Friday, October 28, 2011


It's rather astonishing what a strange film Island of Lost Souls is. Directed by Erle C. Kenton in 1932, it's the first cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. Though the story and various depictions of the titular doctor and the beasts he creates has since taken a permanent place in the pop culture lexicon--in most recent memory, the mad scientist was played by Marlon Brando, and the South Park parody of Moreau is almost as infamous as the real thing; not to mention musical tributes from quirky alternative bands like Oingo Boingo and, of course, Devo (who are featured on this Blu-Ray release)--I can't imagine what it must have been like sitting in those early audiences seeing this novel come to life for the first time.

The story is pretty simple. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) was set adrift when the ship he was sailing on sank. He is picked up by a cargo ship and cared for by Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), a disgraced doctor charged with guarding the wildlife being transported to an uncharted island. Parker runs afoul of the ship's drunken captain, and the seaman ditches him overboard with the animals when they reach their destination. This strands Parker and puts him at the mercy of Montgomery's boss, the slippery Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). The strange practitioner is at first concerned with what Parker might spy on his island, but then he sees an opportunity. Moreau has been creating creatures that are part human, part animal. The most perfect realization of his hybrid process is also the only female: Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke). He doesn't trust the other aberrations around the woman, but maybe letting her mingle with Parker will reveal her true social capabilities. Can the Panther Woman love?

Island of Lost Souls is an impressive display of early cinematic special effects. Kenton and his team, which includes Wally Westmore on make-up and art director Hans Dreier (both of whom worked regularly with Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges), create an eerie, otherworldly environment for Moreau and his creatures. Thick foliage hides both Moreau's fancy laboratory and the village of the beast-men. They are led by the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi), a bearded biped who seems slightly more evolved than his brethren, though still beholden to Moreau's strictures. The rules of the community are recited in a call and response ritual. "Are we not men?" they cry, and by way of proving it, adhere to the orders not to spill blood or to crawl on all fours like an animal. Some are closer to reverting to the old ways than others, and the least evolved are enslaved to turn the great wheel generating Moreau's power. It's a primitive fiefdom with the bad doctor as the King.

The make-up for the animal men is fantastic. They aren't just hairy beasts, different individuals represent different animals--a pig, a dog, a gorilla. Some look like Neanderthals, others look like something out of a carnival sideshow. Moreau is their ringmaster, and Laughton oozes a vile charisma. His words practically congeal into slime, and his cruel streak is satisfied through violent rule. He undergoes an almost sexual ecstasy when cracking his whip. His aptly named "House of Pain," where beast-men are taken for punishment, is like an S&M dungeon.

Parker's fate pretty much doesn't matter next to these more bizarre elements. Plus, Arlen is kind of a stiff and the character is a real heel. He makes out with the Panther Woman, something he fails to tell his fiancée (Leila Hyams) when she comes to rescue him--though she most likely suspects something when he's so eager to save the island native on their way out. By that point, their trajectory has splintered off from Moreau's, and honestly, there isn't much tension waiting to see the outcome of their flight from the madness. As with any science-gone-wrong film, the pay-off is seeing the egomaniac brought down. The implications of what might happen to Moreau in his own House of Pain are gruesome. Progress means little if you treat those around you with selfish pride, regardless if they be man or beast.

When you see a movie like Island of Lost Souls that is almost eighty years old and yet still has the power to shock, it makes you wonder why so many contemporary horror films are so ineffective at what they do. The endless parade of remakes, the plotless slasher films and torture porn--it all pales next to Erle C. Kenton's ambition and his precise storytelling. It's easy to gross someone out, it's even easier to bore them, but to elicit genuine chills, that's another talent entirely. Island of Lost Souls, like King Kong or the Universal monster films, are still the models the frightmasters should follow: human stories with human consequences, no matter how outrageous the trappings.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk.

Also, please note that the images here are promotional stills and not taken directly from the Blu-Ray.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Last year I was fortunate enough to see Kuroneko during its brief theatrical run, and ever since, I have been eagerly awaiting its home video release so I could watch this unsettling ghost story again. Criterion timed its DVD/Blu-Ray edition to come out in time for Halloween, and Kuroneko is perfect for the spooky holiday. With the lights out, the astonishing high-def transfer creates the right kind of spectral glow. The restoration job is beautiful. Extras are few, but meaningful, including an interview with director Kaneto Shindô. Even the cover art is designed to have an eerie aura. You can't tell from the image below, but the actual cover was printed with a silver ink so that the ghost appears to be floating out of the background. One of the best Criterion releases of 2011, sure to be a sleeper hit.

Kaneto Shindô's 1968 horror movie Kuroneko (a.k.a. Black Cat) is a creepy mood piece that starts with shocks before settling into a far more effective mode, digging its claws in the viewer to inject a nearly imperceptible poison.

The film opens with a harsh event: a band of starving samurai finds a remote farmhouse where two women live alone. A mother (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) are inside eating a quiet meal, having been stranded three years prior when the man of the family was conscripted into the army. With no one to protect them or their home, the brigands eat the food, rape the women, and burn the house down. The scene plays with no dialogue, and the most gruesome events occur off camera, the drooling faces of the onlookers being enough to turn our stomachs all on their own.

When the smoke clears, the house is destroyed, but the bodies of the dead remain relatively untouched. A black cat crawls into the wreckage and seemingly revives the women. It's implausible, sure, but Shindô's quick cut technique hips us to the fact that something beyond flesh-based logic is going on here. We are in a supernatural world.

