Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Yoshitaro Nomura Files: The Castle of Sand

Yoshitaro Nomura's 1974 police procedural "The Castle of Sand" is an intensely microscopic view about the search for a killer where dead ends become routine and several narrative strands are shown in unison. Like the best procedurals, including "Zodiac", "Memories of Murder" and "The Day of the Jackal", "The Castle of Sand" examines the doggedness of several people to bring justice against a heinous act. And by mentioning those three illustrious films, I hold that Nomura'a film belongs alongside them.

After a 60 year old man's body is found bludgeoned to death in a rail yard, Tokyo detectives Imanishi (Tetsuro Tanba) and Yoshimura (Kensaku Morita) are assigned to the case. Having little to go on besides a brief conversation overheard in a bar that may have featured a certain word spoken in a certain Japanese dialect, the detectives embark on a frustrated investigation that yields little advancement. Over time, the younger detective Yoshimura is re-assigned, but elder policeman Imanishi continues with the case, eventually uncovering a sordid family drama that would feel right at home in a Shakespearean play.

Nomura, whose films are barely available here even though he directed over 35 of them, released "The Castle of Sand" in 1974, several years before his biggest hit "The Demon" in 1978. Given a bare bones DVD release that features some shoddy subtitling, "The Castle of Sand" is one of those films whose visible greatness lies in its unassuming narrative. At two and half hours, "The Castle of Sand" could be called epic, especially in the way it's final third plays out. With the killer identified, the police detectives plead their case for a warrant, spelling out the mystery we've been trying to uncoil for over 90 minutes. With blaring orchestra music overplaying the images, Nomura visualizes the development of a killer in a protracted, numbing sequence that swerves into melodrama and back with ease. It's a stunning third act that not only redefines the root cause of evil, but questions what exactly evil is. "The Castle of Sand" raise these intriguing questions, but it also succinctly proves that there's no fury scorned like that of a frustrated detective.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Current Cinema 16

Side Effects

Ahh, the comforts of Steven Soderbergh. One knows exactly what they're getting nowadays with his films (and sadly rumored to be his last).... efficient, intelligent and well manicured. This one begins like "Contagion", explicitly charting the effects of a disease (this time depression) with frightening accuracy as Rooney Mara struggles to lead a normal life after ex-convict husband (Channing Tatum) returns home. Then, about two-thirds of the way through, "Side Effects" shifts into murder-thriller mode as if it were a mid nineties direct-to-video Sharon Stone film. And I mean that in the highest regard. Jude Law, as Rooney's embattled psychiatrist, is very good as the Hitchockian everyman caught up in a wed of deceit. Still, the real greatness of "Side Effects" is its chilling representation of modern society's dependence on prescription medication to stun the reverberations of everyday life. And of course it looks magnificent, with Soderbergh's usual palate of greens, browns and golds dressing each scene. There's also one scene between Mara and Law in a quiet office building that punctuates the humming noise of a window air conditioning unit unlike any other I've seen. As a technical exercise (and basically like all of his recent films but especially "The Girlfriend Experience") "Side Effects" is peerless, even when it swerves into cheap potboiler territory.


Taylor Hackford's contemporization of Donald E. Westlake's 2000 novel "Flashfire" feels like a rushed attempt to capitalize on the sudden intrigue of the Westlake universe. It's needlessly profane and features very dull performances by both Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez. I know there are Statham fans out there, but not only does he repeat his monotonous tough guy posturing here, but there's zero chemistry between he and Lopez. He just doesn't feel like a Parker and the film never quite recovers.

A Good Day To Die Hard

Hoping for a guilty pleasure, the fifth installment of the Die Hard trilogy (which should have ended at three) delivers a malignant punch to the gut as Bruce Willis has morphed into a superhuman where no car accident causes a single cut or bruise and the bad guys shoot about as good as an 80's John Woo movie. Transferring the action to Russia where a group of bad guys do battle with two McLanes (Willis' son Jack, played to numbing monotony by Jai Courtney), "A Good Day To Die Hard" alternates between terribly choreographed CGI shoot outs and DOA puns ("I'm on vacation!"). What made the first couple of "Die Hard" films so enthralling- besides their genre pushing realistic violence and claustrophobic environments- was the outright punishment taken by Bruce Willis. "A Good Day To Die Hard" propagates the video game mentality of inconsequential car chases and shoot outs wrapped up in a boring story of old nukes. This is a real disappointment, even with low expectations.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Last Few Films I've Seen, late January edition

