Sunday, August 31, 2014

Posters I Love

A couple added to my collection:


Sunday, August 24, 2014

What's In the Netflix Queue #38

1. Holy Motors (2012)- Leos Carax's much acclaimed film played here in Dallas uneventfully for about a week before exiting, and I'm just now catching up with it
2. Los Bastardos (2011)- Filmmaker Amat Escalante made some waves earlier this year when his film "Heli" played at the Cannes Film Fest. This one, his debut, sounds like it mines the same tough territory of drug dealers and lowlifes in Mexico. 
3. Geronimo An American Legend (1993)- Walter Hill's tale of the Apache warrior who fought against the American army. I think I added this one when I was going through a Gene Hackman phase a while back... and just to mention Nicholas Roeg's "Eureka" is pretty darn good Hackman.
4. Rocco and His Brothers (1960)- Saw this years ago when I was a fledgling film enthusiast on a Blockbuster VHS copy, but I was blown away by it. Oft cited as one of Scorsese's favorite films, Visconti's epic tale of one Italian family and their divisions over time should be essential viewing. 
5. The Bay (2012)- Wait. Barry Levinson doing a found footage horror film? Maybe I'll begin my October horror-thon early!
6. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)- With the talk of Eli Roth re-imagining the cannibal horror film, I decided to see schlock master Ruggero Deodato's original video nasty for the first time. 
7. The Central Park Five (2012)- Documentary about the trial of five men arrested and convicted in 1989 for the rape of a woman in Central Park. Nothing like a hotly contested court case to make a thrilling documentary.
8. The Green Berets (1968)- John Wayne. Veitnam. Nuff said.
9. Son of Gascogne (1995)- A favorite of critic Andrew Sarris back in the day. From the Neflix description: "In this romantic comedy, lanky tour guide Harvey (Gregoire Colin) is told by a stranger that he strongly resembles legendary 1960s French new wave filmmaker Gascogne; before long, he's assumed to be Gascogne's son. Harvey quickly becomes the toast of Paris, hobnobbing with directors and Gascogne groupies. But his newfound "fame" may derail his relationship with Dinara (Dinara Droukarova), the film-buff interpreter on the tour.
10. Next five are Alejandro Jodorwosky films. Let the madness begin.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

70's Bonanza: La Traque (aka The Track)

Next to the game of baseball, hunting is the sporting event cinema loves to apply mythological proportions. From Carlos Saura's "The Hunt" to "Deliverance" to especially "The Deer Hunter", game hunting always begins as one thing, then slowly and assuredly morphs into something greater. Serge Leroy's "La Traque" falls squarely into this category. Released in 1975 and starring some of France's biggest names, "La Traque" posits the question just how far can a group of elitist, well positioned men go when they abandon society, become armed and infuse themselves as gods hunting smaller creatures.

The sense of propriety is immediately established as one of the main characters, Jean Luc Bideau, is seen leaving a hotel after spending a night with his mistress. On the way out, he meets American Helen (Mimsy Farmer) and offers to give her a ride to the same country area he's traveling for a game hunt. Once there, Helen is introduced to his other friends... men representing a cross section of society including brothers Albert and Paul (Jean Pierre Mierelle and Phillipe Leotard), financier David (Michel Lonsdale) and Captain Nimier (Michael Constatin). The men have a big weekend of drinking and hunting planned, but the attractive Helen is quickly hit upon and reduced to another part of the weekend. It's only when the brothers Danville find her wandering around the grounds the next day that things turn ugly. Paul forces himself on her... his brother joins in and timid Rollin (Paul Crauchet) stands watch. Things turn from bad to horrible when she manage to get ahold of Paul's gun and shoot him, running off into the woods. From there, Helen becomes the hunted prey as lies become reality and the men spend the next half of the film trying to find her.

It's here that "La Traque" moves out of its tepid "rape and revenge" category that has somewhat pigeon-holed the film for years and becomes a shifting drama of dynamics between the men. Jean Luc Bideau is running for a high political position in France, and while he wants to reason and understand just how things went sour, the other men led by the remaining Danville brother, simply want to catch and kill Helen to hide their violent crime. Images that initially represented the formation of the hunt for wild boar quickly devolve into France's version of "The Most Dangerous Game". The lean, cold, tree-branched setting of the film and Helen's pained screams and continual out of breath wheezing become the dominant traits of the hunt, ending in a shocking, cold denouement that sends shivers down the spine. The great tag line of "in space no one can hear you scream" is nothing compared to the screams of a woman hunted by the ordinary, eventually faceless men of propriety.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

An Appreciation: Hiroshi Teshigahara

Hokusai (1953) ***- Teshigahara’s first film is a short about the life of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, whose drawings and tender portraits make up the whole of the film as a narrator gently muses on his work and life. As an introduction to an artist I was not aware of (though he’s highly regarded in Japan of course) “Hokusai” is indispensable. It’s also a debut work that echoes so much about the filmmaker and his preoccupation for the co mingling of art, artists and their unflinching impact on the world around them, later exemplified in films like “Antonio Gaudi” and “Rikyu”.