Cut to a dark night outside the gate to the estate of the village nobility. A lone samurai passes on his horse. As a cat meows in the distance, he is approached by a young woman dressed in white. It is Shige, the daughter from before. She convinces the warrior to escort her back to her house, where she and her mother give him sake and the promise of something more. Only, when he collects, Shige's kisses turn to deadly bites. She gouges his neck and drinks his blood. Come morning, the house is gone, but the dead samurai is still there.

Kuroneko is a mystical revenge movie, a ghost story about two wronged women exacting vengeance on the warmongering men that are tearing their country apart. It covers some similar ground to Kaneto Shindô's earlier movie, the eerie and often harrowing Onibaba [review], in which a similarly abandoned pair of women earn their way by killing passing swordsmen and stealing their armor. In Onibaba, the return of the lost son and husband exposes the crimes and shifts the drama into even more macabre directions. In Kuroneko, the return of the soldier boy is almost the opposite. The ghost story takes a turn when Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) emerges from combat as a celebrated warrior. He is promoted in the ranks and dispatched by his master (Kei Satô) to take care of whatever is killing the men.

Naturally, Gintoki is taken aback when he discovers whom the ghosts are, but instead of dispelling them via a deadly battle or a traditional exorcism, Gintoki settles back into a semblance of home life. Kuroneko becomes almost a love story, albeit a morbid one, as the husband returns to the house night after night to make love to his dead wife. It's a glacial seduction, both in terms of temperature and pacing. Life in Kuroneko nearly slows to a crawl--only it's a state that can't last. There will have to be a reckoning.

Shindô is a particularly skilled filmmaker when it comes to making the supernatural come alive. There are several excellent special effects in Kuroneko. Some of them are traditional sleight-of-hand: at one angle, we see the true nature of the ghosts, but in the next cut, they have returned to normal. Shindô loves to use a choppy montage to unsettle the viewer and pull us into the netherworld. He also gets clever with optical effects, and he portrays the ghostly manor where the women lure their victims as a kind of landlocked sailing vessel. It moves through natural space, drifting through the surrounding forest, never locked to one place on the corporeal plane.

As good of a ghost story as it is, however, Kuroneko is far more than a simple tale of succubae going bump in the night. As with Onibaba, the filmmaker is using the fantastical as background for exploring human nature. In particular, Kuroneko is a damning critique of societal divisions and the pecking order of masculine leadership. The higher up the ladder, the more vain and ridiculous the men behave. The head of the clan sits behind a screen, as if he were some great and powerful Oz passing orders down to the lower ranks, while Gintoki's superior, Raiko, is a hairy, preening beast. When Gintoki spins an embellished tale of how he conquered an enemy referred to as "The Bear," his description of the man's furry body could just as easily be applied to the man he is telling it to. The male animal is large and indiscriminately violent, whereas the female power lies in wait. A cat is stealthy and precise. They keep the true color of their fur hidden.

All of these elements build to an effective climax, Shindô pulling out all of his tricks for a close-quarters showdown and a bittersweet finish that stays true to Kuroneko's cynical worldview. As the final images continued to haunt me, I had to ask myself whose side I was on and why. Who was I meant to sympathize with or feel sorry for? Gintoki obviously had nothing directly to do with the murder of his family, but he is part of the system that made it possible. Hell only comes to Earth when humanity clears a path for it.

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

Please Note: The images here are promotional still and not screenshots from the Blu-ray edition under review.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Criterion has released a new version of Richard Linklater's fantastic 1993 film Dazed and Confused on Blu-Ray.

I originally wrote a review for this blog in 2008, and I have now published that review with updated specs at DVD Talk. Click through the image to read the whole piece:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

THE FOUR FEATHERS (Blu-Ray) - #583

Zoltán Korda's 1939 epic The Four Feathers is an entertaining anachronism. It's a war picture that celebrates colonialism, that decries cowardice and glorifies reckless valor. It uses outdated terminology to describe the opposition, yet except for a couple of very small scenes, manages to avoid draping the face of caricature over the Arab masses. The Brits are racist, but strangely, for the most part, the film is not.

It's also a lot of fun, and despite a slow start, genuinely rousing as the combat heats up. It starts in the 1880s when Islamic rebels reclaim the Sudan and take Khartoum from the English, killing one of their generals. This is seen as a terrible disgrace amongst the old guard who fought to grab the region originally. General Faversham (Allan Jeayes), General Burroughs (June Duprez), and Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley) all have white hair now, but at one time, they made blood run red. General Faversham in particular has concern for his young son Harry (Clive Baxter initially), who prefers reading the poems of Shelley to hearing his doddering father's anecdotes about war.

Power cut ten years ahead, and the British are finally ready to take back their foothold in Egypt. General Haversham is dead, and Harry is grown up and an army officer. Played now by John Clements (At Dawn We Die), he is in the same regiment as Burroughs' son Peter (Donald Gray) and also engaged to his daughter Ethne (June Duprez). Ethne has chosen him over his comrade John (Ralph Richardson, The Fallen Idol [review]), seeing something more appealing in the dark, brooding gentleman than the stiff-upper-lip type that John represents.

It's a pretty tangled social clique, but important groundwork for the adventure to follow. As the boys are about to ship out, Harry decides he'd rather not go and resigns his post. John, Peter, and their other friend Willoughby (Jack Allen) all feel betrayed, and they send Harry a package with a single white feather from each of them. It's an old custom, basically throwing down a gauntlet and calling Harry a coward. The fourth feather comes from Ethne, who doubts Harry's true motivations for bailing on his duty. Harry doubts these things himself, and to earn the right to return the feathers to their original owners and free himself from their stigma, he travels to Egypt. Since he's no longer in the army, he infiltrates a group of ethnic outcasts and poses as an Arab, slipping unnoticed into the battlefield. Once in the desert, he finds his old pals and saves them from trouble, at first anonymously but eventually revealing his identity as the situations grow more hairy.

