Tuesday, September 15, 2020

last 2 weeks in letterboxd

Tokyo no koibito, Yasuki Chiba, 1952

There's Setsuko Hara hanging out with a bunch of benevolent street urchins; Mifune being eye candy, winning a drunken street brawl filmed in jidaigeki style and spotting an apron at one point; pachinko balls flip-flopping through the streets of Tokyo; jewelry both fake and real frequently changing hands and causing havoc; people turning into caricatures and caricatures turning into people; and, to cap things off, an underwater ballet at the bottom of Tokyo Bay.

Unfortunately there's also quite a bit of dead air and in the end the whole might be a bit less than the sum of its parts. Still, nice to get a glimpse of a part of Japanese 50s cinema normally completely invisible from Western eyes.

Stranger, Shunichi Nagasaki, 1991

V-cinema take on DUEL that somehow manages to be both economical and open-ended. Nagasaki also makes great use of the blank canvas that is Yuko Natori's face. Switching back and forth between tense genre scenes, moody roadtrips through nighttime Tokyo powered by an awesome, minimalist synth score, and deadpan scenes of female loneliness in a world of men. Pretty awesome stuff.

Trauma, Dario Argento, 1993

Not always clear if it's the chaotic Mise en scene or the obviously botched Bluray transfer that renders many scenes downright unintelligible. Of course, Argento always profits more than most from 35mm (someday, hopefully...), and he also more often than not strives on chaos. Here, too: A full-blown operatic, anorexia-themed wide-angle horror film about Asia-Aura, the child-woman ghost from old europe invading (mostly) suburban Minnesota. While the daughter never quite comes into view, the father loses himself in a swamp of gimmickry and trolling: A murder weapon from the more obscure sections of the DIY store, the nerdy boy next door in cahoots with the insect world, both a Donaggio score and several Hitchcock homages that seem to be primarily designed to piss off De Palma, while Laura Johnson obviously is only in the film for that one shot of her tits bathed in golden light. Gothic dreams of junk-food culture. Anyway, I'll take messy, unhinged stuff like this over late 70s art school Argento any day.

Orchids Under the Moon, Takashi Ishii, 1991

What is it with Japanese cinema and dismal loneliness? There's a certain kind of urban despair I only find in post 1970s Japanese films: people holed up in run-down apartments, at the same time too close to and totally disconnected from city life; paranoid when alone and irritable when with company (but often still clinging to each other, despite themselves, sex without seduction); stationary heating and instant ramen; exterior staircases and unstable safety chains; ugly carpets and thin walls.

It's a pretty specific look / feel, a strand of modernity that has run its course and now everything is stuck and outdated, it hurts but you can't get away from it. ORCHIDS UNDER THE MOON is a prime example, extra dreary because shot on video, doughy faces in close-up, people bleeding on each other, fruits turning into metal. Kimiko Yo introduces a sense of faux excitement for a while but it's obvious from the start she isn't built to last, either.

Jetzt und alles, Dieter Meier, 1981

Richy Müller: another cruelly underused asset, especially in his early years. How the hell could he not follow this up with a string of increasingly baroque gangster films?

Kekko Kamen, Hikari Hayakawa, 1991

Aggressively styleless Japanese shot in video camp that, I guess, delivers what it sets out to deliver, but overstays its welcome even with a 54 minutes running time.

The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio, Takashi Miike, 2016

Like in the predecessor, there's pretty straight-forward, routine genre storytelling under the no holds barred surface, to the point of this sometimes coming off as faux anarchism (unlike in films that really let go, like YAKUZA APOCALYPSE or LIKE A DRAGON). Thanks to Ikuta's committed performance (basically: dick and brain constantly short-circuiting with the result being projected onto his extremely malleable face) I enjoyed the sex comedy parts much more than the Yakuza parts that feel like Miike just treading water. The Hong Kong setting is mostly wasted, too. Anyway, the tiger finale sure is worth the wait.

