also starring Gleeson), “In Bruges”, a few years back. A sharp script that tosses out one liners with a frenzy and just the right amount of self reflexive movie references, “The Guard” shouldn’t be taken seriously… even if its narrative deals with psychotic drug dealers and corrupt cops. Also starring Don Cheadle as an FBI agent sent to Ireland to investigate an international drug smuggling ring, the ingenuity of the film is its lackadaisical approach to solving the central crime. While Gleeson and Cheadle disagree and question each other’s idealized stereotypical misgivings, the story works itself out with little effort. “The Guard” reminded me a bit of “The Big Lebowski” in the way it takes its noir grounding and answers everything while its main characters wander around with fantasized notions of grandeur. It’s a fine line, and McDonagh handles it beautifully. Also great is the appropriation of the western genre with its wide angle lens and sweeping pans of the Irish countryside, none more so gleeful than a portentous 360 degree pan between a cop and a 10 year old boy on girl’s bike. See this film before it shuttles from the theaters.

Road To Nowhere

In “Road To Nowhere”, director Monte Hellman has his star couple watch a lot of movies in their downtime, selecting clips from Bergman‘s “The Seventh Seal” and Erice‘s “Spirit of the Beehive”. These clips are first seen within the confines of the TV screen and eventually overtaking the whole image. This immersion into these great films is an apt comparison to “Road To Nowhere” itself, a meta-film that continually shifts between real time and a movie-within-the-movie with little to no guidance. Starring Tygh Runyan as a young filmmaker making a movie about a real-life money grab and double suicide in North Carolina, he discovers a relatively unknown actress (the beautiful Shannyn Sossamon) and hires her to play the leading femme fatale. An insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) weasels his way into the good graces of the production crew and slowly insinuates the idea that the “actress” may actually be the femme fatale in real life. The collision between supposed real life, cinematic recreation and tabloid gossip (refracted through the presence of a young blogger on the set who actually covered the scandal, played by Dominique Swain) becomes head spinning. Like Abel Ferrera’s “Dangerous Game”, Hellman plays the same nasty trick as director and actress fall in love and the lines between reality and fiction blur. “Road To Nowhere” is a film that demands future viewings and weaves a rhythmic spell on the viewer through its highly stylized acting and slow camera movements. It’s also pretty damn great and a galvanizing return for maverick filmmaker Hellman.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Produced and written by Guillermo del Toro, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has his fingerprints all over it from its leading female child to the gothic, labyrinth style house where the terror takes place. Freshly removed from her mother in Los Angeles and whisked away to the cold environment of Rhode Island, young Sally (Bailee Madison) soon discovers some nasty little creatures living under the house and aching to feed off her teeth. As the aloof parents, Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes are merely serviceable in their roles, sublimated to the father who thinks it’s all in his daughter’s imagination and the mother-figure who slowly empathizes with the child. The problem with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is that its aim seems to be pitched somewhere between Grimm’s Fairy Tales and “Gremlins” without really pulling off either. Based on a 1970’s TV movie, it is marginally refreshing to see a film that doesn’t embrace the current adrenalized market for horror films, but it’s unconvincing narrative and stock characters are just as antique as the Polaroid camera that becomes a singular plot point.

The Debt

Despite the ads that sell this as some type of action-packed “Munich” knock off, the real reason to appreciate John Madden’s “The Debt” is its total lack of explosive action and the marvelous performance of Jessica Chastain in her 12,000th film this year. Bouncing back and forth in time between a 1966 Isreali intelligence mission to capture and expose a Nazi death camp doctor and the ramifications of this mission on its agents some 30 years later, “The Debt” handles all this moral gravity with depth. Also starring Sam Worthington (who fares the worst in it all), “The Debt” slowly raises the tension as the mission progresses and things get complicated both politically and emotionally between the MOSSAD agents. While “The Debt” goes a bit AWOL towards its finale, it’s a sure-footed film for 90% of the way that doesn’t deserve the late summer dumping ground its been afforded.