The Four Feathers was based on a book by A.E.W. Mason. Though popular enough to spawn multiple film versions--the Korda boys made the fourth--I had never heard of it prior to a remake with Kate Hudson and Heath Ledger a few years back (which I never saw). While Zoltán's adaptation, which was written by R.C. Sherriff (That Hamilton Woman [review]), makes me curious to see how other filmmakers might have handled it, were I to never see any of the other versions, I'd be totally happy. I found this Four Feathers to be an engrossing piece of cinema, full of drama, interesting characters, and exciting battles. Zoltán Korda stages large combat scenes on open desert plains, using the elements as an additional weapon, almost as if the land itself were trying to get rid of all human invaders. The situation with John and Harry is particularly memorable, with the bright desert sun doing more damage to John than his enemy ever gets a chance to. Richardson delivers a solid performance, balancing on a fine line when a touch of humor is called for, but careful not to overdo it and undercut the pathos that is essential to his character's fate.

Despite the backdrop of war, The Four Feathers is ultimately about loyalty more than it is the far more simplistic cowardice/courage dichotomy. Perhaps that's why it's aged so well, actually. The sense of duty Harry feels is less to his country than it is to his countrymen, and more specifically his friends and the woman he loves. Had the patriotism had more of a rah-rah feel, the colonial aspects would probably be a lot harder to take. What makes Harry so compelling is his desire to prove himself to the people he cares about, and instead of doing it in the way that might be expected (i.e. rejoining the army as a foot soldier or begging his dad's cronies to give him back his ranking), he finds his own way to be a part of the action. It's the more romantic solution, so maybe reading all that Shelley paid off after all!

Or perhaps the fact that The Four Feathers was a family affair had some influence on how it all came together. Alexander Korda produced the picture, and Vincent Korda did the marvelous set design, creating a pronounced contrast between the colorful British homes and the harsher conditions of the desert battlefields. Apparently there was some tension between Zoltán and Alexander, and the lingering shots of the insurgency prepping for their raid was representative of the director's more sympathetic viewpoint. Had he not won out, The Four Feathers would have been the kind of jingoist propaganda I feared it might be. A more straightforward war film would have been a lot less interesting. Even on a scale as grand as this one, nuance proves to be everything.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk.

Also, please note that the images here are promotional stills and not taken directly from the Blu-Ray.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (Blu-Ray) - #17

"All's good if it's excessive."

Once upon a time, Criterion spine #17 was the rarest of the collection*. The early release of Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1976 shocker Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom was the one of the first discs to go out of print for the label, disappearing not long after it had first been issued. Copies of the release sold for several hundred dollars on eBay, and fans created online guides to steer potential buyers through the murky waters of knock-offs and bootlegs.

When I was working on building a complete Criterion library some ten years ago, Salò was always the one that eluded me. Both the cost-prohibitive mark-up and the movie's scandalous reputation made me gun shy. Eventually, I bought a dubious Chinese facsimile so I could actually watch the thing. My hope was, if Salò was as off-putting as everyone said, viewing it would convince me that it was not something I needed to drop major coin on.

The theory panned out. One time through with Salò was enough for me. It was not a movie I ever felt the need to see again. I finally bought the legitimate reissue a couple of years ago, but I never even opened it. It was gathering dust on my shelf, still wrapped in plastic, when the Blu-Ray came through. I guess enough time had passed. I was finally going to watch Salò a second time after all...

Pasolini's film in is an infamous slab of transgressive art. Inspired by the work of the Marquis de Sade, the controversial Italian director leveled his aim on his country's ruling class. Though set during the years during World War II when Italy was occupied and the Fascist government colluded with the Nazis, Salò takes place away from the combat, isolated to a sprawling, secluded villa owned by a shadowy collective of privileged dignitaries. These men have formed a secret pact, marrying each other's daughters as an old-school symbol of joint power. The four of them are intense libertines, and they have kidnapped nine teenage boys and nine teenage girls, all virgins, and taken them to this hidden house to engage in their every depraved fantasy. With them are adolescent thugs who act as their enforcers and aging prostitutes who stimulate the conversation by sharing the greatest hits of their illustrious careers satisfying the kinky fetishes of other powerful men. The men listen to these stories of indulgence and then indulge themselves with their captives.

Salò is essentially an escalating chain of humiliation and degradation. As the days wear on, the humiliations inflicted on the kidnapped adolescents gets worse and worse. Religion is banished, as is any display of emotion. If any of the prisoners break these rules, their names go into a little black book. When the excursion is over, the list of wrongdoers will receive a special punishment. Indeed, that perversion of justice is the climax of Salò, an orgy of torture, rape, and death. It's a bizarre concept to wrap your head around. These children have been violated, forced to eat human feces, and beaten, and yet in this upside-down mini society, they are the sinners. You'd think there was no penalty left, yet for Pasolini, no matter how cruel a human can be, there is always someone more cruel, always a deeper level of selfishness and evil that man can sink to.

It can be hard to judge button-pushing art, especially once some time has passed. What was shocking and meaningful in 1976 may not have the same impact or relevance in 2011. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom still has the power to disgust. I retched more than once while watching it and frequently squinted or covered my eyes to obscure some of the more terrible depictions. So, I guess that is a win against the belief that we, as a filmgoing public, have been desensitized over the years by increased sex and violence in entertainment. Salò still has the power to make me sick.

