Friday, December 30, 2011


As 2012 comes to a close, this trio of reviews of Seijun Suzuki movies actually catches me up for the weeks I missed in November. This marks four full years of providing one new review to this blog a week. That's a lot of writing and a lot of movies.

I picked Take Aim at the Police Van from the Eclipse Nikkatsu Noir set because it was the only remaining Suzuki film in my collection that I had not yet watched. It's interesting that my viewing over the past two days has gone in reverse chronological order. I am not sure why Criterion decided to number Tokyo Drifter [review] and Branded to Kill [review] the way they did, but with this 1960 mystery/drama thrown in, the effect for me was to see Suzuki's style get more normal as I progressed.

Coming some six years before Tokyo Drifter, Take Aim at the Police Van is a more conventional genre exercise than the director's later films. It begins with a violent attack on a prison transport van. Suzuki builds tension by having road-sign warnings repeat over and over, moving faster and making the viewer nervous with all their cries of "Caution!" It also doesn't help that we know that up ahead a sniper is waiting. When the van approaches his hillside vantage point, he opens fire, killing two of the prisoners. It was a concentrated attack.

The guard on that run, Daijiro Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima), is held responsible for the assault, and he is put on six months leave. Rather than stay at home and sulk, Tamon decides to look into what really happened all on his own, thus transforming himself into a traditional fictional investigator, doggedly pursuing his goals despite the warnings and the dangers. Suzuki and scriptwriter Shinichi Sekizawa see Tamon as belonging to a western tradition, and even make reference to Ellery Queen and other mystery writers who concocted similar stories with equally committed characters. Tamon begins his case by finding one of the shooting survivors, a low-level crook named Goro (Shoichi Ozawa) who was due to be released on bail the day of the incident. Goro's behavior during the attack makes Tamon think he knows something.

Naturally, pulling on this first thread causes many others to unravel. Tamon follows Goro out of town, where the mistress of one of the dead prisoners and Tsunako, the girl who bailed Goro out (Mari Shiraki), are working as strippers in an illicit brothel. Their involvement leads the prison guard to a human trafficking ring with ties to a mysterious, possibly fictitious big boss named Akiba. More people end up dead, some thought dead end up alive, and Tamon maybe has a thing for one of the possible suspects (Misako Watanabe). Yuko's father runs the "talent agency" that books the girls, and she's taken charge of the business since her old man got sick. She also knows archery, which is interesting since the dead stripper was shot in the heart with an arrow!

Take Aim at the Police Van takes a tried-and-true approach to building its mystery. For every answer Tamon finds, he also uncovers a few more questions. More players join the story, and the cast builds to the point where he doesn't really know who is going to pop out from which shadow next. Mizushima plays the role pretty straight. He's always looking forward, rarely indulging in sentiment or any emotion that might alter his course. He's an older man, and seeing him tangled up with so many young girls creates an amusing incongruity. Tamon is no white knight, but he will get the job done.

By the time we get to the climax, just about any of the crooks could be Akiba. Tamon has formed an uneasy alliance with Yuko, particularly after the two of them are nearly burned alive in a gasoline truck by the sniper, and he also takes a liking to Tsunako and wants to get her out of whatever trouble Goro might have gotten her into. Motor vehicles and motorways prove dangerous throughout the film. There is a chase on a cliffside highway and later Tamon is nearly run down by coordinated vehicles coming from two different directions. Goro also humorously provides the movie with its second roadside omen: he has a backpack that says "No U-Turns." There is no turning around, there is only forging ahead.

It makes for a sublime kismet, then, that the final shootout in Take Aim at the Police Van goes down in a trainyard. Buses and cars are unpredictable. They crash and they roll, and their course is subject to human control. Trains follow a track. They are reliable and they are sturdy. Their destination can't be changed easily. For some, this will be fatal; for others, salvation. Trains are also the industry of an older generation, one that Tamon can identify with. And perhaps that is why he is as reliable and as dedicated, as well. The young hoods have their flashy cars, but he identifies with the rails, getting the job done and never deviating from the predestined route.


* Detective Burea 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (1963)
* Tanuki Goten (Princess Raccoon) (2005)

And one from the archives, part of a group of reviews I did for my old column "Can You Picture That?" on This one was reviewed alongside Onibaba, and that portion was reprinted here.

Underworld Beauty (1958): Speaking of cover art, I initially thought that Seijun Suzuki's 1958 yakuza movie, Underworld Beauty, would be a perfect companion to Onibaba. A beautiful woman dramatically posing with a machine gun! Yes! Only the cover art is entirely misleading. Akiko (Mari Shiraki) never picks up a gun inUnderworld Beauty. I was fooled by marketing!

Thankfully, Underworld Beauty is an entertaining film even without a pretty young thing shooting up the bad boys. Released by Home Vision Entertainment along with a spate of other Suzuki films, Underworld Beauty hints a little bit at the scattershot editing style that, a decade later, got Suzuki fired and branded "incomprehensible" (the way sometimes the story jumps from point A to point C pales next to the supersonic speed Branded to Kill travels at). Overall, though, it's a pretty straightforward crime picture with a cynical edge reminiscent of Sam Fuller.

The plot is simple: Miyamoto has spent three years in prison. In that time, he has managed to keep his mouth shut, giving up neither his yakuza bosses nor the hiding place of the jewels he stole. Feeling guilty about his partner, Mihara, who was partially crippled in the heist, he decides to work through his old boss and sell the diamonds, giving the money to his friend. Only someone attempts to steal the stones at the sale, and Mihara ends up swallowing the jewels before leaping off a building to escape. In the wake of his death, Miyamoto and Akiko go up against the yakuza and Akiko's effete, mannequin-manufacturing boyfriend, working through a maze of double-crosses to establish ownership of the three shiny jewels.

