Monday, November 16, 2020

last two weeks in letterboxd

Chinatown Kid, Chang Cheh, 1977

The hand should've be content with squeezing oranges, but is lured by the golden sparkle of a digital watch. Or rather: lots of digital watches. No matter how many you destroy there is always another one. In the end it's the promise of the watch that leads you from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Over there, the playing field is bigger, but not much bigger. The location footage is few and far between, and you can almost hear Chang Cheh's gasps of relief every time the film cuts back to the safety of the studio lot. Here, the ceilings are low and the hot dog stand looks like something out of a vintage 50s fantasy. Still, sometimes you get kissed by strange girls, and your friend almost falls prey to the needle. You convince him to get back on track, though, onto the path of the watch.


Celestial Cut, mostly before I generally prefer 87 minute films to 115 minutes films and wasn't really in the mood for yet another dose of vhs chinatown murkiness. As toned down as this sometimes feels, the last shot of schoolchildren crossing a street is so gentle and uplifting I'm not sure I really want to check out the original vision.

Inn of the Floating Weeds, Seijun Suzuki, 1957

The tension between a great haunted love noir storyline (including a Lewtonesque, oft-repeated song the film seems to be based on) and a pretty standard gangster plot is never really resolved, but Suzuki constnatly finds ways to let single scenes sparkle, especially the ones set at the harbour, a lonely place, vast space, dark buildings, the open sea, past and presents colliding into helpless affect.

Avengement, Jesse V. Johnson, 2019

I haven't seen all that much Adkins and only one of his earlier collaborations with Jesse V. Johnson, THE DEBT COLLECTOR, which I liked quite a bit, but AVENGEMENT is so much more on point. It's obvious that both star and director feel much more at home in the British working class setting than drifting through Los Angeles. It's a sedentary film, dominated by a feeling of confinement and narrow perspectives, on life and everything else. You are born into your class, and this already tells most of the story, afterwards you can make, at best, one or two choices until your boxed in, once and for all. The only thing that separates Cain from his surroundings is that he gets / takes the chance to walk back on one (and only on one) of his choices. Here, this changes everything.

So it makes completely sense that the film is told from the vantage point of a pub. Almost everyone born into a life like Cain's ends up either here or in prison, this is the end of the road and therefore the perfect setting for a final judgement. You will leave this place only dead (everyone else) or in a state of grace (Cain). The best scene of the film might not be one of the fights, but the back and forth between Cain and the guys after he enters the pub. It starts out as just another in a long line of colloquial macho posturings, as if all of them just pick up where they left off years ago, before Cain went to jail. A Guy Richie setup almost, but then it changes shape, slowly but surely, and it becomes clear that Cain isn't interested in bridging the gap between him and the others.

Violence breaks out and escalates because people are too close together and too far apart at the same time, as is especially evident, once again, in the pub brawl that constantly switches back and forth between hand to hand combat and shootout. Only here, in the homosocial working-class space of the pub where on a fundamental level everyone is equal, violence acquires an analytical dimension, speaks of psychological conditions and self-images. The prison, on the other hand, is a hierarchical system of control, therefore it's just body against body, especially from the perspective of the higher-ups, like the judge.

One key scene, I think, is the one at the house of Lincoln's accountant. This is where things start falling into place: For the first time, he doesn't just rip the person he has tracked down to shreds, thereby making clear that his rage isn't blind after all. Still, why doesn't he kill him after the money is transferred? Because he doesn't recognize the upper-middle class world the accountant is living in, and therefore he doesn't recognize the accountant. He kills only those in which he recognizes himself. Even the female barkeeper, despite her working overtime to make clear she's one of the boys, isn't similar enough to justify killing.

This also means that Cain's class consciousness isn't political, but spiritual in nature. He's no revolutionary, not even in the Robin Hood tradition. He doesn't transcend his origins, he intensifies them. While the others around him are only metaphorically scarred by life, his scars become a manifest reality, if not destiny. The religious overtones are, of course, quite on the nose, but they're incredible effective, because they communicate with the setting, and I almost wish, Johnson would've ramped them up even more. Just as I probably would had preferred a stronger sense of melodrama (but that might just the Heroic Bloodshed fan in me speaking). Like the deadly brotherly hug in the end: a perfect image, but Johnson cuts away very fast, almost as if afraid to really let it register. He wants Cain out, by himself, cut off from society and therefore both redeemed and condemned and of course this is pretty much a perfect ending, too.

