Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Last week in letterboxd

Sleepy Eyes of Death 13, Kazuo Mori, 1969

SLEEPY EYES without actual sleepy eyes. Since this was released less than three months after Ichikawa's death, it is safe to assume that it still was developed with him in mind as the protagonist. Now it's Hiroki Matsukata, trying to emulate both a character and an actor. In a way he's a walking ghost from the start, a placeholder wrestling with the fact that he is of course also a corporeal entity in its own right.

The result is a wooden, mask-like (he also uses much more make-up than Ichikawa) but not completely unappealing performance. Matsukata very much lacks the eternally boyish charms of Ichikawa, who managed to lend even the most appalling acts the air of youthful pranks. Matsukata's stoicism is of a different kind: a hint of tortured interiority hidden behind a decidedly aggressive facade.

With him, the series probably couldn't have gotten away with nearly as much cynicism ... although by this time, the series luckily manages to stay clear of its very worst (=rapey) instincts anyway. Plus this one actually has both one of the best plots of the series (involving an evil Tokugawa Ieyoshi doppelganger) and restraint expert staging by Kazuo Mori who manages to astonishing things with shadow here.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Paul W.S. Anderson, 2016

First time around I watched a shitty screener version, which is seldom a good idea and positively lethal here because this one is more about texture and visceral impact than anything else. The fast cutting (much faster or at least more jarring than in MONSTER HUNTER, btw) perfectly blends with the set design, all crumbling darkness illuminated only by patchy, ghost-like isles of glow, splintering the world into an assemblage of detail that no longer privileges a single perspective but asks for a constant readjustment of the gaze if one wants achieve at least some form of, ever unstable, sense of being in time and space.

It's as if Anderson finally acknowledges that light equals power and therefore has to be attacked from a position of darkness, or, maybe more precisely, chiaroscuro. Indeed, every time visibility is restored and the kind of hyperreal, intensified renaissance perspective sets PWSA normally loves more than anything else threaten to establish themselves, it's high time for Milla and company to look for a way out. At the same time, the status of the surveillance / data imagery thrown in every now and then is no longer a given, because Umbrella is no longer identical with itself. With the decline of Anderson's stable, constructivist, simulationist Mise-en-scene, the possibilities of different, ever more hybrid forms of emancipative computer visuality emerge.

For now, though, what's left is a relentless forward drive, a not unified but unidirectional movement that sweeps away everything and everyone. And still, what gives the movie form is a series of deviations from this movement, a rerouting of force: into the tank, up the tower, down the hatch. In fact, this is what Umbrella doesn't get: It's not about defining the movement (the constant speed of the tank, the exact calculation of its completion), but about swirling around it, making use of the friction it creates, riding it like a wave. This is, of course, what Alice does.

Sleepy Eyes of Death 14, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1969

And I thought the series had smoothed over its rougher edges. The last entry features a beguiling visual dramaturgy, from the shadowy nighttime beginning, outlining just a few faces here and there to the cruel visibility of daytime mayhem, as well as some extremely inventive Ikehiro staging, like the scene in which Nemuri stoically keeps walking down stairs, doing away with a whole bunch of bad guys without even turning his head once; and it also goes completely ballistic in terms of misogyny and sexual violence.

This basically is a pinku rape movie coupled with self-conscious action movie toughness, an extremely ugly mixture ... that also may be able to shed some light on an underlying sexual paranoia haunting Japanese cinema at least since the mid sixties. Still, the only thing that makes this halfway bearable is historical distance.

The Man from Yesterday, Berthold Viertel, 1932

Some of the Colbert / Boyer scenes are nice, especially her farewell gaze when his train is leaving, the cut to him, sitting in his compartment, seeing his world drift away... But aside from that Viertel (who made the great PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK a few years later) doesn't connect at all with the material and as soon as Clive Brooks takes center stage again this pretty much sinks, with the melodrama unfolding strictly on the level of stage mechanics, never being allowed to take deeper roots in the image.

Mission: Iron Castle, Kazuo Mori, 1970

Really didn't expect this. The last SHINOBI NO MONO film, with Hiroki Matsukata inheriting yet another lead role from Raizo Ichikawa ... and it's by far the best film in the series. Kazuo Mori, about to transfer to television, really through everything into this one: a masterpiece of kinetic elegance, the apotheosis of Daiei black and white action aesthetics.