Lo spettro, Riccardo Freda, 1963

That scene of Barbara Steele looking out of the window: there is, indeed, a world out there, gleaming with light. When she steps outside a little bit later, for the only time in the film, she is completely lost, though. The rest of the time, this is about four people locked in a castle and their own obsessions.

More rounded and not quite as lurid as other Freda horror films, but just as dark. Gothic horror as a claustrophobic doomsday machine, a slow-burn of madness that no one will escape from. The imagery is very primal, a direct inscription of evil: the camera tracing shadows alongside walls, the lens flooded with blood.

The Thick-Walled Room, Masaki Kobayashi, 1956

On the one hand, this is the kind of film people sometimes wrongly accuse Kurosawa of making: self-serious, tortured humanism assisted by overblown, sometimes pompous imagery. On the other hand, the commitment is clearly real and the whole thing is interestingly messy. Not a well-ordered text, but a series of distinct outcries, some of them touching, some a bit obnoxious. Also a good eye for faces. In the end I guess I'm just not in the right mood for Kobayashi right now.

Death Laid an Egg, Giulio Questi, 1968

Reminds me a lot of Petri's A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY: Another arty sort-of-giallo enthusiastically replacing the more modest, but also more open-ended genre thrills with the director's ramblings on the state of modernity. In this case something about how the commodification of the body goes goes along with its compartmentalisation, until there's nothing left but the part-objects of fantasy play on the one side and pure, unfeeling biomass on the other.

Like with the Petri, this often looks fantastic (if not quite as spectacular; but a 35mm print might change that), but almost from the start it feels like a zero-sum game: freewheeling aesthetics in service of a closed-off intellectual system. The white room sequence for example is a great idea in theory, and reminded me a bit of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL; but without any investment in the characters, it mostly falls flat.

In the end I still enjoyed this a bit more than A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY, because it really is funny at times, and also sexy.

Invisible Target, Benny Chan, 2007

Early in the film Nicholas Tse turns into his own ghost to bemoan his fiancee who was killed in the first of many perfectly executed action setpieces. With that out of the way, the rest is just male bodies at the edge, physically as well as emotionally. Violence as a bond, connecting friends, but also enemies. I killed your brother so that you'll always think of me. In the end we'll all be smeared with tears and blood and it will rain splintered glass, ashes, and money.

So sad there won't be many more (if any) films like this in the future now that one of the last masters is gone, but I guess every form has its time and place; INVISIBLE TARGET has to pay its dues to the new millennium, too, here and there, especially when it comes to the color grading, the only reason this isn't a five star film.

Don't skip the stunt reel in the end, they really earn it, especially Nicholas Tse.

Meow, Benny Chan, 2017

Actually quite sweet once it starts using Xi Xili as a melodramatic rather than comedic device: a spectator witnessing and sometimes healing the deformations of a Chinese middle class family. Unfortunately Chan takes quite a bit of time to get there, and the first half hour is pretty much unbearable, just one botched attempt at all-out silliness after the other.

Running on Empty, Sidney Lumet, 1988

Simply one of the all-time greats and a good example for why films sometimes are better off with scripts that aren't all that smart or nuanced. This hits so hard precisely because everything is rather clear-cut and idealized. No moral reckoning, no painful introspection, just bodies lost in affect.

In the end this is a special film because it finds the essence of not one, but two actors so perfectly that you just know that, whatever else will happen, they'll always have this, they were caught in their prime, unaware, and nothing can make this vanish. Every single scene with Plimpton and Phoenix... I actually think she's even greater than he is (maybe just because she has the easier role: all attitude in the beginning, and then gradually letting lose; he, on the other hand, has to work overtime to be an angel throughout). While he sometimes reverts to stage tricks, her performance is completely rounded. Her voice, the clarity of her pronunciation, the way she says words like "certifiable"...

