Tuesday, June 01, 2021

car radio

You cut out a piece of me
And now I bleed internally
Left here without you, without you

My head's under water, but I'm breathing fine
You're crazy and I'm out of my mind

I would go through all this pain
Take a bullet straight through my brain
Yes, I would die for you, baby
But you won't do the same

Monday, May 31, 2021

last three weeks in letterboxd

Singapore, John Brahm, 1947

Another not quite successful Brahm noir I'm still quite fond of. McMurray and Gardner do not exactly light the screen on fire in their shared scenes and at least in theory this is quite a bit of a problem because most of the script (not very good, though I'm still intrigued by the undervalued Robert Thoeren) hinges on their mutual attraction. This time, though, Brahm has a decent dp again and excels in dime-store noir trappings. He especially goes all in on ceiling fans: for the most part of the running time, there's one running and casting shadows in what feels like every other shot. Then, suddenly, Montgomery disconnects one of them and retrieves a number of diamonds which he had hidden in its fixture. In other words: style becoming substance. For the rest of the film, there's not a single fan in sight, I believe. Sometimes an idea like that can be reason enough to make a movie, I guess.

SPF-18, Alex Israel, 2018

Rating is completely random because I have not the faintest idea what this even is. Some kind of avant-trash masterpiece I guess, that seems to mistake a bunch of random, naive impulses for a plot (which is, of course, mostly a good thing) and is filled with lots of cringy lines delivered with heartbreaking sincerity. Seriously, not a single word uttered here has even the slightest connection with the way "real" people might speak, but on the other hand, the one with the craziest lines (Bianca A. Santos) is also the most memorable member of the cast. She also designs colorful (=cinematic) surf suits.

Then there's a Pamela Anderson cameo. Keanu Reeves also plays himself, although the film unfortunately isn't really set in his house. One can't have everything, I guess, but the credits roll after 70 minutes and then there's a post-credit sequence that manages, by way of a simple shot/reverse shot, to undo all the damage Marvel has done to the concept of post credit sequences. Please everybody watch this, if only to confirm to me that it really exists outside of my imagination.

Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syd, Charles Band, 1983

The pleasures of low budget filmmaking: When there's not enough substance to sustain a full-fledged mythology, one might just approach a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film as if it were just another b-western. Charles Band isn't exactly a master of mise en scene, but he knows what to do with light, and the back-projection spaceship chase scene in the end is much more beautiful than anything in any STAR WARS film.

Universal Soldier: The Return, Mic Rodgers, 1999

A machine among humans pitted against a philosopher among machines. Mostly stupid and badly made, and still important because this might be the film in which Van Damme approaches middle age for the first time. He's very defensive in this, as if trying to fortify himself against the disillusionments inherent to the bourgeoise family life he know he can't escape from.

And also, as inept as this is as action cinema, it's also a film filled with prime action bodies. Bill Goldberg, especially, is inherently cinematic. Pound for pound.

Shinobi no mono 2: Vengeance, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1963

Once again more historically grounded adventure filmmaking than ninja pulp, which probably suits the director who doesn't seem to be all that interested in action aesthetics. The first one, however, strongly relied on the standout performance of Yunosuke Ito, and in his absence the formula just doesn't work as well. The sets are still extremely beautiful and Yamamoto assembles a pleasant, sizeable collection of grumpy old schemers, but this often lacks in focus.

Il viale della speranza, Dino Risi, 1953

Nice film that I somehow feel I should like much more than I do. All those inside cinecitta bits (probably my favorite: the scene with the character actors presenting their unique skills) slowly coalescing into a bittersweet melodrama about mostly broken dreams... The episodic start stop rhythm fits the material, but it still keeps me at a distance. Anyway, nice to once again come across two of Luciano Emmer's three "girls from rome". Cosetta Greco especially seems to have been a big deal in the early 50s. Need to see more of her.

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, Kenji Misumi, 1964

Beautiful Zatoichi entry with one of the most straight-forward scripts so far: a random act of violence creates a makeshift family, and then the pressures of society and genre filmmaking tear it apart again. The short, explosive fight scenes are once again great, but the best scenes are about stifled emotions like the long, static shot of Zatoichi trying to will himself into sleep next to woman and child - and then there's a cut to a close-up of his hand next to Hizuru Takachiho's face, a hand that longs for a connection the world is not prepared to grant.

For a while, all important plot points seem to be related to baby urine. Later on, though, Mizumi shakes things up and other body fluids get their share of attention, too.

Extremely effective use of music, too. I didn't much care for Ifukube's overblown score in the first one, but here he delivers the kind of restrained pathos Zatoichi needs.

Il fantasma Dell'Opera, Dario Argento, 1998

On sex and rats. Argento's cinema crumbling and cracking under pressure, but most of the seams still hold, and all those wild inconsistencies and tonal shifts more often than not work for the film's advantage (with the Morricone score doing some heavy lifting, too).

Asia is all pale, desperate longing, a way too private and fragile being for the official, garish public world of the "outside" opera, a world whose destruction her father spends a rather insane amount of energy on. In the end, though, everything strives for the inside anyway, for the underworld of sex and rats and candles and vaginal fissures of desire, resulting in the kind of wacky pleasure grotto cinema I couldn't resist even if I wanted to.

Adventures of Zatoichi, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1964

Two great, sculptural sword fights (one in the dark, one punctured by snowflakes) and lots of rather tired genre mechanics. Yasuda resurrects one of the least productive tropes of Zatoichi land: the master swordsman who happens to hang around at the fringes of the film without any connection to the main plot, just to get the chance to, maybe, take on the master, too. There are two of those in here and they're both dull. Also a shame that the wacky double act comedy relief samurais from the beginning are replaced by two boring acrobat boys later on.

The Smokers, Christina Peters, 2000

Watched for Busy Philipps's cinema debut (post FREEKS AND GEEKS, pre DAWSON'S CREEK), and her energy indeed manages to shine through this trainwreck at times. There's some almost Breillat level sexual anger hidden in here somewhere, too though unfortunately Christina Peters (Kat Slater is her porn industry name) never manages to channel it in an interesting way.

Line delivery is so bad at times, it almost feels like a conscious attempt to lay bare the embarrassing mechanics of the script that might not exactly come down to slut shaming but installs lots of safety nets around anything that might possibly be perceived as debauchery. A shame, because the world probably back then was and still is very much in need of a more obscene / chaotic version of CLUELESS.

Shinobi no mono 3: Resurrection, Kazu Mori, 1963

Was thinking about giving up on this series, because of its downscaling of genre fun in favor of not all that involving history lessons. Now, though, I think I'll stick around. This is obviously a smaller scale production than the first two, much less sumptuous sets, everything boiled down to a functional, indoors-leaning mise en scene that suits Kazuo Mori's precise action geometrics well. The middle school history lesson vibe is even more pronounced with scene after scene of people keeping each other up to date on the turning tides on several battlefields, but Mori never loses sight of the main thread: Ichikawa's Goemon as the decisive shadow entity of history, a hidden executioner unwillingly aligned with the weltgeist.

Macabro, Lamberto Bava, 1980

Well made, but not for me I guess. This kind of claustrophobic zero sum game genre cinema needs to be either much denser or much more inventive to keep my interest up. This way it feels like watching a child playing with a limited number of toys which are of interest only to the one playing; and then in the end destroying all of them. Too little too late.

Plus the New Orleans setting is completely wasted. Joe D'Amato would never!

The Gambler's Code, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1961

Star-studded early Ikehiro film. Nice to see a gentler side of Ichikawa for once. Suits him well, he really comes across as gentle, benign and vulnerable once he decides to lay down his arms. The musical interludes are a bit strange, but work well in connection with the less studio bound open-air feel of the film. Ikehiro's direction is good if mostly on the conservative side, a far cry from something like SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH 4 only a few years later. Some of the fight scenes have an interesting chaotic feel, though.

Jeepers Creepers, Victor Salva, 2001

Postmodern American gothic, stitched together from various 70s horror classics without the seams ever becoming too obvious. It mostly hits a dead end after the excellent first half hour, but the all-encompassing sense of irrationality still got to me, we're in the realm of batshit crazy from the start and there's just no escape.

Shinobi no mono 4, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1964

The best one since the first and probably the best directed of them all so far. Quite amazing how Tanaka manages to infuse another quite complicated, extremely exposition-heavy setup with his sense of romantic pictorialism, stripping away the weight of history at least temporarily in favor of pure sensual cinema. The stone prison sequence introduces a sense of existential thread that reaches far beyond the abstract schemings of shogun power politics.

Reap the Wild Wind, Cecil B. DeMille, 1942

Drags at times and Ray Milland is mostly obnoxious in this (except for the genius talking dog bit), but this does not matter at all once the film finally arrives, 80 minutes in, at the heart of the matter: Susan Hayward's descent into the engine room, where she stows away, surrounded by exuberant garments, performing a fashion show just for herself (=for us), until she dies, drowned by technicolor.

It's of course Paulette Godard, not John Wayne, who kills her, but as it turns out, her act of emotional terrorism when cutting down, with a few swift movements, a whole ship, is in fact a deeply romantic gesture: Because only this way, Wayne and Godard are allowed to come together where it really counts: down in the deep, where the wild colors grow. The woman, Wayne recognizes, when diving down to her wet grave, has been transformed into the the fabrics she was wearing, into pure, translucent, fleeting cinema. He, of course, wants to stay there, too.

Godard and Milland, meanwhile, are condemned to live on the surface until death do them part.

Zatoichi's Revenge, Akira Inoue, 1965

A pleasant if routine entry with dense, functional mise en scene that comes into its own in the scenes with Ichi and Denroku, one of the more complex and memorable secondary characters in the series thus far. One perfect moment: when Ichi is recognized by Denroku (and also by us, because the framing leaves him off-screen) because of the way he pours sake.

Hangover Square, John Brahm, 1945

Once again, one year after Brahm's THE LODGER, George Sanders chases Laird Cregar through a stylized studio London, only this time we're less in gothic horror and more in psychosexual noir territory. In the end this is mostly about two women competing for Cregar's music while jointly rejecting his sexuality, resulting in an air of elevated madness fueled by a Herrmann score that meticulously infiltrates every part of the film until it finally takes over completely for the delirious last ten minutes.

Nothing in here makes sense and of course I'm absolutely in love with every second of it.

Army of the Dead, Zack Snyder, 2021

Was a bit skeptical because most people who like this seem to prefer DAWN over the DC films (a pretty ridiculous idea in my book), but luckily this is just the kind of all-out monstrosity I was hoping for. Sometimes Snyder does fall back on his weaker instincts (the needle drops, for once), and the father-daughter-storyline, dear to his hard as it probably is, is handled in the blandest manner possible. This kind of streamlined psychological realism just doesn't fit his filmmaking. Interiority must be spectacular and otherworldly, too, or else it's better to just to do away with it. What he luckily does here, most of the time.

