Monday, December 07, 2020

last week in letterboxd

Satan's Sword III: The Final Chapter, Kazuo Mori, 1961

Not as elegant as the first two parts, with Mori often settling for showy camera movements instead of Misumi's precision framing (another telling sign: unlike in the first one, this time Ryunosuke's demons do materialize as phantom images, instead of haunting the dead space that is his face). The rousing, elemental showdown is worth the wait, though.

Toi... le venin, Robert Hossein, 1959

Hitchcock might be the more obvious influence, but the spirit is Bunuelian, with a relaxed psychosexual hangout vibe.

A Woman's Testament, Masumura / Ichikawa / Yoshimura, 1960

An omnibus film not so much "about women" as about the interrelationship of desire and money. The rating is only for the first part, by Masumura, by far the best of the three, a laconic, emotionally complex miniature about a female and a male hustler falling short of each other because they just can't quite manage to step out of their routine and out of their language. Punctured by a repeated shot of a Tokyo nightlife it might even benefit from the short running time because it allows Masumura to land his punches with less effort than in some of his other films.

For me, the other two really paled by comparison. The Ichikawa one is an exercise in style first and foremost, but too sketchy to go anywhere; and the Yoshimura one is sentimental fluff, somewhat elevated by a great Machiko Kyo performance.

Ball im Savoy, Steve Sekely, 1936

My very own comfort food. Stutters in the beginning, but after a while everyone finds his or her own groove. The Berkeley-style dance choreography (must've been one of the first German language musicals to try something like this for real) starts out almost touchingly inept, too, only to come into its own once Rosy Borsody takes center stage. Jaray mostly sleepwalks through his scenes; doesn't matter much, he'll always be Schubert to me, anyway.

The Ghosts of Kagami Pond, Masaki Mori, 1959

Another wonderfully lurid and atmospheric Shintoho horror film. Really need to check out more of these, there's an aggressive, confrontational quality that sets them apart from other Japanese films of the time, even a project as safely rooted in tradition as this one. Here, it's all about amping up the depravity - by introducing not just one, but multiple bad guys, by an abundancy of mugging and sneering, by an unwaivering commitment to a general air of sleaziness.

The very basic special effects and the low budget set design play right into this. Again and again the characters return to the same tiny stretch of Ghost Pond, trying to dump their dark secrets, only to get themselves sucked into it. A closed-off system, musty and perverse and strangely alluring.

Dumbo, both versions

Trunk on trunk we feel safe / Second time around and both the bad script and Burton's diligence register even stronger. All in all, not a good film, but a pleasant aesthetic object.

Wir machen Musik, Helmut Käutner, 1942

(Should I bump this up to 5 stars? Maybe next time.) One of the great musicals, one of the great romance films, and also, maybe first and foremost, one of the great domestic comedies. The constant transformation and (dramatic, emotional, sensual, erotic) mobilization of de Kowa's apartment is the true center of the film, everything evolves around the domestic space. Only here are de Kowa and Werner able to discover and transform each other, and even the (great) revue finale is all about closing in on the apartment's most important element - the piano, the instrument that embodies both their togetherness and their separateness, their (mostly her) orgasms and their (mostly his) delusions.

Ironfinger, Jun Fukuda, 1965

Very pleasant faux internationalist spy film (with even a single line of German thrown in). The Bond influence is everywhere of course, but still, this is not only much more fun than the bloated originals, the direction and overall production design is also much more solid than in most Eurospy cheapos. Fukuda keeps up the pace, and instead of going all in on the zaniness, he makes every gimmick count, even if some of the potentially more frivolous scenes (the one with the plastic explosive making its way from Hama's bra into Takahada's mouth, for example) remain underdeveloped. The "jumping barrels" finale has a nice, understated surrealist feel.