What sets Underworld Beauty apart from standard crime films of the period is the clash of the old school gangster (Miyamoto) and the wild-child, idealistic teenager (Akiko). It's never more clear than when the dark-suited hoods step into the bossa-nova rock-and-roll nightclub filled with kids dressed in light colors. The crooks are like brick walls, while the teenagers are much more petite. At one point, one of the bad guys shoves the fresh-faced bartender away from the bar and he practically launches into the air. Thus, the central conflict becomes whether or not Akiko can step up and act maturely. Can she and Miyamoto find common ground, and will it carry them through the classic crime-doesn't-pay ending? (Side note: It's interesting to compare the rather milquetoast version of a rock club in Underworld Beauty to the seedier nightclub in Akira Kurosawa's High and Low [review] five years later. The former is definitely the bobby-soxer '50s version we see in a lot of period entertainment, whereas the latter's sweaty opium den vibe showed the false innocence was already crumbling.)

TOKYO DRIFTER (Blu-Ray) - #39

Seijun Suzuki's 1966 yakuza picture Tokyo Drifter starts as a black-and-white film. Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a former gangster looking to go legit, is set upon by a bunch of toughs from a rival gang. They are determined to test Tetsu's dedication to the straight-and-narrow while their boss, Otsuka (Hideaki Esumi), watches from a nearby car. Tetsu, who is nicknamed "The Phoenix," has an explosive temper, and our first dose of color comes when Otsuka imagines it going off. It's a quick flash of gunplay reminiscent of the opening of a James Bond film. Except, it's all fantasy, Tetsu doesn't take the bait. The world stays black-and-white.

At least until the credits begin. Then Suzuki's full-color version of Tokyo comes to life, accompanied by strains of the Tokyo Drifter theme song, sung by Watari himself. Like the anthem from High Noon [review], this will accompany the gunslinger as he wanders, underscoring his manly adventure by making explicit the lonely path this lone wolf chooses to follow. There is much to Tokyo Drifter that is like a cowboy picture, actually. Bar fights, quick-draw showdowns, even a little Ennio Morricone-style whistling. Tetsu certainly takes the same kind of punishment as Sergio Leone's Man with No Name. Still, Tokyo Drifter is pure Seijun Suzuki.

The plot here is fairly basic. By going legit, Tetsu's boss, Kurata (Ryuji Kita), has left a power vacuum. A loan coming due for the old man gives Otsuka an opening, and he moves in to take Kurata's debt and a valuable piece of property he owns. The scheme is partially successful, but two people are left dead and there is blood on both boss' hands. Tetsu becomes the sticking point in the middle, so he leaves town to avoid further trouble. Otsuka sends his goons after him, while also angling to take Tetsu's woman, a nightclub singer by the name of Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara). The Phoenix turns out to be harder to kill than Otsuka thought, and after the gangster sets up a double-cross, he finally forces his enemy to return to Tokyo and settle all scores.

Tokyo Drifter is a crazy battlefield of violence and color. Suzuki is clearly having fun playing with the cinematic hues available to him. Cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine plays with background lighting to create great washes of color that he can turn up or down as he sees fit. Likewise, production designer Takeo Kimura crafts a specific color scheme for the various characters. Just as they might have specific musical movements to announce their presence, here they have signature pigments that indicate who they are. Tetsu wears powder blue, a cool and calming color, while Otsuka's jackets are a fiery red. In between is Kenji, a.k.a. "The Shooting Star" (Hideaki Nitani). He was once Otsuka's top gunman, but he has since struck out on his own, not unlike Tetsu, but to pursue his own ends rather than fulfill a misguided sense of obligation. He serves as a voice of reason, and so he is represented by a more earthy green.

Chiharu has her own color, as well. The songbird is, fittingly, a canary yellow. This yellow doesn't just show up in how she dresses, but as she sings, the whole nightclub turns to match her hue. Fittingly, in the movie's intense final sequence, she is an angelic white, matching Tetsu's heroic bearing. All of his enemies--and indeed their whole world--have gone black without him, and it requires his return to illuminate the landscape. The nightclub becomes abstracted, turning into an open space, a more fitting area for Tetsu and Otsuka's gang to have their standoff. The choreography here is fantastic, with the Phoenix really getting a chance to show his skills.

The finale also plays long and without tricky cutting, differentiating it from earlier, choppier action scenes, many of which take place out in the open. A dual on snow-covered train tracks between the Phoenix and the Viper (Tamio Kawaji) has the added pressure of a locomotive barreling up the hill toward them. A lone red rail lays between them, marking Tetsu's kill zone. He runs for it, dives to the ground, and then--cut to the train passing. Did he shoot the other man? Did either get run over by the train? We don't know right away, and in Tokyo Drifter, anything is possible.

And I do mean anything. Suzuki is not yet quite as out there as he would be in Branded to Kill [review] the following year--though, to be honest, I found the first 20 minutes or so of Tokyo Drifter to be way more confusing--there is already an anarchic "anything goes" quality to Suzuki's work. This is a movie, after all, that stops twice for commercials for blow dryers. It also has a hero that is not just prone to having a running interior monologue, but tends to burst out and sing his own anthem. A little skullduggery in the editing bay doesn't seem like much next to those sorts of shenanigans.

Yet, for all the fun that is to be had, Suzuki maintains a cynical edge throughout. One doesn't expect him to draw the hard line that the lyrics of the Tokyo Drifter theme suggest--all the elements of a romantic ending are there: a vindicated hero and the woman who loves him--but that's exactly what the filmmaker does. For all that he has sacrificed by sticking to his code of honor, Tetsu is prepared to sacrifice more rather than ever lower his guard. This is why he can never be true allies with Kenji, as he thinks Kenji is beholden to nothing. Tetsu is bound by his own belief in the way things should be, and while men all around him let him down and flip-flop, he has all the more reason to stay true, however that may be to his own detriment.