The Proud Challenge, Kinji Fukasaku, 1962

A political thriller from a time (long, long ago, it seems) when it still made sense to make political thrillers, shot with exuberant, almost proto-punkish energy. Fukasaku sometimes gets a bit overboard with the canted angles and for a while the film runs the risk to lose shape, but in the great last 20 minutes everything boils down to two outsiders detached (in very different ways) from Japanese mainstream society chasing each other. Also quite extraordinary how Fukasaku makes it clear that Kuroki's righteousness isn't really separable from his racism.

Triple Threat, Jesse V. Johnson, 2019

Not much left from the coherent vision of AVENGEMENT, but as an election night watch (just when things looked especially bleak, actually) this was the right film at the right time. The action is loud and varied, and mostly very good, especially in the middle stretch during the city scenes. The horror feel during the very darkly lit long final brawl threw me off at first, but I guess it helps getting a bit more out of the characters.

A bit too much of an Adkins show, probably. Tony Jaa and Tiger Chen would've needed a bit more room, and Uwais probably isn't the best choice for a trickster role. But at the end of the day, this delivers.

Neubau, Johannes Maria Schmit, 2020

Queer life in the provinces, dreaming of Berlin. Nothing here that hasn't been done before, but I guess the decision to mostly concentrate on internal mechanisms like silent frustration and fantasy production instead of external pressure lends it some force.

A Story Written With Water, Yoshishide Yoshida, 1965

The inner abyss of desire in cinemascope. Images threatened by the lure of abstraction. The polarity of monochromatic film, when confronted with the blunt force of incest: faces drowning in black, the world vanishing into white. Feels often a bit forced, but in a way this fits, too: there's no physical or social cohesion anymore, no traditional reality effect, so of course you constantly see the seams.

Der Fluch, Ralph Huettner, 1988

One of those nice little genre exercises that show up in German cinema now and then, most of the time without leaving much of a trace behind. Here, too: Ralph Huettner transitioned to middle-of-the road comedy rather soon (of course, helping Helge Schneider with TEXAS probably is his most important contribution to film history by far), while main actor Dominic Raacke found a secure place in television later. I never cared much for him, but here he is truly phenomenal, a terrific family dad turned evil jock turned nervous wreck performance that can never quite be pinned down. A monster that doesn't know itself, a shapeshifter at the center of a film that often seems to be stuck in a loop, sometimes productively so, sometimes not.

Anyway, this made me miss the Alps. No SUKKUBUS, but then again, what is?

Violence at Noon, Nagisa Oshima, 1966

Two women and all that is between them. I don't think I've ever seen the irrational power of desire depicted in quite this way, as a material force destroying space-time, but still grounded in (or maybe rather intertwined with) a social reality that is conflicted enough in itself. The warmth of the school scenes is just as genuine as the cynicism of the election storyline, and therefore, desire can be both of these things, too: the one reason to keep you going and a cruel joke.

Classical Period, Ted Fendt, 2018

Worked beautiful this time around, too. It's just a very funny film, at times it feels like one of the great comedies of repression, but maybe this is a ruse. I keep asking myself while watching this: Is Cal comfortable in his own body? And I suspect most of the time he probably is, it's just that he doesn't want to admit it to himself, let alone to others. Sometimes he gives it away, though, especially in the first few moments after he's finished with one of his anectodes, those smirks which aren't allowed to bloom but take possession of his whole self nonetheless.

My favorite moment is, for the same reason, the "Dick Che(y)ney" line, folowed by a grin that acknowledges that stuff like this - meaning: not the big, profound insights buried somewhere in the Divine Comedy, but the surface flurry of amusing factoids surrounding it - is what he lives for. The scene in the end with Evelyn might be read as her calling him out for just that; but at the same time it's obvious that she mostly enjoys his company, too.

Europa und der zweite Apfel, Hans Neuenfels, 2988

Nothing is as depressing as the graveyard of forgotten avantgardes. Some of the longest 104 minutes of my life.

With Beauty and Sorrow, Masahiro Shinoda, 1965

Controlled transgressions often are the most effective ones, like all the small acts of emotional and sexual terrorism Keiko Sakami commits here, without ever losing composure.

An extremely beautiful film, but to watch all of those twisted Japanese mid sixties sexual psychodramas back to back is a bit much.

Verlierer, Bernd Schadewald, 1987

Some of the more "written" scenes don't work very well, and the approach to acting seems to be taken from Marx: from each according to his ability. Still, so much to love here, the rusty, dusty, brown-grey Ruhr setting, the raucous, clumsy metal and punk soundtrack (music as will, not as technique... that mosh pit scene!), and also some surprisingly poignant moments like that tracking shot through the Unemployment Agency that tells you, without a single word, everything you need to know about the prospects of these guys.