Snyder's main interest are probably the Alphas, the "elevated zombies", a new breed of super(wo)men that seem to spring organically from their surroundings, meaning the ruins of Las Vegas, a hypercapitalist kitschscape turned olymp of the undead. Only during some of the Alpha rituals Snyder's nervous imagery coalesces into his signature slowmo grandiosity. Everything else, though, is threatend by blurring.

Often there's only a miniscule slice of sharpness in these images; and sometimes even this slice threatens to slide away into the big blur which seems to be the natural state of the image here: a garish cacophony without contours, with the film itself turning into a series of random bursts of detail, resulting, at times (especially during the awesome first big attack scene, when the hibernating zombies spring to life) in exuberant slapdash action painting filmmaking.

Daniel - Der Zauberer - Ulli Lommel, 2004

At one point, the abductors point both a gun and a camera at Daniel - and both of these devices of control and violence fail once he starts telling his life's story.

Die goldene Pest, John Brahm, 1954

Seedy, G.I.-dollars-fueled, sex and drugs centered entertainment culture instead of proper Aryan Wirtschaftswunder: a more nuanced, and much more exciting vision of 1950s Germany. And of course one critics and audiences of the time wanted to have nothing to do with.

Brahm's only German film picks up where Stemmle's SÜNDIGE GRENZE ends and points forward towards Käutner's towering masterpiece of post-war noir SCHWARZER KIES. Might be the least successful of the three overall (while Desny and Böhm make for fascinating antagonists, Gertrud Kückelmann unfortunately is terribly miscast as the female lead), but the air of seedy romanticism, often harking back more to French poetic realism than to Brahm's American noirs, is pretty much one of a kind, especially when pitted against the provincial underbelly of the cultural industry - never thought I'd encounter a mud wrestling scene in German 1950s cinema, and those female cyclists pedaling away on an indoor podium are even more fascinating.

Aliens, John Carpenter, 1986

So ARMY OF THE DEAD indeed ripped off the final stretch of this pretty thoroughly, scene for scene, sometimes even shot for shot. Snyder really is completely shameless, as he should be.

Aside from that, still a pretty awesome ride. The whole Ripley-mother vs Alien-mother stuff toward the end and especially in the subpar epilogue - which Snyder, smart enough, doesn't steal - feels a bit forced, but as long as it's just claustrophobic military sci-fi and Cameron's tech fetish running wild (so much glamourous shots of deadly machinery, never a single moment of doubt about who are the real stars here), this is quintessential Reagan era filmmaking.

The Golden Arrow, Alfred E. Green, 1936

Worth it for the proposal scene: Davis and Brent are sitting on a swing, and while they arrange their sham marriage which of course is transformed into a real one in the end, they are constantly swayed back and forth, until they're almost upside down. A grandiose dead-pan comedy miniature, completely detached from the plot.

Aside from that: not that much to see here. Green knows how to speed up a talky script and Davis comes across pleasant and relaxed, but everyone involved, including the excellent supporting cast, deserves much better material.

Shinobi no mono 5: Return of Mist Saizo, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964

The plot once again has a lot of ground to cover, and maybe because of this Ikehiro mostly confines himself to delivering straightforward action-adventure filmmaking. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and some of the moves are indeed beyond spectacular here, like that ninja vs ninja fight in the crawlspace toward the end. The set design, too, is once again more inventive than in the other Daiei series. What it all comes down to in the end, after the (narrative) smoke clears, is a deep sense of futility, which was already evident in part 3 and 4, but now can't be hidden anymore behind Ichikawa's hollow victorious laugh.

Orgasmo, Umberto Lenzi, 1969

Lenzi's style is not necessarily coupled with intelligence and often comes down on the decorative side; but thanks to an excellent cast and effective rapid fire editing he nevertheless manages to pull off a pretty impressive frenetic descent into madness, with the film itself turning out as least as crazy as its protagonist. Strip away some of the useless side plots and this might've even turned out a masterpiece.

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, Kazuo Mori, 1965

Aka Zatoichi and the surf. A gentle, smooth entry, with Zatoichi for most of the runtime out on the open road, while trouble accumulates slowly along the way. Of course, at some point Zatoichi still once again has to rebalance the cosmic order and the lengthy misty finale truly is a sight to see. Kazuo Mori knows how to build a stage for Ichi, and he also knows that one better keeps out of it once the stage is set.

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, John Brahm, 1952

John Brahm directing an anticommunist religious parable, although he does try to tone down the rather simpleminded politics and focus on the folk tale aspects of the script. The beginning is quite nice and the casting of Gibert Roland as the agnostic fool works well, but after the beautiful first apparition scene it becomes clear quickly that the director doesn't have too many ideas on what to do with the material.

Sleepy Eyes of Death 6: Sword of Satan, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1965

For once, Nemuri Kyoshiro develops something like a conscience (although, in final analysis, it's probably just another vessel for his narcissism)... and is repaid by being thrown into one outrageous sexual setup after the other, with the twist being that this time, he finds ever new reasons to reject the advances of several women.

By now the series seems to be quite self-consciously positioning itself as an absurdist, sleazy alternative to Zatoichi's comparatively wholesome adventures, and this entry's director Yasuda, for one, seems to be more in tune with this kind of material. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense (at some point, a satanic sex ritual is thrown in just for the heck of it - who am I to complain?) and feels a bit rushed, but this still is fresh and alive.

My Teacher, My Obsession, Damian Romay, 2018

Cheapo digital giallo colors in the beginning, cheapo digital giallo colors in the end, and in the middle: a stalker film told from the perspective of the stalker - without changing anything else about the formula, so we're basically following a psycho bitch on her psycho bitch activities without being provided any explanations for her psycho bitchiness beyond no father and a mother who's maybe a bit slutty or at least sexually active. But it's really mostly about leading lady Lucy Loken being sneakily horny and getting away with it until she doesn't. Also, Rusty Joiner from Ulli Lommel's ABSOLUTE EVIL plays a, well, extremely approachable + hot teacher (almost DAWSON'S CREEK S05/06 level). Nothing makes much sense, but the actors keep reacting to the accumulating absurdities in interesting ways.

Director Romay seems to specialize in this kind of suburban noir trash. A subject for further research, maybe.

Shinobi no mono 6: The Last Iga Spy, Kazuo Mori, 1965

The SHINOBI NO MONO series actually had reached as perfect and logical an endpoint a series like that could hope for, and this "Son of..." style sequel never manages to transcends its own superfluousness. Kazuo Mori delivers a competent setpiece here and there, but this just drowns in exposition in ways the earlier ones (even if sometimes just barely) didn't.

City Cop, Herman Yau, 1995

Straightforward cops v robber. The bad guys want shiny things and they grab them with the help of big guns, while the good guys just have to take a few more variables into account, and because of all of this, some people will have to die.

Parkman Wong is the standout here, a pretty unusual performance, mostly passive until the very end. Unfortunately Michael Chow as his young, hothead partner is a bit too one-note to real become his younger/darker mirror image, like the script wants him to be. There just isn't enough going on between the two male leads. Still, Wong's trajectory comes with a decent emotional punch and all those full-throttle chaotic open air action scenes alone would make me fall in love with this.

Ishimatsu the Yakuza: Something's Fishy, Norifumi Suzuki, 1967

First Norifumi Suzuki film I've seen, strangely enough. Probably not representative of his work, but still a nice ride. The yakuza plot is very much by the numbers, and the director grabs every chance he gets to sideline it, most spectacularly during a baudy, unhinged Kabuki-performance, but also, much more gently, during a lover's stroll through a shipyard, a small visual essay on wire netting, gazes of resigned desire and umbrellas. Those one-take action scenes, on the other hand, are fueled by enthusiasm much more than by craft, though. Still probably would've faltered at some point without the natural charms of Kitajima in the lead role: a slow-witted punk with a hard of gold, born to pick fights with a bunch of guys way out of his league and still come out on top at the end because you just want to pet him when he's down, like a sad dog.

Laugh and Get Rich, Gregory La Cava, 1931

Unfortunately they mostly forgot to put in actual jokes to justify the Laugh part, but still a pleasant programmer handed over to a bunch of great character actors. Edna May Oliver tries her hand on some serious melodramatics, while Hugh Herbert mostly plays it safe with an expanded version of his usual routine. Dorothy Lee is once again sadly underused.

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, Kenji Misumi, 1965

Small sensations instead of broad movements. The first Zatoichi film that focusses more or less constantly on his blindness, resulting at first, surprisingly, in making him come off as somewhat petty. Later on, a fuller picture emerges: he really wants to trust people, it's just that in the end he just has to, for the sake of his own survival, reduce everyone around him to a clear-cut but limited amount of sensory data. (In the film's most touching scene he's trying to go beyond this, evoking a lost love by touching the face of another woman... and ends up hurting the one present all the more.)

Excellent script and few action scenes, though the ones that are there are, of course, magnificent. There's always enough time for the odd poetic cutaway, too.

killer.berlin.doc, Bettina Ellerkamp, Jörg Heitmann, 1999

Berlin art scene hipsters doing an abstract cyberpunk thriller as urbanism essay film kind of thing. The social networking as perpetual contract killing hook is original enough to make it work and the visuals are also mostly inspired or at least an interesting glimpse into both mid 90s video art and early stage gentrification Kreuzberg. The more straightforward documentary parts with the actors lecturing in entirely unsurprising ways on the dangers of streamlining the productive "dead spaces" of post reunification Berlin are the weakest part, though. Yes, basically all of their worst fears have come true since, but in the end, this kind of romanticizing of decay isn't helping anyone. Places like mid 90s Berlin are never built to last and if they were they would turn unbearable in a second.

Dancing Girl, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1957

Late Shimizu, utterly fascinating if clearly somewhat conflicted. The director seems to be just as much scandalized by Chiyomi's downright, uncompromising rejection of traditional morality (and Machiko Kyo's pitch-perfect embodiment of it - she especially makes perfect, sensual use of her dancing skills) as the characters around her, resulting in a number of uncharacteristically blunt displays of "unhinged" sensuality which seem to be asking for a reaction that never really occurs. A Sumie Tanaka scripted showbiz as sex work expose probably wasn't the most natural match for Shimizu (who often deals with prostitution in his films, but as a tragic fact of life, not as a socially determined lifestyle choice).

So, there are some rather awkward scenes right next to some of the most beautiful lateral camera movements imaginable. The best parts concentrate on the central domestic triangle, a quagmire of hopelessly intertwined desires rendered as lucid, perfectly controlled mise en scene; the two key scenes probably being a rooftop confrontation between Kyo and Awashima, with the camera closing in, by way of two firm, insisting cuts, on the latter's face - and the once again absolutely heartbreaking final few minutes.

47 Meters Down, Johannes Roberts, 2017

"I'm so afraid!"