Ditching the history lessons as well as the at times baroque approach to character design of its predecessor, this is straight-forward team-on-a-mission Ninja filmmaking, moving with ease from set-piece to set-piece, making perfect use of the monochromatic weightlessness of the scope framings. Mori uses low angles and foreground elements like grass and shrubbery to great effect, with the action often starting out as a mere allusion, a rumbling in the fabrics of things, before moving towards ever greater clarity. And while he usually opts for a clean, spare style, here he doesn't shy away from more openly artificial techniques when warranted, especially during a dreamlike Kunoichi seduction sequence.

Deadly Switch, Svetlana Cvetko, 2019

Nor really a stalker film, unfortunately, but rather a GET OUT ripoff centered on gender instead of race, set in a very blonde, pastel-colored fantasy world - incidentally, the very difference between the city and countryside the whole plot hinges on never actually manifests itself, since the city scenes in the beginning look just as neutered and well-manicured than everything else. So in the end, both the dangers and promises of urbanity only find some kind of representation only in Danika Yarosh's piercings.

Films like this rise and fall with the cast, though, and Hayley McLaughlin's mousy glamour-performance alone makes this kind of worth the watch. Is her action real or fake? Don't know don't care, but it's a medium of cinema!

Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordman, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1971

Can't completely avoid the cheesy and always somewhat random feel of 1970s international coproduction genre cinema, although they still manage to emulate the classic Daiei style quite well. Also nice that Yasuda enhances, rather than diminishes the differences in fighting style between Katsu and Jimmy Wang Yu, mirroring two competing traditions of action cinema: the ritualistic Japanese one where the frame defines the action, and the fluid Hong Kong one where the action defines the frame.

Rip Tide, Rhiannon Bannenberg, 2017

So you want to escape your vapid life as a teenie instagram fashionista by visiting your cool aunt in Australia ... it's just that the cool aunt is super annoying, and some of the surfer bozos she hangs out with may be even worse, and you yourself are one of the awkwardest actresses in history, too, but who cares, we somehow need to make it past the 80 minutes mark, so we might as well introduce some "conflict" between the obligatory, extremely style-less pop-music montage sequences.

I hate to give a one-star-rating to a film that features an extensive slow-motion scene of high-strung teens playing baseball - with coconuts! But here I go, this one nearly broke me...

This is at least the third MarVista Entertainment production I watched over the last few weeks. I really need to lay down that particular pipe for a while.

Christiane F., Uli Edel, 1981

Big city tunnel vision: afraid of getting stuck in the tiny Gropiusstadt flat, one just has to step out into the maze. But what to do in those cold streets, not meant to be lived in but to be traversed, when the "Sound" neon sign is the only guiding light available? So she enters the corridors, again and again, one step further each time. The first needle just scratches the surface, leaves a mark of mimesis, but we all know where the journey will end. It takes Bowie to get to the next step: He takes over the film, singing just for her, and afterwards she tries H for the first time.

Later on, except for the ominous cascading main theme, the music mostly vanishes. Berlin's traffic noise is soundtrack enough for all facets of drug use. This clearly is one of the most effective gestures of the film, and still, to me CHRISTIANE F. lost some of its appeal after her initiation. Before it's a unique neorealist new wave exploitation doomsday ride, one of those films that close the door behind the hippie hangout seventies with a vengeance, afterwards it often feels more like checking boxes, one after the other (to be sure, drug dramas are something I'm not very much into in general - the main reason I skipped this one until now) and Edel clearly isn't willing to let any opportunity for a heavy-handed metaphor slide. Still, the performances and the locations carry enough weight to generate quite a bit of pull until the very end - a "happy" end Edel wisely refuses to provide with any kind of substance.

Desnuda en la arena, Armando Bo, 1969

The camera and Isabel Sarli clearly enjoy each other's company, and who am I to demand anything else from a film. My first, but clearly not my last encounter with the cinema of Armando Bo.

Limbo, Soi Cheang, 2021

Into the rubble. Most expressive production design since HARD TO BE A GOD ... really strange to remember that this was supposed to be in color for a long time, since five minutes in, I couldn't imagine this world to ever be not black and white, and later on, even the very concept of color started so slip away.