On the other hand, it no longer has the power to shock. Maybe it's hard to compete in an age where we have something like The Human Centipede, the goal post has definitely been moved when it comes to deranged concepts. Or maybe it's that Pasolini's technique is so transparent, it's hard to take his film entirely seriously. Yes, much of what he shows on screen is gross, but some of it is also outright ridiculous. A man in leather panties and dog collar talking about how much he likes anuses and being urinated on may be a very real fetish, but the use of such images in Salò seems more like juvenile rabble-rousing than it does a mature exploration of challenging world views.

Which isn't to say that Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is without subtext. For as much as Pasolini is getting his jollies by creating this tableau of human indignity, he also is trying to make a point about the corrupt nature of governance and the true motivations behind fascism. Any will to power, his script suggests, is essentially selfish, no matter how much the would-be leaders crow about the greater good. In amongst the sex talk here, the abusers espouse theories about politics and human nature that seemingly explain and justify their actions. Pasolini undercuts their self-belief by demonstrating that these are just excuses they make in order to satisfy their own base urges. Unsurprisingly, the more harsh things get, survival tactics get more desperate. Prisoners turn on each other. Mankind is its own worst enemy.

Which is where I would guess Pasolini is really coming from. His contempt for the Fascists is equal to his contempt for the common man. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is the product of a severe misanthrope, one whom I suspect wants to get back at a populace that has misunderstood and persecuted him. He is serving us the cinematic meal he thinks we deserve in a way that is almost ironic: he decries cruelty and humiliation by beating up his audience using all the tactics his villains use. You will know what he means because he will make you experience it.

It's not a particularly complex response to a complicated world. Were Pasolini's filmmaking skills not so refined, I'm not sure we'd still be watching and debating Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom all these years later. It's a well-made movie even if I don't think it's a very good one. I know it has its defenders, and to be honest, I take no issue with that, just as I think Pasolini wouldn't take issue with my negative analysis. Salò is meant to be visceral, and so any visceral reaction on the part of the viewership means success. For my money, though, a better film would have moved me in a more profound manner. It would have still caused me to look away, but it would also inspire me to think about why I had done so. The deepest question I took away from Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom had nothing to do with narrative or thematic meaning; rather, I just kept wondering how you cast a movie like this. How do you go about finding actors who will read the script and say, "Oh, you want me to strip down to nothing, pretend to get sodomized, and sit in a barrel of excrement? Sounds like the role of a lifetime!"

Criterion has put the two-disc Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom package onto one Blu-Ray, packaged in a handsome cardboard box with a thick 80-page book featuring credits, chapter listings, photos, and a collection of seven different essays about the movie from filmmakers and critics. It seems to me that it's essential for a film of this nature to acknowledge the debate and give space to a variety of voices to discuss it, so I'm pleased that Criterion has done so both in this written format and on the disc itself. The essays in the booklet actually connect well to the 23-minute Fade to Black featurette that talks to Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, and others about their reaction to the film.

Pasolini himself gets his say in the 33-minute "Salò: Yesterday and Today documentary, which actually did serve to make me appreciate his vision more. He had clear intentions for what he wanted to do, even if some of those intentions are lost in the translation between artist and audience. We also get a look at the actual production in the 40-minute The End of "Salò," which gathers participants and crew members to discuss the working process and also the aftermath, including Pasolini's murder prior to the movie getting released. Amongst those interviewed are set designer Dante Ferreti, who also returns for a separate 12-minute interview. Also interviewed alone is film scholar and director Jean-Pierre Gorin (28 minutes), an aficionado of Pasolini and an appreciative viewer of Salò.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk.

* In terms of actual number of copies on the market, the very first pressing of The Seven Samurai may total less than Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, but given that the only change was the removal of a tiny restoration demonstration, I always considered the pursuit of that particular collectible to be the province of the overly fanatical.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

HARAKIRI (Blu-Ray) - #302

The year is 1630. The capital of Japan is still under its original name, Edo, and though samurais still exist, the shogunate has severely lessened their power. An older, bearded swordsman appears at the gate to the estate of Lord Iyi, a still thriving patriarch. Having lost his own master, this samurai has been a ronin for many years. Tired of eking out a living and only finding starvation for his efforts, he requests that Iyi's men let him use the spacious courtyard of their compound as a place to commit ritual suicide, formally known as "seppuku" but also called "harakiri." Indeed, the original title of Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 film was Seppuku in Japan, but it was likely changed to Harakiri for international release as that is the more commonly known term worldwide.

Respected Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai stars as Hanshiro Tsugumo, the swordsman at the end of his tether looking for an honorable death. Rentaro Mikuni is Counselor Saito, the man charged with managing the daily goings-on at the Iyi manor. Saito is suspicious of Tsugumo's motives, as it has become commonplace for ronin to show up at rich homes claiming to be seeking a place to die but really looking to extort money from a well-to-do family who doesn't want the public disgrace of a dead warrior in their front yard. This scam began honestly, when one of the many samurai left in the cold by shogunate reform legitimately sought a nice place to spend his last breath. The clan he went to was so impressed by his sincerity, that they gave him a job; those who followed this have been con artists.

In fact, Tsugumo is not the first to come to the Iyi manner seeking this kind of asylum. Several months before, a younger man named Chijiwa (Akira Ishihama) arrived under similar circumstances. Saito and his men doubted his intentions, too, but ultimately, they made him carry out his promise. Chijiwa's tortuous death is the grisliest scenes in the movie, and Saito's detailed explanation of the disembowelment--which we see as an actual flashback--is meant to dissuade Tsugumo from pushing the matter further. The audience may be unsettled by the painful self-immolation (I certainly was), but Tsugumo is not. He insists on going ahead, his desire to die is very real.

