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., 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.

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