Monday, February 01, 2021

Last two weeks in letterboxd

Bodyguard Kiba: Apocalypse of Carnage, Takashi Miike, 1994

Another 65 minutes of Miike filmmaking. As always, there's some surprising, off-beat stuff in here, starting with the atmospheric oceanscape beginnings, but in the end, he just doesn't have the resources, this time. Despite being set in three different countries, there's hardly a story and a general lack of purpose.

Passenger 57, Kevin Hooks, 1992

So you fancy yourself a big league international terrorist, but no matter what you do, the plane you've just hijacked always lands in Hicktown, Louisiana.

Brisk 90s action programmer, running mostly on wits and attitude, just like Snipes. The one-liners never stop, not even in the moment of victory, but it's not hard to see where the cynicism comes from. Hooks's matter-of-fact treatment of racists and racism enablers is extremely effective, especially when pitted against Bruce Payne's over-the-top performance. A film that knows everything there is to know about the limits of fantasy. (Another nice detail: Elizabeth Hurley, wonderful throughout, lusting after Snipes even while being shoved into the police car.)

The action comes in short bursts mostly, and doesn't make all that much use of the airplane setting. The best scene is set on ground anyway, at the amusement park, a controlled explosion of excess style in an otherwise perfectly economical film: a fluid, multi-faceted environment, a boundless space, the camera floating, in discovery mode, almost an ethnographic gaze, music emanating from color (shades of SOUTHERN COMFORT). Snipes is at first lost, but then he starts getting into the swing of things, on the Ferris wheel, on the carousel, vertical loops, horizontal loops, until he's in tune with his surroundings, ready to strike.

Utopia, Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1983

A short film about capitalism.

Peter Voss, der Millionendieb, E.A. Dupont, 1932

A wonderful cast, an all-pervading air of giddy, anything goes promiscuity, late-silent-era ornamental style fluidly translated into the sound era, two expansive musical show-stoppers, great camel stock footage - and still this somehow manages to end up mostly dull. It's all a bit too childish and literal, outside of the songs the music is mostly annoying and I guess the biggest problem is positing Forst as a Fairbanks-style comedy action hero, thereby stripping away all the layers of irony and melancholia that really make him great.

Buddha, Kenji Misumi, 1961

Daiei all-star spectacle, shooting for Hollywood bloat, but saved by a surprisingly austere sense of beauty. Not really at its best when Misumi tries to go full-scale De Mille. Fortunately he doesn't try very often; most of the time he sticks with more modest, fairy-tale like imagery.

I know next to nothing about Buddhist mythology, so I have no idea what to make of the awkward mixture of religious awakening narrative and "archaic" melodrama as well as of the fact that for the most part, Buddha is a rather peripheral presence in his own movie. Anyway, watching this from a 70mm print might make all the difference in the world.

Heidenlöcher, Wolfram Paulus, 1986

Holds up. Bits and pieces of a world of forestry and fascism. Inhabitable images, but people still live there.

Weathering With You, Makoto Shinkai, 2019

Probably as self-reflexive as a Shinkai film can get: changing the weather means not changing substance but adding something to a given entity, manipulating light and "atmosphere" - for example by adding several layers of CGI flurry over what still feels very much like a painted succession of animated world projections. And Shinkai sure is one of the best weather magicians around. In terms of pure craft I can't think of much mainstream computer imagemaking that comes even close to this (SPIDER-VERSE, for example, is clumsy and piece-meal by comparison). The first part especially, Hodoka's discovery of the city, is pure joy: different levels of sensuality, different access points to an ever-changing "reality" constantly collapsing into each other.

Later on, unfortunately, his new one just doesn't come together in an interesting way. He still knows how to push his buttons, of course: Young people in love, suspended in mid-air, the "camera" swirling around them, a rousing score - this is stuff Shinkai knows how to deliver like no one else. These kind of scenes, money shots for the young adult audience, are few and far between, though, and they feel disconnected from the rest of the film.

Shinkai is always curiously unwilling to really explore the strong emotions his films both evoke and insist on. There's way too much structure, way too much plot points... In YOUR NAME this somehow made sense because the pyrotechnics of metaphysical youthful romance, blown out of all proportions and therefore psychologically true, fed into a similar sense of totality as the doomsday storyline. This time, things just don't fit. The film is built around a slightly more mature idea of love - acceptance of the other, of separateness (and therefore eternal rain) instead of total devotion. There's a strong sense of melancholia in there, somewhere, but instead of exploring it, Shinkai buries it under layer over layer of often surprisingly awkward surface melodrama.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, diverse, 2018

Like a middling Adult Swim pilot blown up to blockbuster proportions, with all the self-optimization rhetorics, action-adventure mechanics and diversity as commodity streamlining that implies.

Have to add that I really hated the "naturalistic" character design, especially when it comes to facial movements, and this turned me against it pretty quickly. There clearly are some interesting things going on here in terms of aesthetics, but I just couldn't get over my initial aversion.