As primal as cinema gets. Roberts should forget about Resident Evil and make 47 METERS DOWN 3 instead, set completely inside of Mandy Moore's face scuba mask.

Shinobi no mono 7: Mist Saizo Strikes Back, Kazuo Mori, 1966

Safe for a few unnecessarily talky twists the first straight-forward action film in the series. I'm probably both overrating this one and underrating the its predecessor, because in the end both are made in Mori's expert if sometimes a bit too controlled style, it's just that this gripped me from the beginning and never let go. I guess putting Raizo Ichikawa front and center helps, though in the end I'm still not quite sure what to make of a series that never quite seems to be able to live up to its nihilistic core.

Ruby in Paradise, Victor Nuñez, 1993

Narrative cinema can sometimes be like an overbearing boyfriend. At first it's nice to have something to hold onto, someone with whom to explore the world together, but after a while you realize that more often than not you're coaxed into a rather rigid and often closedminded framework that ultimately cuts one off from the world. Both Ruby and Nuñez ultimately resist the coaxing while still acknowledging the soothing security (and the need for just that) it sometimes provides.

Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood, Michael Gordon, 1942

Michael Gordon't first film, and I guess a playful Boston Blackie adventure is as good a first assignment as it gets. Even more farcical than its predecessors and all the better for it.

Zatoichi's Vengeance, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1966

One of those Zatoichi films that can be decribed as a number of different people competing for Zatoichi's attention, for quite different reasons: to teach him something about himself (the blind guy), to assert themselves as his equal (the swordfighter), for guidance (the kid), to use him and his blindness as a vessel for their misery (the prostitute). The film never priviledges any one of these reasons. Even the final, pretty excessive fight against the nominal villains is suspended for a while when the lone swordfighter turns up. It's the scenes with the prostitute, though, that carry the strongest emotional force, tapping into a melodramatic undercurrent the series is interested in only once in a while.

Extremely beautiful ending, maybe the best since part 4, which was also directed by Tanaka, the most elusive of the three great Zatoichi auteur (together with Misumi and Ikeda).

Zatoichi's Pilgrimage, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1966

Quirky, Kaneto Shindo scripted Zatoichi film that in the beginning finds him climbing an eternal staircase in an attempt to escape his destiny of killing. Not much later, of course, he kills again and the masterless horse of his victim leads him into a plot that turns out to be a Zatoichi version of HIGN NOON. Not quite as rounded as the excellent last three entries, but with lots of lovely ideas (including a flashback into his youth, jauntily splashing water at the river) and Ikeda's penchant for formal play provides a breath of fresh air.

Karuizawa Syndrome, Mizuho Nishikubo, 1985

Quite engaging visuals wasted on a terrible bozo fucks around until he's successfully domesticated plot.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Man of Steel textdump

(original erschienen zum Kinostart)

Überdimensioniert ist schon der Prolog: Eine gute halbe Stunde nimmt sich der Film Zeit für ein sphärisch-buntes Vorspiel auf dem Planeten Krypton, dessen Herrscherdynastie in eine Krise geraten ist und vom autoritären General Zod (Michael Shannon) bedroht wird. Kurz vor dem intergalaktischen Showdown gelingt es dem alten Herrscher Jor-El (Russel Crowe), seinen neugeborenen Sohn in die Weiten des Alls zu befördern, mit Kurs auf den Planeten Erde. Andere Filme hätten daraus höchstens ein paar nette Grafiken für die Titelsequenz gemacht - Zack Snyders Man of Steel macht daraus einen kleinen Film im Film, eine hochdramatische Weltraumoper im Stil naiver Science-Fiction-Heftchen längst vergangener Jahrzehnte. Und wenn der Film dem Krypton-Baby schließlich doch auf die Erde folgt, trifft er ihn auf einem Fischerdampfer auf hoher See wieder, erwachsen, austrainiert, bärenstark und gleich im heldenhaften Einsatz: Eine Ölplattform kollabiert, droht zu explodieren, der bürgerlich Clark Kent gerufene Stahlmensch (diesmal verkörpert von Henry Cavill, der seine Sache ausgesprochen gut macht) wird in der Feuerbrunst zum lebendigen Stützpfeiler. Stahl ist legiertes Eisen; vielleicht formt sich die Materie, die einmal Superman werden wird, in diesem Moment.

Der Hollywood-Blockbuster der Gegenwart ist die kapitalintensivste Form des Filmschaffens in der Kinogeschichte: jedes Jahr entstehen dutzendweise Effektspektakel, die hunderte von Millionen Dollar verschlingen, im Grunde ist jedes einzelne ein eigenes, ausgewachsenes Wirtschaftsuntehmen. Nur sehr selten übersetzt sich der ökonomische Exzess in einen ästhetischen; ziemlich gezähmt wirken ausgerechnet die zuletzt besonders erfolgreichen Superheldenfilme: Da dreht man schon Filme über Typen, deren Kräfte über jedes menschliche Maß hinaus reichen und hat dafür auch noch den fettesten Geldbeutel aller Zeiten zur fast völlig freien Verfügung - heraus kommen dann doch wieder nur brav heruntererzählte, ironisch abgefederte Abenteuerfilmchen, die nicht nur vor ungeheuren Gefühlen, sondern komischerweise auch vor allzu knalligen Bildern zurückschrecken.

Zack Snyder dagegen, dessen immer schon außergewöhnliche Ambitionen sich zum ersten Mal zu einem wirklich großartigen Film fügen, knallt einem den Boden unter den Füßen weg. Schon deshalb passt es, dass man den ausgewachsenen Clark Kent nicht, wie in den zahllosen Comic- und Filmvorlagen, in einem Zeitungsbüro kennenlernt, sondern wellendurchschüttelt inmitten einer feindseligen Natur, was von Anfang an klar macht, dass es um die Erfahrung von Extremen geht. Passend dazu die dynamische, aber nie bloß hektische Handkamera, die den Bilderfluss nie zur Ruhe kommen lässt: Man of Steel legt auch dem Zuschauer keine Sicherheitsgurte an, wirft ihn hin und her in der Welt, hin zum Nordpol zum Beispiel, wo Superman dem Geheimnis seiner Herkunft auf die Spur kommt; wirft ihn vor und zurück in der Zeit (zurück in seine Kindheit nach Kansas zum Beispiel, wo er im amerikanischsten aller denkbaren Elternhäuser aufwuchs); konfrontiert ihn mit einer Supermensch gewordenen Wucht, für deren angemessene Wahrnehmung dem Normalmensch mindestens ein Organ zu fehlen scheint.

In älteren Versionen des Superman-Mythos ging es vor allem darum, dass der Held durch die Gegend fliegt, schnell natürlich, aber trotzdem fast relaxed; am jeweiligen Ziel angekommen konnte er dann seine Gegner mit ein paar Faustschlägen und der Unterstützung einiger harmloser Spezialeffekte ausschalten. Snyders Superman dagegen fliegt nicht, er schießt - sich selbst, als Waffe und Geschoss zugleich, knallt gegen seine Widersacher (vor allem gegen den sich bald ebenfalls auf der Erde einfindenden Zod), knallt durch immer abgehobenere Fantasywelten, knallt am Ende dann doch wieder das gute alte Chicago kurz und klein. Und zwar in einer Manier, die - ein naheliegender Vergleich, zumindest bezogen auf die zweite Filmhälfte - Michael Bay vor Neid erblassen lassen dürfte; dessen Materialschlachten bleiben stets noch einem fast altmodisch anmutenden Jahrmarktsgedanken verhaftet: Hauptsache grell, laut, schnell, von allem und für jeden etwas. Man of Steel dagegen ist ein genuin manischer Film, der von seiner Hauptfigur regelrecht besessen ist und der deshalb neben ihr nichts und niemanden bestehen lassen kann. Nicht Zor, nicht Chicago, die arme Louis Lane (Amy Adams), die bei aller Bemühung mit dem Objekt ihrer Begierde nicht im Geringsten Schritt halten kann, auch nur gerade noch so weit, dass es für einen ersten Kuss und fürs Verspechen auf ein Sequel reicht.

Der beste aller bisherigen amerikanischen Superheldenfilme findet endlich eine angemessene Form nicht nur für den Comic-Mythos, der ihm zugrunde liegt - sondern auch für die ökonomische Form des Blockbusters: wenn schon Geld in die Luft jagen, dann wenigstens so gründlich, dass man den impact der Explosion auch noch drei Galaxien entfernt mitbekommt.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Last two weeks in letterboxd

Man of Steel, Zack Snyder, 2013

First 20 minutes = best cgi sci-fi imagery to date.

Everything else is beyond awesome, too. Cavill is my personal electric jesus and I don't care about any other superheroes as long as he's around.

The Bubble, Valerie Blankenbyl, 2020

Some cheap shots, as expected (the hilarious "I'm a creep" ending gets a pass, though), and most of the criticism regarding pollution and socio-economic streamlining could be levelled just as easily against any number of suburban developments (including many Biden-leaning ones). Still more nuanced than I thought it would be, and some of the interviews are quite interesting.

Seni Buldum Ya!, Reha Erdem, 2021

Mostly a joy, especially the parts that are more performance piece than conceptual comedy. It's just obvious that everyone involved had fun doing this. Addressing, interacting, flirting with the camera eye, because no one else is available right now. In front of the camera eye you can be anyone you want, you can fall in and out of love without having to fear repercussions. And when all rewards are immaterial anyway it doesn't really matter if you end up getting cheated out of them.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder, 2016

Extended cut.

Not the easiest film to warm up to, because Snyder separates us from what we really want way too long. Superman is cut off from his source, from the digital spectacular, so we have to wade through the muddy waters of (very) conflicted politics and a generally not very good script. At the same time this is the first Snyder film that is well-directed in a classic sense, the first that really knows how to make faces iconic, how to build tension, how to make images stick beyond the immediate impact.

A transitory work, and maybe a necessary one in order to transform the raw (and probably forever matchless) power of MAN OF STEEL into the grand pulp opera of JUSTICE LEAGUE.

Zack Snyder's Justice League, Zack Snyder, 2021

Like almost always with rewatches for me: What worked the first time works even better now while the flaws don't bug me as much anymore. This is just as ambitious and accomplished as anything we're allowed to expect on this scope in the next few years.

The lighter color palette compared to Man of Steel and BvS makes sense given the immense scope; a tone in tone approach would've been way too depressing. The MCU style one-liners do not make sense and at times Snyder's editing seems to be desperately trying to suppress them. But well, there're always some things off with these films, too much plot, some of it still rather stupid (although things make much more sense here than in MoS and Bvs), some bad acting (again, much less here than in the other ones) etc, and now those oneliners too... in the end all of this pales next to the sheer joy at imagemaking, and in a weird way those imperfections may even be a sign of strength, because it's always clear that Snyder isn't interested in polish for polish's sake. He always choses risk and expansion, and this is what big budget filmmaking is for.