Ikebana (1955) **- Running a mere 30 minutes, “Ikebana” refers to the age old art of flower arrangement. While the film itself is visceral and vivid- shot in fluorescent Technicolor that makes the flowers and colors quite startling for a mid 50’s film- it doesn’t maintain a lingering effect or educate on the topic.

Tokyo 1958 (1958) *- Beginning with real numbers about Tokyo’s population in 1958 (a mind boggling 8.5 million), Teshigahara and a group of fellow filmmakers then proceed to show us snippets of life in and around the big city. What’s most amazing about “Tokyo 1958” is that after presenting us with endless possibilities, the film denies us any real insight, emotion or stirring ideas, instead focusing on aimless, almost suburban habits such as a karaoke contest and bridal dress shows. If this was meant as a tourist attraction, then job well done.

Jose Torres (1959) ***- Fascinating, fly-on-the-wall short film where the filmmaker follows boxer Jose Torres to New York City where he prepares for a bout. Alternating between intimate close-ups of Torres at rest (including one scene where he lies quietly in bed, looking up at the ceiling and we can only guess his thoughts) to the boxing match where Teshigahara’s camera feel like outtakes from Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” years later, “Jose Torres” is a strong documentary. Like Frederick Wiseman, Teshigahara simply observes every step of the process with child-like curiosity. Not available on DVD.

Pitfall (1962) ****- Teshigahara’s debut feature length film is a masterpiece. When poor miner Otsuka (Hisashi Igawa) and his son wander into a ghost town, he’s immediately stalked and killed. We soon learn he’s the spitting image of a high level union boss who was the intended target. Weaving the politics and violence of two local miner’s unions with a 1940’s Capra-esque fantasy where the dead come raring back to life and are forced to watch the injustices being done around them sounds like a lofty goal for a first feature, but it works. Doppelgangers, bodies in the mud, a jarring and eclectic soundtrack and Teshigahara’s command of a roving camera are touchstones for a film that veers wildly around and eventually settles into a mournful portrait of fathers and sons condemned to their lowly fates. I have to imagine this was a huge influence on P.T. Anderson and “There Will Be Blood”.

Scultpures By Sofu (1962) ***- Short film that again explores Teshigahara’s almost fetishistic appreciation of art examined by the visual medium of film. It’s also an adoring exploration of the artist, Sofu Teshigahara, as Hiroshi is his son. The first half of the film examines Sofu’s process of piecing together his sculptures, often large enough to use an assembly team of people to carefully construct the artifact. The second half of the film places the sculptures themselves as the sole image of each frame, juxtaposed against vibrant, hallucinogenic backdrops and early 60’s sci-fi type special effects. It’s an alienating, and energetic, way to spotlight the unique nature of the designs. If we learn very little about the man himself, Teshigahara more than makes up for it by presenting a stale subject with eye popping verve. Not available on DVD.

Woman in the Dunes (1964) **- Teshigahara’s first big international success, garnering several Oscar noms and winning a prize at Cannes that year, “Woman In the Dunes” is a heavily metaphoric venture into the weird domestic world of an insect researcher becoming involved with a woman living in a sand dune. The setting is claustrophobic… the camera work is filled with intense close ups of skin, dirt and sweat. Thematically and visually, one can sense Teshigahara evolving as a filmmaker, but the story itself failed to grab me. At two and a half hours, it also carries on a bit too long and makes its point several times. If anything, it’s a film I admire more than like.

White Morning aka Ako (1965) ***- Perhaps its Teshigahara’s ode to John Cassavetes. “Aka” is a short film about the youth of Japan, and specifically one girl (Miki Irie) and her night out with friends. When one of the boys along for the ride makes dangerous advances, the film takes on a deliberately darker tone. Yet Teshigahara maintains a gentle grasp on the affair. Its low budget constraints are evident through its use of non-synchronized dialogue and Teshigahara’s avant-garde, handheld style of filmmaking doesn’t always lend itself to the smaller story, but its still an interesting progression in his career. Irie would go on to later star in “The Face of Another”.

