Thursday, March 18, 2021

last 2 weeks in letterboxd

The Polka King, Maya Forbes, 2017

Well made if completely by the numbers and lacking the extra spark of craziness of, say, the better Will Ferrell vehicles. Mostly glad to see Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman and J.B. Smooth again, though Jenny Slate clearly is MVP here.

Tea for Two, David Butler, 1950

A relaxed Doris Day has ample opportunity to employ her beautiful laugh, and the great supporting cast (De Wolfe, Sakall, Arden, Wymore) provides enough distraction to make up for the fact that Gordon McRae is just about the dullest male lead imaginable. Gene Nelson's dancing is way more athletic than elegant but impressive enough. Would love to see a film that really knows how to make use of him.

One of those films that feel enough like they could have been made up on the spot (a two sentence plot scribbled on a napkin tucked on a random selection of tin-pan alley scores lazily being handed around at a dinner party) to let one forget that they in fact have been made to death.

Welcome to Sudden Death, Dallas Jackson, 2020

Relaxed feel, some good performances and at times actually funny... so a pretty decent way to spend one's time if one accepts the fact that cinema is dead (managing to forget that the Hyams film exists might help, too). By now I indeed believe it is, but I guess I'm still not ready to accept all of the consequences. Anyway, before the switch to digital a film couldn't even look half as dull as this one even if it tried very, very hard.

Debt Collectors, Jesse V. Johnson, 2020

Runs smoothly on the considerable charms of the protagonists, but feels somehow much less specific than the first one. I guess the problem might be that it is a bit too content with being just a sequel, another job for the guy, while not really being interested in accumulating detail. The relaxed and resigned attitude is a given now and no longer tied to a specific place.

Still much to love, not the least an out of nowhere over the top performance by (I think) Charity Collins during the final shootout. She was born to blast away and the camera can't get enough from her doing so.

Blood Father, Jean-Francois Richet, 2016

A French production that believes more in American cinema than pretty much every recent American film I've seen over the last few years. A cinema of dusty, sun-burnt pulp archetypes, pretty ridiculous at times and without even a hint of irony to counteract the ridiculousness, but maybe that's the only way a story like this can work these days.

Tough little cookie Erin Moriarty may be even better than Gibson, though Gibson himself is pretty great, too: totally comfortable with embodying America's unenlightened self-image, obviously more interested in being a badass than a movie star (a clear sign: how long it takes for him to shave off his beard). The man obviously has issues to work through and Richet provides just the right kind of energetic post-Peckinpah genre nastiness to help him get back in the saddle.

Pretty much exactly the film LAST BLOOD should've been, too.

Acts of Vengeance, Isaac Florentine, 2017

Strange film. A straight-forward revenge tale unnecessarily and uneasily told through flashback, burdened with lots of pop-philosophical background noise and especially awkward voice-over... Quite a bit of misguided ambition, but also a sense of commitment normally completely foreign to a film like this (even to the still way too few other Florentine films I've seen; all of them better in what they do, but this one feels closer to his heart).

Banderas never seems quite comfortable with his role, the whole film could almost be described as him trying out different poses, but no, nothing really fits, neither the Fight Club masochism nor the training montage nor the spiritual redemption mechanics. The best part probably is him stopping to speak and turning into a sulky child, being mothered by Paz Vega, but only because this allows him to rest for a while. In the end nothing helps: He just can't be transformed into one of those aging, scarred b-movie vigilantes. Something about his eyes, his still way too handsome face, about his anger never quite ceasing to look like a stage trick, purely performative.

New Moon, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 2001

Trying to find a cinematic handle on the Moro conflict. Feels a bit unformed at first, there are some jarring stylistic diversions throughout and the discursive elements are a bit forced (with every major character a stand-in for either an ethnic-religious group, a political stance towards war, or both), but all of this mostly fades away during a long, hope- and aimless walk through the jungle. In the end this is all about trying to make tangible, even if only a little bit, what it means to exist, as a live, hurting, loving body, under a perpetual regime of civil war. Great close-ups.

The Green Slime, Kinji Fukasaku, 1968

Was a bit disappointed by the space opera part in the beginning, probably mostly because an MGM-Toei co-production obviously can't keep up with all the Ishiro Honda films I've seen lately when it comes to miniature works and pulpy matte paintings. Once everything is confined to the space station, this is a blast, though. Fukasaku's lively (and slightly pervy) direction, the bonkers monster design, the Horton and Jaeckel reluctant bromance... A film that knows how to milk a premise.