The best thing about it might be the lack of plot. In the beginning two gangs arrange a date for a fight, and in the end, they do, indeed, fight. In between it's mostly about guys moving around the city, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups, sometimes with a goal, more often without. Here and there tensions flourish, but in the end this is about a mode of existence more than anything else.

Unlike in NACHT DER WÖLFE, the other, not quite as strong German take on WARRIORS, the girls are almost completely absent, which might be an unwelcome side-effect of the lack of plot; when they do appear every once in a while, they often trigger strange, almost phobic reactions. They point, through their mere presence, towards a lack the guys have no ability to acknowledge.

The Strangers Upstairs, Yoji Yamada, 1961

First Yamada film and already a joy, proudly traditionalist and yet in its own way just as sensitive to the breakdown of the patriarchic social structure as Oshima or Masumura.

A post-shomingeki miniature about a young couple renting out a room in their house. There are two subsequent tenants, and they are couples, too, resulting in a series of misunderstandings, which are funny enough in itself; but Yamada always manages to mirror them back onto the main couple and their insecurities about the kind of life they want or are about to live. Then, there's the older generation and the family of the husband's philandering boss, introducing not only additional opportunities for mirrorings, but also different, broader modes of comedy. All of this in under an hour.

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, Yuen Woo Ping, 2018

Finally an Ip Man film that realizes that the true hero of the series isn't Donnie Yen, but Mu ren zhuang, the wooden dummy.

This often feels more like an older type of Hong Kong action melodrama that just happens to be set in the Ip Man universe, though. Meaning while the particular mixture of nostalgia, anti-colonialism and paternalism is once again very much present, everything moves a bit faster and with less ideological conviction this time.

Some of the best fight scenes of the series, especially the one up and down the neon signs. (This is something that makes _me_ nostalgic: people complaining about Wire fu).

Der verkaufte Großvater, Hans Albin, 1962

A typical example of what one might like call a Rumpelfilm: on the one hand the incompetence when it comes to the basics of filmmaking is truly staggering at times (sometimes you get the feeling that the whole world is crumbling down just outside of the screen), on the other hand, once Hans Moser and, to a lesser degree, Hubert von Meyerinck and Beppo Brehm have free reign, everything else is forgiven anyway. Moser, in one of his last films (not a coincidence probably that he spends large parts of the film in bed), singing, in his by now almost completely broken down voice, "Wenn der Herrgott nicht will" ("If god, our lord, does not want it") is one of the most touching things I've seen lately.

Some of the non-Moser songs are pretty strange, and there's an extremely weird Schwabing scene, a blooming pop art interlude completely detached from the rest of the film.

Voice Without a Shadow, Seijun Suzuki, 1958

The beginning with Yoko Minamida haunted by Jo Shishido's voice is great, but after he's dead this really doesn't go anywhere interesting.

Winners & Sinners, Sammo Hung, 1983

I'm in love with that beautiful car crash ballet scene. Generally very nice how explosive the action interludes are, often downright shattering the not always all that inspired comedy routines.

Day-Dream, Tetsuji Takechi, 1963

That the first high profile pink film turns out to be dentist-themed tells you all you need to know about this gloriously perverse genre.

Mio caro assassino, Tonino Valerii, 1972

Yes, of course, one of the great opening scenes, but otherwise this left me a bit bored. A dull inspector, an unnecessarily complicated storyline (feels like parts of the plot are only there to justify stuffing even more uninteresting minor characters in the final whodunit revelation scene) and Valerii seems to have forgotten he isn't on a western set when adjusting the color scheme.

Erzherzog Johanns große Liebe, Hans Schott-Schöbinger, 1950

Finally a Heimatfilm that really commits to its melodramatic underpinnings - and also knows that cinematic melodrama is first and foremost a question of style. In other words: finally a Heimatfilm that knows how to frame a shot.

A simple tale and not necessarily the most sparkling romantic couple to ever grace the screen, but all those low angles and claustrophobic deep focus compositions inserted into prime pastoral beauty, those dissolves into the nothingness of desire... I need more of this.

The Sunshine Girl, Yoji Yamada, 1963

Love in the industrial district. The sky is grey and still we keep on living and singing. The salaryman promises a secure future and cleaner air, but office politics are dirty and his grin not always trustworthy. The blue-collar guys hitting on you on the train to work, on the other hand, might not be all that scary after all. In fact, you also work the assembly line while waiting for marriage, and the film you're in knows very well about the photogenic qualities of blast furnaces.

