Friday, October 21, 2016


Back when the original fairy tales were being written, folks like the Brothers Grimm had a lot more faith in kids than we do now. Their stories were dark and sinister, with grotesque imagery and real moral lessons. They knew that kids like to be scared, and they aren't the big sissies that we pretend they are now, neutralizing the older stories to make them safer.

Though he hasn't necessarily made Pan's Labyrinth for children, writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy I & II [review]; Pacific Rim [review]) definitely seems to have gone back to find that ancient well of inspiration. His original story is as dark and twisted, and thus just as magical, as the classic tales. He has made a scary and wondrous fantasy film seen through the eyes of a child, and it should by turns enchant and frighten any adult who sees it.

Pan's Labyrinth has more in common with del Toro's smaller budget ghost story The Devil's Backbone than it does his big effects Hollywood films. Shot entirely in Spanish, it takes place at a rural outpost at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. Franco is in power, and his troops are stamping down the last of the resistance. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) lost her father in the war, and her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil, Belle Epoque), has remarried a sadistic solider, Captain Vidal (Sergi López, Dirty Pretty Things). Carmen is pregnant with Vidal's child, and they are going to his isolated base camp so she can give birth near him. There, Vidal is tangling with a band of guerillas that is hiding in the mountains, and he's ruling the nearby village with an iron fist.

For Ofelia, a girl who loves old books with fantastic stories, her new home is a blessing and a curse. She is not fond of the man her mother wants her to call "father," but she is immediately intrigued by the old stone labyrinth in the forest behind Vidal's fort. Though the dutiful maid Mercedes (Maribel Verdú, Y tu mamá también [review]) warns her not to go inside, Ofelia is lured their by a small fairy. There, she meets the faun Pan (Doug Jones, the body of Hellboy's fish man, Abe Sapien). He tells her that she is a long lost princess who has finally come to return to her kingdom. All she has to do is complete three magical tasks. He gives her a magic book whose blank pages will reveal her missions to her when she is alone.

Her tasks aren't simple, and they have real consequences when not done right--both in the magical realm and the real world. Naturally, when Ofelia sneaks off to battle a magic toad, she is going to get in trouble for disappearing, especially when she returns covered in mud and toad spit. The pregnancy is making Carmen sick, and so insubordination isn't going to be tolerated. Vidal is not a reasonable man, and he doesn't like when things get beyond his control. His outbursts when fighting the resistance get more and more violent, and he cares less about Carmen's health than he does the birth of his son. If she dies, that's just collateral damage, and woe to Ofelia if that happens.

del Toro gives his audience two different worlds in Pan's Labyrinth. First is the brutal backdrop of the Civil War. He doesn't shy away from the killing that keeps the wheels of battle turning, and there are many gruesome scenes that will make even the most iron-stomached gore junkies cringe. The second world is Ofelia's fantasy kingdom. The adults never see what the young girl is going through, and part of the experience of Pan's Labyrinth is questioning whether Ofelia is really witnessing magic or if these scenarios are just the escape hatch she goes through to get away from her cruel stepfather. Either way, her fantasies bite back. Pan almost plays as a doppelganger for Vidal when he loses his temper over the girl's mistakes. Survival on either side of the reality line also requires sacrifice, and Ofelia is going to learn some real lessons about what that means.

Regardless of which explanation you choose to believe, the spell of Pan's Labyrinth is irresistible. Guillermo del Toro has written a multi-layered tale that will scare you, delight you, and keep you precariously poised on the edge of your seat. You'll cringe, but you won't want to look away lest you miss a frame of his gorgeously crafted alternate dimension. For the two hours that Pan's Labyrinth runs, the director reminds adults of what it's like to believe so thoroughly in your own imagination that anything is possible, while also reminding us that real heroism is fraught with human error and bought at a real price. Like the titular labyrinth, any adventure has a lot of twists and turns on its way to fulfillment. Sometimes the turns may be wrong and in others they are triumphantly right, but there's always something worth discovering just around the corner.

In addition to its beautiful new transfer, Criterion has built up its release of Pan's Labyrinth with plenty of extras. Of note to any who were intrigued of the talk of fairy tales and childhood above is a lengthy discussion between del Toro and writer Cornelia Funke on that very topic. There is also a new interview with Doug Jones, as well as the majority of extras from the movie's original DVD release.