Also, he has finally found a way to make use of his music video past. He'll turn into a total filmmaker yet.

Sleepy Eyes of Death 5, Kenji Misumi, 1965

Lacks a true standout scene and the plot is mostly treading water, but Misumi minimalism is always a blessing. The things he does with that rectangle of green glass here... Also those magnificent medium shot action scenes with torsos cut off from earth and Ichikawa clearing the space around him by slicing up his opponents until he has the whole screen for himself. For him, violence does not need external justifications, but functions as the ultimate, if not the only assertion of self. Indeed, he goes even further: more often than not he explicitly rejects external justifications, because they taint the purity of his brand of ego violence.

Also, at least to me the misogyny of the series becomes much more bearable when it crosses over, like it does here (as it did in part 4, too), into camp hysteria. Tamao Nakamura's evilness is literally painted onto her face and she ends up being a pretty awesome villain.

Moments in a Stolen Dream, Mike De Leon, 1977

First only he sings, then she does, too.

Love and primary colors and music. Beautiful and raw in its access to Christopher de Leon's face. Hilda Kolonel's pale features between her black hair remain more private. Her domestic scenes in a bright, beige-white patriarchic hellscape already point towards KISAPMATA. This one is all about a temporary safe space though, about an eternal afternoon away from the grip of society, lying in the grass, listening to a song. This was nice, sing another one, why don't you.

3rd World Hero, Mike De Leon, 2000

Circling around an individual tragedy to make sense of a collective one. Perfectly accomplished, smart deployment of the essay film form, and still I keep longing for those genre thrills that used to lend De Leon's political anger a different kind of punch in his earlier work.

High School Scandal, Gil Portes, 1981

Trash maybe, but the kind of well-made trash I always tend to fall for. Great nightclub scene that leads to a sex scene... and then to a second sex scene that plays out like an awkward echo of the first one... and then to a pregnancy and then to the crucial question: what will be used as a cutaway during an abortion scene in a very catholic exploitation flic? The solution Gil Portes finds does not disappoint.

The Goonies, Richard Donner, 1985

Rushes through set-pieces like there's no tomorrow which is a shame because the actors obviously are comfortable sharing the screen with each other. Still: great sets, great light, great colors, another proof that the 80s really were the last hurrah of studio filmmaking.

Nurse 3-D, Douglas Aarniokoski, 2013

Exploitation cinema for people who don't necessarily care much about exploitation cinema. On the other hand, that might just mean that the film knows its audience like any decent exploitation film shoud ... and it doesn't make much sense to be too uptight when it comes to films like this one anyway.

Still, the crazy stalker storyline completely sucks the fun and sexiness out of the horny nurses premise and Paz de la Huerta seems to be unsure whether she wants to be in a Russ Meyer or a John Waters film.

Killerman, Malik Bader, 2019

A 2019 urban thriller shot on location and - gasp - 16mm normally should be able to hold my interest without even trying. Still, as soon as Bader ditches the procedural approach for some random noirish bullshit, this runs out of energy quickly. Hemsworth's Al Pacino channeling is cute for a while.

Hitman, Xavier Gens, 2007

The kind of action nonsense Eurocorp normally manages to sell thanks to decent leads and unobtrusive journeyman directors. A terribly miscast Oyphant and an overeager Gens, however, are a combination from hell. Half a star for Kurylenko's makeup.

The Transporter, Corey Yuen, 2002

Didn't expect quite as much Hongkong DNA in this. Not just the action scenes (all of them great), but also the Statham / Shu Qi banter. The decisive masterstroke however is, of course, the oil fight. A transfiguration, a baptism, instantaneously transforming Statham into one of the holy bodies of action cinema.

The Runner, Austin Stark, 2015

Easy enough to see what this wants to be: A psychological tour de force slowly revealing itself to be a hard-hitting expose about the mechanisms of political corruption while doubling as a cinematic love letter to post Kathrina Louisiana. Unfortunately, Austin Stark never manages to fill his rather obvious ideas with the tiniest bit of life and settles for one painfully overwritten dialogue scene after the other. Cage's high energy performance is impressive in itself, but completely detached from its surroundings.

Beverly Hills Ninja, Dennis Dugan, 1997

Cultural appropriation done right.

Seriously, this is the closest to a truly American Summo Hung film we'll ever gonna get. Dennis Dugan might be the most underrated Hollywood director of the last 30 years.

Lang Tong, Sam Loh, 2015

Crass and tasteless exploitation cinema, unfortunately filmed without even a basic level of competence, but so committed to its own grindhouse low-budget crudeness that I really can't raise too many objections. Sam Loh obviously has his mind in the gutter and seems to be most comfortable when ditching the genre plot in favor of a series of awkwardly kinky softcore scenes. The turn towards horror (channeling, without much success, DUMPLINGS and THE UNTOLD STORY) towards the end is particularly ill-advised, but again, what can I say... stumbling over this on netflix of all places really was a pleasant surprise.

Il segno di Venere, Dino Risi, 1953

A joy from start to finish. Two sisters navigating the world (of men, mostly) while always being conscious of each other, of a fundamental doubleness of experience which manifests itself not only in Valeri's jealousy (or rather: her attempt to not give in to jealousy), but also about Loren's attentiveness (or rather: the painful realization that her happiness will always be tinged by her sister's tears). In the end, thought, this is centered not around plot but performance, and the true center of the film is neither Valeri nor Loren but Tina Pica, the aunt, a domestic and chaste creature who invests all of her energy into the art of domestic scolding, thereby turning herself into an opera singer with an audience of two.

Braqueurs, Julien Leclercq, 2015

Didn't care for SENTINELLE, but this one really is a pretty awesome piece of non-elevated genre cinema. Leclercq stages some amazing open-air action, and he manages to keep the familiar beats fresh by focussing on interpersonal relationships: professional teamwork degrading to family bonds before being partly redeemed by a cross-cultural ersatz family.

The focus on Bouajila's character doesn't always help the film (Leclercq seems to be a bit too fascinated with a certain brand of lethargic coolness in all of his films I've seen so far) and if I had to give one note it would be: skip the hectic wide shot of Tanger (?) in the end and finish with the harbour emerging through the fog. Mythopoetics beat hot air geopolitics!

La terre et le sang, Julien Leclercq, 2020

A tight, perfectly mapped out neo western in the vein of stuff like CLOSE RANGE during the middle stretch. Unfortunately towards the end Ledlercq completely gives in to his more heavy-handed impulses, without having the script to even remotely make them work. The ugly color grading and the rather embarrassing Hans Zimmer style droning doesn't help. Still, enough meat here to keep me engaged.

Wheelman, Jeremy Rush, 2017

Good idea, boring execution. Rushed by me without leaving any marks.

The Brasher Doubloon, John Brahm, 1947

Seems generally to be thought of as a minor Chandler adaptation, and I guess it mostly is, although I'm still fond of it, probably more so than of some of the more celebrated ones (including Altman's). The plot is pure pulp mechanics and flows along nicely, with Brahm making good use of his eye for small eccentricities; while unfortunately keeping his more ornamental impulses in check, maybe because of an unambitious dp (a shame he didn't work again with Musuraca after THE LOCKET).

Montgomery might not be a good choice for Marlowe, but his scenes with the excellent Nancy Guild still are what make this special. Her desperately kissing him on the sofa (and him "answering" with a tired one-liner) is a prime moment of hidden in plain sight post-code sensuality.

Yes, God, Yes, Karen Maine, 2019

A dumbed down version of LADY BIRD (et al) which, as expected, generally seems to get a pass thanks to some well-observed details and Dyer's performance, while in fact this very insistence on texture and "good acting" might be part of the problem: the idea of all the dramatic shorthand and ideological pandering being somehow redeemed by a "lived-in" performance. I mean, there's a scene in which our hero wanders off from catholic camp into a bar where she meets a lesbian savior who immediately starts spitting truth.

Trash without all the redeemable qualities of good trash, virtually indistinguishable from its own parody.

Pane, amore e..., Dino Risi, 1955

Haven't seen the first two, and the formula seems to be a bit tired by now. Risi seems to be mostly uninterested in the script (pitting private Lea Padovani against public Sofia Loren actually might be a good pitch, but the film unfortunately avoids letting them meet each other head-on) without having all that many ideas on how to break away from it. Still charming as hell of course and a technicolor print might make all the difference in the world.

You Get Me, Brent Bonacorso, 2017

Swimming pools, artificial light and faces overwhelmed by the terrors of sexuality. In other words: California neo-noir teenie trash that is right up my alley. I do think that all those "crazy stalker" storylines generally have done more harm than good to contemporary cinema (since they always hinge on the phantasma of an absolute evil that often manages to cancel out all the more complex moral / psychological conflicts that might also be going on), here though the device works, mostly because Bella Thorne fully commits to her underwritten role. She seems to insist, with every gaze, that no one, not even the script, really knows what's going on with her. Taylor John Smith is great too, though: completely perplexed by everything she does, a walking reaction shot to the very idea of illicit desire.

American cinema is still alive.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

last three weeks in letterboxd

His Motorbike, Her Island, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986

A romantic film about a romantic illusion. In the end it turns out that the death wish was not in her gaze, but only in the camera eye.

(Besides being a part, if not the center, of a string of 80s neo-biker pop cinema masterpieces from RUMBLE FISH to A MOMENT OF ROMANCE, this might also be a secret companion piece to Romero's KNIGHTRIDERS, a film from another, more dysphoric and also more political era that still might lurk somewhere in the background here.)

Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht, Robert Siodmak, 1931

At times hilarious live-action cartoon centered around a quintessenial Rühmann-meatball performance. Also makes clear once again that Wilder, as much as I despise some of his most famous films, just can't be written off. His name pops up in way too many interesting places.

Four Sisters, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985

Obayashi's heartbreaking "four preppy sisters" melodrama, filled with 80s style and existential despair both tied to and strangely detached from material conditions. As small children, the girls (at least three of the four) were, by pure chance, saved from bitter poverty. Now they're always perfectly styled while perkily flirting with tennis jocks.

But at the same time there's a gap between them and the world around them (maybe because they realize that their somewhat protected existence is based on pure luck and could collapse into pure nothingness in a moment's notice), which becomes palpable in some of Obayashi's most intricate back projection shots, but also through body language: Yasuko Tomita leaning against a tree, vaguely looking towards the camera, Atsuko Asano, the most fragile of the four, awkwardly sitting on a seesaw, no longer completely tied to the world of the living. Then there's the scene of the four of them taking a picture together, sharing the screen and still insisting, each of them in their own way, on their inability to truly transcend their inner loneliness.

Express 13, Alfred Zeisler, 1931

Another gimmicky Zeisler thriller, darker and tighter than DER SCHUSS IM TONFILMATELIER. The bland male lead is the biggest problem, Charlotte Susa, though, gets some great close-ups.

