Saturday, March 28, 2020

letterboxd backup (29)

The Gentlemen, Guy Richie, 2019

A circus freak-show of unbound masculinity, gleefully vulgar, completely shameless and at times quite openly trolling, a film that dares to value style and performances above all else and still arrives at a layered, paranoid-panoramic, even geopolitical whole.

I wasn´t prepared to like it (I didn´t much care for Richie back when he made Richie films, and some of his studio films are extremely bad), and there are parts that fall completely flat, but its manic energy never falters. Cinema was never supposed to be wholesome.

Miyamoto Musashi, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1944

That scene in the middle of Kinuyo Tanaka closing in on Miyamoto Musashi in order to transfer her anger and bloodlust onto him, but, when finding him absorbed into his sculptural work, completely cut off from the rest of the world, slowing down herself, lingering in the foreground of a time-annihilating long shot, lost in a limbo, hesitating, turning, finally sitting down, settling into a stasis that resolves nothing but infuses the tale of heroic revenge she´s a part of with an insurmountable sense of futility.

The Sword, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1945

A sword there was. A bit too monothematic to really get a grip on me, but the forging scenes alone are an impressive exercise in form. Blang-blang-ploink.

The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen, Kiyohiko Ushihara, 1938

Starts as a soapy jealousy drama, set in a claustrophobic world, intricate frames everywhere and no horizon in site, all kinds of barriers closing in and still no place to hide. It´s more about gaze than about action, but then a prolonged close-up announces evil and a cat gets it with a hairpin.

The dead cat is soon joined by a dead woman and a jinxed Shamisen - a trinity of hauntings somehow enhanced by the fact that the precise workings of the curse, or even its major visual representation never surface. The enclosed world doesn´t open up once the horror stuff starts, but it acquires another dimension: The main special effect is a slow pulsating of light, resulting in a repeated, complete blackening of the whole screen. It´s very effective although not really all that threatening, in fact it´s almost a bit mellow, a loosening of rhythm, smoothing down some of the harder edges.

Victory Song, Mizoguchi, Shimizu et al, 1945

An image that took me by surprise: people slipping down slides attached to the outside of their houses in order to reach the air raid bunkers faster. Of course that´s just one part of an effort of total, desperate mobilisation. This is a film that has no time to dwell on the shot, following a few seconds later, of an abandoned streets awaiting the impact of the bombs. Just a short glimpse of it, then the mayhem starts.

A theater performance and a tale of voices over water momentarily open up spaces of lyricism, but those are strictly subordinate to all those montage sequences made up of the heroic imagery of the international authoritarian avant-garde tradition. Automatic images connecting a number of dramatic miniatures, some of them somewhat touching. In the end, though, this is about a nation rushing towards death, sucked into a current that leaves nothing behind.

Shaihu Umar, Adamu Halilu, 1976

The arab slave trade filtered through a slow-motion family melodrama. At times so beautiful it hurts. Generally more successful in the more abstract, less dramatized parts (strange use of 70s zooms, also in slow-motion, shades of Rossellini´s tv work). The thoroughly detached "big resolution" scene is amazing, though.

As clumsy as some of it is it succeeds in evoking a pre-modern temporality in a way I haven´t quite seen anywhere else.

King of Boys, Kemi Detiba, 2019

I´m afraid cult cinephilia will discover nollywood only when it is too late and everything is slick and boring. (Not that I´ve seen much myself, unfortunately.)

The Hoodlum, Sidney Franklin, 1919

A beautiful film, a bit similar to SUDS, not quite as good, probably because the plot is a bit tighter and there´s less time to stray. Still, it brings so much joy to watch Pickford navigate this inner-city space, organized vertically more than horizontally: the clothes-lines stretched over the narrow street, the slide down into the cellar. Pickford is the quintessential american character, because she always already embodies the better nation everyone else only strives for and preaches about.

Daddy-Long-Legs, Marshall Neilan, 1919

At their best, these Neilan-Pickford films are in a class of their own. This one is constantly inventive, never settling down on any fixed mode of operating, with the storyline being never more than a starting point, a temporary hardening in the time-space-continuum, there only in order to play off against.

Among many other attractions, this includes a minute long sequence of a dog parading alongside a bricked wall on his hind legs!

M`Liss, Marshall Neilan, 1918

As long as nothing happens and the screen is filled with slingshots and puppets, chicken and monkeys, and the desire not to go too school (=for the first half of the film), this is great. The revenge storyline that finally takes over unfortunately is too tight and too modern, not suitable for Pickford, who needs older, more victorian narrative setups to truly blossom.