You should also take not of the excellent Becky Cloonan cover art. Full disclosure, Becky currently works with me over at DC's Young Animal, where she does covers for Shade, the Changing Girl, but I wrote about her original horror comics ages ago on my old blog. She's a unique talent, and you can check out more of her work at her website.

Parts of this review were taken from my original review of Pan's Labyrinth when it was released theatrically.

The Blu-ray was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Monday, October 10, 2016

BOYHOOD - #839

This review was originally written for the theatrical release of Boyhood and published on in 2014.

When we left the screening of Boyhood, one of my friends mentioned that he was sort of prepared to be impressed by Richard Linklater's twelve-year experiment regardless of whether it was good or bad, just because he took it to completion. I hadn't really considered that. I know I was pretty excited by the idea myself and was somewhat predisposed to like Boyhood, but even accepting that, I feel pretty confident the film wasn't something I was automatically prepared to give an A for effort, it would have mattered if it sucked. When you consider say, an entire TV season like the recent runs of True Detective or Fargo, they are just as much work, there is an equal amount of investment. The only thing separating them from other TV shows is their quality. Did you make it through John from Cincinnati and not declare it a colossal waste of a lot of people's time? What about the extended experiment of an arty film like Godfrey Reggio's Visitors [review]? The nature of his endeavor couldn't overcome the agony of watching the final cut.

Of course, whether or not Linklater would have or should have gotten a free pass is moot since Boyhood doesn't suck. It doesn't waste the time of the participants or the viewers. It's an experiment that pays off. Over and over.

For those not in the know, Richard Linklater, the man who gave us Dazed & Confused [review] and the Before Sunrise series [review], began shooting Boyhood in 2002 when his young lead, Ellar Coltrane, was 7 years old. For the next twelve years, the director gathered his cast back together and shot a few more scenes in the child's life. Coltrane was playing a young Texan named Mason, growing up with a single mom (Patricia Arquette, True Romance) and his older sister (Lorelai Linklater), with occasional visits from his dad (Ethan Hawke, The Purge [review], Before Midnight). Each year, Mason is a little bit older, a little bit different, morphing into a young adult while we watch. Linklater finally stopped shooting Boyhood when Coltrane turned 18.

The resulting narrative, fashioned by the director and his longtime editor, Sandra Adair, covers the changes the family goes through, but with a particular focus on Mason as he navigates school, peer pressure, bad stepfathers, and just trying to figure it all out. Individual moments are fantastic. Dad is kind of a pretentious doofus, the sister goes from being a brat to acting as her brother's sometime confidante, and the awkward teen years are full of generally too-accurate awkwardness. If you end up hating Boyhood and wondering why so many critics love it, it's because we were all smarty-pants youths who thought we had a unique and profound perspective on what was really going on, and so Mason's emo decoding of the meaning of his own existence is too painfully real for us to ignore. We have a twinge of "yup, I was that much of a dumbass, too." (Sadly, I think I'm still some deluded version of the dad, pre-minivan.)

Along the way, Linklater gives us poignant moments with the rest of his main cast. As he's figuring stuff out, Mason gets to witness those around him have their own epiphanies. What's interesting to me is that Linklater could have easily spun off and followed anyone else. I'd be just as down with tracking Samantha's progress in Girlhood or even a movie called Momhood. The material is that good, the breadth of it that carefully considered. (Snarkily, I assume that Dadhood will just be Ethan Hawke's autobiography.)

Which does raise the question of how much of Boyhood is luck and how much is planning. Is Ellar Coltrane's evolving fashion sense his own, and if so, what would they have done had he turned into something else? Could Boyhood have just as easily been a sequel to Friday Night Lights if the little boy star had become a jock? What if Lorelai Linklater had turned 16, decided she was done being involved, and told her old man to get bent?

These are questions you will have, though not while you're actually watching Boyhood. During the movie's nearly three-hour running time--which, honestly, passes in a blink--I was so invested, I was always just wondering what would happen next, not how they made it happen. The film avoids any attempt to shape the chosen events into anything resembling a conventional plot with structured set-ups and finishes, instead leaving the audience to make the same discoveries Mason does as he makes them. There is tension at times. We wonder if the boy will make the wrong choices or fail to heed parental warnings or somehow fate will intervene and knock him on his ass. Linklater lets little metaphors and parables emerge, but he doesn't hammer on them. They're just there. He also doesn't draw attention to divisions in time. There are no title cards declaring the year, just changing pop songs and new models of Playstations and fleeting references to current events (Texas politics being what they are).