Bingo Bongo, Pasquale Festa Campanile, 1982

Judging from this I doubt that there ever was a star as thoroughly in control of his audience as Celentano. Otherwise how to explain BINGO BONGO, a ridiculous premise transformed into an almost aggressively unformed film that unfolds as a pedestrian assemblage of ancient comedy routines (the mirror scene, the walking directly behind you scene etc), random Carole Bouquet eye-candy and bonkers animal welfare messaging (the scene with the animals flooding the university auditorium is a small masterpiece, admittedly). Every single scene is way too long and obviously filmed with the assumption in mind that the mere presence of Celentano will be enough justification for the dire proceedings. And in a way, it probably is, as he really doesn't give a damn about the shoddiness of the setup he's inserted in, always having a good time with whatever new bullshit comes along.

Still strange that the film doesn't even try to hide the fact that it mostly consists of pure filler material. There's a scene in which Celentano tries to enter the city from the sewers, but keeps reverting back underground after taking a peek at the world outside through several manhole covers. I haven't the faintest idea why this is supposed to be funny, and still the whole thing goes on for what feels like 15 minutes and leads into a musical number.

Sunset Motel, Eckhart Schmidt, 2003

Chronicle of a death foretold. Watch this, and never even think about watching a mumblecore film ever again.

Samurai Spy, Masahiro Shinoda, 1965

Navigating the history of violence, one intricate, confusing light-and-shadowscape at a time. Impressive and a bit exhausting, might need to check this out again some day.

Cosa avete fatto a Solange?, Massimo Dallamano, 1972

Not as unhinged as LA POLIZIA CHIEDE AIUTO, but in the end built on a similar sense of cultural paranoia: the deep dive into London's sexually permissive counterculture just can't be separated from the film's insistence on Cristina Galbo's virginity. Conflicted exploitation: When a lingering tracking shot through a girl's locker room ends with the close-up of the local pervert's eye behind a peephole in the wall, the voyeuristic impulse is just as forceful as its condemnation.

Still, the film isn't quite as sleazy as one might think. For all the lurid proceedings, the surface respectability of the procedural plot mostly stays intact. The murderer's extremely gruesome mode of operation for example remains a source of constant irritation, resulting, again and again, in an arrested gaze that cannot quite be retranslated into coherent action.

In the end I can't really say why the whole thing felt strangely comforting to me. Maybe it's just the cast: Fuchsberger has grown quite old and is surprisingly gentle, and teutonic ice queen Karin Baal melts away in the end, too. Testi, meanwhile, cultivates an almost touching air of whiny narcissism, like when the cops take his hair sample and he only worries about the fit of his haircut.

Bloodsport, Newt Arnold, 1988

Really funny that the Bloodsport Arena is supposed to be situated in the same narrow streets of Kowloon Walled City as the gangster hideout in LONG ARM OF THE LAW, given how completely different both films position themselves in Hong Kong. Aside from that fun enough, though I guess in the end I'll enjoy the various Pyun ripoffs of this much more than the real thing.

Ace Attorney, Takashi Miike, 2012

Either a bit too messy (in terms of style) or not quite chaotic enough (in terms of raw energy) to be prime Miike, but like others have mentioned, he manages quite well to convey the darker implications of Ace Attorney style criminal justice, while at the same time milking it for maximum fun. Favorite moment: When the unjust guilty verdict is prevented by the blue badger blocking the gavel with his hand. A furry intervention that is pure Miike, insisting on the unconditional moral dimension of his cinema.

Nude per l'assassino, Andrea Bianchi, 1975

Like BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, but tainted by the knowledge of the visual language of pornography that has since taken over the world. So it's no longer beauty we're selling but sex, resulting in a flattening and draining of the image, and also in a shift from fantasy production to pure power mechanics. Even the props have become tacky, like that stupid motorbike.

In its own harsh (that last "joke") and a bit mechanical way it is a beautiful film too, though, and quite accomplished technically, especially those long take murder scenes of naked bodies drifting through fearscapes.

Tenet, Christopher Nolan, 2020

Worst Nolan in quite a while, and I really think that without Covid this would've registered as a disappointment more broadly. If there's anything of interest here it's the idea that the fate of the whole world, if not the whole space/time-(dis)continuum hinges on desperate trophy wife Elizabeth Debicki, a fascinating creature, tall, slender and frail, getting her act together one last time; one last phony game of love, one last act of counterfeit desire...