Jose Torres Part 2 (1965) ***½-  An hour long sequel to the first documentary on boxer Jose Torres… this time Teshigahara embeds himself with Torres as he prepares for his 1965 title fight against Willie Pastrano. The first half of the film is all the pomp and circumstance leading up to the fight, but the second half focuses solely on the fight itself. As a lover of old-school boxing and the poetry in motion it can incite, “Jose Torres 2” is a mammoth achievement. The final thirty minutes, compressing the fight down to its exciting moments and the clamor of the audience in Madison Square Garden is a perfect time capsule of athleticism and fervor. Not available on DVD.

The Face of Another (1967) ***½- Like an art house counterpoint to John Frankenhemier’s “Seconds”, this film is a strong analysis of identity and the twisted moral paths we take if anonymity is achieved. A businessman (Tatsuya Nakadai) suffers from facial scarring after an accident. Through the help of his psychiatrist, he’s given a prosthetic mask and new face. With a new outlook on life, he sets in motion a plan to become a different person and challenge the coldness of his wife. Simultaneously, a young woman, played by Miki Irie of Teshigahara’s last film “Whie Morning”, deals with her own insecurities as part of her face was scarred during the bombing of Nagasaki. What’s most startling about “The Face of Another” is how seamlessly Teshigahara blends his experimental penchant with mainstream storytelling. The relationship between psychiatrist and patient, often taking place in an office that feels and looks like the central command of some sterile alien spaceship, is the perfect marriage of these two styles. And when the film takes a decidedly perverse turn, Teshigahara maintains control even though we don’t specifically root for the masked businessman to succeed in his plan. The only thing holding “The Face of Another” back is its under-developed relationship and denouement of the Miki Irie subplot. It’s a narrative strand that deserves its own film.

Man Without A Map (1968) ***½ - Of all the films by Teshigahara, this is by far the most difficult. It’s also the one that lingers with me the most. Calling it a detective mystery (like on IMDB) is very misleading. If anything, “The Man Without A Map” is an anti-mystery. Like the great neo noirs of the 70’s (“The Big Fix” and especially “The Long Goodbye”), Teshigahara’s film raises more questions than it answers…. never really solves anything… and devours the lead detective in a world of loose ends, digressive leads, and his own doubt about the missing person case. The unnamed Detective (played by Shintaro Katsu, who would go onto later prominence in the “Hanzo” series) is recruited by a woman to find her missing husband. Along the way, the detective is continually thwarted by the brother of the missing man who has his own agenda to follow (namely a violent workers clash), the unclear motives of a taxi driver service the missing man may have worked for, and the inability of the wife to recall any key details about the last days of her husband. Instead, the detective is haplessly relegated to mute witness as he scowers the depths of Japan’s brothels and low level businessmen. Going into “The Man Without A Map” with a sense of narrative is probably not the best way to approach it. This is a film that deserves multiple viewings as you realize it’s an atmospheric psychological study of a nation rather than a thriller. As said with other films, this is one that will probably grow on me over time. Not available on DVD.

Summer Soldiers (1972) *½-  “Summer Soldiers”, released towards the end of the Vietnam War, has every opportunity to be Teshigahara’s protest film. Yet it’s an ambiguous and confusing effort that fails to capture either side of the conflict with any depth or perception. Perhaps the biggest error is its main character, Jim (played by amateur Keith Sykes) is not a very likeable or cathartic embodiment. Deployed to Japan, we meet Jim after he’s gone AWOL from the army and shacked up with a Japanese barmaid. She puts him in contact with an underground Japanese anti-war group, and he spends the rest of the film bouncing from domicile to domicile in hiding from the authorities. He also finds time to play guitar and flirt with other Japanese barmaids. Taken from the left-wing, war-is-bad-hippie perspective, “Summer Soldiers” is a terrible depiction, with the film trading in Western ideals of the ugly American as Jim constantly gets drunk and chases women. He even tries to force himself on the wife of one of the men giving him shelter. On the flip side, we get no context or insight into the Japanese anti-war personnel who try to help Jim. In a film with strong leanings towards anti-war, it takes a relatively stale and unobtrusive stance on everything. Not available on DVD.