The sum total of these excellent scenes is a pretty impressive whole, the image of a life lovingly observed. So, yes, my friend is right, we should be impressed by the experiment, but the validation is in how well it works.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


Maybe I should start timing how long I procrastinate with a review when I’m writing about a movie I didn’t particularly care for. It’s been over an hour since I first fired up this document, and I’ve done many things, checked the laundry room a couple of times to see if the other tenants finally moved their clothes to the dryer, tried some of this Jameson Caskmates, cycled trough all for sides of DJ Shadow’s The Mountain Will Fall and moved on to Avalanches’ Wildflower.

In other words, I didn’t enjoy watching Beyond theValley of the Dolls very much. Even approaching it from the point of view of looking at it as a product of its time, trying to embrace the spirit of 1970 and the cultural changes that Russ Meyer’s movie both embraces and lampoons, it doesn’t quite work. The gag doesn’t land. I guess, as they say, maybe you had to be there.

Despite the disclaimer that opens Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, this film very much began as a sequel to the 1967 original [review], but when author Jacqueline Susann objected to the new take on it, she threatened to sue. And so the studio had the names changed of the returning characters and tacked on the title card. The lineage remains, however, as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls offers another melodramatic showbiz narrative, once again taking a lance to the Hollywood lifestyle, but this time focusing on an all-girl rock-and-roll trio. Lead singer Dolly Mac Namara (Playboy Playmate Dolly Read) goes to Los Angeles to visit her Aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis, playing the character that would have been Anne Welles), and she and her bandmates end up embroiled in the California party scene and in servitude to a shady record producer everyone calls Z-Man (John LaZar, who in his sideburns and hip haircut looks a bit like one of Jack Kirby’s supernatural characters; someone should have cast him in a Witch Boy movie). The narrative follows both the trajectory of Kelly’s band and the way she and the other girls sink into a life of booze, drugs, and sex, the act breaks signaled by yet another night of debauchery at Z-Man’s groovy pad.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls comes off as one big car-crash of divergent intentions. Hoping to cash in on the late-’60s counter-culture cinema as typified by Easy Rider [review], the studio heads handed sexploitation auteur Russ Meyer the keys to this kingdom. While he delivered all the kooky lingo and the hippies and psychedelics, his final product feels like one big wind-up, a parody of the fat cats’ perception of what these kinds of movies represented. Meyer basically takes the feel of the Roger Corman acid movies and puts them together with the campy tone of the 1966 Batman TV show, ending up with something closer to the Monkees, minus the earworms and laughs. What makes the whole thing really odd, though, is the underlying sincerity that drives the picture. For however much Beyond the Valley of the Dolls feels like a put-on, it also comes across as a film made with serious intent.

Perhaps this is down to the screenwriter, the famed film critic Roger Ebert, his first contribution to an actual fiction film (he didn’t do much more, but it was all with Meyer). I’d certainly credit him with the script’s ludicrous climax, in which every soap opera cliché is trotted out and tossed into a big pile, a grinning homage to all the sudsy love stories that came before it. You’d also expect to lay the blame on him for the mash-up of characters in Z-Man’s final party: a jungle man, a Nazi, King Arthur, and a pair of superheroes. (Cynthia Myers and Erica Gavin, playing the film’s lesbian couple, dress up as Robin and Catwoman, using the actual costumes from the aforementioned Batman series.) The film nerd is checking off a bunch of items in his bucket list (however much he denies it in his commentary track...but more on that later).