Please Note: The screengrabs in this review are from the DVD of Tokyo Drifter originally released by Criterion in 1999. The upgraded Blu-Ray comes with a phenomenal high-definition restoration. The colors on the newly minted print are vibrant and highlight all the subtleties of design that Suzuki originally intended. Even the black-and-white opening is like night and day between the two discs. Tokyo Drifter in HD pops like never before, so make sure you get the edition with the cover you see up top, whether it be the BD or the new version of the standard DVD. It makes all the difference.

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

Thursday, December 29, 2011

BRANDED TO KILL (Blu-Ray) - #38

"Beast needs beast. That is the beast way. You and I are beasts."

Goro Hanada is the #3 professional killer in Japan. He is a cold, calculated criminal, with all the kinks and emotional distancing that such a job requires. He's married, and after a job, he and his wife rut like animals, spurred on by Hanada's personal fetish: he is invigorated by the smell of boiling rice. Staying alive in the underworld is all down to rank, and so is getting killed. You can't get respected if you don't measure up, but when you rank high, other assassins may come gunning for you. How you get to be #1 is a mystery. Some say the man at the top doesn't really exist, he's just a myth.

The movie is Branded to Kill, and the man who embodies this murderous ideal is Joe Shishido, the unconventional matinee idol with the chipmunk cheeks. He plays Hanada as a cool customer, watching everything, saying little. It's a role he's played before, including several times for director Seijun Suzuki. You could say this is their joint masterpiece, the perfect crystallization of Suzuki's jazzy style and cynical worldview. His disjointed narrative manner had grown so jagged by this point, Suzuki was actually fired from the film during production. While the studio's claims that the movie had become "incomprehensible" don't really hold water, one does have to stay alert while watching Hanada run from his rivals. Suzuki and editor Matsuo Tanji's rapid cutting, some two decades before MTV would popularize similar techniques, removes all the cushioning between individual moments. If you look away to check your phone or play with your cat, you might miss something. (I know both of these to be true from experience!)

At the start of Branded to Kill, Hanada agrees to help a friend with a job. The other gunman has fallen on hard times and needs to prove he can be trusted. He and Hanada are supposed to escort an important person (Koji Nanbara) with a price on his head from the airport. Along the way, they are attacked. Hanada and the mark make it out alive, Hanada's friend is not so lucky.

Shortly after this deadly outing, Hanada meets Misako, a dangerous woman with a death wish. Played by actress Annu Mari, she bears an uncanny resemblance to Chiaki Kuriyama, and she could have easily been on Quentin Tarantino's mind when casting Kuriyama as Gogo Yubara in Kill Bill. Her poison needle routine, and the way these sharp objects symbolically upend traditional sexual imagery, may have also been an inspiration for the schoolgirl killer in Takashi Miike's Fudoh: The New Generation (though, naturally, Miike takes the delivery method to its most gruesome extreme, having the girl shoot the needles from her crotch). Suzuki displays Misako as a girl who almost literally has a rain cloud following her around. She and Hanada meet in the pouring rain, and her appearances are often accompanied by torrents of water, a signal of both fertility and change.

She brings both to Hanada, though he must struggle for the first and the second is foisted on him. Misako convinces him to take a nearly impossible job, and cruel happenstance causes him to fail. This means Hanada loses his rank and is marked for death. Both Misako and his wife (Mariko Ogawa) will try to kill him, blaming "the Organization" for forcing their hands. Hanada begins to suspect a greater conspiracy, and to save his own life, he must kill #1 and take his place.

This proves more difficult when the identity of the top killer is revealed. The trick this assassin uses most often is isolating the target and wearing him or her down. Hanada is placed in a cocoon, as it were, forced to wait out his would-be murderer, a task that taxes him mentally and physically. Suzuki is pushing his protagonist to transform, and butterflies, which are common symbols of metamorphoses, are everywhere. One is the cause of Hanada's failure; Misako also decorates her home with butterfly carcasses. Her signature pins are used to stick them to her wall. At one point in his struggle, when Hanada incorrectly assumes he has made it out of the gauntlet, he sees a battleship with a deck covered in planes. They look like butterflies ready to break free, but they only exist to remind Hanada that he is still a caterpillar crawling on the ground.

Branded to Kill is full of such visual flourishes, and Suzuki especially lends his creative mind to coming up with new ways to stage the sex and violence that make his film such a lurid pleasure. Hanada and his wife have a marathon love-making session in their apartment, each jump cut showing them in a different position. Likewise, each hit that Hanada undertakes before his mishap is increasingly inventive. Handa must kill three targets one after the other, and each time, he comes up with a new way to reach the victim without being seen. It's a famous sequence, best encountered without any foreknowledge so as to best experience the dark humor and gory punchlines.

Success in Branded to Kill is weighed on a rigged scale. Hanada submits himself to his passion for Misako, and he muscles up to tussle with #1, but in each case, his body is more treacherous than any of his colleagues. The desire for the flesh and the desire for fame undo Suzuki's hero. At the start of the film, a professional rule is offered: "Booze and broads kill killers." The true assassin surrenders no control, he masters his own impulses. In this, the success of the filmmaker is clear. His bosses may not have gotten what he was after, but Seijun Suzuki has marshaled the inherent chaos of Hanada's bloody lifestyle and pushed it as far as it can go. In doing so, he provides a way for Branded to Kill's audience to experience the intensity of the moment while also witnessing how such heat can melt the ice in even the coldest murderer's veins. Branded to Kill is exhilarating and strange, and yet never random. Suzuki is perfectly devoted to his own aesthetic intentions, and as the top gunslinger informs his #3, that is how you get to be #1: wear down all opposition with a dogged dedication to your own end goal.