The Demon of Mount Oe, Okuzo Tanaka, 1960

Japanese cinema is always richer than one thinks and this special brand of fantasy period piece special effects extravaganza was completely new to me. In the beginning, the heaven opens up, pure color invades the world, a sky-oxen stomps on a cloud ... an all-out attack of screen-busting artifice that would've felt at home in Tsui Hark's GREEN SNAKE / THE LOVERS phase. All in all, though, Tanaka is much more of a pragmatist than Tsui: SFX as the art of the possible. A modern day Melies, maybe. Later on it's often just simple stop tricks, pyrotechnics, even suit-motion - whatever works to spectacularly animate what basically is an (extremely well-acted) morality tale with political implications: how to fight evil, at what costs, with what kind of allies etc.

Million Dollar Mermaid, Mervyn LeRoy, 1952

Am Strand von Boston da ging sie spazieren...

(Rote biopic tropes? Yes sir, en masse. I don't care at all, though. What is cinema if not the promise of a new, exciting body shining through the tedium?)

The Embryo Hunts in Secret, Koji Wakamatsu, 1966

A masterpiece of low-budget production design, starting with the "rain" thrown at the camera at the beginning. Later, what defines the film is the aquatic shadow play on the apartment's wall: a marinade, or a lotion, capturing and transforming the body, divorcing it from spirit until we're left with nothing but bottled-up paranoia in liquid interiors. Or rather: the world itself is the bottle, but the liquid is on the outside, filmed as if from an impossible place of blind and numb firstness. From the inside looking in.

Strange Days, Kathryn Bigelow, 1995

Had either forgotten or never realized that Juliette Lewis wears a de facto confetti dress in the end.

Mank, David Fincher, 2020

Many people on here, at least in my timeline, seem to be unwilling to take on MANK on its own terms. Which is, of course, perfectly legitimate sometimes, there clearly are quite a few films that make me react that way, too. What I don't really get, though, is the complaint about it not having a theme or center - often, and here too, a clear indication that something interesting is going on. The CITIZEN KANE revisionism indeed is a mere afterthought, but to me it's truly fascinating that for most of the runtime what we get are political maneuverings adjacent rather than directly related to moviemaking, maneuverings that could result just as easily in a hack work, a masterpiece, or no film at all.

One consequence of this indifference towards the product is that the implicit (and often explicit) pro-corporate bias evident in most Hollywood self-portrayals, including quite a few I love much more than MANK, is completely absent. The higher-ups are the assholes, just like in every other big company (Mayer's first big scene, the passage through the studio space, is shot like a malicious parody of a Sorkin style walk and talk), this is a given and the question of what it means artistically is not even explored. There's no sense of film history moving forward at all, and the strange, inconsistent stylistic choices might even play into this. Of course the film knows we know about KANE, and I guess it's one of the more poignant ironies of the script that its absent center is a larger than life closing in on the psychic structure of the very toxic entertainment/politics sociotope Fincher covers from an entirely different angle. (One thing that both films do have in common, though, is a sense of humor, and this is worth a lot; the first half of MANK is the funniest new film I've seen in quite a while.) (The only other film that gets more than a passing mention is WIZARD OF OZ - which is used mostly as a setup for a joke about Mervyn LeRoy's name.)

Also, I mostly like Oldman. His (and the film's) only truly bad moment is the dinner table showdown that not only makes him look like a whiny asshole but also tarnishes CITIZEN KANE much more than the tongue in cheek Welles stuff, because the film Mank makes up on the spot really sounds like self-righteous bullshit of the highest order. Of course Oldman is showy throughout, but for most of the runtime his mannerisms come across either as desperate (in the flashbacks, as long as he's still trying to fit in) or as helpless (while writing CK, bound to his bed and cushioned by a thoroughly feminized wide-angle space). Because of this it makes a lot of sense, I think, to put Mankiewicz against Thalberg more than against Hearst and Mayer; the latter especially is all caricature, so much so that some of his scenes have a borderline antisemitic feel. Mank and Thalberg, on the other hand, recognize themselves in each other: two different modes of compromise, two geniuses swallowed up by the system in vastly different ways. Both of them know that it wouldn't have taken much for both of them to switch sides.