Yet, it’s also Ebert who takes credit for the ludicrous last act reveal about Z-Man, which--without giving too much away--employs a regular Brian De Palma trick years before De Palma ever would, and yet is totally of the times, given that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls came out the same year as that other X-rated multi-car pile-up, Myra Breckenridge. To hear the writer tell it himself, this was not an organic plot development, but a last-minute inspiration. Which, frankly, seems even more De Palma than De Palma, whose final-scene turns usually feel like a filmmaker without a conclusion copping out.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all bad. For those who indulge in Russ Meyer movies for the leering voyeurism they provide, you won’t be disappointed--there are plenty of bosomy women in various states of undress. That said, the surprise for me was the displays of technique. The plot may be bogged down by plodding staging and stiff acting, but the mis-en-scene is often agile and even Godardian. Editor Dorothy Spencer, who also worked on Valley of the Dolls as well as such classics as Stagecoach [review] and Foreign Correspondent [review], employs quick cuts to keep things moving, reducing some shots to just a few seconds. Look, for instance, at the scene where Kelly ditches her former boyfriend and manager Harris (David Gurian) to go home with gigolo actor Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett), sending Harris into the arms of pornstar Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams). Spencer cuts from one action to another before the first is even finished, jumping back and forth between the heartbreaker and the heartbroken. Even more impressive, though, is the slam-poetry montage of Los Angeles at the start of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and the intercutting of Harris and Ashley’s first sex scene with automobile hood ornaments, effectively connecting America’s obsession with flesh and chrome. In these moments, Meyer gets closer to realizing the more avant-garde aspects of Godard or Dennis Hopper than he maybe even realized.

Too bad these brief flashes of brilliance don’t make up for the rest. For me, the biggest sin is how bad the music is. I hate when movies about bands don’t deliver quality tunes. Put together by studio regulars rather than legitimate rock writers and producers, but also featuring the Sandpipers and the Strawberry Alarm Clock (appearing as themselves), the musical numbers performed by the onscreen bands are heavy and intensely dull, striking an inauthentic chord that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls never manages to escape. I suppose many will watch this cult film to laugh at its many faults and fumbles, but I’ve never subscribed to the so-bad-it’s-good school of moviegoing. There’s enough that’s genuinely good to negate the necessity for laughing at the missteps of others. Once transgressive and cutting-edge, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls now just strikes me as tame and misguided. Your mileage may vary.

To match the artwork of the Valley of the Dolls release, Criterion brought in multi-talented comics artist Jim Rugg to create a composition for their Beyond the Valley of the Dolls that riffs on the original imagery while utilizing the larger cast. Just about every major and minor character is crammed in there. You should check out Rugg’s own work, including the blacksploitation tribute Afrodisiac and his delightful action comic StreetAngel.

Criterion also loads the disc with extras, including a commentary with Roger Ebert that they had the foresight to record in 2003 (apparently there was a long negotiation for rights). Ebert gives much insight into how the movie was constructed, including admitting that it was pretty much made up as he typed. He shows a genuine reverence for Russ Meyer, and suggests that much of the exaggeration in the performances is down to Meyer’s love of silent film. Interestingly, Ebert never embraces nor addresses any notion of the movie being bad--on the contrary, just as I imagined he did during production, the scribe treats Beyond the Valley of the Dolls quite seriously. I find it funny that he questions the choices of the wardrobe people and set decorators as being too exaggerated, but never quite acknowledges the same thing in his writing. Actually, what’s really fascinating is how rarely Ebert even acknowledges he is the writer. He eventually confesses that Kelly, as the main character, is subject to the whims of the author--and then sort of coyly notes that he’s that author--but outside of the very beginning and the very end, he approaches it from a less invested stance. As commentaries go, it’s disappointing, because he’s essentially defending his movie from the position of a critic who likes the final product, not as someone who had a hand in bringing it together. Which may suggest something about why this movie hits with such a resounding thud a quarter century later: the writer only sees the humor in terms of specifics, but the reality is that it was played so broadly, it has turned into a cartoon as time’s marched on. When it comes to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Roger Ebert is not a credible witness.

But again, maybe you just had to be there.

Russ Meyer on set with John LaZar.

Sunday, September 25, 2016


There is a pargraph in Glenn Kenny’s essay in the booklet accompanying Criterion’s release of Valley of the Dolls where he posits that simple adjectives, either good or bad, don’t quite fit when talking about the 1967 phenomenon. An enduring cult classic, it embodies many things, and takes on its own image well before many in its continually renewing audience even get a chance to see it. It’s infamous, it’s campy, it’s scandalous--all things that are true, all things that don’t quite hit on what a strange little creature this film really is.