Uncut Gems, Safdie Brothers, 2019

All that is solid melts into air. Only that it´s the other way around. This is, at its core, a fantasy about re-grounding the sphere of circulation, fixating it onto a single body, a single nervous system, a single (but always divided) consciousness. Howard Ratner takes on the job and the qualities of capital itself: to assign and reassign value constantly, to transform ever more matter into commodities, and, especially, to keep everything in play, to keep account of everything at all times, from the cruel spectacle of blood diamonds right down to junior´s bladder. There are no fixed assets. Even his own body weight seems to be constantly in flux, like the stock market. Capital is always already crisis, but also a normalcy that knows no alternative. So in the next step, Howard Ratner has to reconfigure the pressure he´s under and at the same time asserts as everyday life. It can´t work but it almost works until it doesn´t.

I was a bit surprised about how my own reaction, because I wasn´t really on board with HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT and GOOD TIMES. With these, it was always a bit like watching the machinations more than the final product, like in some New Hollywood films there always seems to be an overeagerness of technique, a manic overinvestment in every single scene with the Safdies. Here too, but this time I went with the flow anyway. Partly because some of the machinations really are marvellous (the club scene invaded by harsh, delirious orange), but I think the main reason why this works so well is that it´s a one man show. This way the film can, for the most part, stay clear of the indie drama psychological shorthands the Safdies obviously have a weakness for. The worst parts of UNCUT GEMS are the family scenes (the one with the daughter is downright painful): the flow starts to falter, everyone´s falling back into known behavior. For the most part, though, it´s just a perfect match of form, content, and actor. It´s surprising only on first sight how absolutely perfect Sandler is, because UNCUT GEMS in some ways isn´t that far removed from his more out there mainstream work like ZOHAN, THAT´S MY BOY and JACK & JILL, films that also, like UNCUT GEMS, feel like risk investments that, against all odds, pay off. In a way, Sandler always is the most unlikely, and therefore the most successful of high-wire artists.


Might make an interesting double feature with Dwan´s THE INSIDE STORY.

Heart o` the Hills, Sidney Franklin, 1919

Mary-Pickford-izing the frontier. A (mountain) western and a much stronger exercise in the genre than M´LISS, because of its more ethnographical approach and also because the central love triangle actually is charming. Mary´s excitement whenever she is near the slick city boy...

Unfortunately, the last act doesn´t work at all. After the leap in time, the film loses all playfulness and fluidity, curiosity is condemned and everything is assigned to its proper place once again. The last shot of Mary before a final title card announces her marriage - looking towards the camera, a waterfall rushing alongside her legs, a free spirit still - is marvellous, though. Heartbreaking, too.

The Undesirable, Michael Curtiz, 1915

A 19 year old Michael Curtiz directing a routine melodrama, still very much in the frontal, stagey style of the time. Some of the more dramatic scenes already display a more fluid sense of dramaturgy and the outdoor shots are beautiful, but for the most part this is unremarkable.

The Ryhthm Section, Reed Morano, 2020

Completely misconceived, an almost bizarre mismatch of form and content: the images (+ the terrible soundtrack) constantly push a subjectivity that isn´t grounded in the script at all. Lively´s traumatic background and her multiple transformations into at first spectacularly grimy and then evermore glamourous versions of herself are blatantly, almost selfconsciously generic setups, something to play off of, not something to immerse oneselve in. What´s left are elaborately processed splinters of streamlined affect, and a few halfway efficient action scenes in between.

It doesn´t happen very often but this really made me long for a Luc Besson film.

Der Geisterzug, Geza von Bolvary, 1927

Not really a horror film, but rather a farcical mystery. There´s not even all that much train content as the film seldom leaves the train station and the Geisterzug isn´t much more than a gimmick. On the other hand, this mostly is a film about gimmicks anyway and Bolvary is, as always, very good with set design and, more general, with the playfully ornamental side of filmmaking. The design of the intertitles alone makes this one worth watching.

Hyenas, Djibril Diop Mambety, 1992

One of the more relaxed films about the end of the world. Reading about it here and elsewhere, I´m a bit perplexed, though: yeah, of course, it´s about capitalist modernity as doomsday machine, but isn´t the main point of the parable that here, capitalism isn´t something that comes purely from the outside, as a foreign, colonizing poison? Linguere has her roots in the community, her grievances clearly are real and tradition is just as corrupting as capital. This probably is just the starting point of the film, but without acknowledging it, you won´t go anywhere.