The outer world of rubble - a parallel world, a city in the city, fenced in between highways and gentrified business districts - corresponds to the inner world of the characters: three of the four protagonists are solely defined by trauma, and basically all the hope the plot has to offer (some of) them is that maybe someday they will be able to exchange one trauma for another. Only Mason Lee is promised once in a while, when meeting his pregnant wife, an alternative to an existence of perpetual trauma. In a way, though, this promise of an outside world only heightens the pain - again and again he's the one inserting himself in the rubble with the greatest intensity.

What makes this really special is that Soi Cheang shoots for both a maximalist exercise in style and a rather straightforward Hong Kong police procedural. A decidedly grizzly one, to be sure, but severed limbs and ugly rape scenes aren't exactly foreign to the genre. Basically a CATIII art movie that insists on taking both its aesthetic ambitions and its pulp mechanics seriously. And at least for me it works beautifully, not the least thanks to Liu Cya's magnificent performance. She really is a force of nature, resilience personified.

This might be the core of LIMBO's pessimistic realism (hard not to read this politically): One should strive not for shelter from the immediacy of trauma, for an escape to a better world; but for a fortification of self in this world, for building up an inner strength that might make it possible to avoid succumbing to one's environment.

Imagini di un convento, Joe d'Amato, 1979

Beautiful d'Amato minimalism, basically just longing faces, sinful bodies and an eternal corridor of desire. A solemn rhythm transforming debauchery into ritual (see for example the very systematic dressing / undressing scenes; you really get a feel for the texture of a nun's habit, here). Sex, especially of the lesbian kind, not so much as contamination, but as another kind of purification - basically indicating a shift from Christian to paganist concepts of morality.

D'Amato being d'Amato, after about two thirds of the runtime he throws in a very ugly and explicit rape scene, completely separate from the rest of the film in tone, locale and style. Afterwards we return to the corridor and things proceed as if nothing had happened.

Zola, Janicza Bravo, 2020

Generally well directed, with the contrast between the grainy, soft 16mm look and the flat, digital intrusions working especially fine; also a good eye for Florida nights, even if the Tampa locations are a bit wasted ... but I don't know, the script is very awkward at times and the whole thing feels underdeveloped. Maybe there's still too much James Franco in here?

In any case, the film never really finds its center. It makes sense that Zola herself is mostly positioned as a blankspace, but Stefani also remains completely opaque, while X is basically a run-of-the-mill villain. That leaves Derrek, by far the most interesting character here ... it's just that the film also insists on setting him up as the butt of the joke in every single scene, thereby undercutting any chance of arriving at anything but bland, mechanical storytelling.

Also, I basically knew what I was in for as soon as I saw the A24 logo, but a film like this just should not feel that clean and sanitized.

Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno, Abtellatif Kechiche, 2017

Great films start from simple premises and then discover something surprising. In this case, both the "one magic summer on the beach" and the autobiographical "a filmmaker discovering his gaze" hook certainly are familiar, time-proven staples of cinema, especially of French cinema; and one key to this masterpiece might just be that Kechiche insists on inextricably linking, if not welding the two of them. Meaning that what transforms his alter ego protagonist into a genuine creator of images really is the erotic play of unstructured (but not necessarily relaxed) hangout time; just as the summer on the beach is only magical because it is rendered through the eyes and subjectivity of a self-conscious and categorically distanced aesthete.

L Saturnino perfectly lays out the film's central place in Kechiche's post-colonial project, especially its relationship to VENUS NOIRE; but I think it also works very well in a less radical register, maybe along the lines of Rohmer by way of Claire Denis: a film about the inherent morality of bodies as well as about the necessary corporeality of all systems of morality.

And also, of course, an extremely sensual, synaesthetic film. First we get the primal image of intercourse, pure visual spectacle, a throwback to late-night teenage softcore viewings on tv, meaning it also is completely separate from us ... but we only really enter Mektoub world a few minutes later, when standing next to a beautiful woman eating strawberries while still shivering from sex. This is what Amin strives for, erotics as a form of bodily involvement in the world (guided by music, dancing, but also animals), and this is of course also what he can never reach.

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