Adapted from a best-selling novel by Jacqueline Susann, whose name became synonymous with outrageous stories about ambitious, liberated women, Valley of the Dolls is a culmination of many story traditions and the evolution of the same. It updates the 1950s concept of the “women’s picture,” as well as the career girl movie. It’s essentially a showbiz version of The Best of Everything, but with an added frankness about the sex, booze, and drugs that previously only went on way behind the screen. And then there is that showbiz thing itself--Valley of the Dolls is also an update of the Tinsel Town and Broadway dramas, a bit A Star is Born, a bit All AboutEve. There is a touch of the musical, especially with Dory Previn’s off-kilter songs (written with her philandering husband Andre, and more than hinting at Dory’s own personal drama), as well as a smidgen of horror films (the asylum, the nightmarish empty streets in the final New York scenes). Director Mark Robson, who also helmed Peyton Place and edited the original Cat People, and screenwriters Helen Deutsch (Lili [review]) and Dorothy Kingsley (Kiss MeKate) combine their knowledge of all these genres and subjects with Susann’s narrative to create a fresh 1960s perspective. Thus we get former child star Patty Duke popping pills, and Sharon Tate seemingly commenting on her own blonde bombshell image, and pop-art redoes of the fashion shoots from Funny Face [review].

The plot of Valley of the Dolls is nothing new. Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins, a star on the PeytonPlace TV series), a privileged college girl from New England, travels to the big city in hopes of escaping the conventional married life laid out for her. She gets a job as a secretary for an entertainment lawyer, and on her first day, gets a quick lesson in backstage politics, when her own innocent comment to an aging theatre star (Susan Hayward, I Married a Witch [review]) gets the new ingénue in the show fired. Duke plays the young starlet, Neely O’Hara, and Tate plays chorus girl Jennifer North, who is on hand at the rehearsal to witness the injustice (and suffer her own, given that her body is a topic of discussion). The lives of these three women quickly become entwined, both socially and professionally, as each sees different career paths open for them.

In these criss-crossing stories, Dolls explores different notions of hard work and fate. Jennifer is lucky enough to be born blonde and bosomy, and so easily snags a husband (a nightclub singer played by Tony Scotti). She knows she has little talent, and the work she’ll eventually turn to in order to help pay the bills relies on her assets. (As is the nature of these kinds of stories, someone must have a fatal illness, and that ends up being her man.) In one of the more comical scenes--and also for the time, more progressively honest--the young Jennifer, chastised and shamed by her forever-unseen mother, starts her nightly breast exercises to keep them perky before saying forget it, let them droop.

I note that it’s the “young Jennifer” because Valley of the Dolls follows all of its characters over a course of a couple of years, so these women do age--though not necessarily physically, there is no notable old-age makeup, which only sharpens the biting commentary that comes ¾ of the way through. When her addiction to sleeping pills (nicknamed “dolls”) gets the better of her, Neely is told she’s been replaced by a new, younger actress, she’s looking too old. “I’m only 26!” she declares. It seems ageism is imprinted in Hollywood’s DNA. Neely’s on-set tantrums are modeled after Judy Garland, but they also have echoes of Marilyn Monroe, who was cut from her final, unfinished picture because she couldn’t make it to set in performance condition. Duke makes the most of her meaty role, easily the best in the movie, playing the lush life to the hilt. She also gets the movie’s most memorable and campiest scene, a final bathroom showdown with Susan Hayward’s Helen Lawson, the diva who would have ruined her. (As in George Cukor’s TheWomen, much happens in the bathroom.)

That climactic clash between Duke and Hayward is actually indicative of the light touch Robson took to most of this. Sure, heavy things happen, but the movie itself rarely feels heavy in its telling, even when the women have to make tough choices. It’s also telling how little backstabbing the core trio does to one another. Outside of a third act boyfriend grab when Neely is heading for her ultimate downfall, these ladies aren’t vying for the same slices of pie. At the same time, the kindness they attempt to show one another is often rebuffed. Friendship buckles under selfishness.

Even so, they are more emotionally mature than their male counterparts. The men in Valley of the Dolls are childish philanderers with fragile egos. Both of Neely’s husbands resent her success and her inability (unwillingness) to cater to their needs, while Jennifer’s spouse is the opposite, resenting having to be the breadwinner. Though, not even he is in control of his own destiny: besides his illness, his sister (Lee Grant, Mulholland Dr.) manages his floundering career, holding the purse strings and telling him what to do. The one guy doing for himself, Barbara’s on-again/off-again paramour (Paul Burke, TV’s Naked City), is no picnic either: he has commitment issues. Gone is the Sirkian man of the land, there is no Rock Hudson to swoop in and make things better. So absent is this figure in this newly liberated lifestyle, actually, that the end of Valley of the Dolls takes the back-to-nature element of Sirk’s All thatHeaven Allows and gives it to Barbara, who gets out of the rat race single, free, and whole.