Olanlar oldu, Hakan Algül, 2017

Another wonderful Algül / Demirer film, one of the best, in fact, because it´s more about love than about scheming, this time and also because it features a broad, but nicely calibrated cross-dressing performance, a rare thing today. Türkay´s Aslı may be more a concept than a real person, but that makes sense, too, because this way she can be the perfect foil for the spectacle of Demirer "being in love" - for him, love is an inhibitor (another one), and also a potential gateway to a trance-like state of pure feeling. Love as a self-technique.

As much as this is a Demirer show (the best punchlines are almost always close-ups of his face, without any dialogue), this is also, like all of his films, about community, about a society en miniature, depicted with a benevolent sense of caricature and without a hint of narrative overdetermination. The people around Demirer are not "supporting charakters". They exist for their own sake.

Some people will confuse the relaxedness and looseness of the film with laziness, but I don´t care. It´s a film that handles the world tenderly, that´s enough for me.

Muna Moto, Jean-Pierre Dikongue Pipa, 1975

The freshness of a pioneering work: all things have not been said yet. Beneath the harsh, clear-cut story of monetized sexual difference lie multiple impulses, not always in tune in with one another: to perceive the world, to understand it, to transform it.

Quartier Mozart, Jean-Pier Bekolo, 1992

Sex is a many-splendored thing.

The Photograph, Stella Meghie, 2020

A well-made and especially very well-photographed romance film without any bland montage sequences and an overkill of pop tunes (one misstep though: the audio cutaway from Al Green during the sex scene - why?). Rae and Stanfield are perfectly in tune, Chelsea Peretti is very funny, as is Lil Rel Howery, Meghie is great with gestures, gazes etc... all of this is not there to be enjoyed for itself, though, but in order to put forward a story that unfortunately just doesn´t work out. The mother / daughter back and forth leads nowhere because it is built on false equivalencies - the circumstances the women are living in are too different, and the film doesn´t have any ambitions to work with these differences, either. This is especially obvious in the Louisianna scenes: The south is not much more than a (beautiful) lighting scheme.

THE PHOTOGRAPH might´ve been stronger as a low-key slice-of-life film, but I still hope Meghie stays on her lane and continues making full-blown bittersweet melodramas. Everyone who believes in both affect and narrative is valuable these days and she might just arrive at a masterpiece somewhere down the road.

Fantasy Island, Jeff Wadlow, 2020

I know nothing about the tv FANTASY ISLAND, but the film version plays out like the world´s most stupid LOST episode. It´s also badly made, basically not even the jump scares work. Still, as soon as Ryan Hansen stepped out of the plane I knew I´d have fun, and indeed, there´s a manic, additive quality to it that kept me engaged even during the very ill-advised cave-finale. The experience comes down to switching back and forth between tv channels all broadcasting tired eighties reruns but you might be a little bit drunk and there´s nothing else to do anyway and there´s Lucy Hale from PRETTY LITTLE LIARS in it and also Maggie Q who, alone in the cast, acts as if the stakes were real.

Victory of Women, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1946

Collective self-questioning in long takes. Except for its somewhat tucked-on court-room ending the inquiry lends towards introspection and stasis rather than towards proactive democratic nation building. A bright future is not yet in sight, Kinuyo Tanaka´s determined stare notwithstanding.

Die - oder keine, Carl Froelich, 1932

A talking picture. More enthralling with every viewing. All those fractious word-sensations meandering through cardboard-image-spaces, not always all that firmly tied to single bodies, motivations, plot points...

Women of the Night, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1948

That scene of Kinuyo Tanaka climbing through the barbed-wired fence and over the prison wall... suddenly, I´m thrown back to the very moment of filming: I see nothing but a tortuous parkour, set up exclusively for the actress to make her way through, the camera relentlessly registering her every move. The sadistic underpinnings of cinematic realism for once front and center...

Utamaro and His Five Women, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1946

Portrait of the artist as a manic sleazeball. Not one of his more thoughtful films, probably, more like an unfiltered, meandering, benevolent confessional. Absolutely loving it.

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, Celine Sciamma, 2019

I already feel for the generations of french high-school students who inevitably will have to write papers on this. So much to "unpack"... and the appropriate tools are right there, too!

...don´t want to dive too deep into cynicism, because in the end this might have just caught me on the wrong foot. The very good Haenel performance aside I really can´t even begin to grasp where the almost universal acclaim for this neatly packaged piece of quality cinema is coming from.

(I mean, if that Orpheus and Eurydice dialogue isn´t heavy-handed, I don´t know what is.)