The Possessed, Fraco Rossellini & Luigi Bazzoni, 1965

Trying to recreate the pureness of the voyeuristic gaze, but finding yourself trapped in a maze of sleazy rumors and unruly desires. The images used to be at your disposal, but now the tables have turned and you are at their mercy, haunted day and night by faces that read you more than you read them. The hotel, too, isn't a space of abstract desire anymore, but suddenly too close to home, a private ghost behind each corner.

Arty sixties thrillers (in this case very much Antonioni adjacent, Resnais is in there, too) often go on my nerves, and this one does too, sometimes, but more often than not it stays close enough to the pulpy energy at its core to keep the interest up.

Burden of Love, Yuzo Kawashima, 1955

Can one get impregnated by a drum solo over the phone? Kawashima's film makes a pretty good case for it. An extremely fertile comedy, editing as displacement activity, pheromones are everywhere, though seldom exactly where one wants them to be.

"Whenever you say something, the conversation gets derailed."

T-Wo-Men, Werner Nekes, 1972

Textile erotica for the tactile gaze, sex no longer a game of hide and reveal, but a constellation of different surfaces. Skin is just another texture and the body just another contingency, sometimes establishing itself, always like out of nowhere, in the realm of the eye.

Invisible Man Appears, Nobuo Adachi, 1949

Nothing new under the sun but very charming, an enthusiastic entry in a rather lovely tradition. Not quite as quirky / pulpy as Oda's 1954 version, a bit more basic, focusing strictly on the premise itself, meaning the invisible man gets a lot of invisible screen time, and also several pov shots. Some of those lingering, voyeuristic long takes, when it's no longer completely clear whether we are still seeing through invisible eyes or whether we are just a bit too curious, are quite interesting, though we're of course not yet in Verhoeven territory here. Also, once again, at some point perfectly visible people start dressing up as invisible men, an absurdist concept that might have never been quite properly exploited by cinema.

In the Folds of the Flesh, Sergio Bergonzelli, 1970

A gratuitous shower scene - set in Auschwitz! Say what you will, no one does exploitation quite like the Italians. Only my second Bergonzelli, and he really is something else, there's certainly a method to his madness, even if it's not always clear what method exactly. Here, the plot makes close to zero sense, especially the piled-up twists towards the end. Turns out that someone is or isn't someone else's mother and this changes either everything or nothing.

Before that, in a castle over the sea filled with lots of stylish stuff, people are killed here and there, with the bodies either dissolved into yellow (!) liquid or buried so shallow the vultures get (very) nervous. The mood is frenetic, unstrung and horny, but the film isn't really in a hurry - when Fernando Sancho reenters the scene, things virtually grind to halt, and gets what feels like a full half hour to sully and molest everything in his reach, climaxing in a bathtub scene for the ages.

Die Sieger, Dominik Graf, 1994

The wounds that heal and the ones that don't. Of its time (hard-edged Katja Flint erotica), some missed opportunities (soft-edged Meret Becker erotica), and sometimes not much more than a first draft for more concise small-screen work. But the highs are very high.

Hot Saturday, William A. Seiter, 1932

Could be interesting to chart some kind of "road to screwball" throughout the precode era. This one certainly would be on there, somewhere. At times it plays just like a remarriage comedy with a not yet fully-formed Cary Grant, Nancy Carroll as a more mischievous Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott in the Ralph Bellamy role. But the focus is still on questions of public morality (here with a surprisingly licentious twist) instead of self-image. Almost as if the change from precode to screwball isn't about disowning, but about internalizing sex.

Anyway, the dialogue isn't always good enough to make this really fly; that scene with Scott looking at Carroll waking up naked under a blanket makes up for a lot, though.