Harakiri's twist, however, is that despite his true intentions, Tsugumo has not revealed his full motivation. The former warrior was a father and a grandfather who watched his family's livelihood dwindle as he clung to an unyielding code of honor--one he has decided that others higher up the food chain have not been as dedicated to. His narrative is more entangled in recent events at the Iyi manor than was originally apparent. The reality of what is happening grows more knotted and tragic the deeper Tsugumo draws us in. The movie may be black-and-white, but its often-grotesque tapestry is anything but. The hubris of the Iyi clan is they demanded simplicity because it was easier for them to deal with, even though life is far more complex.

Tatsuya Nakadai is astounding in the lead role. He plays present-day Tsugumo as a man who is staunchly resolute. He quietly commands the room, wresting control from Saito in ways both bold and manipulative. When insisting that the counselor and his retainers continue listening to his story doesn't work, he has other gambits waiting to be played. In the flashbacks, the actor is afforded the opportunity to show his range. Tsugumo's life swings from happiness to heartache, and the unraveling of his confidence is devastating to behold. The performer shows just as much strength in the battle scenes, finding a balance between an old warrior's confidence and his somewhat faulty muscle memory. He is not as strong or as agile as he once was, and Nakadai is careful to show, through gesture and expression, that it's righteous passion that allows this samurai to not just hold his own, but to best his opponents.

Fans of Japanese cinema likely know Nakadai from his work with Akira Kurosawa, including High and Low [review], where he proved himself more than an able co-star next to the great Toshiro Mifune, but also later in life as the unhinged father in Ran [review]. It's an impressive career even before you factor in his previous collaboration with Masaki Kobayashi, the towering epic The Human Condition [review]. Comparing that multi-part drama with this one is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, but they both stand tall as portrayals of individuals pushed as far as they can be pushed. It's a dramatic situation both timeless and timely: when the system fails to protect the people it was created to serve, when those at the upper levels of power forget about individuals that form the basis for their rule, those desperate for justice will find a way to get their due. Not that any victory is clean. Following a harrowing, tension-filled climax, Harakiri has a bitter denouement. The cynical message: if you're going to strike at a snake, you'd best take out the head, or its venom will still have an outlet to poison the world further.

Kobayashi works here from a script by Shinobu Hashimoto. The film is tightly constructed on two different timelines, and the writer makes smart decisions of when to click back and forth between past and present. In some ways, Harakiri is like a mystery. We know, in essence, who killed Chijiwa, but the metaphorical culprit, the source of the misery that led him to the murder scene, still needs to be uncovered. Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima works in the tight hallways of the palace and even the tighter quarters of Tsugumo's impoverished hovel, to choreograph the narrative and emphasize just how trapped the ronin really is. The courtyard where the suicides take place boxes the victims in, and yet the estate that surrounds them is like a maze. On his climactic dash through the Iyi home, Tsugumo breaks through different walls, each one revealing another layer of the internal bureaucracy. As a metaphor for the lone citizen taking on the system, it's incredibly powerful. What Tsugumo finds there is ultimately hollow, and thus Harakiri is all the more unnerving. If you don't walk away from this movie shaken all the way down to your shoes, I'm not sure you were really watching what was going on.

Criterion first released Harakiri back in 2005 as a two-disc DVD set. As the screengrabs here show, the restoration done back then was impressive enough already, but the high-def Blu-Ray transfer is a thing of beauty. The black-and-white photography is sharper than ever before, with rich, deep detail and incredible textures. Close-ups on the actors in tense moments reveal so much about the pain and fear the characters are suffering just by letting us see the sweat on their brow and the tears in their eyes so vividly.

The new edition also keeps all the extras from the previous set, including an interview between Masaki Kobayashi and Double Suicide-director Masahiro Shinoda (that makes for a fitting duo, if not a depressing double feature). There are also more recent interviews with Nakadai and Hashimoto and a pretty cool poster gallery.

There is a 3D remake of Harakiri on the way, helmed by irascible Japanese madman Takashi Miike. It will be interesting to see how Miike handles the material. I'd have thought him a pretty poor choice for Harakiri--and really, would have been against remaking what is essentially a perfect film--before seeing his masterful redo of the samurai showdown picture 13 Assassins [review]. The concept of ritual suicide certainly has the potential for different avenues of exploration. Let's not forget that just three years after Kobayashi stormed Cannes with Harakiri, bad-boy author Yukio Mishima unleashed his short film Patriotism [review], a film that is just as vivid in its gruesome details but with a decidedly different point of view. Whereas Kobayashi decides that seppuku is an empty gesture given foolishly in deference to an uncaring power structure, Mishima considers it the ultimate expression of fealty to something greater than yourself (for him, Japan). Both films are effective, though ultimately, Kobayashi's is more fulfilling and easily more persuasive.

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

Please Note: The screen captures used here are from the standard-definition DVD released in 2000, not from the Blu-ray edition under review.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


I enjoyed the recent Eclipse set The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara [review] to such a degree that it only made sense to finally take the plastic off of my Nikkatsu Noir box and watch the Kurahara film included there. The 1957 crime drama I Am Waiting (Ore wa matteru ze) is actually the director's debut, predating the earliest film in Warped World by three years. For his first feature, it's impressively mature, showing an assured grasp of dramatic storytelling as well as the filmmaker's penchant for artistic daring.