The Drifting Classroom, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1987

After directing one emotionally charged masterpiece after the other throughout 1985 and 1986 Obayashi deservedly changes gear with this one, a perfectly fine SFX children film. The matte painting and back projection work is, once again, on another level and the idea of playing Chopin to keep the giant bugs away is basically Obayashi in a nutshell.

I'm not quite so sure about the shaky cam stuff and some of the interior scenes, parts of this look really murky, to the point of suggesting a botched digital transfer. The "intercultural" aspects might be slightly cringy too at times but in the end this is once again warm and lively enough to easily triumph over these kinds of petty objections.

Bed of Roses, Gregory La Cava, 1933

Another pre-code marvel and a genuinely strange film. It's basically about Constance Bennett making her way through all the concepts of womanhood available at the time for someone without external resources: prostitute (a stage she has technically left behind when the film starts, but which is suggested constantly as the number one fallback option); female hustler; mistress; honest but poor working girl; and finally, subordinate half of a married couple.

This sequence is presented more like an argument than like a story, meaning that character development and also interpersonal pressure systems are conspicuously absent. To put it another way, what the film is interested in are objective power systems of society, not the contingent ones of traditional fallen women melodrama. Indeed, all kinds of transitional scenes are systematically cut out as if to present Bennett with a number of clear-cut choices in order to let her make up her own mind.

La Cava's both playful and upfront direction suggests a disdain for bourgeois morality and a matter-of-fact acceptance of sexuality equal only to Borzage in American cinema of the time; and to be honest I can't think of a lot non-American equivalents either.

The Discarnates, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1988

Family life can never be quite contained in a single, fixed space-time. It is also never complete, always too much and not enough at the same time, an uneasy cohabitation of future and former selves. That's why, like is said in LONELY HEART, in childhood everything feels nostalgic even when seen for the first time. And here, in the companion piece, set during adulthood, everything is remembered as if it never happened.

It's the darker film of the two, because adulthood is always darker, and also because of the dimmed lights of the big city, with faces only gradually, haltingly emerging from the black space of claustrophobic apartments. The woman on the other hand emerges out of nowhere, in the viewfinder, a peephole apparition, detached and exposed. The adult, sweaty, pumping sex that enters Obayashi's cinema with her, maybe for the first time, promises an immediacy, a synchoronicity, which will turn out to be an illusion, too.

Shinobi no mono, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1962

First of eight SHINOBI NO MONO films, more epic in scope and also more serious in tone than the other Daiei shomingeki serials (while still highly enjoyable as a gorgeously photographed ninja adventure yarn, to be sure). Raizo Ichikawa isn't as memorable as in the other films I've seen him in, but at its core, this is not about him anyway, but about Sandayu and Nobunaga and the two completely different visions of gnarly warrior masculinity they embody.

Sandayu's way of the ninja and its anarchistic scheming emerges as a hidden, and historically defeated alternative to the dominant power politics not only of the warlords era but also of the emerging Edo shogunate. A world of romantic adventures and fluid identities slowly steamrolled by hierarchical application of brute force.

Beijing Watermelon, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1989

One of the few actual feel-good movies I've seen so far in my life.

Zoom In: Rape Apartments, Naosuke Kurosawa, 1980

Is there an actual giallo in which the murderer turns out to be a piano tuner? If not: clearly a missed chance since both the tools of the profession and its old Europe roots fit the genre perfectly. Naosuke Kurosawa's pinku entry didn't quite work for me, unfortunately. It's rather ambitious, to be sure, but the obvious Argento influence remains a gimmick and never quite connects with the almost sci-fi-like apartment building as wasteland setting, which probably is the most interesting thing about this. Instead of really engaging with the desperation this kind of dehumanizing architecture seems to embody (as someone like Sato would've done), the proceedings are presented with a crass, satirical attitude I almost always dislike in pinkus.

Chizuko's Younger Sister, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1991

I'm still shell-shocked by the magnificent Obayashi 80s run (has anyone else, no matter where, had a similar run in that decade? Carpenter maybe? Sato? Tsui? Can't think of many), and well, the 90s start with yet another masterpiece.

Another one of Obayashi's expeditions into the imaginary of family relations. This time, it's all about learning to live with the presence of an unreachable because of deceased older sister = super ego. It's more high-strung and more synthetical than THE LONELY HEART or THE DISCARNATES, but it's also even more inventive, just one small miracle after the other. That relay scene with its Melies-like intervention of the fantastic, how does one even think of, let alone pull off something like this?

The Object of My Affection, Nicholas Hytner, 1998

A woke romcom from a time when those were still made with warmth and genuine curiosity rather than with self-righteous smugness. Still a bit boring, unfortunately, but a must for 90s sitcom enthusiasts. I mean, Paul Rudd has to decide between Rachel from Friends, Joe from Wings and someone who I thought for a while was Charlie from Caroline in the City. No wonder he's confused.

Haruka, Nostalgy, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1993

Nähere Untersuchungen in the dark alleyways of memory. To remember does not mean to unearth a hidden truth, but to enter a new world of shadows, echoes and co-presences. All those lurid "secrets" are a measure not of objective, but of subjective corruption and to untangle the threads only leads you deeper into a maze in which desire is always already tainted by roleplaying. There's no pureness to reclaim, only the soothing and surprisingly calm clarity of total corruption in the middle of the illuminated forest.

Obayashi's Marienbad, a memory conversation piece that suggests that German idealism might be just as important as a source for his imagemaking as romantic music.

And then you open letterboxd and suddenly this is just another "problematic" film. I mean, I'm just not at all attuned to this kind of thinking and have no interest in defending the film on these terms (by pointing out, for example, that Hikari Ishida is a "child-woman" only in the beginning and completely ceases to be one as soon as bodily desire is introduced). It's just that the final sex scene is indeed awkward and almost manages to derail the film; but to attribute the awkwardness to age difference seems to me the least intriguing of all available options. (Also interesting, btw, how the scandal of incest doesn't figure at all in these kinds of deliberations.)

I'd argue the scene feels so strange because sex can never be pure nostalgia, because the fantasies and projections of sex work on another level. Obayashi films sex as if it was a continuation of the memory conversation - still shot countershot, but now it's not only images and gazes, but bodies replacing each other. And bodies just come with way too much friction.

Alias Boston Blackie, Lew Landers, 1942

The script has its lazy moments this time, but the frenetic games of disguise and Landers' joyful, fast-paced direction (there's even a surprisingly physical car chase scene) more than make up for it. Morris is finally completely in tune with and in control of the material, with everyone else becoming pawns in his game.

Samurai Kids, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1993

Wonderful, inventive, making the most of both the narrative concept and the effect shots (including some pretty awesome early CGI intrusions). By now I'd expect nothing less of Obayashi, of course.

The one detail I love most is probably Satoru's sister's life-sized Munch The Scream doll.

Hot Water, Larry Rippenkroeger, 2021

Relaxed bro-cinema or I guess "cinema", switching back and forth between competent GoPro Mtv Sports jet ski action (with BEN HUR lurking somewhere in the filmhistorical background) and gross-out comedy skits that work not because of shock value (let alone wit) but by contributing to the unassuming and very pg-13 hangout vibes of the whole thing. Aside from the Jet Ski parts the filmmaking is as basic as it gets, and, like with many comedies of its kind, this is strictly a feature, not a bug.

Sada, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1998

I guess I just had to encounter, sooner or later, one Obayashi that doesn't work for me. Here, everything feels forced, all that stylization and picturesque minimalism just a tool to construct an overbearing and not very illuminating argument about the oppressive normative forces of myth-making. Or something in that vein, I lost interest in the intellectual mechanics rather early and just waited for her to finally grab the knife and get things over with.

Clearly one of those films, though, I might completely come around to under different circumstances. One day, maybe.

Russian Lullabies, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1993

Would love to see this in a better version someday. Clearly something of interest going on, here.

Switching, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2007

The embodied memory of playing Schumann transcending gender and, ultimately, death.

Took me a while to get into it, probably because there's nothing in it as immediately captivating as the electrifying Satomi Kobayashi performance of the first version. Later on, though, when the this time rather subdued body switch mayhem slows down, this becomes incredibly affecting. A cinema of caresses, a fingertip cinema. Like any other difference, sex difference ultimately doesn't pull us apart, but draws us together.

Goodbye for Tomorrow, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1995

The decidedly mundane vision of death and mourning points towards Koreeda's AFTER LIFE, I guess, and in fact both films keep me a bit more at distance than I would wish and expect. Maybe I really am a still bit too much immersed in the monotheistic tradition to fully accept this kind of matter-of-fact anti-transcendentalist approach.

Anyway, lots of beautiful stuff in there about dark loneliness and about how not to get completely lost in it.

Casting Blossoms to the Sky, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2012

Much more convincing when viewed as a poetic argument rather than as a political one. "Using the pain caused by war for peace" might sound nice, but in the end it's just another pretext for not talking about Japanese war crimes. Pitting Nagaoka against Pearl Harbour is a false equivalency, because it skips over Nanjing.
... Then again, Obayashi is a filmmaker and I truly do feel protected by his tender pyrotechnics. In fact I could spend hours sitting under his blooming skies.

Hanagatami, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2017

Digital flatness, yes, but also digital death masks. By far Obayashi's most morbid vision, a decadent evocation of a collective death wish affecting each face differently.

Labyrinth of Cinema, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2019

"Movies have always been unnatural and strange."

Mario Baba and Frantz Kapra. The farce to HANAGATAMI's tragedy, working through many of the same obsessions. Obayashi tries to go even further in his exploration of digital anarchism, but he just doesn't achieve the stylistic coherence of his best work this time. Anyway, this seems to be the first time that bona fide war scenes show up in his work. Like something deep and hidden, a constant subtext now finally breaking through.

And of course, best John Ford impersonation ever.

Hausu, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977

It is indeed all there from the start: the cat, the piano, even the watermelon.

This might be the problem with Obayashi cinephilia: Despite the widely ignored depth of his filmography, he's not really in need of rediscovery, because even if he had directed only his one canonized masterpiece and nothing else, he still would've been one of the greatest.

Seven Weeks, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2014

Obviously Obayashi is working through some issues close to his heart here, but this was another one of the very few which just didn't work for me. The insanely talky family stuff of the first half feels somewhat oppressive, which, of course, family stuff tends to do sometimes, but still, in his earlier films Obayashi always manages to find a special hook to ease the burden a bit, while here it's just non-stop blood relations echo chamber.

The second half harks back to HARUNKA, NOSTALGY only without the air of elevated romantic craziness which makes the latter so special. Indeed it feels a bit strange that this rather unspecific youthful melodrama is set up as the big family secret supposedly holding everything else together.