Please Note: The screengrabs here are from the original Criterion disc released in 1999. The new Blu-Ray of Branded to Kill is better in every way imaginable. The image is sharper, brighter, and full of more detail than was apparent on the now ancient first release. Jumping from watching the BD to putting the old disc in my computer was like stepping off of a sunny beach and into a smoke-filled house. The difference is immediately apparent, so do yourself a favor and go for the upgrade, be it the Blu-Ray or the new DVD version. Look for either with the cover at the top of this post!

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

Friday, December 23, 2011

HUNGER - #504

At this time of year, when we're meant to reflect on what we have and the state of our world, those in need of a reality check need go no further than Hunger, artist Steve McQueen's 2008 portrait of Irish Republican Army activist Bobby Sands. This cinematic tribute to true political sacrifice is a sobering reminder that much of what is fair and just in this world has been purchased at extreme personal cost by people who have had the guts to go farther than anyone else would. It's easy, for instance, to scoff at the Occupy Wall Street protesters and quibble over the occasional missteps the movement as a whole has suffered, but ask yourself, why aren't you one of the ones to uproot your life to make a stand? Is there anything you believe in enough to put your livelihood, or even your very life, in jeopardy?

Michael Fassbender (Fish Tank [review], A Dangerous Method [review]) stars as Sands, an IRA leader who was sent to a brutal state-run prison for his alleged crimes in the fight for a unified Ireland. Once inside, Sands was part of an ongoing action to convince the British government to recognize the IRA soldiers as political prisoners and not as average criminals. At the start of Hunger, it's 1981, and the imprisoned have been carrying on a "blanket" protest since the mid 1970s. Essentially, the jailers expected the prisoners to wear a uniform, while the prisoners demanded to wear their own clothes to differentiate them between the non-political inmates. With no other options, they went naked except for the blankets from their beds. This later morphed into a "no wash" protest, which is basically what it sounds like, though as McQueen shows in disgusting detail, this also involved letting food rot in the corner of your cell, painting the walls with your own feces, and dumping your urine into the corridors for the guards to walk in.

As we see, Sands and his fellow protestors were routinely beaten and bathed. Their hair and beards were cut off with large scissors with little regard for their personal well-being. Eventually, "negotiations" broke down when the compromise to let them wear pre-determined "civilian clothes" led to brightly colored golf outfits. Seeing that this was getting them nowhere and that attention was shifting to other aspects of the struggle, Sands reinstituted a hunger strike. A previous starvation protest had failed due to poor planning, but this time he had created a staggered system where more men would join the action periodically. He was to lead the way.

The final third of Hunger is Bobby Sands' slow death from lack of sustenance. Steve McQueen re-creates his deterioration with exacting, excruciating effect. Michael Fassbender reportedly went on a monitored diet to allow himself to lose enough weight to show Sands at his most emaciated, though simple weight loss is not the full extent of what Sands went through. As a doctor details to his parents, starving to death means losing all function as your body literally falls apart. Sands' skin was covered in festering bed sores, and his agitation reached such a state that the bed sheets couldn't even touch his fragile flesh. It took him 66 days to die.

McQueen, who co-wrote Hunger with playwright Enda Walsh (Disco Pigs), chooses not to frame Sands' final days as some kind of triumphant finger in the eye of "The Man." Rather, he assembles the narrative almost like a short story collection, stringing together various scenes and anecdotes to create an impression of the prison experience for Sands and his comrades. A good fifteen or twenty minutes passes before we even see Bobby Sands. Instead, we are first introduced to a cruel guard (Stuart Graham) who regularly brutalizes the IRA boys, and then a new arrival at the jail, a fighter named Davey Gillen (Brian Gilligan). This gives the viewer the impression of a unified effort where all participants are equal. Sands' importance in the protest only emerges slowly, we're halfway in before he takes over the movie in full.

This shift comes with one of Hunger's most stunning scenes, a sitdown between Sands and the priest Dominic Moran (Liam Cunningham). Shot as one unbroken sixteen-minute conversation, Sands lays out his plan for the strike as he and Father Moran debate what the true righteous path would be. It's a stunning piece of acting from both men, who maintain a natural flow in their dialogue, swapping humor for anger with a turn of phrase, never once breaking from the moment. Indeed, this is where we learn the sense of dedication ingrained in Sands' personality. As a youth, he was a cross country runner. He can endure pain in the long haul.

Rather than show off their command of the camera, McQueen and director of photography Sean Bobbitt (he also shot Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland), let the virtuoso performances dominate this important moment. The camera doesn't move, it stays fixed on the two sitting men and the table between them. There are plenty of other moments where the pair can show off their visual panache, be it the painterly use of the shit-covered walls, using the patterns as symbolic backgrounds, or the horrific bursts of violence when the inmates are pulled from their cells for all manner of degradation. They let these play, too, never cutting a moment short when the longer study will produce a stronger impact. Some might find some of the scenarios a little on the nose in terms of visual imagery--the fate of the Graham's guard, for instance, looks like the study of a macabre statue--but these things are deliberate on McQueen's part. He has a limited space in which to extract some beauty from the ugliness that permeates the situation.

In some ways, Hunger's landscape only contracts as the film progresses. The final scenes of Bobby Sands confined to bed, in particular, are understandably reduced to a single space. As her starves himself, the incarcerated man also becomes imprisoned in his own body. Ironically, here Sands can finally bust out, and so too does the camera. McQueen takes us out of the prison, away from the city, and into the wilderness, also taking us back in time to the formative experience of Sands as a young runner. These final scenes are reminiscent of Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [review] in how McQueen masterfully juxtaposes how one's body can be immobilized but the mind will never be restrained.

Because of this, the solemn coda that ends Hunger can be seen as a positive. We are to regard the reforms that followed as a validation of Bobby Sands' sacrifice. The will of a single individual can start a chain of events, binding him with other likeminded individuals, and ultimately enacting true change. It just takes the one to start for the many to follow suit.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

THREE COLORS (Blu-Ray) - #590

It seems to me that Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors should be one of those cinema experiences where how one first saw it is as important as how it affected him or her. True movie fans know what I mean. It's much the same way certain songs become tied to a particular time and place, creating a soundtrack for our memories. So too does how we interact with a movie make a difference for how meaningful it becomes in our personal library. For instance, I saw Three Colors for the first time over the course of two nights. Blue and White were the first night, Red the second. This was within the same year that Red had been released, either 1994 or 1995, and I made sure to catch them in the order of release.