Amongst the extras on the new Valley of the Dolls Blu-ray, for those who can’t quite get at why they like the movie, or what its strange machinations add up to, the wonderful film critic Kim Morgan provides a video essay in which she digs into the progressive subtext and the subversive genre tropes, embracing the criticism of the source material as “trash” and balancing it against the more “serious” but comparable literature of the day. Interesting to hear that Harlan Ellison removed himself from scripting duties when he felt the ending of Susann’s novel had been compromised. That Harlan, always with his shoulder against the grain.

Jacqueline Susann at a book signing.

Morgan tackles and makes a case for the more aspirational aspects of the story, and how the women take over the traditionally male roles and suffer for it, which also leads us to an interesting question to ponder: just why do we enjoy such tragic movie-star movies? Is there a self-loathing that runs through Hollywood, where they indulge in these cautionary tales about the price of stardom, or are they merely tapping into a mean streak that connects all moviegoers? We won’t ever be the next big crooner or the face of a national ad campaign, and so we like to watch our idols fail. If not us, then not them either, and none of it is what it’s cracked up to be anyway.

Comics fans also take note, the exclusive cover here is by Phil Noto. Those unfamiliar with Noto should check out his website. Or maybe his amazing run on Black Widow for Marvel Comics.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Monday, September 19, 2016


The most straightforward, and yet most complex, entry in the Silent Ozu - Three Crime Dramas set from Criterion’s Eclipse imprint is 1933’s Dragnet Girl, a dual drama about families and relationships and the effect the criminal lifestyle has on the ties that bind.

Joji Oka (No Blood Relation [review]) heads the cast as the charismatic gangster Joji. Formerly a boxer, Joji stepped out of the ring when he fell in love with Tokiko (Mizoguchi and Kinoshita mainstay Kinuya Tanaka, who also appeared in Ozu’s Equinox Flower [review]). Tokiko is a tough cookie in her own right, but she prefers a more domestic crime partnership that doesn’t involve her man getting pummeled on a regular basis. Though Joji has many would-be suitors, Tokiko chasea them all off, thus making it all the more surprising when a nice, quiet girl sneaks in and legit steals Joji’s heart.

Misako (Sumiko Mizukubo, Apart from You [review]) summons the thug to a corner rendezvous to ask him to encourage her little brother, Lefty (Hideo Mitsui), to return to school and give up trying to be a boxer and a crook. He looks up to Joji and would listen. Joji is taken with Misako’s purity and selflessness, and he starts spending his days in the music store where she works, listening to classical records. It’s a far more refined musical excursion than the rowdy nightclubs he usually attends with his gang. To many, Joji is becoming soft. Never mind he’s the guy we saw beat up three bruisers all on his own just a few days before. All it takes is one dame wanting you to settle down...

As the drama ramps up, Dragnet Girl crosses similar territory as Walk Cheerfully [review]. Misako’s positive presence inspires Joji to consider getting clean, and though she initially goes to the record shop with a gun to confront Misako, Tokiko is quickly smitten with her, as well. She thinks about ditching the bad-girl lifestyle modeling herself after her rival. The only one who can’t seem to get Misako’s message of peace is the one she wants to go straight, her little brother, who resists even after his hero threatens him.

Moreso than Walk Cheerfully Ozu toys with the notion of fate in Dragnet Girl. In the psychology of the script, which was written by Tadao Ikeda, the scribe behind Walk Cheerfully and The Only Son [review], working from a story by Ozu himself (hiding behind the pseudonym James Maki), we move closer to the inescapable doom of film noir. Neither Joji nor Tokiko find it easy to make a clean break, and in part because they don’t think they deserve it. Tokiko is offered an ideal marriage by her boss, but can’t see herself stepping into a housewife’s shoes; likewise, Joji must reject Misako in order to “get over her.” When it comes down to it, the only thing that this Japanese Bonnie and Clyde can count on is each other. Whatever their path to get to true love, at least they found it together, and they can get out of it together, too. Embracing a crime trope, Ozu positions them to pull one last heist with the intention of snatching some seed money and getting out of town. It’s a pretty ballsy robbery, with Tokiko leading the charge, and an even more hairy escape when the cops come knocking. Yet, Ozu avoids the expected final shootout, seeking a different solution for his lovers. Punishment offers redemption.