Adultery, Lino Brocka, 1984

Brocka soap opera about individual desire being shaped, channeled and thwarted by the hard power of economics and the soft power of family relations. In the end, male stubbornness and female adaptivity are just two equally inadequate reactions to a state of continuous societal breakdown.

A bit frustrating in its insistence on dramaturgic ploys like the courtroom scenes or the double life routine: Brocka knows how to make stuff like this work on a superficial level but has no interest whatsoever in turning it in something meaningful, so a lot of this is just treading water. Still, Vilma Santos is pretty good, especially in the domestic scenes with Salvador. Also, there are quite a few striking strictly observational scenes like the prisoners hanging out during work breaks, just a bunch of exhausted organisms without any kind of meaningful, self-determined agency, a ground zero of body politics.

An Indivisible Heaven, Mike de Leon, 1984

De Leon Soap Opera, twisted, stylish and fabulous. Here it's not external pressure that drive the drama, but the awkwardness inherent in being trapped in both a body and society. Master director that he is, Mike de Leon makes even the weaker parts of the script (like the sudden turn into DALLAS territory towards the end) work, while Christopher de Leon's performance is magnificent throughout. His uneasy courtship scenes with the "country girl" are especially pitch-perfect hilarious, the studied script of romance performed with even the slightest bit of conviction or ease. The slow drift towards intimate darkness, drowning faces in close-up, speaks of de Leon's penchant for horror.

Klassenkeile, F.J. Gottlieb, 1969

There's so much energy in these fundamentally immature Pauker films... in the end they almost always win me over, all the more when, like here, there's a surprisingly decent Walter Giller performance at the center of it all.

Karnal, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 1983

The kind of precious evocation of "primal" emotions that most of the time leaves me rather cold. The period setting seems to be mostly a pretense for falling back on archetypes and images of misery that at least look good and pure. Still, well-made for what it is, I guess.

Sleepy Eyes of Death 3: Full Circle Killing, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1964

The series settling into a more routine mode, leaving behind the lavish imagery of the first and the almost cartoonish stylization of the second entry. Now it's just about the no-nonsense delivery of particularly dark and misanthropic/misogynist b-movie routines.

(To me it's still up to debate how these post 1960 samurai films work in terms of gender - the often extremely disgusting violence can't be separated from the fact that women play a much bigger, and also more active role than in earlier jidaigeki, and also, for example, in classic westerns; still, I'd completely understand anyone who'd stop watching anything samurai related after the rape scene in here.)

This also lacks the stylistic coherence especially of the Misumi film. The magnificent fire and darkness finale makes up for a lot, though.

Death of Nintendo, Raya Martin, 2020

A relaxed film about volcanic eruptions. Completely comfortable in its nostalgic exploration of youthscapes, from swimming pools to basketball courts to locker rooms, and still there's also that one shot of two spiders fighting in close-up. (A nod to EVOLUTION OF A FILIPINO FAMILY?)

I, too, like how the film is reframed as Mimaw's story in the end, although what touches me most is the attentive and unobtrusive portrayal of Paolo's mother's loneliness.

The Tale of Zatoichi, Kenji Misumi, 1962

Like Mr. Euclid writes, this seems to be, at the core, less about the technique of samurai bloodshed and more about the idea of the master swordsman. What does it mean that in all these films there are one or two guys who effortlessly slice there way through dozens if not hundreds of opponents? How to built a genre, a world around that? Who can (and who can't) inhabit a world like this?

The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, Kazuo Mori, 1962

The one year later he returns to the same village and to the same woman storyline is a great setup for a sequel. Mori easily manages to make it stand its own - everything is smaller in scale, but also more private, Katsu's face is becoming much more important, and Wakayama is a memorable opponent. There's nothing like the all-out-brawl towards the end of the first one, but the prolonged fight scene at the end of this is someting else, too, a masterpiece of controlled Mise-en-scene - the way the film retreats from and closes back in on an ongoing battle... and then, after a night of somber reflections, a single, finale, decisive gesture...

Corte d'Assise, Guido Brignone, 1931

An aria superimposed with chopping wood, the town chatter cancelled out by bleating sheep, public announcements of plot points in image and sound. An experimental approach to talking pictures, embedded in a slightly confused whodunit.

Bridal Suite, Wilhelm Theile, 1939

Starts a bit lame and never quite manages to shake off the burden the production code placed on films like this one (although Thiele tries his best to suggest, in the end, that Young and Annabella did, in fact, sleep in the same bed). Still, the actors make it work, Young especially is pretty great because he's always a performer, no matter if his act is "international playboy" or "grudgingly giving in to societal pressure and getting a job". Thiele managing to squeeze Felix Bressart and Sig Arno into the plot is also highly appreciated, of course.