That was, however, not necessary. Kieslowski built his threesome in such a way that they need not be enjoyed in any particular order. How you shuffle these cards will inform how you examine the images as a whole. Each movie stands alone, though they do cross over one another in small ways that you will recognize as you watch them all, but perhaps will be more or less meaningful depending on which of the films you have already seen. I stuck to the safe route, and have done so ever since. My second viewing was when Starz aired them in the same order over the course of three weeks, back when every Monday night was reserved for a spotlit foreign film. (I saw many important movies via that Monday night programming, including my first exposure to Bell Du Jour.) My last time watching all three was over one New Year's holiday back in 2003, when Three Colors first came to DVD. I'm a purist, what can I say? I like my routine.

Kieslowski named each of his three films for the three colors on the French flag, and thematically, he loosely touches on what those colors symbolize--liberty, equality, and fraternity--though like his infamous fableization of the Ten Commandments, The Decalogue, there is a mysteriousness to how exactly the core ideas are represented. The greater meaning of Three Colors (or Trois Coleurs depending on what side of the pretention border you live on (or, I guess, the literal geographical border)) and how it ties to these morals is in the way they blend together, how the three individual films work in concert. While you could view one or two of the three and never see the others and enjoy those films all the same, their impact as whole is easily greater than the sum of their parts. Be it the mourning of Blue or the comedic romance of White or the sweet and sad fumblings between young and old in Red, all of these films are stories of human connection, of the freedoms that bring us together and that also separate us, and what we do to try to close the divide and end the isolation and loneliness that in some way we all feel as a byproduct of the modern condition. This is end-of-the-20th-Century, pre-millennial stuff. How far apart we had grown and how we could bring it back together seemed super important back then, and while the hope of new technology was that it would make the world smaller and unite us, the sad truth is it's only made the alienation more exact.

Juliette Binoche stars in the lead film, Blue (Bleu), as Julie, a woman struggling to feel something again after surviving a car crash that claimed her husband and child. Julie's spouse was a famous composer who had been hired to compose a special symphony for the unification of Europe--an event that will be on the horizon in all three films. His death leaves the work unfinished, and Julie tries to squash it along with everything else from her past. She sells their home, discards her possessions, and attempts to drop out and forget--a particularly poignant act that takes on added emotional weight when we later discover that her mother (Emmanuelle Riva) is suffering from Alzheimer's. Julie is struggling to forget and can't, while her mother struggles to remember.

If Blue is to represent "liberty," then its central expression is Julie's search for freedom from her past, for a life where she can live as an individual with no ties or responsibilities to others. This proves impossible, however, as she becomes involved with her neighbors, her husband's assistant (Benoit Regent), and the mistress (Florence Pernel) she never knew about. In some way they all serve to remind her of what it's like to feel. The assistant, Olivier, wants to love her; Lucille (Charlotte Very), who works as a stripper and a prostitute, shows her that it's okay to enjoy pleasure. The thread running through all this is the music, the melodies that she can't deny, that come to her even in the street when a random flautist plays a song he couldn't possibly know. This symphony that is supposed to bring together all people eventually sews all of these elements together for Julie, too, unleashing the emotion she has sought to suppress.

Juliette Binoche is remarkable as Julie. Her performance is fragile, controlled, and entirely heartfelt. Though the script demands a certain cold reserve, the actress summons subtle flare-ups of anger, disappointment, and pain. Blue could have been a heavy movie, or it could have been an empty experience had the lead actress merely tried to play Julie like an unfeeling robot. Instead, Binoche gifts Kieslowski with maybe the finest and most distinctly rendered performance of her career. In return, Kieslowski and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak create a chilly, yet often dreamy, world of placid images infused with darker hues of blue and black, the colors of Julie's grief. A recurring image of a hanging mobile made of blue crystals acts as a rosary, and as a shimmering beacon for Julie to focus her muddled intentions.

Julie's story crosses over with the estranged lovers in White (Blanc) only briefly. In Blue, she goes to see her husband's mistress at the courthouse where she works and accidentally peeks in on a divorce proceeding. That case is the opening scene of White. Beautiful French beautician Dominique (Julie Delpy, 2 Days in Paris [review]) is divorcing Polish immigrant Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski), himself a prize-winning hairdresser. Their romance was passionate before marriage, but since, Karol has been unable to perform. This is just one symptom of a greater malady, one that strikes many couples but especially here: an inability to communicate. Karol barely speaks French, Dominique doesn't speak Polish.

Destitute and living on the streets, Karol sneaks back to Poland with the help of Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos). He literally rides home as luggage, tucked into his suitcase! Once he is back on his own soil, Karol undergoes a transformation. Rather than cutting hair, he starts working for a local gangster and eventually finds information that allows him to undercut his boss and make a lot of money to start his own business with Mikolaj. His goal isn't the creature comforts money will buy, however, but to amass enough cash to enact an elaborate scheme to get Dominique back. "Get her back" as in "get back together with her," but also "get her back for what she did."

White is a subtly comic dissection of union and division. The obvious focus is marriage, but the inequality arises in other areas. There is husband and wife, man and woman, but also class. There is the difference between natives and immigrants, an interesting and troublesome complication at the time of the establishment of the European Union. (When Karol gets home, he notices his brother has added a neon sign to their salon. "We're European now," the brother explains.) This is, after all, the portion of the flag that represents "equality." Dominique holds all the cards at the start of the film, it's her country and her language. It's also more simple than that: she is the one with the upper hand in the relationship. Love is often lopsided, with one being more in love than the other, and the other tends to have the advantage.