The story opens on a lonely late-night pier. A boy finds a girl standing at the edge of the water, and sensing she may do herself harm, invites her back to the pub he owns on the waterfront. He is Joji Shimaku (Yujiro Isihara), a former boxer who now runs this low-rent café while waiting for his brother to contact him and tell him their farm is set up in Brazil. She is Saeko (Mie Kitahara), a singer whose career has fallen on hard times. She ran out on a contract at a skeevy cabaret after clocking her gangster boss' grabby little brother (Ken Hatano) over the head. That she ran into Joji was good fortune for her. His bar is a place for people living on borrowed time. Everyone there is running from something and well on their way to something else. Joji stopped boxing after he killed a man in a bar fight. Another regular (Isamu Kosugi) is a doctor with a drinking problem who lost one too many patients on the operating table. The cook was once a chef on a cruise liner. This is a place where you end up, not where you begin.

A relationship quietly blossoms between Joji and Saeko. She begins working as his waitress while they wait to here if she killed the man she attacked. Both of them slowly reveal their pasts, but the are tentative about their present. Neither feels comfortable settling down, and with good reason. Joji's plans to leave for South America flounder when he finds out that his brother never made it to his destination. When the gang boss Shibata (Hideaki Nitani) comes looking for Saeko, he arrives like an agent of fate, dictating the paths of these young romantics. As Joji digs into the mystery of his brother's disappearance, just how intertwined all of their histories really are becomes even more clear.

I Am Waiting takes place on dark, foggy side streets, down alleyways and along patches of river where most common people don't go. For a guy like Joji, it's a purgatory he would have never chosen for himself; for a predator like Shibata, it's a jungle of opportunity. As they make their way through other parts of the city, the regular people they run into--shopkeepers, waitresses, etc.--look at them with fear. Sure, Shibata's thugs are questionable characters, but it's also like Joji is cursed. His arrival, and the danger that surrounds him, is a bad omen. If you get stuck in the same plot he's stuck in, you might never get out.

Music plays an important role in I Am Waiting. Masaru Sato delivers a score that brings to mind Ennio Morricone, both in its style (the whistling) and function (certain snippets act as almost humorous commentary). The bulk of the soundtrack is jazzy, leaning toward bossa nova in rhythm and percussion. It is self-consciously "criminal." The orchestration draws a contrast between two worlds. Prior to her career as a nightclub siren, Saeko was an opera singer. The brief performance we hear on the radio inspires a torrent of confession, and this juxtaposition of high and low art is meant to show how far she has fallen. Kurahara also makes Sato's music an important part of a trio of flashbacks that dot the film. In each, we see past violence, incidents that have had tremendous impact on the lives of the movie's characters. They are shot so that the sets look purposely fake, so that these memories appear almost impressionistic. There is no dialogue or sound effects, just the beat of the music.

This adds to the impact of the climactic fight in I Am Waiting. Kurahara does the opposite when Joji and Shibata have their showdown. There is no music, only the sound of their fists and their feet. The volume is turned up, and the director uses Shibata's cavernous nightclub to exaggerate the noises. Each footfall on the dancefloor, every sock to the jaw, echoes in the empty bar, leading up to a true "money shot," one almost as effective as Kubrick's in The Killing. As is common in these kinds of stories, the showdown represents decisive action for the protagonist. Once Koji started investigating his brother's death, he had chosen to stop waiting and take his life back; the brutal throwdown between himself and Shibata serves as a kind of absolution. The fighter took himself out of the ring for no good reason, and now he is putting himself back in for a particularly righteous one. The exile is over.

Yujiro Ishihara would later work with Kurahara on other features, including the irreverent romantic picture I Hate But Love. His turn in I Am Waiting comes just after his breakthrough in Crazed Fruit, and he's excellent as the brooding boxer. The actor perfectly embodies the indecisive, tortured soul of someone denying his own natural instincts and abilities. He is aided by Kurahara's almost dispassionate shooting style. The director and his cinematographer, Kurataro Takamura, use the drab, gray spaces wisely, letting the characters move within the static environments on their own, sometimes observing from a careful distance, even peering past other objects or over someone's shoulder to examine the action. There are early indicators of Kurahara's trademark god's eye view, but he mostly stays down on the ground here, walking with the mortals as they deal with their earthly concerns.

I Am Waiting is a smartly constructed, deeply emotional crime film. While film noir is often a debatable tag, and 1957 comes some time after the true period of American noir, I Am Waiting's portrayal of tortured souls trying to outrun a troubling past only to end up right in the middle of everything they intend to deny fits in with other classics of the genre. The long-reaching shadows of fate blanket everything, but one can learn to live in the darkness, provided they make the right choices. One cannot fight passively, nor can anyone love that way. As Joji learns, you can't wait for the world to realign itself once everything has gone wonky, you have to make it happen on your own.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


There is a scene in the last act of Jean Vigo's 1934 film L'Atalante where the old sailor Père Jules, played by legendary French actor Michel Simon, imagines he is playing a record by moving his fingers along the groove. Vigo lays in accordion music to match his movements, stopping and starting as he does, before pulling back to reveal that Jules has been tricked by his young bunkmate (Louis Lefebvre). The boy has been playing the accordion just out of frame. Angered by the prank, Jules admonishes the kid, telling him that he might laugh at such a flight of fancy, but is playing a record with your finger all that impossible? They don't understand how electricity works, or how music is sent across radio waves, so how can they rule anything out?

L'Atalante has a similar allure. It may not be obvious why this unassuming little film works so well, but it somehow enchants all the same. Perhaps it's Vigo's creation of this dual universe, of a world where dreams can sit side by side with hard reality, that is the secret to its success. We want to be enthralled under its spell, because maybe then we can believe that our own reality is worth it.