Oldman's and the film's most beautiful moments arrive when he sidesteps office politics for platonic flirts with (the very good) Seyfried - the walk through the zoo at Hearst Castle, especially: this is indeed pretty much exactly the kind of scene Classical Hollywood excelled in and Post-Classical Hollywood is virtually incapable of putting together. That it comes out of nowhere just adds to the charm.

Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941

Great film imo.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

last week in letterboxd

Wolves, Pigs & Men, Kinji Fukasaku, 1964

The youngest brother is all energy, an organic part of the chaotic world he's living in, hanging out with his equals in the rubble (always surprising just how fucked-up parts of Tokyo still looked in the 1960s), most of the time just kicking and screaming, but sometimes they slide down the concrete ramp next to the river and start singing a song.

The eldest brother is all control, bound by Yakuza hierarchy and interpersonal obligations; he's just as much rooted in the world around him, but with him, the connection doesn't come natural anymore, everything is codified and translates as pressure weighing down on his tired face.

The middle brother, though, is different: a free agent inserted in shifting alliances, a lover who dreams of far-away places, while the world in front of him is just an image behind the sunglasses, something to mold after his own desires.

Waterloo Bridge, Mervyn LeRoy, 1940

Doesn't lose one bit the second time around. Once again absolutely enchanted by what LeRoy does with Leigh's eyes. Prostitution is all about the gaze and only the gaze ... not about an exchange of gazes, though, about gaze as communication, but about a series of lonely gazes, through which a woman learns to see (and unsee) the world anew, with us as her sole witness. If this isn't proof of the power of movies, I don't know what is.

Varan, Ishiro Honda, 1958

Varan is distracted by light, he gazes enraptured towards light, he even eats light, and of course he also dies by light! How can I not love him.

Barbara - Wild wie das Meer, Frank Wisbar, 1961

Looping back to Barbara, always a good idea, and she's always right there, on her island, waiting.

(Would love to see a D'Amato remake of this, but maybe I already have, several times.)

Black Line, Teruo Ishii, 1960

Absolutely wonderful playful gutter sleaze centered on a journalist who one day wakes up in bed next to a dead woman - with his hands still clutching the tie that killed her!

The following complications include wacky street scenes, a dollmaker cum drug dealing cum prostitution hub, an excellent action showdown on top of a moving train, and especially lots of spectacular body vistas: an extremely curvaceous nightclub performance, limbs extended towards the camera, an appreciative tilt over four female stomachs ("Women don't feel the cold, they have an extra layer of fat") and especially lots of women's legs, often doubling as framing devices.

Pretty pervy stuff, yes, but with a joyous, anarchic, licentious tilt. Amachi's journalist is both player and a plaything himself, he never truly commits to the male gaze the film seems to invite, there's something slippery about him and about the camera, too, and maybe that's why all those women constantly come up with new ways of pinning him, it, us down.

Applause, Rouben Mamoulian, 1929

Still wondering why this isn't universally admired, as, say, the missing link between Sternberg's late silents and the precode Warner backstage masterpieces from the early 30s. Or just as one of the great New York films.

Und damit tanzen sie noch immer, Marijana Stoisits, Michael Rabe, 1987

In this one, a pair of leather boots is made. Again something I could never not want to watch, and these boots also made me think of the worth and nature of ornaments. Technically, the ornamental stitches the shoemaker adds to an otherwise functional design even hurt the shoe, piercing its surface, endangering its structural integrity, but they are also the shoe's prime connection to their maker. He makes them his own by wounding them. Also, this was the last pair of boots made by this particular shoemaker. I don't think any fictional film can possibly approach a similar sense of finality.

The Flame of Devotion, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1964

The bodies of two lovers pressed against each other while a train is rushing by just inches past them: Intimacy on borrowed time, with every gesture, every gaze intensified but also undercut by anxiety. The war is far away, elsewhere, and still it curses and enchants every single aspect of the world.