My personal highlight, though, is the fairytale production design once the film reaches the Alps, especially the back projection scenes high up in the mountain, a lofty combination of studio claustrophobia and natural beauty that somehow fits my personal experience of Switzerland.

La stella del cinema, Mario Almirante, 1931

...and then sound came to the pictures and, at least for a few years, everything turned weird and wacky and ridiculous and sexy and impure and chaotic.

Film is an industry, but cinema only happens when the assembly line grinds to a halt momentarily. A vernacular, low-level approach to image-making. In one especially touching scene a film shoot is recreated around a family dinner table, with a pepper grinder as a stand-in for the camera.

The Gentleman from Nowhere, William Castle, 1948

The identity confusion / stranger in my bedroom theme should be right up Castle's alley, the "becoming Warner Baxter" scene is indeed pretty great and Fay Baker has a marvelous b-movie face that should've been in many more films like this... unfortunately this somehow still ends up rather dull, with most of the runtime being consumed by a host of boring secondary characters trying to figure out the plot. A better transfer might help.

Female Ninja Magic: 100 Trampled Flowers, Chusei Sone, 1974

A film that uses several different comic sound effects for "penis moving inside vagina" will always be at least four star cinema in my book. The whole screen drowning in body liquids basically all the time helps too, of course.

Bituing Walang Ningning, Emmanuel H. Borlaza, 1985

And I need you now tonight
And I need you more than ever

It's lonely at the top, but it's lonely down below, too. Showbiz melodramas are almost always great and this one does not disappoint: we basically get, for two whole hours, wall to wall high-pitched power ballads, closet lesbian bitchfights and great makeup. Sharon Cuneta and Cherie Gil shine, of course, but I'm also partial to Christopher De Leon, who once again plays an inhibited pretty boy, a role that suits him well.

Terra madre, Alessandro Blasetti, 1931

Another interesting Blasetti film if not quite a revelation like RESURRECTIO. This is being described as a fascist adaptation of Soviet-style revolutionary realism, and this indeed at least partly fits a film that longs for a direct representation of "the people" (in its use of sound especially: an unruly force that has its source in the community more than in individuals) while at the same time framing them as elements to be disposed of, slotted in. Neither is the cleansing by fire scene in the end exactly subtle, falling perfectly in line with fascist propaganda: the destruction is blamed on the old, corrupt bourgeoise order, while the resulting utopian tabula rasa only belongs to the new, emerging streamlined society.

Still, on a scene by scene basis this doesn't really feel like totalitarian cinema. The acting especially comes from a completely different tradition: It's all about expressivity in a popular theater manner, and often just a few words by one of the more exalted peasants are enough to totally throw the proceedings off course. These guys still think of their lives in terms of traditional melodrama, and the film slowly but surely comes around to their perspective, too.

Harvest Home, Carlos Siguion-Reyna, 1995

One of those films that settle in a small world and start feeling claustrophobic as soon as you realize it's perfectly content with its outward limitations. The vector of inquiry always only leads inside, into the the self, the past, trauma. The switch into melodramatic overdrive about halfway in still took me by surprise, though.

Anyway, not badly made but not really my kind of movie, what kept me going were mostly the Snooky Serna close-ups, a fragile subjectivity running on fumes from the start, desperately clinging to her cigarettes.

Nurse's Sex Journal, Chusei Sone, 1976

Maria Mitsui is a fascinating presence, cold and slick and melancholic, her handling syringes almost makes one feel like in a Sato film. A shame she made so few movies. Otherwise this is a rather routine entry, lacking the unifying vision of the other Sone's I've seen. The late 70s seem to be the time when pinku sex scenes start being filmed increasingly like hardcore, just minus the genitals. In some cases this works well, here not so much. Still, you almost always can count on a few haunting interludes of musical melancholia in these films.

Tisoy!, Ishmael Bernal, 1977

So at the height of martial law Ishmael Bernal shot a Tati film on the streets of Manila. Not everything works (least of all the movie brat reflexivity), and technically something like the weirder Altman films might be a better comparison, but Altman is a cynic and Bernal is the opposite. It's all so generous and expansive, I couldn't stop thinking of Monsieur Houlot. A film to hang out in, two hours trenched in 70s warmth and Christopher de Leon dances the night away. And the day, too.

The Lodger, John Brahm, 1944

The world's a stage and everyone's a stock character from the start, having to act his part. Assigning a motive to a crime is just another stage trick. Brahm obviously loves those gothic theatrics, and this time he has a clever script and a wonderful cast to back him up.

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