Zbigniew Zamachowski is wholly sympathetic as Karol Karol. The actor grows the performance, letting it blossom and mature. Karol goes from destitute and impotent to powerful, yet he is warm-hearted throughout. Zamachowski remembers that, deep down, this man is a lover and, let's face it, sensitive. He does hair for a living, he is not a thug. His growth also humanizes the object of his desire. Before leaving France, he buys a porcelain figure that reminds him of Dominique's alabaster skin. Yet, that false idol breaks as soon as he gets out of the suitcase, and over the course of his mission, his image of her also shatters, revealing the tender, delicate woman he failed to understand before (she tells him of her weakness, just before she shows him her strength, in their last time together in Paris). Ironically, it is separation that has brought them together, and the consequence of Karol's conspiracy is that they are still separated, even if the exile is now shared.

If division is a strong central theme in White, then the final film in the series, Red (Rouge), is about all the things that bring us together. The brotherhood of man is linked in inexplicable, yet heartening ways.

The film stars Irene Jacob, the luminous star of Kieslowski's previous masterwork, The Double Life of Veronique [review 1, review 2]. Jacob plays Valentine, a young model with a good heart living in Geneva. When she accidentally hits a dog with her car, she tracks down her owner to make amends. The man she finds is an aging, retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Z [review], Le combat dans l'ile [review]) who has removed himself from outside life and spends his days eavesdropping on his neighbors' cell phone calls. Valentine is at first appalled, but she enters into a moral debate with the old man and they become friends. His years wearing the robe of justice have given him a keen sense of human nature, though he is not prepared when his young companion turns the tables on him and puts together the puzzle of his life.

The judge's painful past is not the only puzzle in Red. Kieslowski's script, co-written with Krzysztof Piesiewicz (as is the entire trilogy), creates a tricky yet lithe map of doubles and parallels. The judge's experience as a young man matches that of a young law student (Jean-Pierre Lorit), and the old man's dissection of time and dreams of a future he will not be a part of has more than once made me think that Kieslowski is playing with knowable space in much the same way that he did in Veronique. These two men are the same, and they exist in time both separate and together. I don't think that was Kieslowski's intended meaning, necessarily, but it gives Red some interesting nuance.

The construction of this delicate set-up is really quite extraordinary. The young man, Auguste, lives just a few buildings down from Valentine, and his girlfriend (Frederique Feder) is one of the neighbors that the judge is listening in on. The old man predicts the failure of their relationship long before it's a reality. Kieslowski stages some wonderful scenes where the two couples move around each other without noticing, including some breathtaking choreography on the street outside of Valentine's apartment, where the camera shifts from her arriving at home and going upstairs to Auguste leaving a store and crossing her path.

Jacob is, unsurprisingly, alluring and soulful as Valentine. She avoids playing her as a mere innocent, and instead makes the character someone who feels intensely. Frivolity seems to be denied her. We see her on a photoshoot for a chewing gum ad, but the company doesn't pick the fun pictures of her blowing bubbles, instead going with a shot that is more mysterious and almost sad. A bad boyfriend who appears as a disembodied voice on the phone berates her for not being available and quizzes her over her every move. As she eventually ends up drawing the judge out of his shell, so does he encourage her to let go of certain anxieties. Trintignant makes for a nice foil to the young woman. He is brittle and unkempt to start, but slowly he reveals an empathetic soul.

Naturally, Krzysztof Kieslowski ends this personal epic on a note of hope. The final scene of Red ties all three films together in such a way that leads us to believe that all the people we've seen--Julie and Olivier, Karol and Dominique, and Valentine and Auguste, all couples with the promise of love--are going to be okay, that for all the dangerous happenstance of existence, their lives will carry on and, by extension, so can ours. Three Colors is a deft and beautiful summation of the 20th Century, of the promises for a future we hoped would be kept and of the collective fear that they may not. Kieslowski's endnote is that such fears are immaterial, they are beyond our control; yet, if we hang on to one another and listen to our hearts, everything will be fine.

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

Please Note: The images used here are from promotional materials and are not taken from the Blu-ray edition under review.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Because I'm nuts and decided to toss away a whole afternoon chasing wormholes on the Criterion site, I built a page for myself in their new "My Criterion" feature. Here is my profile.

As of yet it doesn't appear to have any connectivity features between people within the site, but fans can build their own collection database and share it elsewhere.

The company's infamous customer troubleshooter John Mulvaney also has his own profile. He hasn't added many titles, but if you click on the boxes, all of his have notes about why they are there--something I haven't really experimented with yet.

Okay, now that that's done, off to dig into Three Colors...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

12 ANGRY MEN (Blu-Ray) - #591

No one likes jury duty. Well, some people probably do, but one hopes they are smart enough to keep it to themselves. At the same time, the right to a trial by jury is a great thing about the American justice system, and everyone should serve at least once and see how it all works. If you've ever been stuck in a back room arguing over the particulars of a case, you will never again wonder about some of the baffling verdicts passed down by civilian tribunals in high-profile trials. It's harder to armchair deliberate when you know how sentencing instructions and the literal wording of the law can affect the outcome of a seemingly open-and-shut debate.

While juries I have served on have never been as articulate, or as heated, as the regular joes and uncommon men who populate the tiny room of 12 Angry Men, Reginald Rose's script captures the back-and-forth quibbling over legal minutia pretty well. Inspired by his own time on a jury, Rose first wrote 12 Angry Men as a teleplay broadcast live in 1955 (which is also included here), and then expanded the hour-long program into a full movie screenplay, which was directed by Sidney Lumet in 1957.