Dragnet Girl actually makes a pretty convincing case for sucking it up and taking your lumps. It doesn’t hurt that the impassioned argument for toughing it out is made by Tokiko. Kinuyo Tanaka has a solid screen presence, and her confident delivery, and the complex emotional swings that get her there, makes for the most convincing acting in the movie. As perfect and angelic as Sumiko Mizukubo is as Kazuko, Tanaka brings her character down to earth, so that she is both sympathetic and relatable. She’s really the only choice for the confused Joji, who frankly comes off as kind of weak-willed and not nearly as tough as he’s intended to be.

But then, Ozu’s women generally have been the ones who have had to carry the heaviest burdens, and who do so with a quiet strength unique to them. In that, Dragnet Girl is part of a long tradition of the filmmaker, even as he would soon leave its genre trappings behind.

Other selections from the Eclipse boxed set Silent Ozu - Three Crime Dramas are reviewed here: That Night's Wife.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


I may be a bad man, but I can still be sincere. I really do love you.”

Made well into the first phase of his career, Yasujiro Ozu’s Walk Cheerfully is a facile drama, of both the crime and melo- variety, proving the Japanese director could have easily plowed his way through the Hollywood studio system, but that his true calling was always the family stories that later became his raison d’être.

Released in 1930, this silent film follows a crook named Kenji (Minoru Takada), a dual personality, both a loyal friend and a deadly opponent, hence his nickname Ken the Knife. Walk Cheerfully opens with a fake-out, as Ken steps in to help when a pickpocket is being chased down by an angry mob. Seemingly an average citizen doing his civic duty, the truth is that the fleeing thief is Ken’s buddy Senko (Hisao Yoshitani). But appearances are important in Walk Cheerfully, be it the projection of a straight image or the trappings of a tough guy. In a nod to the American gangster movies he was emulating, Ozu casts the crooks in his movie as performers, complete with choreographed dance routines and Hollywood memorabilia. A carefully placed poster of Clara Bow with boxing gloves decorates their training area--an image to aspire to and also an object of desire.

Interestingly, this distinction of bad guys as poseurs serves to erase the lines distinguishing hoodlum and common man. Later in the film, Ken’s innocent love interest, Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki, Ornamental Hairpin [review]), laments that all of her office co-workers, regardless of gender, operate no differently than the criminals that roam the streets. Ironic, then, that she fails to see the truth about Ken, and refuses to believe it until she sees his gangster tattoo. Yet, if being good or bad is matter of behavior and class, than even “the Knife” can turn things around. Ken has enough affection for Yasue that he goes legit, and gets a job washing windows--symbolically erasing the dirt and exposing the view to the clear skies beyond. It’s a task easier said than done when former associates come calling, looking to lure him into one last score, but then, what separates Ken from the rest is his ability to live as who he desires to be, and not just pretend. He can use performance for good, too, hence his comedic pantomime for Yasue and her little sister on their Sunday picnic.

Ozu uses other visual cues--beyond dance and tattoos and clean windows--to bring his criminal underworld to life. When plotting and scheming, his characters are prone to nervous foot tapping. Gesture and slang are things you learn in your role as a tough guy. And when Kenji busts in on Yasue in a hotel room with her licentious boss (Takeshi Sakamoto, There Was a Father [review]; Every-night Dreams [review]), the appearance of impropriety is represented by the booze and smoking cigarette left on the table--and the discarded garment beneath it. Just moments before, Kenji shows anger at being  a potential cuckold by mashing a cigarette between his fingers, at once a gesture of his own impotence and the castration of his rival. Though known best for the emotion he keeps in reserve, the things not said, Ozu manages to find potent ways to express these more scandalous feelings without going overboard.

Walk Cheerfully offers a satisfying mix of typical cinematic moralizing and a more genuine third act, with both Kenji and Senko putting the effort into their rehabilitation. They aren’t transformed into saints over night, and even do their bid in jail. The movie also offers us a credible heroine in Yasue. She is not just a doting girlfriend, but a responsible and productive sister and daughter, working to earn for her family, and loyal to a fault. This saves Ozu from the sort of tacked-on messaging that his American contemporaries would suffer under the Production Code, even while still maintaining his usual optimism. Like the film noir to come, crime in Walk Cheerfully does not pay, but neither does it doom the criminal to an inescapable fate. On the contrary, we have here a movie that suggests once you’ve actually settled the bill, it’s quite possible to move on to a whole other kind of payoff.