Of course there's still an abundance of striking imagery (the scene with the excavator in the background for example is quietly unsettling in a truly extraordinary way) and the discourse on lines and painting might just be a key to Obayashi's aesthetics. One never can be completely finished with any Obayashi film.

Dreams, Akira Kurosawa, 1990

The poignant short films format probably doesn't bring out the best in Kurosawa. On the other hand, the emblematic minimalism of the production design maybe does. In the end, only two of the episodes really stick with me (The Peach Orchard and, especially, The Tunnel - those also were pretty much the only ones I had any recollection of from the first time around), everything else kind of quietly fades away the moment it leaves the screen. Which, of course, most dreams do, too.

Making of Dreams, Nobuhiro Obayashi, 1990

Making images of images. Of course an Obayashi making of about, say, RAN or MADADAYO would've been even better, but this is pitch-perfect for what it is and it made me love Kurosawa even more - something I really didn't think was possible.

Michael Jordan's Playground, Zack Snyder, 1990

"Jordan put on his Superman suit..."

Quite lovely, even on its own terms and without all that MAN OF STEEL foreshadowing. Especially the musical ending.

(Interesting question, though, whether tv sports might be another source, besides Peckinpah, Woo etc, of Snyder's slow motion fetish.)

Adolf und Marlene, Ulli Lommel, 1977

I was rather curious about this one, although it's not really all that surprising that it turns out to be one of those low energy Lommel joints that don't necessarily go overboard in justifying their own existence. The script doesn't really go anywhere with the premise: There's Adolf (sans moustache) and there's Marlene (singing a song or two once in a while), and then there's all those Fassbinder regulars playacting nazis in a pleasantly lazy fashion. That's it. Ballhaus finds some interesting, claustrophobic compositions, and while the jokes, like in most Lommel films, are mostly lame, this doesn't really matter, because, also like in most Lommel films, the whole thing feels like a daydream set in another dimension that looks like our own on first sight, but in the end will never be fully transparent to us.


Another footnote to the Lommel saga: What's the deal with those three ten star reviews for ADOLF AND MARLENE on imdb? They read suspiciously alike, but, given that the film was never commercially available anywhere: why would someone go through the motions of setting up not one but three fake accounts (all three of them have only reviewed Lommel film, ten stars all the way)?

Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder, 2004

I remember passionately hating this when it came out and now I wonder why, especially about the passionately part. It's a mostly well-made but uninspired remake that comes somewhat alive when it dumbs down Romero to badass action bullshit but completely falters when it tries to recreate the desperate hangout scenes of the original.

Maybe it really is a realistic film about the mall in the 21st century in the way every single social interaction (except for the ones between the three security guards) feels completely random, but in the end there are just too many bad James Gunn oneliners for me to care.

300, Zack Snyder, 2006

This is clearly Snyder starting to find his style, but it's also clearly still something of a chore to sit through. For all the total control of imagery Snyder shoots for, there's a lot of awkward maneuvering to squeeze in all those desperately desired iconic moments. All style no elegance. A film that values self-identity over everything else will always come up short in the end, I guess, because it never will be able to live up to its own ideal self.

Watchmen, Zack Snyder, 2009

Ultimate cut.

Having no stakes in or even knowledge of Moore's graphic novel this feels in a way even more juvenile than 300, lots of agitation about all of those big themes, but in the end what's really important is sex, of course, and sex basically means dicks and the idea of women melting away in orgasm.

Of course it indeed is one of the best things about Snyder that he acknowledges horniness every step of the way, in all of his films. This one is better made than 300, too, much smoother and sometimes even with an eye for acting completely absent in his first two. The animated sequences are not completely successful, but I still think they are important, because, like the human wall in 300, they introduce an element of raw carnage that seems to be a necessary jumping-off point for superhero discourse.

Legend of the Guardians, Zack Snyder, 2010

Really very bad. A few youtube videos are enough to realize that they didn't understand at all why owls are awesome. Owls are deadpan, not whimsical! Basically the only part I liked was the beginning, when they're learning too fly. These rather plump creatures bumbling through the air...

I don't get at all why people give this a pass on technical grounds. To me it looks beyond ugly and they didn't even make the two owl brothers different enough to keep them easily apart. Also, no interest at all in exploring the world, rushing through way too much plot and all composition centering on those stupid owls.

Decidedly not the hidden gem in the Snyder canon I still secretly hoped it would turn out to be.

Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder, 2011

Strangely enough the first Snyder film with decent human interactions. Very basic ones, but still.

Monday, April 05, 2021

last two weeks on letterboxd

Le roi des aulnes, Marie-Louise Iribe, 1931

Starts as a rather dull narrative visualization of Goethe's Erlkönig, but takes flight once the central visual idea is introduced: The boy's hallucinations manifesting itself as a series of overlays, half-transparent figures representing the Erlkönig itself as well as a number of nymph-like dancers and other vaguely mythological creatures. Projected over trees, leaves and, especially beautiful, water, they are transformed into a direct portal into another realm of pure visuality.

That's basically it, the film isn't interested in doing much more than opening up the portal and spending some time on the other side. A one-trick pony, but sometimes that's enough.

Hinugot sa langit, Ishmael Bernal, 1985

Family melodrama, the eternal master-genre of Philippine Cinema. Here, Maricel Soriano gets sweet-talked into first watching SPLASH and then a pregnancy. Later on, she is surrounded not so much by oppressive individuals as by blunt ideological forces. The "bad" guy who knocked her up is pure irresponsibility, and advises her to toss a coin to decide the fate of her unborn child; the "good" guy who wants to marry her is pure patriarchal dullness, unable to think of her as anything else than as part of his prearranged life-plan; the aunt (?) is pure religious hypocrisy, aggressively demanding, in the name of the lord, a sacrifice she herself was never asked to make; the cousin (Amy Austria, biggest joy of the film!) is pure girl-power libertarianism and advocates for take every orgasm you can get and don't worry about the consequences. In the end, the choice Maricel has to make might not be all that hard...

There's a side-plot about a family of day laborers being evicted from their dilapidated home. Might feel like poverty porn at times, but might also be read as the dark, ironic core of the film: another kind of body politics, mirroring the possible "eviction" of the fetus, but one that does not have access to the mode of melodrama.

The Visitor in the Eye, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977

A horror film setup swept away by picturesque matte paintings, Tschaikovsky style piano romanticism and affect-trenched colorscapes. What's not to love?

Border Wolves, Joseph H. Lewis, 1938

Joseph H. Lewis cheapie from his Wagon Wheel Joe days. And indeed, his favorite framing device makes quite a few appearances. Aside from that, there are lots of songs, quite a bit of Joe-Baker-hollering, a few inventive camera movements, some of the most racist attempts at comic relief attempts I've come across recently and a vague outline of something similar to a plot. Not without merits as a sign of things to come, but a bit too random on its own terms.

Take Me Away!, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1978

For 20 minutes, this is as beautiful as filmmaking can get: Two uprooted souls falling in love while floating on top of San Francisco street scenes, remnants of the not yet completely commodified counterculture, a musical euphoria not too much removed from a plunge into death and nothingness. It all culminates first in a magical club scene and then a night of glowing close-up passion, framings of intimacy that also seem to be playing with our desire to watch.

Obayashi comes back to all of this in the end, to the club and the street romance at least. Not much has changed but that fact in itself might be telling enough. There's just nothing solid that sticks to those two. Everything in between is a bit frustrating, because it feels like this almost could've been a masterpiece, if Obayashi had just made the material a bit more his own, instead of falling back on tired family drama tropes.

There's beautiful stuff throughout to be sure, the music, the toy plane, a wonderfully giddy 70s brawl... still, the otherworldly beauty of the first 20 minutes dissipates pretty quickly, and when Obayashi tries to reclaim it in the end it feels a bit like too little to late.

Lovemobil, Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss, 2019

Watching this after the "scandal" broke is a rewarding, if not completely satisfying experience. If one knows about the background, the signs of "scripted reality" are indeed impossible to overlook, even in the most "observational" hangout / waiting for the johns scenes. Interestingly, the only "real" protagonist, Uschi, feels even more scripted, maybe because technically she's an amateur actress while the other two women are not.

Still, turning this into "correctly labeled" fiction might have resulted in a much less interesting film, because this probably would've weakened what is strongest about it: the way these two sex workers are transformed, by way of accumulation of well-researched detail, into universally valid signifiers of what Germany and especially provincial Germany is and feels like in the 21st century. And in the end I would argue that this very quality doesn't at all depend on whether Rita and Milena are "authentic" or not.

LOVEMOBIL isn't quite strong enough to build a full-scale defense of the lying documentary on. Still, watching this with an open mind is at the very least much more enlightening than keeping up with the never-ending stream of self-righteous think pieces which come across much more embarrassing than anything the director might or might not have done wrong. Everything else the parties involved should work out among themselves.

School in the Crosshairs, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1981

When nazis take over the schoolyard, it pays off to go for the big guns. Pure joy from beginning to end.

Meet Boston Blacki, Robert Florey, 1941

Boston Blackie, king of the lame one-liners, in a well-made mystery. Rochelle Hudson, Costance Worth and Richard Lane easily make up for what Chester Morris lacks in charms (it's not him, I guess, but those damn one-liners) and Robert Florey once again directs with style, wit and an eye for the bizarre.

Facundo Alitaftaf, Luciano B. Carlos, 1978

Brain-melt material of the occasionally funky kind. Theres' a scene in which Dolphy's head gets, again and again, stuck between two sumo wrestler's bellies. Hard to not see this as the film declaring, quite openly, its own aesthetic strategy.

The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1979

ADHD: The Movie. There's more inventiveness in any five-minute stretch of this than in your average yearly Academy Awards Best Picture crop, but in the end I can only rate my own enjoyment and I was low-key annoyed by this pretty much the whole time.

Lovely Devils, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1982

Two witches battling each other and the one who loves harder wins.

The narrow television frame completely and immediately feels like the perfect container for at at least this special flavor of Obayashi's madness. No room to stretch, so the only way to go is forward, rushing through melodies and set-pieces, straight into a manic Dario-Argento-children's-book-operatic-fairytale.

Now that the frame is smaller it's all the more obvious that the core of his cinema is not visual but musical. Not a single melody or a constant beat, though, but a commitment to the musical spectacular. Pop cinema driven by a discontent with the limitations of pop. The neat two and a half minutes packaging, the emotional purity, the levelling of tone and affect: all of this has to go. Pop must aspire to something different, and one way to achieve this is an opening up towards older forms, especially European romanticism. In a way, films like this one or VISITOR IN THE EYE unfold like Bohemian Rhapsody, only without the pomp and the grand gestures. It's not about "synthesizing influences" but about speaking the cinema of hybrid musicality as if it were a natural language.

Tinimbang ang langit, Danny L. Zialcita, 1982

So there's another 1980s Filipino showbiz melodrama about a nightclub singer getting discovered and making it to the big league before having to make a choice between the loneliness of the stage and conjugal confinement as the wife of Christopher De Leon. (Or rather, between De Leon and - a diamond-plastered microphone! There's a wonderful, quiet perversity to all of this.)