One of Kurahara's best. The rather old-fashioned literary sensibility suits him surprisingly well, maybe also because by 1964 he already has the freedom (and the right actress) to fully explore the sensual aspects of desperate love. The glow of Ruriko Asaoka's body, emerging from the dark waters, two bodies losing themselves in the moist grass: Here, he finally manages to come up with the images THE WOMAN FROM THE SEA only hinted at. Sometimes I even thought of Borzage's THE RIVER: The closed-off world of romance and the bottomless mysteries of nature, the liminal railroad bridge as the only point of entry and departure.

One of the most elaborate Nikkatsu productions I've seen so far, too. Intricate sets and lots of spectacular location footage, dynamic widescreen framing, several helicopter shots ... and all of this feels much more of one piece, less confrontational than in other Kurahara films.

Without Reservations, Mervyn LeRoy, 1946

Still a wonderfully bonkers script, still not all that well rounded, especially on the dialogue level, still very pleasant nonetheless because Colbert (especially) and Wayne make it work. They just look so comfortable snuggling up in the front seat of a car. They might very well have bonded over their mutual conservative politics which are clearly present in the script, but not necessarily in a very clear-cut manner. The film works both as a mockery of New Deal idealism and as a cautious shot at restoring it, on slightly different terms.

Am Stein, Othmar Schmiderer, 1997

A beautiful documentary, switching back and forth between observational, discursive and impressionistic approaches, about one of the more remote parts of the Austrian Alps and the last few traditional farmers trying to make a living there. Tourism is encroaching anyway, of course, and the film leaves no doubt as to where its sympathies lie, but in the end this isn't about an endangered or already lost paradise and not even (like the magnificent HIMMEL UND ERDE, an obvious precursor) about an endangered or already lost way of life. It's more about leaving behind anthropocentrism, about pitting men (and rather few women), animals and nature against each other in new, surprising way. Not quite sensory ethnography yet, but maybe born from a similar feeling of inadequacy.

My Buddy, Steve Sekely, 1944

Might be interesting to dive a bit deeper into wartime + war-themed b-movies. The few I've seen here and there are often pretty strange and this still is one of the strangest. Didn't know it was written by the later blacklisted Arnold Manoff ... at the very least it's a film that has lots to say even if none of it may be all that clearly articulated.

Satan's Sword, Kenji Misumi, 1960

A crowded plot coming alive thanks to stylish widescreen framing and Ichikawa's supremely psychotic presence. A face that acts as a portal to negative space.

Ein Lied, ein Kuss, ein Mädel, Geza von Bolvary, 1932

Like blahr writes: Those 10-15 minutes in the record store before Fröhlich enters and spoils everything indeed might be thought of as the perfect Weimar era multicamera workplace sitcom pilot that never was.

Satan's Sword: The Dragon God, Kenji Misumi, 1960

The nihilistic psycho-horror feel that gave the first one a special edge is mostly absent here, but as complex, varied and extremely stylish swordfighting / adventure filmmaking it works well enough.

The Silence of Green, Andreas Horvath, 2002

Made me long for the grassy hills of the British countryside, but I don't know, aside from that this feels completely misguided. Or rather, I just don't know what to make of it. Clearly Horvath doesn't really believe in the conspiracy theories he gives voice to, here? And if he doesn't, why make the film at all, let alone at a time when the Foot-and-mouth disease outbreak is still under way? I'm sure that lots of valid criticism could be (and in fact has been) levelled against both the government response to the outbreak and the economic system that gave rise to the problem in the first place. So, again, why single out the non-valid criticism while turning up, at the same time, the pastoral pathos of both sounds and images to eleven?

Maybe it's just because I saw this in the midst of another epidemic, with conspiracy theories multiplying faster than ever ... I really can't stand this kind of opaque, smug, sub-Straubian radicalism right now.