1. Tom Horn (1980)- The next to last film actor Steve McQueen would participate in (the still unseen "The Hunter" would be the last), this introspective western is simply stunning. As the legendary titular character Tom Horn who's hired to clean up a turf war in 1890's Montana and then betrayed by his employers and sentenced to murder, one can feel the mortality oozing off the screen from McQueen. Ok, perhaps that's an overstatement, but "Tom Horn" is still a moving example of the emotions we as an audience project onto the screen. Bloody in all the right places- look how he dispatches the bad guys!- and quiet in the final third as McQueen's gruff cowboy silently accepts his fate, "Tom Horn" is an under seen classic.

2. Headshot (2011)- There are two camps of Thailand cinema- the Apitchatpong Weerasethakul experimental group (which I'm not a fan of) and the more genre-driven like Pen-ek Ratanaruang. If you haven't seen his 2003 film "Last Life In the Universe", then I strongly encourage it. "Headshot" is a different animal altogether. Not only does it use a majestic, brooding style to perfection, but the film's use of squibs is completely incredible... and not overdone. An assassin (Nopachai Chaiyanam) is shot in the head and when he awakes, his vision is inverted. The film follows two time lines, as he moves forward with his life and how he got into the hit man lifestyle in the first place. While some of the plot curves are characteristically ordinary, "Headshot" is an enjoyable ride.

3. About Cherry (2012)- There's no doubt young star Ashley Hinshaw is beautiful, and that's about all "About Cherry" has going for it. Yes, the film is about her slow entrance into the world of the San Francisco pornography scene, but everything within the film screams mediocrity, from the handheld camera in all the right moments to the lackluster characterizations that exhibit no depth or complexity.

4. Forced Entry (1975)- One of the more sought after 'sleazoid express' movies of the 70's, Jim Sotos's video nasty does overcome its cheap production values even if its story of deranged mechanic rapist Carl (Ron Max) is strictly ordinary. His eventual focus falls on young Nancy.... Tanya Roberts in her first film role. Now, I have an indelible crush on 70's Tanya Roberts (hey, we're born on the same day) and the final third of the film details the break-in and mentally unstable power play between the two. Director Sotos stretches out Carl's attack on Nancy to almost unbearable proportions, positioning the camera just around corners and at the bottom of the staircase, allowing the dread to reach cacophonous heights before the violence occurs. "Forced Entry" is certainly a product of its time, but a good one. Unavailable on home video for years, but a search on the internet will yield some results if one so desires.

5. Pursuit (1975)- Directed by Michael Crichton, this made-for-tv movie stars Ben Gazzara as a cop hunting down a domestic terrorist (E.G. Marshall) before he launches a dirty bomb attack on Los Angeles. Crichton has serious, intelligent chops as a writer and director (see his "The Andomeda Strain" and "The Great Train Robbery" for further proof) and for two-thirds of the film, intelligence is the key as Gazzara tries to put the pieces together. But then it all gets kinda stupid and the television budget constraints shine through. A disappointment. If the film could have stuck to the cat and mouse chase between Gazzara and Marshall, we might have something here.

6. The Take (2009)- BBC television series starring Tom Hardy as a British thug overtaking a crime syndicate. Hardy has positioned himself as one of the more dynamic and exciting young talents today and director David Drury is tv journeyman, and "The Take" was released right before Hardy scored it big on these shores. First observation- Hardy does the scowling tough guy like no one else. Secondly, I got lung cancer just watching him pound away cigarettes in this series. But seriously, this is hardcore, big-boy television, featuring a brutal rape sequence, a shovel beating of his own father and a manic, drunken, hulking performance by Hardy.

7. Stand Up Guys (2013)- Oh how I wanted to like this, but came out shaking my head in disbelief at its erratic tone. At once a comedy, then a road movie and finally an all out action film, Pacino and Walken just look tired. Directed by Fisher Stevens, this is a film that feels like a warmed over script from 1996.