This one lacks the clear-cut from rags to riches dramaturgy of the later BITUING WALANG NINGNING, and in fact mostly does away with the socioeconomic context altogether. Instead, this is about a number of high-strung individuals trying to find happiness in rather erratic ways. Most of the plot developments come out of nowhere, and sometimes even the Mise-en-scene seems on the verge of collapsing. A fragile film, but then again, good love songs are always complicated.

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964

"In the dark, the advantage is mine."

On the other hand, Zatoichi's whole mission in this one is to make sure fireworks will light up the sky in the end. So it's not about banning light categorically, but about exchanging one type of light for another. The blunt, narrow daylight of pure visibility must make room for the spectacular, expressive, artificial light of nighttime ghost vision (and while Ikeda's direction lacks the blunt force of his ...CHEST OF GOLD, this transformation is rendered beautifully). Light must stop being a mere tool for petty power schemes and become an aesthetic force in its own right.

Zatoichi cannot see, but he can be touched by light.

Sentinelle, Julien Leclercq, 2021

The somber tone on tone beginning leading up to a nice, impressionistic club scene kind of intrigued me, but once the destination became clear, I had a hard time keeping my interest up. As basic as this is, there's still too much stupid plot and while Leclercq makes good use of Kurylenko's sad eyes, she just isn't the right kind of actress for those brutal, down to earth fight scenes.

I Are You, You Am Me, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1982

Sweet and tender body switch comedy, with Obayashi keeping his more ornamental impulses in check while mostly handing over the film to his actors, especially to Satomi Kobayashi, joyfully lashing out against the restrictions of the world surrounding it; a great, intuitive performance, that at times threatens to sideline Toshinori Omi, whose equally important contribution takes longer to register. It mostly manifests itself in close-ups - with the girl, the switch mostly activates the body / exteriority, with the boy the face / interiority.

Maybe the best thing about it is that the social context, while never absent, mostly retreats into the background, so that the film mostly consists of the world the two of them build for themselves, without external interference. This is especially true for the extremely touching last part, a turn towards juvenile transcendence I really didn't see coming. Introduced, of course, by Bach's Air of Suite No. 3, the most beautiful piece of music ever conceived. Only special films can truly sustain Bach and this one can.

Crime Doctor, Michael Gordon, 1943

Warner Baxter suffers from amnesia and is haunted by an unknown, murky past while climbing the ranks of decent society. Plots like that, encompassing years if not decades while trying to do justice to a man's whole biography, are not exactly ideal programmer material. Indeed, the script takes quite a few shortcuts and never even tries to account for its psychological implications, resulting in a strangely non-commitant self-investigation: Baxter investigates his past self as he would another person. And the film isn't smart enough to make use of this "objective" schizophrenia either.

Anyway, the most interesting parts in here are probably the prison scenes and the plea for prosocial reform they imply.

The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1983

More plot-heavy than most other early Obayashis and while the small frictions in the fabrics of the everyday slowly leading to a big, romantic opening up of everything is a lovely vision of coming of age, I guess in the end I prefer the anarchism of LOVELY DEVILS and the relaxedness of I ARE YOU. Of course, one does not have to decide, Obayashi's image factory will provide for everyone in the end.

Haven't seen the Hosoda version yet, although while watching it I more often thought about Makoto Shinkai who just must have watched this at least a few times before taking on YOUR NAME.

Confessions of Boston Blackie, Edward Dmytryk, 1941

"You've got a little Gestapo in you!"

It's always interesting to see how the reality of geopolitics seeps into those wartime noirs. Not by way of stilted speechifying, but in much more casual ways. Being in war against fascism is just another part of the fabrics of daily life. (Don't know, of course, if the line was already in the script or if this is an early example of Dmytryk's antifascism.)

The film itself is quite nice, some original ideas and I've already made my peace with Chester Morris's swag.

The Deserted City, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1984

A town touched by death, embalmed in green, handed over to water (while waiting for fire), having lost contact with the present, every act already a proleptic memory. When being is being with death from the start, only a concrete act of sorrow, a direct contact with death can break the spell once in a while. The wake after the non-lovers's love suicide is the most lucid scene of the film, faces sculpted in light, finally in tune with their own helplessness.

So beautiful it hurts (the cats, the dogs!) and I really wonder why, to me, it's still not a complete success. Maybe it's the voice-over in combination with Eguchi's blank face, though in the end it might've more to do with the way Obayashi looks at his characters. He respects them, and knows there surrounding, carefully placing them in space-time, securing them from hostile gazes (ours, too) when necessary, but sometimes I feel like he's not curious enough about them, or at least not as curious as I am. For example Ikuyo: She's old-fashioned, we learn, and Obayashi decides that's enough, that's all we need to know about her. But is it?

Kenya Boy, Nobuhiko Obayashi & Tetsuo Imazawa, 1984

Would love to know more about this, productionwise. Is this really an unfinished work, as some are suggesting here? Or might this just be one of Obayashi's more radical attempts at a liquified pop cinema? I mean it totally makes sense for him, when for once leaving behind live-action altogether, to not settle down on a single, stable style of animation, but instead to interrogate this new toolset, especially regarding the presence, absence and saturation of color. At the same time, the stylistic ruptures do feel more jarring and random this time around.

And it's not just the style, there's also a decidedly dubious script (like a stitched-together mashup of several "exotic", colonialist 30s serials filtered through a Japanese nationalist framework) and the total and, given the rest of his work, really surprising lack of insight into how young people behave, talk or even just move around. Wataru really is more a miniature adult than any kind of adolescent here, except maybe when enthralled by the equally awkward blonde jungle goddess Kate. His horniness might've been his saving grace, but the film isn't interested in exploring it, either.

In the end the only thing this has really going for it is its weirdness, and, like with KINDAICHI KOSUKE, this isn't quite enough to keep me engaged.

La canzone dell'amore, Gennaro Righelli, 1930

Trying, with some success, to take in the wholeness of sound, chaotic street noise mixed with intimate confessions mixed with the streamlining of auditive affect by the cultural industry. A few good visual ideas, too, like the closing in on the couple sitting high up there in the tree. Most of the times, though, the window stays closed and all sensations stay confined within the limits of a particularly tired set of melodramatic conventions.

The Island Closest to Heaven, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1984

Away with my petty objections, they always remain strangely external to Obayashi's image-making anyway. Even if they're true they're wrong, because with Obayashi, it's not about truth value or fitting into pre-arranged forms, but about following the images, wherever they might lead.

Just like Keiko here, who travels to the end of the world, to a world of pure beauty, a world as special effect, in search of an image she can't describe until she sees it. More precisely: The driving force behind her trip is her conviction that she will recognize the image once she sees it. We already suspect she won't, and we already suspect that this failure will, in the end, not matter all that much to her.

The true cypher is not the world, though, but Keiko. This is epitomized in her glasses. That women (much less often: men) are suddenly transformed when they take off their glasses is a well-worn trope (and I have to admit that I'm rather fond of it. Here, Keiko takes her glasses, and she, too, changes. It's just that we don't know what exactly this change consists in. She continues to be a cypher, but has demonstrated the possibility of change.

Maybe the most important thing is that Keiko remains a tourist, even after leaving the tour party behind. She enters a few lives, a few stories, but stays on the sidelines, detached. And learning how to do this, to be content with this, to except ones own apartness is all that matters in the end. The boat is steady, it's the world that's swaying.

Prosti, Erik Matti, 2002

The hilarious poster is strangely fitting, since this is an exploitation film first and foremost, but in a playful and, yes, honest way. Just like madame's damaged eye works both as a grindhouse signifier and as a trace of her own damaged past, Matti somehow manages to pull of directing a sensual film about prostitution. An unillusioned tale of power structures and the possibilities / limits of solidarity (female-administered sex work is still exploitation, but also a way to keep the men in check) - with glossy, at times kinky softcore sex and lots of stylish low angles of narrow bordello hallways. And it's not that the latter somehow devalues the former. It's all of one piece, without the allure of bodies in heat the microeconomy of power and pleasure the film is built on would simply collapse.

Feels a bit like a much less cynical version of early 90s Hong Kong Cat III cinema. Need to finally see more Matti...

Miss Lonely, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985

Nostalgia is one of the key modes of cinema, a medium that always, necessarily navigates the relationship between imaginary immediacy and objective distance. To do this successfully, Obayashi teaches, one cannot play off one aspect against the other, but has to fully commit do both. So on the one hand we're drowning in desire for a particular time and place and melody and face (also for completely random things, like that slightly ridiculous white sweater we always wore in our teens), while on the other hand we're working through this very desire, analytically and without any safety net. And the perfect way to do this, this most beautiful of Obayashi's films (ok, so far, who knows what'll happen next...) suggests, is by way of comedy, by way of exploring, Chaplin-style, the connection between silliness and sentiment.

In the end it's about finding and defining objects which can bind and symbolize our affect, while at the same time making it manageable. A small piano on top of a real one.

Der Schuss im Tonfilmatelier, Alfred Zeisler, 1930

Cinema as a closed-off system centered around death. Smart and inventive, though one might've wished that Zeisler would've focused a bit less on the satirical and a bit more on the depraved implications of the plot. But well, not everyone can be a De Palma, I guess.

Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, the Seacoast, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986

The war is absent but only just so. All that's missing is one cut, sometimes maybe just a tilt. The nearness of the war affects everyone, transforming games into war games and society into a keystone cop comedy. Everyone's sliding and rafting towards it, talking about it, singing about it ... and still, war's not here. Being on the brink of war without getting there means being on the brink of madness without the possibility of a release, however gruesome. The world has already been invaded by violence, but without the accompanying structure provided by war. For now, violence is pure rupture, impulse without form.

Films like this often tend do get on my nerves. Farcical, vitalist mayhem intent on selling me on the primal richness of life in the face of devastation... That's why I have a hard time with a lot of Imamura, and BOUND FOR THE FIELDS clearly takes some of its cues from this tradition. At the same time, though, Obayashi never ceases to be a pop-filmmaker first and foremost, which is especially evident in his loving recreation of (1910s more than 1920s) slapstick aesthetics. Also, once again he kind of inserts himself into the narrative, as a young boy who, like in LONELY HEART, explores the world with the help of a pair of binoculars. What he offers is, in the end, not a treatise on man's eternal nature, but a perspective on a world.

(bw version)

Karma, Danny L. Zialcita, 1981

Patriarchy gone wild. In an early scene a woman temporarily staying in a hotel room is raped by a man who thinks she is in on it because an acquaintance usually provides him with a paid "victim" in the very same room every week. Things don't get much saner afterwards.