Other selections from the Eclipse boxed set Silent Ozu - Three Crime Dramas are reviewed here: That Night's Wife and Dragnet Girl.

Sunday, September 11, 2016


If there are two types of stories that tend to be full of big emotion and drama, it’s the coming-of-age tale and the backstage tell-all. Put the two together--adolescent angst and performer’s ego--and all bets are off.

Unless, of course, you’re watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1939 film The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. Though the script is full of melodramatic situations, including a Shakespearean split between father and son and a woman who sacrifices her health to see her husband achieve his greatest dream, Mizoguchi is determined to present it without histrionics, adopting a film style that is more observant than intimate, mimicking the experience of seeing the kabuki plays his characters perform in, shooting the entire story as if sitting in the middle seat inside the theater. No close-ups, no shouting, but heartbreaking all the same.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum follows Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi), the adopted son of one of the greatest kabuki performers of their age (played by Gonjuro Kawarazaki). Young Kiku is not a very good actor, and he finds himself torn between false flattery and bitter sniping. When the family’s nanny, Otoku (Kakuko Mori), tells him the truth, the unselfishness of her feeling for him makes Kiku take notice. He becomes determined to improve his art and make his own name in the world. Such a declaration makes him look insubordinate, however, and when the family forbids his romance with Otoku, Kiku has had enough. He leaves to strut the boards in another town.

Otoku eventually joins him and they marry, but good fortune is not yet theirs. Kiku is still mediocre, and when his protective mentor dies, he is forced to trade his position at the theater for a spot in a traveling show--a much less respectable gig, but a gig nonetheless. It provides Kiku with the right experience, but little notice and little money. It will take an act of fate to reverse Kiku’s trajectory--fate engineered by Otoku, even though it may be too late for her to enjoy it.

The idea of needing to suffer for one’s art is not novel to Mizoguchi, but he certainly makes it seem the least romantic. Kiku isn’t a brooding Byron engineering his own disasters; rather, he is earnest and well meaning, and he doesn’t actually see that the misery he is enduring is informing his art. In fact, this may be exactly why he’s not so great on the stage: his inability to delve into his emotional life. The drive to be better is his only focus, and it only allows for selfishness, not self-reflection. Kiku’s perception is based on the public and critical reactions to each night’s play; luckily, he also has Otoku there to keep him motivated. She redirects his energies as necessary.

The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is equal parts A Story of Floating Weeds and Sawdust & Tinsel [review]. It is about family as much as theatre life, with the family of performers forming a secondary clan. In a way, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is unique in how the family rallies around the lesser amongst them, pooling their efforts to fix Kiku’s life. No man is left behind, as it were. Only in the final act does Kiku become the star of his own story. We finally see him on stage--something that Mizoguchi has mostly kept from us so far, perhaps assuming Kiku might lose our sympathy were we to see how bad he really was--showing us his comeback night, when he proves to his father’s contemporaries that he’s worthy of returning to Tokyo. For the first time, Mizoguchi really takes us onto the stage, and we get to see the man at work.

Mizoguchi fans will be drawn to The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum for Otoku as much as they are Kiku’s fall and ascendance. Perhaps moreso. Her devotion and sacrifice illustrates one of the central themes of his work, as also shown in the films in the Kenji Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women boxed set [review], where they get to take center stage themselves. As Otoku, Kakuko Mori gives an appropriately quiet, often unassuming, but deeply felt performance. How much of the others’ willingness to try to elevate her husband is based on their sympathy for her more than their liking of Kiku? Probably most of it.

She is the best example of humanity amongst people whose job it is to reflect our own humanity back at us. Not that there is any lack of it amongst the other characters in The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. What Mizoguchi has avoided is making the performers and stagehands seem alien; they aren’t grifters or fakes or exaggerated. Instead, they are warm and relatable, and as Kiku rises to his apex at film’s end, the filmmaker reminds us that regardless of this success, regardless of what we project on these performers, a star can also experience genuine pain.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.