Liz and the Blue Bird, Naoko Yamada, 2018

A theater of feet. One of the many great things about this is how Yamada manages to turn the patterns of everyday life into a system of meaning that has its root in, but still transcends individual subjectivity. A bobbing ponytail, a fluttering skirt, or, again and again, shuffling feet: expressive details, which do not necessarily open up the interiority of the characters (this takes time and patience, which the film of course also has), but insist on the fundamental readability of the world.

First of all an extremely beautiful film, even more reduced and more precise than A SILENT VOICE. High School life as white-blue-greyish immanence, a world of separateness and funcionality, with all the big dreams and desires relegated to picture-book color explosions interludes. The few attempts at visual extravaganza later in the film, like the rack focus stuff during the orchestra performance, almost feel like an intrusion.

Still, I don't think there's much in recent cinema that is even half as affecting as the last "answer" of Nozomi's flute to Mizore's Oboe.

The Boy and the Beast, Mamoru Hosoda, 2015

Great as long as it's all about the boy and beast relationship: learning and unlearning, being transformed by an other's gaze. A bit disappointing when later on all of this turns out to be just a means to cope with "real life". There's a simplicity to the two-world structure that makes this feel more limited than other Hosoda films.

His more experimental side only really comes through in the final fight scenes: A digital black hole opening up in a solid, painterly body, sucking in matter, confronting representation with the lure of nothingness. Like a wound that is dangerous not because it hurts but because it negates blood.

Lu Over the Wall, Masaaki Yuasa, 2017

Don't stop the music, because if it stops, we will stop being one, our differences will reemerge, alongside a history of violence. Feet will transform into fins, complacency into hatred, and sooner or later everything will burn down. Only while we're all singing and dancing, the repressed is allowed to return, as the special, exotic ingredient added to our good times. This also means, of course, that from now on every party is a high-wire act, ready to be turned into a living, burning hell in a moment's notice.

The overeager and surprisingly uninventive blockbuster turn towards the end left me cold, unfortunately, but for at least an hour this feels truly major, like Yuasa's Miyazaki film, a freewheeling, open-ended metaphor attached to a genuine, uncynically cute setup.

Ride Your Wave, Masaaki Yuasa, 2019

Still awesome stuff in there, Yuasa's obsession with water and music is put to good use and the hidden in plain sight obscenity of the surf-the-ejaculation-finale is very much appreciated... and still, it's obvious that by now, Yuasa's move towards the mainstream starts delivering diminishing returns. It's not that he can't make a slick feelgood anime - in fact, he's almost too good at it, all those montage sequences and sentimental flashbacks come a bit too natural to him, while the darker ghost-story side doesn't have all that much aesthetic breathing room.

Mothra, Ishiro Honda, 1961

The most beautiful of monsters, not really attacking, but rather unfolding onto the world. Frankie Sakai knows from the start. Might be Honda's purest vision.

Black Report, Yasuzo Masumura, 1963

The second part of what seems to be Masumura's Black Trilogy (after BLACK TEST CAR and before BLACK REPORT) about capitalism as corruption and sex as commodity. This one is the densest, most claustrophobic of the three. It's set almost exclusively in two spaces: a cramped police station where the human form barely register between piles and piles of records, used to file away human experience into oblivion; and the courtroom, where bodies and especially faces themselves become oppressive, dominating and poisoning space.

It all feels a bit too mechanistic, and the element of erotic anarchy that makes Masumura's best films so special is completely missing; but the level of formal control is truly marvelous here.

Der Kaiser und das Wäschermädel, Ernst Neubach, 1957

The director Ernst Neubach worked on some great films as an author (including Sirk's LURED, Hochbaum's magnificent VORSTADTVARIETE and, a special favorite of mine, Oswald's WIEN, DU STADT DER LIEDER), and this one is indeed a bit livelier than most musical comedies from the era; especially the way songs often develop organically from social situations. Unfortunately, the songs aren't very good to start with and the rest of the script is downright terrible, Damar is a bore, Weck an asshole, and Grethe Weiser could almost be used as a terrorist threat. So that leaves us with not much more than some beautiful sets and Rudolf Vogel, who is, as always, a joy to behold.

Indian Diary, Michael Pilz, 2001

Filming means being in space. A space that eventually will contain bodies. Now imagine yourself to be the point in space those bodies gaze at. How to deal with this gaze, how to account for it, how to respond to it, how to avoid it?

Siberian Diary, Michael Pilz, 2003

This time, the starting point is not space, but a body that always already is there (in the image, not in space). In fact, space is, if anything, snow and ice, an unstructured nothingness there to be conquered or at least traversed. Space is a problem, even in wide-open Siberia it can become crammed. The door of the bus won't close.

Five Guns West, Roger Corman, 1955

Not all that well-made, though it almost makes up in weird psycho intensity for what it lacks in control and style. John Lund is the only pro, Dorothy Malone has expressive hair.

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