Once again, Zialcita's Mise en scene (and especially his editing) isn't the most solid in the world, but also once again the bonkers melodrama worldview seems to come natural to him. Plus he has a great eye for decor and what it does to people.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

last week in letterboxd

La tavola dei poveri, Alessandro Blasetti, 1932

A comedy about the sphere of circulation as an integrating force, at the same time transcending and redrawing class barriers. It ends with a banquet given for the poor... that is also financed by the rich marry on borrowed money. Blasetti's direction is always inventive and Viviani is amazing.

New Tale of Zatoichi, Tozuko Tanaka, 1963

Katsu looks about 10 years younger in color than in black and white, at least on first sight, and this threw me off for a while, but in the end this turns out to be a very emotional, quietly melodramatic entry. That long scene of Zatoichi and Yayoi alone in a room, each one in a different corner, not approaching and not really looking at each other and still they're ready to completely change their lives around just because of the intensity of the moment...

Forbidden Trail, Lambert Hillyer, 1932

Love the uneasy Buck Jones swagger (he is much wackier than his wacky sidekick in this one, especially when "flirting"), and I liked that at one point the fact that he can't get what he ordered for breakfast is used as a plot point. Aside from that very routine, mostly in a good way.

Zatoichi the Fugitive, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1963

There's once again a blast from the past storyline but at the same time the series starts to transition to Zatoichi the journeyman mode, starting with the random sumo match in the beginning. Like with Tanaka's previous entry, this is best when things get more private and intimate, especially in the scenes with Masamo Banri. Doesn't quite reach the same emotional intensity this time, though the last scene, with Zato's farewell dance turning from playful to desperate to gloomy in a single close-up is truly amazing.

Zatoichi on the Road, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1963

The first one I didn't really care for. Looks still amazing, of course, but the plot is uninvolving and also surprisingly slow, there are no standout set pieces and winy Mitsu is the worst character in the series so far, a damsel in distress tailor-made for Zatoichi to spring through all the required hoops and nothing more. Zato himself is unpleasantly cocky, too. Hopefully not a sign of things to come.

The Mistake, Bruno Sukrow, 2020

Still nothing even remotely like it out there, and this time the insertion of quite a bit of live-action footage - mostly nature imagery, often shots lasting for quite a long time - makes everything feel even more sui generis. Not just the pulpy fever-dreams of the code left to its own devices, but a gift from a twilight zone beyond the separation of digital and analog. We are blessed.

Sleepy Eyes of Death 4: Sword of Seduction, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964

Ditches most of the classic chambara roots of the series in favor of a more serious commitment to its exploitation underpinnings. Here we get junkie sex slaves, sadistic nuns, out of the blue beheadings, defloration rituals etc., and while Nemuri Kyoshiro thankfully refrains from raping anyone this time around, the fact that he basically only acts out of spite, no matter what he does, is even more pronounced.

First Ikehiro I've seen, and judging solely from this he might be one of the more distinctive stylists among the Daiei jidaigeki specialists. Most striking is his use of long takes, sometimes whole scenes are done in single shots, which are often dynamized by gorge-like areas of deep focus. On the other hand, he sometimes goes for quite disruptive close-ups of pure movement. There's a weightlessness to the best scenes here that is quite a bit removed from the usually rather set-heavy Daiei-style.

Ikehiro is also the first director who tries to find an SFX equivalent to Nemuri Kyoshiro's Full Moon Sword Technique. Like quite a few of his more out there ideas this isn't completely successfull, but still, this is anything but by the numbers filmmaking.

Justice League, Jack Snyder, 2017

Watching the corporate capitalism cut before the fascist theocracy one. Just kidding, I'm mostly / moderately pro Snyder and what works here probably works because of him. (I'm not sure, on the other hand, that Whedon is the bad guy; some of the comic relief is terrible, yes, especially the Aquaman parts, but this more than anything feels unfinished, rushed, almost like a first draft.)

For Snyder, a superhero first and foremost is a scandal, an entity outside of traditional systems of cinematic epistemology, and the films can only be ways of accommodating this scandal one way or another. Introspection for example is not an end in itself, but must be experimental too, like it is here in some of the scenes with The Flash.

With the possible exception of Aquaman, who really is extremely annoying this time, every superhero arc in here has at least some kind of weird specificity and the stitched-together feel of the whole thing almost adds to its charm: different kinds of scandals, of disruptions folding into each other.

At least up to a point, because after the team is assembled (and the different worlds have been blended into each other), this does not have many interesting places to go. Still, the reddish, morphing CGI-scape of the finale is quite strong and hosts an action-adventure-set-piece more inventive than anything I've seen in any Marvel film, including SPIDER-VERSE.

Zack Snyder's Justice League, Zack Snyder, 2021

Funny that Snyder of all people is now being celebrated as a master of classical filmmaking. But in many ways it's true, this really is a much more well-rounded aesthetic object than just about anything on a similar budget level in the last 10 years. Still a bit disappointing that most of the raves center on "grief", "emotional depth" and similar qualities, thereby once again enshrining the vocabulary "real" cinema is supposed to be judged by.

The characters might be more rounded too, yes, and the dedication in the end is incredibly touching, but that's not what sets this apart from the previous version. In the Snyder cut, the superheroes do not get much more backstory or motivation. What they do get is a better stage for the expression of their powers. This expression might also be a self-expression, but first and foremost it is an expression of something the self is not.

To put it another way, Snyder is more interested in the super than in the hero. That's why Cavill's Superman is still his finest creation (and MEN OF STEEL his best film): With him, it's not about a human body discovering superpowers (a phenomenology), but about superpowers discovering and transforming a human body (an epistemology).

(That's also the reason, btw, why Affleck's Batman is so weird. In the absence of a superpower he loses all intrinsic value for Snyder, who has no eye for the specific melancholia / romanticism of basically all the earlier Batman solo films. When he tries to recreate it he falls back on tired stereotypes out of touch with the rest of his film, like Batman sitting high up there, overlooking the city. For Snyder, Batman makes only sense as a figuration of himself: an engineer of the spectacular always in danger of getting lost in his own schemes.)

This difference is not just one of narrative perspective, but constitutive for Snyder's image-making: Just like Superman's body is a medium for the exploration of superhuman strength, Snyder's films are vessels for the superpowers of high-budget digital imagery - that is, the films are not the powers themselves but experimental efforts to embody them, to translate them.

The biggest difference to the theatrical version is not the expanded Cyborg storyline, which is nice enough but maybe a bit too directly an expression of the digital sublime; but, once again, the way Snyder manages to make his cut much more about Superman (even the open matte framing only really clicked with me after the first true Superman closeups), to the point that a lot of this, especially the many scenes foreshadowing the resurrection, plays out like a religious parable.

The eruptive and obviously sexual release (the biggest flaw of the film might be that Cavill is not completely naked when being reactivated) delivers the other heroes not so much from trauma, but from interiority itself. Now their abilities can no longer be misread (by themselves as well as others) as coping mechanism and they, too, have access to the spectacular.

The question of how fascist all of this really is never completely fades away. Still, it's quite interesting that the first thing that happens after the resurrection is a fight among heroes. Even in the end, they cannot even begin to conceive of their abilities in terms of a greater good. The more discursive side of the film (all those strange voice-overs: who do they address?) stays completely fixated on self-determination the whole time, and maybe that is the political stake of the film: that the Justice League, the necessary transgression of individualism, can only be though of in terms of the otherworldly fantastical, unbound by any empiricism, be it psychological or sociological.

(On a side note, while I'm not all that curious about a post-apocalyptic Joker movie, what I really would love to see is a Snyder-directed WONDER WOMAN prequel set completely in Themyscira.)

Grand Piano, Eugenio Mira, 2013

Wonderfully bonkers hook and as long as this is just sub-Hitchcockian suspense mechanics, it runs along nicely (plus I was amused for quite a while about the thought of Elijah Wood as piano genius, not that it's completely unbelievable, I can see him obsessing just about anything, but it feels a bit like a fantasy life gone wrong); it becomes pretty clear pretty soon, though, that Mira isn't interesting in opening things up. The sole attempt at de Palma / Argento nastiness (the cello bow / knife match cut) is disappointingly tame and every outside event has to be matched, one for one, by character exploration. So in the end it's just another self-contained system, like so many recent genre exercises.

The Locket, John Brahm, 1946

In a key scene, Brian Aherne rushes back to a bombed out house he thinks Laraine Day, his wife, might be buried under. When he arrives, though, his eyes get stuck at a piece of jewelry stuck in the rubble, a bracelet that might be proof of her guilt, and this, her guilt, is his top priority, even in the face of her possible death. Throughout the film Day's evilness gains cinematic evidence almost exclusively in the actions and words of the men surrounding her.

This does not mean, of course, that she isn't evil, or that this is a film about the male "construction" of an evil woman. It's more about a cinematic investigation which is completely and hopelessly compromised from the start, contaminated by a primal evil that is itself outside of the scope of the film.

A top-tier psychopathology noir, in any case, and extremely good looking, too. The visuals build both on Musuraca's work with Lewton and Brahm's own gothic horror exercises - which were, however, probably really just this: exercises. This one is the real deal.

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, Kazuo Ikehira, 1964

Now this is something else. Zatoichi is truly a free agent by now, and he stumbles into adventure just by sitting down while trying to take a rest. Ikehiro's direction is once more top notch, although he does not take as many risks as in SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH 4. Here, it's mostly about finding a new, more direct approach to cinematic violence.

The action is varied and brutal and the forest setting lends this a visually distinctiveness most of the predecessors lack. Nature's protection isn't here to stay, though: while Zatoichi slashes his way through his opponents, the dark green glow of the trees slowly makes way for a barren wasteland.

Kisapmata, Mike de Leon, 1981

There's barbed wire on top of the door, and if it even opens up (most of the time, the blunt, helpless noise of the bell stays unanswered), the entryway is barely big enough for a small car. If you've made it inside, the maid will lock the door behind you immediately, eager to perform a duty no one appreciates. The house is greenish from the outside and even greener inside. It's never quite clear, at least in the restored version, if (or how much of) the green is a matter of lighting, of paint, or of decomposition.

If you make it inside (you'd better not, anyway), on the left side a small living room opens up, a small area of relative security and civility. The dominating sight, though, is a staircase leading to the first floor. A diagonal slicing the screen, and a passageway between utter despair and the illusion of safety. Below the staircase there's also a phone. Its ringing, like that of the doorbell, mostly stays unanswered, and once you're inside, you already suspect why: This is a self-contained system, and every channel of communication with the outside world will, sooner or later, prove to be an illusion.

Upstairs, to the left, Dadong lives. Better not even look at the door. Crossing over to the right, you reach another room. The room of the daughter of the house, a child's room that might feel bright and friendly at first, but that turns out to be, in fact, the worst room of all, a chamber of unspeakable horrors, a kernel of pure negativity that, slowly but surely, will take over the whole world.