The story opens in a small town in rural France. A wedding ceremony has just concluded, joining local girl Juliette (the luminous Dita Parlo) with a boat captain named Jean (Jean Dasté). Jean is the skipper on a three-man barge that sails the French canals, delivering goods from port to port. Juliette has never left her birthplace prior to this honeymoon, and yet her married life is immediately on the move. More than that, the barge will be her conjugal home, always in motion, the background forever changing. It's going to be quite an adjustment for her. Indeed, it's going to be an adjustment for the whole crew. Yet, Juliette has always known that the water holds her fate: she believes if you stick your head below the surface, you will see the image of your true beloved. It's how she knew who Jean was before she even met him.

So, Juliette dreams of love, and she also dreams of seeing Paris. Eventually, the boat--which, like the movie, is named L'Atalante--will get her there. Strife amongst the workforce prevents her from enjoying it when they do, just one of the many disappointments the new bride will suffer. At the same time, she makes peace with Père Jules, who invites her into his cabin. There, the salty dog shows her the bizarre treasures he's gathered from around the world. Having never seen such wonders, Juliette is mesmerized. Some of the objects are simple, like a Chinese fan, others are more unique, like the jar holding the hands of Jules' best friend, now deceased. We will see this joy at such unexplainable sights two more times before L'Atalante is through: next at the port where Juliette meets a salesman (Gilles Margaritis) that is an expert at sleight-of-hand, and then the last time when Juliette finally sneaks off to Paris.

Each time, this happiness will be balanced by darkness. When Jean finds Juliette in the cabin of his second-in-command, he loses his temper. Enflamed by jealousy, he reveals a previously unseen violent streak. It shows up again when they meet the salesman, and also when he discovers Juliette has disappeared. Only that final time, he abandons Juliette to the city...and himself to despair.

L'Atalante is a deceptively simple romance. The basic story may lack complication, but the presentation has many layers and a balanced sense of its internal world. There are dualities throughout, be it above deck and below deck, sea and land, town and city. Both Jules and Jean have double natures, and both are capable of tenderness and violence alike--though, despite his warnings that he might strike, Jules never does, whereas Jean hides his anger until it's too late. This makes sense, though, when you notice that Jules has an ability to appreciate life's magic that Jean does not possess. Jules has been to all corners of the globe and seen many things, whereas it's possible Jean has only sailed up and down the same canals. When Juliette compels him to look into the water to test his love, he sees nothing, and his pretense otherwise doesn't fool her.

It's a very romantic trope, actually. Jean has to learn to see the world in the same way as his wife if he ever hopes to keep her. Juliette is too innocent for the common world, and she could be tempted away if not careful. To protect her properly, he has to be able to match the purity of her feeling toward him. It's the only way he will ever be worthy.

In his earlier short films [reviewed here], Jean Vigo experimented with camera effects and used a lot of tricks to create a feeling of wonder that he manages effortlessly without them in L'Atalante, his only full-length feature. The only visual technique he revisits is the underwater photography he showed in 1931's Taris, his portrait of a champion swimmer. His camera will have to go below surface once again to capture Jean's transformative moment, as the skipper literally must go deep in order to rise again as a new man.

There are few other effects in L'Atalante; at the same time, Vigo creates a dynamic spatial relationship between his actors and his camera. In one memorable shot, Jean crawls across the deck of the barge, just like one of Père Jules' many cats, creeping up to the camera lens and then climbing over. There are many shots like this, where the director is so deep in the thick of things, it's almost as if the characters know he is there. The salesman, for instance, practically performs directly to the screen. This allows for intimate observances, be it Juliette's private fantasies while window shopping in Paris or our glimpse into their separate bedchambers when the newlyweds have rapturous dreams about one another, the fires of loneliness and desire stoked by their time apart.

It's finding these lyrical moments within the dirty confines of the everyday that sets Jean Vigo's work apart from his contemporaries, inspiring many filmmakers who came after. It's also a defining element in Simon's performance style, his combination of a very complete physical presence with a clownish demeanor. He's just as amazing in L'Atalante as he was in Jean Renoir's Boudou Saved From Drowning only a couple of years earlier, or as he would remain in The Two of Us [review] decades later. Jean Vigo, on the other hand, never made another film after L'Atalante. He died of sepsis just after L'Atalante was completed. Given the assured aesthetics of this debut, we can only speculate where he might have gone from here. Maybe even greater things, maybe he would have peaked just as he began. We can never know, we are only left with this one perfect vision, a dream that holds strong even in the here and now of the 21st Century.

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

CARLOS - #582

The man who would be codenamed Carlos, and nicknamed "The Jackal," was a Venezuelan-born son of Communists who, at the age of 21, joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and became one of their most brutal enforcers. The 2010 biographical film Carlos by French director Olivier Assayas explores his life from his joining the PFLP in the early 1970s through his arrest by the French government in 1994. With a five-hour-plus running time, it is a filmmaking marathon. Its origin was on French TV, but it showed in North America as a multi-part special event screening at various theaters and was available on demand to cable TV subscribers before its eventual Criterion release.

Édgar Ramírez, previously seen as a CIA agent in The Bourne Identity and a revolutionary in Steven Soderbergh's Che [review], stars as Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the ambitious young idealist who took the name Carlos as his wartime handle, fighting for the liberation of Palestine and the destruction of capitalist imperialism. As portrayed here, Carlos is impatient for action, ready to make a name for himself and strike a blow in the name of the almighty cause. He distinguishes himself as a dangerous man after an impulsive shooting of several French police officers. His fame as an international menace is then solidified when he leads a raid on an OPEC meeting in Austria, taking diplomats from around the world hostage. The mission doesn't go entirely as planned, and this has good and bad consequences. The head of the PFLP disowns him, but this frees Carlos to form his own group and start giving the orders himself.