The movie begins after the trial is over. Outside of some short instructions from the judge and a lone shot of the accused, we have missed the proceedings. The camera travels the jury box, recording the faces of the jurors, before following them into a cramped room where they will be asked to stay until they can agree on a verdict. Most assume that the deliberation will be quick: the first vote is actually eleven for "guilty." The lone hold-out is Juror #8 (Henry Fonda), whose mind isn't made up. Maybe the boy killed his father, maybe he didn't. Despite pressure from the others to bend, #8 stays true to his insistence that if they are going to send a 19-year-old kid to the electric chair, they should at least spend some time exploring the realms of reasonable doubt.

Slowly, #8 works his way through the case. The testimony of the downstairs neighbor is questioned, then the uniqueness of the murder weapon, a switchblade knife. One by one, each juror is drawn into the discussion, and one by one they reveal something about who they are. #9 (Joseph Sweeney) is an observant old man, #5 (Jack Klugman) is from the same slums as the accused, and #11 (George Voskovic) is an immigrant who believes in America's sense of justice. On the stubborn side we have #3 (Lee J. Cobb), the father with an angry temper, and #4 (E.G. Marshall), the business man with the steady demeanor. There is also #7 (Jack Warden), who just wants to get out of there and go to a ballgame. And perhaps worst of all, the one that everyone else eventually turns against, is #10 (Ed Begley), a racist who believes the boy, who looked like he was maybe Puerto Rican, is a natural born liar, it's a byproduct of his skin color.

As the case disintegrates, personal feelings flare up, sides are taken, and threats are made. Rose has built a microcosm of American society, and also a sounding board for political ideas that were prudent to the American experience of the time. Civil rights, the vilification of unpopular or "radical" ideas, economic divides, the notion of might making right--these concepts are challenged just as the evidence is challenged. What would motivate a witness to lie? How much does an abused kid's background matter? What does it mean to be impartial and what constitutes reasonable doubt? For a locked room scenario, it's a surprisingly potent drama. Each man is given a rich background and each has an inner life. Nothing here is incidental. The writing is precise and dramatic and it's not afraid to be writing.

For his part, Sidney Lumet, who was transitioning out of television into this, his first feature film, keeps 12 Angry Men moving. Boris Kaufman's camera is agile and lively, moving through the room, capturing important expressions and gestures. The director and his cinematographer enact bold compositions, emphasizing the cramped space via contrasts of physical size. One man foregrounded may tower over the one in the background, but the power is often shifted: what the "smaller" man says weakens the "bigger" man. Live television had taught Lumet how to use a limited set to his advantage. If you think about it, it took TV to bridge the gap between stage and film, not just by putting together complicated one-time performances, but also by teaching a generation of new filmmakers to be economical and use confined spaces to their advantage. While the 1960s might have kicked down the walls of cinema and explored the open frontiers that new technologies allowed for, directors like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer and others who first worked in l950s TV used restrictions to their advantage.

12 Angry Men had a profound effect on legal procedurals to follow. The notion that a criminal trial could be the basis for exploring bigger ideas has been exploited in most recent memory by the legal dramas of David E. Kelley and the whole Law and Order franchise. Even if those shows did move the action back into the courtroom, they still owe something to what Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet (and Frank Schaffner, who directed the 1955 broadcast) did here. The whole strata of society passes through the doors of any given justice building, and for true justice to hold sway, they all must be honored the same.

Frank Schaffner's original 1955 broadcast version is thankfully included on this release, giving viewers a chance to witness the historic, Emmy-winning Studio One production. In some ways, this older version is somewhat superior. For one, the cast is not as well known, and having Robert Cummings (Hitchcock's Saboteur [review]) as Juror #8 instead of Henry Fonda makes the character more interesting. Fonda brings with him a certain moral authority, whereas Cummings' stuttering, unsure portrayal makes him less immediately convincing. Likewise, not showing the accused leaves that character up to our imagination, and a picture of him forms the more we learn. Lumet chose a scrawny, sympathetic looking kid that we make up our mind about right away. In general, the drama is more concise here. Having less time meant that Reginald Rose didn't have the opportunity to go off on as many personal tangents for each character, and one could argue that makes the dramaturgy less heavy handed. Both work for me, and I think in the spirit of this thing, we could make a case for either/or. (A 15-minute introduction by Ron Simon, from the Paley Centre for Media, adds further context.)

Most exciting, as well, is the addition of another live television drama, this one pairing Reginald Rose with Sidney Lumet a year before 12 Angry Men. The teleplay Tragedy in a Temporary Town features another mob of men, but this one isn't brought together by the legal system. Rather, it's vigilantism. The show stars Lloyd Bridges and two men that would go on to work for Lumet in 12 Angry Men, Jack Warden and Edward Binns (Juror #6). Set in a worker's camp, the story revolves around a young girl getting grabbed and kissed in the darkness. Failing to listen to Bridges' protest, Warden forms a posse to hunt through the camp, dragging the traumatized girl around in hopes she'll find her attacker. They barge into every home, writing down the names of any male age fifteen and over, until they land on a suspect that they can accept. It's not about finding the right guy, but about venting their restless anger.

Rose touches on the idea of personal "justice" in 12 Angry Men. The workers here are like the jurors unleashed. If the men in the other film could have gotten out of the room and been allowed to do as they wished with the accused, they very well could have resorted to violence. Here the misguided actions of the lynch mob threatens the safety of the whole community rather than making it more secure. Ironically, the men in the posse are looking for a threat within, not realizing they are it. Bridges is forceful in the lead, though his moral equivocations don't quite match Warden's menacing bluster.

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

Please Note: The images used here are from promotional materials and are not taken from the Blu-ray edition under review.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


This is the second part of a two-part review of the Sabu! boxed set; read the first part here.