8. The Imposter (2012)- The best documentary of last year (with "Jiro reams of Sushi" a close second), alternatively puzzling, shocking and so full of "what the hell" moments that I easily see a fictional re-incarnation in the not too distant future.

9. The Split (1968)- Based on a Donald Westlake novel, this film exudes late 60's coolness, primed by Jim Brown's starring role as a released con attempting one big score... which involves robbing the Los Angeles coliseum during a Rams game! Packed with a stellar supporting cast (Ernest Borgnine, Donald Sutherland, Jack Klugman and Warren Oates), "The Split" needs a DVD release now.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Michael Mann at 70

To commemorate one of my very favorite directors turning 70, here's a random link that exudes coolness... something Mann often excels at within his neon, crime-ridden worlds.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Top 5 List: Men On A Mission Genre

5. The Sword of Gideon/Munich- Two films, made almost twenty years apart, document the same episode in history as a group of trained men take revenge on the perpetrators who staged the infamous Munich Olympic murders in 1972. While both films are based on the same book (George Jonas' "Vengeance; the Story of an Israeli Counter-Intelligence Team") they go about their storytelling in different ways. "Sword of Gideon". released in 1986 and directed Michael Anderson, is a bit more low-budget as it was originally aired on television (and never available on DVD by the way). Starring Steven Bauer, Michael York and Rod Steiger, "Sword of Gideon" remains an ambitious TV project. "Munich", tackled in 2005 by Steven Spielberg, ups the ante, of course, in production value and the thriller aspects- although both films representation of a telephone bomb are riveting. Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciaren Hinds, both "Munich" and "Sword of Gideon" are terrific examples of the men-on-a-mission genre in the way they portray the dissolving morals of the men as they embed themselves deeper into their mission.

4. The Dirty Dozen- After watching this again for the first time in years, I’m reminded how much of a genre-stealing hack Quentin Tarantino really is. With an all-star cast, Aldrich basically upped the ante on the “men on a mission” war genre that would see itself re-invented and re-imagined for years to come- and on both sides of the ocean as well. The great conceit in Aldrich’s adrenalized affair is just how long he spends humanizing the ‘dirty dozen’ before their fatalistic mission to wipe out the German high command at a Paris chateau. Nihilism doesn’t begin to describe the lengths Aldrich goes in that final battle, and its all very non-Hollywood, which probably earns the film even higher regards nowadays. This was 1966 and we’re treated to Lee Marvin sadistically trying to break off the vent hoods so his men can drop grenades down into the underground hideout of the German men and their party-goers. As an action film, “The Dirty Dozen” is aces. As a film that successfully inverts our expectations about the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, it’s a revelation. Probably the prototypical men-on-a-mission film that almost everyone identifies with.

3. The Wild Bunch- Like "The Dirty Dozen", Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" was a game changer for Hollywood, especially in its cinematically ritualized violence and bloodshed. What begins as a western ends up as a dead-mans-walk when the bunch in question take on the whole Mexican army. Stellar, grizzled performances by William Holden, Warren Oates (always stellar and grizzled!), Ben Johnson and Robert Ryan push the human element in this one as we sorta begin to root for these bad guys.

2. Wages of Fear

Henri Georges Clouzot's 1953 film about a group of men hired to transport a truck full of nitroglycerin across a rugged South American jungle is such an underrated film. The tension reaches unbearable lengths and sweat, grime and an almost silent cinema mise-en-scene overtakes the second half of the film. I regret to say I've never seen William Friedkin's remake, titled "Sorcerer" due to a terrible DVD print, but I may have to buck up and bear it soon. As it stands, "Wages of Fear" is a classic men on a mission entry.

1. The Untouchables

Brian DePalma's (usually) maligned cops and gangsters story remains one of my favorite movies. Featuring a sweeping Ennio Morricone score, two of the most perfectly realized setpieces ever (the bridge raid and train station shootout) and Al Pacino hamming it up as Al Capone, "The Untouchables" real momentum lies in its representation of real life gangster busters led by Kevin Costner. Teamed up with the veteran (Sean Connery), the book worm (Charles Martin Smith) and the sharpshooter (Andy Garcia), they slowly but surely take back Chicago from the gangsters. I've seen this film over a dozen times and it only grows in my estimation each time.