This really is a quite powerful idea and when Nolan finally circles in on it (and on Debicki's almost translucid face) towards the end, one might almost be willing to forget that the bulk of the film is just one scene of loud and bland nothingness after the other. But are we really supposed to care about "Protagonist" (I like Washington's smooth arrogance well enough, he deserves better roles) making sure that Debicki picks up her son from private school, for all eternity, presumably? And why is Pattinson even in the film?

Also, the fact that parts of the stuff is played backwards doesn't turn Nolan into a good action director.

Crows Zero, Takashi Miike, 2007

No matter what, Miike always goes all in. No one makes one note films with that much conviction, which in this case means transforming a series of schoolyard brawls into larger than life blood and testosterone canvases modelled after classic samurai films. Those rich, dark, dense images unfortunately also make clear that his cinema really did lose some of its punch with the switch to digital.

The Ghost Goes West, Rene Clair, 1935

Friendly ghosts trying to steal immaterial kisses and a blood-trenched Scottish castle transplanted to papier-mache America. I love this so much.

Polzeiruf 110: Cassandras Warnung, Dominik Graf, 2011

Watching this means rooting for obsession: the only way forward is to return, time and time again, to the images and sounds already at your disposal. Repeat them, work your way through them, drown in them, intoxicate yourself with them. In the end you might even succeed.

Young Thugs: Innocent Blood, Takashi Miike, 1997

None of the over the top scenes from the title sequence return in the following film. The life of crime is a promise not kept. Being a thug means getting beaten up a lot, and nothing more. Loving a thug means sometimes being confronted with the stench of burned flesh and vomit at the same time. No chance for a quite dinner, but at least in this world girls can misbehave too, sometimes. Blood, piss, shit, sweat, drink till you throw up and maybe have a meal at your mother's place once in a while. A film of modest proportions, a life without a vantage point. Try to get away even for a moment and you might just get spectacularly killed.

Komm mit zur blauen Adria, Lothar Gündisch, 1966

A body painter painting himself, three guys sulking next to each other in bed, a man completely transformed by the loss of his mustache, an unruly wig, from mother to whore by way of strip-tease, telephones in primary colors, sunshade ornaments next to the swimming pool, Dietmar Schönherr alone on the beach, singing "Don Juan, it is over" ... much to love, here, and all done in pleasant, relaxed Music House style. Still feels a bit like a collection of leftovers, though. Except for "Don Juan", there's not a single memorable song and every time Gündisch tries to up the pace, his limitations as a director become painfully obvious.

Lo squartatore di New York, Lucio Fulci, 1982

Had heard so much about this I was first and foremost shocked how well-made it is. Might need to look out for a battered 35mm print to take in the whole experience some day.

Young Thugs: Nostalgia, Takashi Miike, 1998

The dense, compact, dark coming-of-age world from the first YOUNG THUGS blown up into a series of bouncy childhood vignettes, flooded in light, bathed in pop tunes, giddy and gruesome. Still, you know where all of this will lead to, so on the one hand, this is very much about childhood as a world of infinite possibilities, but on the other hand, all roads lead to violence nonetheless.

Supposedly Miike's favorite among his own films, and there's indeed enough odd detail to make it feel a very personal, almost private text. Stealing strawberries while cowering under a blanket, the flute that oozes liquid, the endless trip to the harbor, the chewing gum stuck around the mouth...

I'm not quite sure if this kind of carnevalesque, quotidian storytelling really is a good fit for Miike's cinema, though. Most of his films, even the quieter ones, are structured around the (pathologic) agency of their protagonists, or rather the film's overidentification with this pathologic agency (two kinds of craziness reinforcing each other). Here, on the other hand, Riichi is a mere vessel, a rather random point of culmination for a diverse array of memories, obsessions, anecdotes. So to lend the film some coherence, Miike sometimes falls back on not all that exciting arthouse / quality cinema techniques like the insertion of iconic tv footage or those allegorical dirt holes near Riichi's home.

Still, good that this exists, and at least the masturbation scene has to be one of the most inventive things Miike ever put on film.

Freaks - You're One of Us, Felix Binder, 2020

Something recent German films really excel in: Conveying, in mere seconds, that a relationship is hell on earth. Even or maybe especially when those relationships are supposed to be healthy and stable, "a source of strength". Still, the awkward working-class family scenes in the beginning (bozo husband sitting at the breakfast table in his rent-a-cop uniform) and also some of the stuff at the diner are the best part, here. For a while, the modest approach to worldbuilding almost pays off. Every single step away from the townhouse kitchen-sink setup is a major embarrassment, though.

Not much more to say: terrible in a bland way, no imagination whatsoever and basically every single actor (with the possible exception of Nina Kunzendorf) is miscast.

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