Sabu's sophomore feature was a more stodgy affair than the first, and it also saw him relegated to more of a supporting role next to British star Roger Livesey (I Know Where I'm Going, The League of Gentlemen [review]). Following just a year after the success of Elephant Boy, The Drum (1938; 98 minutes) was Zoltan Korda's first adaptation of an A.E.W. Mason novel, a precursor to the more artistically successful The Four Feathers [review], the epic adventure that would follow immediately after. (Interesting side not, Livesey played the role of Harry as a child in the second film version of The Four Feathers in 1921; he was not in Korda's remake.)

Set in India at a time of political upheaval, The Drum features Livesey as the enterprising Captain Carruthers and Sabu as Prince Azim, a naïve but earnest young ruler who befriends the colonialists. He is particularly fond of a bratty young drummer (Desmond Tester) in the British Army band and of Carruthers' kindly wife (Valerie Hobson, Contraband [review]). When Azim's uncle, the appropriately named Prince Ghul (Raymond Massey in brownface), kills the boy's father, the child prince must go into hiding, biding his time until the British can overthrow Ghul and put him back in power.

Okay, am I the only one who thinks of the The Lion King [review] here? Is that bad of me?

To be fair, it's a pretty common plot, and The Drum obviously appropriated it first--though it's disappointing in execution here because the embattled prince isn't so much passive as he is incompetent. Sabu isn't nearly as comfortable onscreen in The Drum as he was in Elephant Boy; his "serious" acting features a lot of squinty eyes and pursed lips. He is best when joking with Carruthers or the drummer boy, and the way Azim kowtows to the white men who taught him to be "civilized" leaves a somewhat sour aftertaste. Far more interesting, actually, is the villainous Ghul, who, like Skar in The Lion King (sorry!), is not entirely wrong. There is something rotten in India, and some question as to the rightful heir's ability to rule. Unlike Skar, however, Ghul also has an element of nobility. His designs on the throne aren't entirely selfish. Korda and screenwriter Lajos Biro's attempts to ridicule Indian beliefs and customs backfire. Ghul ends up looking like a defender of his country's ethnic traditions, refusing to accept the British charges of barbarism.

Two positive things about The Drum: (1) Georges Perinal and Osmond Borradile's Technicolor photography is lovely and vivacious (even if this print is a little faded and beat up). The sets and the costumes have an exotic opulence that must have been thrilling to see in the late 1930s, and still has charm now. (2) The climactic battle is impressively staged and daring in complexity. The crowd scenes before and during are huge, and Korda doesn't show a heavy hand in dictating how the throngs behave. The old tag line for the film boasted a cast of 3,000, and the authenticity of the mob goes a long way to make that claim appear to be true. Plus, Roger Livesey is surprisingly badass manning a Gatling gun.

Next up for Sabu was the Michael Powell-directed, Korda-produced The Thief of Bagdad [review] in 1940 before rejoining Zoltan in 1942 for their second version of a Rudyard Kipling story. Jungle Book (106 Minutes) is Sabu's most enduring work, as well as the most famous live-action version of the classic adventure tale--and with good reason. Sabu has not only matured as a man and an actor, developing into a physically agile performer, but Korda's film, as shot by W. Howard Greene and Jack Okey, is a visual marvel. The team creates a thriving Technicolor jungle, filled with lush plant life, exotic animals, and the remnants of man's beautiful folly.

Sabu plays Mowgli, a boy lost to the wilds after a tiger attack leaves his father dead. Adopted by wolves as a toddler, he returns as a teen to rejoin his village, much to the delight of his mother (Rosemary De Camp) and the suspicion of the town swindler, Buldeo (Joseph Calleia), who also serves as the storyteller whose own tale frames Mowgli's.

Mowgli adapts to village life, learning English and the baffling ways of society. Money holds little interest for him, though it buys him a knife to hunt the tiger, Shere Khan, who has vowed to kill him since he was a baby. He also takes a shine to Buldeo's daughter (Patricia O'Rourke), giving the man all the more reason to hate the jungle boy. Worse, Mowgli leads the girl to a grand treasure, only to leave it where it has remained hidden for decades rather than succumb to the evil that jewels and gold inspire. (It's ironic, given most Western iconography, that a snake warns the boy away rather than leading him into temptation.) This sets up Jungle Book's climax and sets up the foundation for its theme of man's greed and superstition being his downfall.

The story of Jungle Book is familiar to most people, though again we must invoke Disney, as the common memory often goes back to their animated version. In that, Mowgli cavorts with talking animals and the human world is mostly out of it. Many of the same characters are here--the snake Kaa, the panther Bagheera, and the bear Baloo--and Korda anthropomorphizes them, though not to the same degree. Mowgli is said to be able to speak all animal languages, and as we go deeper into his world, we begin to hear their voices as he does. Most of the time, the animals we see are real, including the predatory cats and elephants and the monkeys. In other understandable cases, they are puppets or props, though the only distracting effects are the rubbery snakes. In all fairness, the snakes tend to get bigger acting parts than the furrier animals, so some sacrifice had to be made for narrative demands.

More impressive than the animal wrangling, though, are the sets. Korda uses a combination of matte paintings and physical sets to bring to life a colorful jungle setting. There are plants with fiery red leaves and giant blue statues and light tumbling through the trees that takes on astonishing purple hues. Sabu runs through each attractive set piece as a free spirit, utterly convincing as the wild boy who swings on vines and howls at the moon. Indeed, while the trained British actors come off as overly mannered and comical through most of the movie, acting down to the material, Sabu is perfectly comfortable in his chosen environment.

All three of Sabu's first movies with Zoltan Korda are now part of Criterion's Sabu - Eclipse Series 30 boxed set. I'd like to believe that Elephant Boy and particularly Jungle Book could still stoke the imagination of young viewers. Despite our technological advances, one assumes the untamed forests still hold some sway over our basic human instincts. This set would make a nice companion with the other Criterion younger viewer titles, namely Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon [review] and White Mane [review], and Bill Mason's Paddle to the Sea[review], all of which feature children interacting with the wonders of the natural world in exciting, yet vastly different, ways.

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