Flame of My Love, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1949

Japanese modernity as a vision of hell, creeping long-shots dissolving into mayhem. Same all-encompassing sense of desperation as in WOMEN OF THE NIGHT, and strangely, by widening the scope the plight of women is even more front and center, because they are the ones burdened with anchoring the image of an unhinged world.

Portrait of Madame Yuki, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1950

One of Mizoguchi´s stranger, more oblique heroines, Yuki seems to be a victim more of modernity than of men, a soft-eyed, inhibited creature, too sensual for her own good, lost in a world she doesn´t understand. Mizoguchi reinforces this by introducing her through the eyes and fantasies of another woman, Hamako. It´s not about contrasting Yuki with Hamako, though: After the beautiful intro (her face illuminated by the pool`s water), the latter fades into the background, becoming just one of several interpretants of Yuki.

What makes the film so interesting is that Mizoguchi himself, as a humanist who is afraid of progress, seems to be conflicted and unsure about the world he is depicting. Unlike the red-light-districts or stylized pasts most of his other films are set in, the spaces of bourgeois modernity never acquire any sense of immersive wholeness. His only chance to enter this world is through the impossible point of view of Yuki.

Undine, Christian Petzold, 2020

Resisting the libidinous pull of history. Doubling down on both madcap romanticism and the discursive underpinnings of melodrama, UNDINE probably won´t find quite as many fans as PHOENIX and TRANSIT, but might be the most daring Petzold film yet. Or at the very least the most Petzold. Paula Beer rules.

Plus there´s a wonderful love-on-first-sight-as-slapstick scene, like in THE LONG GREY LINE and THE BIG PARADE.

The Love of Sumako the Actress, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1947

A film about democratic modernisation and nation building, and also a throwback to Mizoguchi´s prewar artist films, like CHRYSANTHEMUM and STRAITS OF LOVE AND HATE. It´s fascinating, but much less fluid and organic than the earlier films. In those, the drama hinges on a dysfunctional relationship, a woman falling prey to a weak man. Here, the man isn´t much more than a catalyst, while the destructive impulses are placed in the woman herself. Coupled with Mizoguchi´s not very subtle didacticism, this almost derails the film several times.

Only when Tanaka, bursting with energy from the start, completely switches into manic overdrive, lashing out at the world in a series of convulsive outbursts of energy, the film finds its footing. Towards the end its a blast, a high-key melodrama, blistering and bursting at the seams while declaring the tragic oneness of art and life.

A Carmen stage production with Tanaka would have been the greatest thing ever.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), Kathy Yan, 2020

All that vulgar, pulpy energy makes one wish this was better written and had a bit more style. In its present form, it´s mostly a series of false starts, never leading into the kind of manic flow it obviously aims at. Still, at least it keeps up the interest. The John Wick style action is nice and the film generally works best when it trusts its more antisocial impulses instead of watering them down with girl power bonding.

Kunst kommt aus dem Schnabel wie er gewachsen ist, Sabine Herpich, 2020

Endlessly fascinated by the piece dealing with the Bode Museum, a building so ugly the artist can´t stand the sight even of her own recreation of it, therefore covering it with rags and barbed wire even while working on it. A truly impossible artwork, existing only in the attempts to overcome it.

The Lady of Musashino, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1951

Tsutomu is one of Mizoguchi´s most fascinating men, a desperate, soft-spoken romantic whose idealism might just be a cover for an all-encompassing madness. (At times he acts more like a Kinoshita man than like a Mizoguchi man.) Coming back from war and captivity, his experiences closed off inside of him, he throws the carefully arranged unhappy social and libidinous post-war-compromises into disarray. An agent of asynchonicity ripping open the seams of a self-same present.

The film looks beyond gorgeous, too.

Street of Shame, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1956

A strange last film, closing in instead of widening up. I miss the more elaborate archs of previous films, but every single one of the stories here has a blunt force that will leave a lasting impression.

Happy Hour, Benny Chan, 1995

Slapdash courtroom poitboiler about three friends wrongfully accused of rape after a night in town. Benny Chan handles the clubbing-leading-to-sex scenes very well, but seems to have no idea what to do with the rest of the film. Understandably so, because most of it doesn´t lead anywhere, especially the parts with Lau Ching-Wan´s lawyer. Some of the other stuff is interesting in theory: the three guys, despite being innocent, continue to be bro-assholes of the worst kind throughout the whole film, they even end up killing someone by accident and the film seems to be unsure about its own level of complicity with all of that. Also, someone insisted on using "Stand by Me" as theme song.

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