Assayas, whose films are as diverse as the quiet family drama Summer Hours [review] and the clumsy actioner Boarding Gate [review], co-wrote the script for Carlos with television writer Dan Franck. Each segment of Carlos begins with a disclaimer that the film has taken a fictional approach to the story, as much of what Carlos the Jackal really did is not entirely known. Certain connections have to be made for the sake of narrative structure. In terms of storytelling, the movie has a dry, historical approach, putting it in league with Che and The Baader Meinhof Complex [review], as well as, to a degree, the two Mesrine films [review part 1, review part 2]. This kind of docudrama seems to be an emerging genre, adopting a dispassionate approach that is almost apolitical in its just-the-facts approach. We are given very little background information on Carlos, and his mission is more of an abstract concept, there is no statement of intent. As the movie wears on, this seems to be part of Assayas' point: as he is unmoored from his idealistic safety zone, Carlos' activities seem to be less and less about the "struggle," and more about just maintaining his underground lifestyle. Alliances shift, and there really is no endgame. Whoever is on top is on top, and tomorrow it will be someone else.

This technique works for most of the movie. Assayas adopts the look and rhythm of the best 1970s American films, which is fitting given the period nature of the piece. The convoluted structure of the story is also akin to tangled espionage dramas that emerged as a result of the Cold War, with secret agents so deep in the field, they tend to forget what mission put them out there in the first place. Édgar Ramírez is good as Carlos, though he is missing a certain charisma that might make the terrorist more of a romantic figure, the way Benicio Del Toro gave a little extra something to Che Guevara just by virtue of his being Benicio Del Toro. Ramírez lacks the same commanding presence. Still, he brings a compelling complexity to the character. Carlos believed he had a death sentence hanging over his head, and he used it as an excuse to drink and chase skirts. You also have to admire the actor's commitment. He lets his appearance go to match his subject's weight gain over the years. This all may be a canny move by Assayas. Carlos is essentially a gangster picture, the story of a murderer who lives the life and damns the consequences, but at the same time, subverts the genre by never letting the Jackal be the seductive dog others might choose to portray.

Other characters go in and out of the story, including European operatives and various Arab allies. We see different plots carried out by Carlos and his men, most of which fail in some way or another. We also see him flounder at relationships, including a marriage to one of his own "soldiers" (Nora von Waldstätten). There is always a question of whether Carlos takes his threat level more serious than the rest of the world, if he exaggerates how much of a wanted man he really is; but then, his eventual takedown somewhat vindicates him.

Carlos is really only cast adrift when Carlos himself is. The final hour or so of the film, following the toppling of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, starts to drag. Frankly, it's because Carlos is not that interesting by this point. He has settled into the kind of bourgeois domestic lifestyle he otherwise decried. He even starts driving a Mercedes. Carlos drifts aimlessly from one country to the next, going to whomever will offer him political asylum. If in the first part of the film he is a decisive man of action, and in the second a delusional hothead, by the third he is not much at all. He teaches classes in guerilla theory in the Sudan, and postpones surgery for a swollen testicle to get liposuction on his love handles. In retrospect, he should probably be thankful to the French secret service for taking the time to come after him, because he's got nothing going on. In terms of the film's arc, Assayas should have sent them in 20 or 30 minutes sooner. It's almost like a backwards horror movie: instead of the boring bits lulling us into a place where we can be scared, Assayas shocks us first, and thus makes the boredom that follows all the more uncomfortable.

Even with that complaint, Carlos still stands as a brash triumph. One has to wonder if this kind of long-form filmmaking, if Che and Mesrine and Carlos, is cinema's reaction to the continued growth of cable television and all the can't-miss series from the past several years. Audiences are becoming more and more prepared to invest several hours in one storyline, and if they are willing to wait from week to week or devour them in one massive go on DVD, then maybe they'd be willing to sit in a theatre for six hours, too. It's an experience akin to spending an afternoon engrossed in a novel. You get so much more out of taking in so much at once. Carlos is certainly more engrossing and more informative than a generic, compact Hollywood biopic. It pays back on the investment you put into it.

Criterion has released Carlos on DVD as a four-disc package (and separately as a Blu-ray). The discs come in a sturdy, thick case with an interior booklet. To compare this to Che again, if you own that DVD set, the company has used a similar approach to this political epic as they did that one. The three main discs separately house each chapter of the movie, as well as bonus features that look at the film's production; the fourth disc has a trio of supplements, including two lengthy documentaries that look at the real-life Carlos. These are fascinating as they reinforce Assayas' attention to detail and give some further perspective to how interesting his dramatic approach was.

The hour-long Carlos: Terrorist Without Borders was made for French television (presumably in the 1990s) and covers the early life and career of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the man known as "Carlos." We peek in on his childhood and his early activist beginnings, and the archivists uncover rare photos and footage of the terrorist. Investigators and journalists give insight into the history, while associates like Hans-Joachim Klein sit for new interviews and give first-hand accounts. The other feature-length documentary, Mason de France (88 minutes), also gets to talk to colleagues of the Jackal, including his former lover, Madelina Kopp, and his wife at the time of filming.

Kopp was actually one of the motivating factors behind the Maison de France bombing, an incident not detailed in Carlos. While she and one of their other associates were in jail in Paris, Carlos ordered various terrorist attacks around Europe in protest of their incarceration and to influence their release. This particular bombing was at a French consulate in Berlin, and one person was left dead. The focus of this film is that victim, and the filmmakers talk to his friends and family in order to put a human face on the effects of terrorism. For those who might worry that Carlos glamorizes the killer and makes him an antihero, this documentary effectively lessens the glow of the dramatic construct. Ironically, Carlos' efforts to free Kopp got her sentence doubled.

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