Antonio Gaudi (1985) **½ - Long form exploration of architect Antonio Gaudi’s work harkens back to Teshigahara’s fascination with symmetry and art as presented in his first films. Bracketed against a lush soundtrack, “Antonio Gaudi” is a film to appreciate and allow to wash over you. It’s all images, sounds and architecture driven down to its base form.

Rikyu (1989) ***- Gentle, observational film about the life and arrangements of a celebrated tea master in 1500’s Japan. As the title character, Rentaro Mikuni is exceptional. As Teshigahara did in his second film, “Ikebana”, “Rikyu” fully explores the methods and manners of flower arrangement and tea preparation as a sacred event in feudal Japan. He doesn’t shy away from the political either, juxtaposing Rikyu’s quiet almost monk-like existence against the backdrop of warring clans and violent cabals. The lavish sets, patient editing style and focus on the tiny quivers of the face show Teshigahara as a filmmaker slowing down and appreciating the finer things in life.  

The Princess of Goh (1992) ***½ - A sequel of sorts to “Rikyu”, “The Princess of Goh” may at first seem like a mind bogglingly standard way for Teshigahara to end his filmmaking career, but upon reflection, the Kurosawa-inspired direction and simple message of a princess, a tea master, and his servant (her lover) standing together against feudal lords and factions is the perfect cap to his career. After Rikyu’s death, Princess Basara (Rie Miyazawa) and Usu (Toshiya Nagasawa) who’s in love with the princess, stage a daring robbery of Rikyu’s head,… set out on display in the most disrespectful manner… and stir up the different tribes. Lord Oribe (Tatsuya Nakadai), a successor of sorts to Rikyu’s tea ceremonies, acts like a father to the princess and Usu and helps them escape. Years later, as Usu and the Princess grow apart, they meet again in a vastly different climate of empowered families and head honchos. There’s nothing revolutionary or inventive in Teshigahara’s narrative, just lavish sets and a keen attention to human connection that’s been missing in most of his analytical work. The scene where Oribe gently touches Usu head as he lies underneath his hut, talking to him privately, is a moving example of an allegorical father-son relationship. As a final film, “The Princess of Goh” is a sweet one. Not available on DVD.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Cinema Obscura: The Vampire of Dusseldorf

Robert Hossein's "The Vampire of Dusseldorf" (aka "The Secret Killer") immediately places the viewer into an unrestrained cycle of violence and confusion. Yet it's not at the hands of the aforementioned serial killer, but in the black and white newsreels of the simmering violence overtaking Germany in the 1920's. Nazi Germany is boiling to the top of society, Jewish busineses are being ransacked and Peter Kurten, played by director Hossein, seems to emerge from the ashes. Like other films to concentrate on serial killers in Germany (such as Fritz Lang's "M", which is loosely based on Kurten and Robert Siodmak's "The Devil Strikes At Night"), the political upheaval of the time runs simultaneous to the random murders being unleashed by a demented killer. Society is basically giving permission to kill. And this is the jumping off point for Hossein, blending his affinity for film noir with a twisted obsessive romance that sees his character want to fall in love, yet hopelessly bound by the evil impusles rooted deep inside.

Alternating between the murderous nights of Kurten and the (somewhat) inept practices of the SS police force trying to capture him, "The Vampire of Dusseldorf" is most effective in the performance of Hossein himself. He embodies Kurten (unnamed in the film) with near silence, barely talking throughout the entire movie and walking with a hunched, reserved manner with arms pinned quietly at his side. Method acting, to be sure, but he also films the various murders of the women with unflinching blandness. At one point, everything is normal until he sees the legs of the woman he's courting, and the impulse to kill overtakes him. In other scenes, the way he stalks his prey....filmed by Hossein in one of his fvaorite techniques of the long, walking tracking all atmosphere and sound. The sound of footsteps on pavement and the staggered breathing of his prey fill the soundtrack with dread. Hossein also has a way of framing just right, such as the scene where Kurten observes a police officer standing post outside the home of a victim who got away from him. From behind a latice fence across the street, Hossein builds suspense from the POV of Kurten and just how he'll find a way past the policeman. It's only in the respite of the El Dorado Club where singer/dance Anna (Marie-France Pisier) peforms that Kurten finds peace. He eventually wins her over, but will his dark side destroy the small amount of happiness she provides him?

One of the 15 films directed by popular French actor Hossein (and so hard to find any of them!), "The Vampire of Dusseldorf" shows his immense and under appreciated talent.