Crime Hinter, Soshimichi Ohkawa, 1989

Big Trouble in Little Tokyo! Supposedly the film that made V-cinema blow up, a delightful absurdity completely sealed off from any kind of social reality, and just 58 minutes long, which certainly is a big plus. Cannon/Orion style american 80s action is obviously the biggest influence (both male leads seem to have watched FIRST BLOOD a few times too often...), but this also evokes heroic bloodshed, Spaghetti western, Blaxploitation (!), Sonny Chiba films etc. All of this (plus an extra dose of sexism) bundled in a neat pulpy package of artificial lightning and creative gunplay. Like most pre 2000 japanese genre films, it is much more stylish than similar films made almost anywhere else.

Sixty Six, Lewis Klahr, 2015

Another great last film of the 20th century. Maybe the greatest, or at least the very last. An overwhelming sense of loss and finality, calendar sheets soaked with tears and injections that can't be undone.

Like Al Green sings, ain't it funny how time just slips away.

Going Wild, William A. Seiter, 1930

Rather basic even for a Joe E. Brown film, much less charming than the similar TOP SPEED. Easily out-mugging Brown, Laura Lee is pretty out there as the love interest, not necessarily always in a good way, but she kind of beats you down, and fits in with the general tone of heightened silliness of the last 20 minutes.

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, Tomu Uchida, 1955

Gentle comedy about fake spears, true lies and diarrhea, fueled more by philosophical despair (and sake and exquisite acting) than by a coherent plot. The dark turn in the end is astonishing. On the one hand it completely comes out of nowhere, on the other hand it completely makes sense because once your inner connection to a system of absolute loyalty you built your whole life around is gone, there probably really is nothing left to do but to fight some random bullies to the death.

Black Emanuelle, Bitto Albertini, 1975

Strangely enough I didn't realize I had seen this before until a random garden shot towards the end. Goes to show that this isn't exactly chock-full of highlights, although a naked Karin Schubert being turned into a zoopraxiscope study by an also naked Gemser certainly counts as one. The mood is colonial boredom and Albertini's direction is mostly dull, save for a few energy boosts like that piston-enforced gangbang train ride late in the film, that almost feels like a coda, coming along after Emanuelle already has decided to call it quits this time.

L'ultima neve di primavera, Raimondo Del Balzo, 1972

The art of dying young, cute, and blond.

100% cultural-industrial fluff, of course, but mostly holds up on second viewing. Just so maliciously wholesome, the way the touristic imagery is mobilized, again and again, to raise the stakes, to make the final downfall all the harder. Nature knew all along!

Also, that scene when the boy touches the image of his mother is touched, a bit later, by her image (and the image of her successor), through the light thrown by the film projector...

Sister Emanuelle, Giuseppe Vari, 1977

Well-made and funny, a nice surprise. Gemser was born to wear a white nun's habit, and she was even more born to take it off, elegantly and methodically, as she does several times over the course of the film.

Resolute blue-eyed Swiss girl Mónica Zanchi is wonderful, too. Gemser witnessed every atrocity d'Amato threw at her in his own 1977 Black Emanuelle films without batting an eye, but Zanchi, the brat, really got to her!

Till We Meet Again, Tadashi Imai, 1950

Like in THE BLUE MOUNTAIN, Imai's political fervor rather naturally translates into sensual intensity. The love story heightens the stakes of the anti-fascism (with class-difference lurking very much in the foreground as secondary theme) just as much as vice versa. In the end, what stays is the romantic stuff, though: Hand touching hand in an air-raid bunker (once again the WATERLOO BRIDGE influence), the first date of the lovers on the park bench, with Yoshiko Kuga giggling for joy, the first kiss through the glass plane and the second kiss (camera closing in) without the glass plane, later on a make-believe marriage like in a Borzage film shortly before he has to go off towards war...

The scenes with Okada and his buddies are interesting, too: remnants of a boheme lifestyle during wartime. For them, death on the battlefield is a very real prospect, but at the same time it still can be repurposed as an object of dilettante musings.

Emanuelle in Bangkok, Joe D'Amato, 1976

Emanuelle enters a hotel room. Let's see what happens next!

Breezy and often rather sweet compared to the later ones. D'Amato's unconditional love for style makes all the difference.

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